A Brief History of The 2017 Statement of Belief
The 2017 Statement of Belief has received a variety of responses since its birth 5 years ago.
For some, the Statement of Belief has been welcomed into the life of the church with open arms. The 12 affirmations contained within the document expresses the doctrinal convictions of many baptist churches. For others, however, this new statement of belief has been met with skepticism; “Where did this come from?” “Why do we need a new statement?” “We don’t need this.” It would be wrong for these questions to simply be dismissed. In order to provide clarity, what follows is a brief history of ‘The 2017’ as it has come to be known.
An Important First Principle
In the first place, I begin with a crucial first principle: Baptist churches are congregational. That is to say that there is no external authoritative entity beyond the local church that determines the doctrine, policy and practice of that local church. Rather, for each local church, the “constituted church meeting, subject to the direct Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture, is the highest court of authority of the local Church.” (Statement of Baptist Principles, point 4). Thus the implication of this principle is that no doctrinal affirmation can be accepted by the union, an association, a network or any other entity whatsoever on behalf of a local church. Each local church needs to take their own decision regarding their doctrinal position and affirmation.
The Start of the Theological Forum
In light of this, it is helpful to recall the original intention of the Baptist Union (BU) Executive back in 2015. When the BU Executive first decided to table a new statement of belief, it was decided that ‘The 2017’ was to replace the 1924 Statement of Belief. This has not happened, in spite of it’s initial acceptance by the BU Executive on two occasions (in 2017 and in 2019). And it’s unlikely to happen since the National Leadership Committee (NLC) of the Baptist Union has decided and reported to the 2021 Assembly that, “It is not the intention of the NLC at this point in time to bring the purported 2017 Statement of Faith to a future BU Assembly with a view of replacing the 1924 Statement of Faith with the 2017 Statement of Faith” (NLC Report, 6 October 2021, Baptist Union Assembly).
Now lets go way back, back to 1924. The setting is Durban, South Africa. The occasion, the Assembly of Baptist Churches. The 1924 Statement of Belief, is about to be tabled for consideration by the churches of the Union. The report to the assembly from the Baptist Union Executive reads;
“Having no authority to accept a doctrinal statement on behalf of our Churches, but knowing there is unsettlement in some of our Churches, we agree to commend this statement to them for their consideration as a general expression of our Baptist belief.” View the original here.
Note the awareness of (1) the need for a doctrinal statement, (2) the understanding that a doctrinal statement was needed to resolve unsettlement, (3) the seeming unity of the Baptist Union Executive in its being tabled, and (4) the tender wording of the submission to the churches for their consideration, recognising the Executive has “no authority to accept a doctrinal statement on behalf of our churches.” The 1924 report demonstrated an appreciation for the congregational nature of the composition of our union of churches.
Like the 1924, the 2017 Statement of Belief was also initiated by the Baptist Union Executive because of an awareness of the “unsettlement in some of our churches.” The minutes of the Baptist Union Executive of 19-21 November 2015 read, “It was agreed that a Committee (Task Team) would be appointed to work on a draft Statement of Faith for the 2017 Assembly.” This was initially prompted by two things; firstly by an awareness that the 1924 Statement was in need of modernisation and secondly, by a report that one of the pastors accredited with the Baptist Union was teaching that the first few chapters of Genesis were not factual. This pastor’s defence of his position was that the 1924 Statement of Belief permitted him to hold his view as this statement did not affirm that Scripture is without error. On hearing this, some of the members of the Baptist Union Executive were stunned by this report and particularly by the pastor’s use of the 1924 in his defence of his theological position. The 1924 was re-read and the validity of the loophole noted.
As a direct result or this, the BNA Executive proposed a revision of the 1924 Statement of Belief adding the words “without error” to the first point which pertains to the doctrine of Scripture. On the Baptist Union Executive’s questioning of this, it was recommended that the Baptist Union would be wise to follow suit. Seeing the wisdom of this, the Baptist Union Executive agreed to do so and decided to begin the process of the revision of not only the first point but each point of the 1924 Statement of Belief. The General Secretary was keen to have this work completed in time for the 140th birthday of the Baptist Union, which was to be celebrated at the 2017 Assembly. Thus, he envisaged that both a new structure and a new statement should be celebrated at that assembly.
Regarding a new statement of belief, the Executive believed that a number of things were needed. Firstly, a new statement should use modern, simple English without the use of unnecessary theological terms which may make it difficult to understand or to translate into the other languages of southern Africa. Secondly, a new statement should bring doctrinal clarity to Baptists on contemporary societal challenges plaguing our churches. Thus, they handed the task of drafting a new Statement of Belief to a new task team, the members of which were appointed by the Baptist Union Executive themselves. This group was chaired by Rev Trent Eayrs who approached each of the members who were nominated to ascertain their willingness to serve. Some withdrew while others agreed to assist. And so the group met, initially by email and then later in person. The work was begun and various drafts were circulated to all the churches of the Baptist Union for comment. These comments were received, considered and many changes made. One of the emails prompted a fiery discussion regarding God’s creation in seven days – were they seven literal days or not? It was eventually decided to remove any reference to seven days from the statement which is how it now stands. Another difficult matter was the issue of “women in ministry” as it is unfortunately called being shorthand for “women in pastoral ministry.” Here, the team got stuck again as one can imagine. Finally, it was believed that a middle ground had been found, with some give from both sides, with the final wording; “that in the local church both men and women are called to serve equally, and male headship should be evidenced” (point 9).
