Four Reasons for Search Committees to Consider Baptist Confessions

Phil Newton
| March 8, 2017

I sat in a restaurant with a pastoral search committee to discuss consideration to serve as their pastor. They asked the typical questions. Do you believe the Bible? What do you think are the pastor’s responsibilities? Do you and your wife get along? Nothing specifically theological had been uttered. Then one man who had been fairly quiet stammered, ‘What do you think uh, of the, that, uh crismatic movement?’ I said, ‘Do you mean the Charismatic Movement?’ ‘Yeh, that’s the one.’

It seemed pretty obvious that he had heard someone speak negatively about the Charismatic Movement although clearly, he knew nothing about it. I could have described it as a movement with special spiritual experience with the alignment of Mars and the moon, and he would have been quite satisfied with my response. However, he just knew that if anyone said that they were okay with the ‘crismatic movement’ then they were to be immediately rejected as a pastoral candidate, although he could not explain why.

Other search committees that I’d encountered were not much more specific in quizzing me on my theological convictions. Unfortunately, they were generic 20th century Baptists holding to a generic theology that offered little more than a generic mantra, ‘We believe the Bible.’ But what did they believe that the Bible taught? If we had been able to have that kind of discussion, we could get somewhere quickly.

For close to four centuries, Baptists have used confessional statements as the basis for discussing what they believe the Bible teaches. In this post, I’d like to offer four reasons search committees and pastoral candidates will find confessions of faith useful in the candidacy process.

1. Corporate Motivation

Regular use of confessions will motivate search committees and congregations toward solid doctrinal convictions. Some object, ‘Baptists are not creedal!’ While we do not put a creed or confession above or in the place of Holy Scripture, historically, we’ve been a people that declare our theological parameters through confessions of faith. Even John Smyth, considered the first Baptist, had a Short Confession expressing his theological convictions, although regrettably his confession exposed him as denying justification by faith alone.

Theology improved dramatically with the emergence of the English Particular Baptists, led by Henry Jacob. His congregation and six others published the First London Confession of 1644, in order to show their agreement with “the doctrinal essentials of the Reformation, congregational church order, believers’ baptism by immersion, and their loyalty to the duly constituted authority of the king” (Timothy and Denis George, eds., Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms, 7). Pastoral and elder candidates would have been questioned concerning their agreement with this confession before being allowed to serve their churches, as were candidates with subsequent Baptist confessions in later years.

When search committees and congregations know their own church’s confession of faith, they will weed out pastoral candidates that have no interest in biblical exposition or lack theologically-driven methodology. They will root out candidates given to pragmatism and who would cheapen the gospel through easy-believism. Discussing theological confessions reveals not just what one knows but also how he practices what he believes.

2. Pastoral Framework

Confessions of faith give a pastoral candidate a theological framework for understanding a congregation’s doctrinal convictions, while serving as a tool for theological interaction with its search committee and leadership. Search committees and pastoral candidates need to be on the same page. Too often, they talk past each other, not in an effort to deceive, but simply because one party or the other lacks solid doctrinal moorings. In such cases, one party wants to discuss the truths of the faith but the other (candidate or committee) has no theological grid to effectively participate. That results in caricaturing, name-calling, and casting aside a candidate or a potential pastorate without due diligence in working through Scripture together. The use of popular buzzwords to caricature one another is not adequate for such occasions, and diminishes the richness of fellowship in Christ around the Word.

Years ago, I interviewed a man who had been nominated as a deacon candidate. It happened that he was ordained to the ministry and had pastored for a brief period. Nevertheless, I asked him about particular theological convictions. He objected, telling me that he was a Baptist, as though that sufficed. But simply telling me that he was a Baptist did not clarify exactly what he believed about the gospel, original sin, the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, or the local church. These kinds of biblical truths need thorough discussion with any who would serve Baptist congregations. Search committees need to interact theologically with a candidate. Likewise, a potential pastor must engage in theological discussion with those he hopes to serve. This kind of healthy interchange uncovers strengths and exposes weaknesses in both. As my fellow elder Chris Wilbanks put it, “Clarity is often the enemy of surprise, especially a surprise that might usher in division later on.”

3. Theological Verities

Confessions clarify for committee and candidate what each believes the Bible teaches. We might say that inerrancy has been the password for ‘admission to the club’ for the past few decades. While the 70s and 80s needed to wrestle with what belief in Scripture’s authority meant, thankfully, Southern Baptists expressed inerrancy as a foundational conviction. But the issue is no longer inerrancy—not that we can ever abandon it—in our churches and institutions. Rather, now we must ask, ‘What does the inerrant Word teach?’

At just this point, confessions of faith provide search committees and pastoral candidates with a tightly framed set of theological verities by which they can discuss the Bible’s teaching. Instead of reducing theological discussion to, ‘Are you a Baptist?’ ‘Are you a Calvinist?’ ‘Are you a Traditionalist?’ ‘Are you a cessationist?’ ‘Are you a sublapsarian?’ Why not rather walk right through a church or a pastoral candidate’s confessional statement? Why don’t search committees use their local church’s confession of faith to examine pastoral candidates? Would it not prove more beneficial and edifying for all to work through doctrinal statements in their biblical contexts instead of resorting to buzzwords as the theological end-all? Sometimes we discover that the perception of a theological label doesn’t fit well with a person’s actual understanding of Scripture. Humility should allow us to discuss theological convictions without reaching for a verbal club to drive the other into our corner. Let’s not misrepresent one another at this point. Instead, let’s make charitable use of confessions of faith.

4. Establish Benchmark

Confessions serve as the benchmark for discussion, teaching, methodology, and ecclesiological practice before, during, and after calling a pastor. Too often, those neglecting confessions hold squishy theology. Non-confessional views are too often influenced by the popular teachers and trends of the day, rather than worked out through rigorously applied Christ-centered hermeneutics. So many things that I claimed to believe in earlier ministry did not flow out of my study of the Word but simply from what others peddled. Some of those things I still strongly believe. Others I’ve laid aside because they lack biblical foundation. I’m thankful in those days that congregations were patient with me while I worked through my theology. In the same way, I’ve been slowly learning the lesson of patience toward a congregation as it works through theology as well.

In the past few years, several friends have candidated with churches that sent detailed questionnaires for theological interaction. Those search committees got a better idea of where a potential pastor might lead them. The candidate discovered the theological foundations that characterized the church. I see no problem in a pastoral candidate asking the same from a church considering him. That kind of development proves healthy unless, of course, either candidate or committee uses that tool to search for buzzwords, rather than orthodox confession, as the mark of fellowship.

Theological confessions are not a new invention of recent, reform-minded Baptists. Confessions are a critical part of our theological heritage. For generations, confessions have moored Baptists to the authority and declarations of Holy Scripture. With that in mind, pastoral search committees can find effective use of Baptist confessions as they seek to recommend pastoral candidates to their congregations. In the process, eschewing buzzwords, the candidate and search committee will discover confessional interaction critical in discerning the Lord’s leadership in their ministries.