The task team was formulated as the Theological Forum Committee (TFC) at the 2016 Assembly. More members were added to the TFC as it was felt theological diversity. The TFC, after considerable consultation with churches and individuals, presented the final draft, to the Baptist Union Executive on Monday afternoon of 5 June 2017. The minutes of this meeting record the following;
“Rev Trent Eayrs then presented the TFC’s [Theological Forum Committee] new revised draft of the new proposed Statement of Faith, together with a very detailed document. After discussion, the Executive accepted the document in principle and expressed appreciation to the TFC for their hard work and sacrifice.”
The detailed document referred to here included an introduction which was read by Trent Eayrs on that occasion. It bears repeating as it encapsulates the original mandate given by the BU Executive and also emphasises the great need for an updated and contemporary Statement of Belief;
“With the rise of intensity surrounding homosexuality and gender; the recent questioning of the pillars of the doctrine of atonement; the surfacing of new loose views of scripture that have led to doubts regarding Canonicity; the forceful promotion of Evolution, and the growing incongruity regarding our mission, etcetera, it is apparent that our traditional Baptist orthodoxy is under attack. In previous generations it seems there was a fair amount that could be left unsaid when formulating a statement of belief. However, it is the sentiment of the Baptist Union Executive that the content of our currently used 1924 Statement of Belief be expanded to clarify and contemporize our Baptist faith. This exercise will serve to produce a more robust statement of belief that will better defend the tenets it was originally drafted promote. As a Union of Churches, we are a very “broad church”; comprising a large geographical area, a rich diversity of languages, ethnicities, cultures, ministry contexts and even, theological persuasions. From Arminian to Reformed, Charismatic to Conservative, Covenantal to Dispensational, Urban to Rural, the wealthy to the poor and the in between; we are all still “Baptists”.
That diversity is an asset and has great gospel potential. However, it also has a potential for division and even apostasy if not properly celebrated, checked and defined.
We need to firmly establish the foundations of our unity; the non-negotiable core of what we share in common; the basis from which we can celebrate our unity within our diversity without uniformity. We need a shared “belief statement” which defines us as Baptists, to which we can all subscribe in good conscience. The stronger, the more clearly defined we make that shared conviction, the more we will strengthen our unity.
Therefore, as we move forward as a Baptist Union seeking to embrace, uphold, empower and celebrate our diversity, it is essential that we define very clearly what it means to be Baptist.
Today, 5 June 2017:
“We, the 15 members of the Executive Task Team, herewith present the fruits of our work over the past months, containing a proposed new Statement of Belief for the Baptist Union of Southern Africa. It has been a privilege to contribute to such an important need, and do trust that our proposal will be of help to our churches as we consider updating our 1924 Statement of Belief”.
“…. the church of the living God, which is a pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15)”
The Baptist Union Executive then, after have received the final draft, circulated it to all the churches for their consideration and comment. The BU Executive added the following wording to the final draft of ‘The 2017:’
Whereas the BU Executive does not have the authority to impose on the Union a new Statement of Faith, but only to bring a recommendation, and
Whereas, the recent history as described above has brought about circumstances that are in the opinion of the Executive favorable for considering a new Statement of Faith, and
Whereas, the Assembly has agreed to the establishment of the Theological Forum and its Committee to facilitate such processes via the Executive, and
Whereas, the Assembly will be considering a proposed new structure of the BU with various constitutional changes that would also necessitate the inclusion of the Statement of Faith as well as Baptist Principles into the constitution, and
Whereas, the new proposed Statement of Faith would only replace the 1924 Statement of Faith (with the Assembly 2000 addition) and not replace or nullify the Statement of Baptist Principles,
The Reaction to ‘The 2017’
What was considered to be a completed work, then received some considerable and unexpected backlash. It became evident that some pastors had not been aware of the process for various reasons. Others felt that they had not been adequately consulted in the process of the formulation. Why was this? What was expected to be the due-process tabling of ‘The 2017’ by the BU Executive at the 2017 Assembly proved to be anything but.
The events since the finalisation of the 2017 Statement of Belief are well known to the pastors of churches of the Baptist Union, namely; the questioning of its necessity at the 2017 Assembly of churches of the Baptist Union of Southern Africa by the Claremont proposal, the confirmation of that necessity by the majority vote of the Assembly of churches at the 2018 Assembly, and the suppression of the tabling of the 2017 Statement of Belief at the 2019 Assembly (see here), its acceptance by the Executive of the Baptist Union as an acceptable statement of belief for a church or entity at the 2019 Assembly (see here) and most recently the withdrawal of the current National Leaders Committee from their own statement with the words, “It is not the intention of the NLC at this point in time to bring the purported 2017 Statement of Faith to a future BU Assembly.” These events reflect the varied degrees of acceptance or rejection by the pastors of Baptist churches. The objections have shown that many are unaware of the history of the events that have led to its final formulation and it is for this purpose that I have written this brief history.
Some have said that ‘The 2017’ has caused division and that all we need to do to bring back a family unity is ignore the birth and existence of this ‘problem child.’ But, it seems to me, that the reaction to the birth of this child, this our child, has proven without doubt that we were never really one unified body in the first place and that the cracks in our broken relationship have been there for a long, long time. And isn’t it true that some married couples, hoping to fix the mess of their marriage, naively agree to have a child, a fix-it-child, and then find after the birth, that the child fixed nothing but made matters worse? ‘The 2017’ has exposed the depth of the divisions that were already there.
Like it or not, this child, is our child. The pregnancy was planned. Her room was prepared. But her rejection by the family was a surprise. Nevertheless, the 2017 Statement of Belief continues to find favour among some churches and South Africans and churches beyond our borders. The clarity of the wording, the range of its application, the biblical substantiation and usefulness are its main features.
Soli Deo Gloria!