Every Baptist Church, belonging to the Baptist Union, has at some stage of its development, freely chosen to opt into a mutual understanding of what it means to be churches in covenant together. That’s the history and background for the overwhelming majority of Baptist churches and that’s what I assumed when I was appointed a General Superintendent of the Baptist Union in 2000!

In recent decades, however, the only requirement for a church to join BUGB has been adherence to the Declaration of Principle. Within the Webnet region where I operate as a Baptist regional team leader, we’ve always spelt it out to churches newly planted, or already established and joining us how we understand our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures – not least because they ask! In such circumstances the Declaration of Principle has proved inadequate, in and of itself and insufficient as a foundation for the basis of their faith.

If we are standing on the thin ice of assumption, we are very vulnerable to falling through and sinking. The following generational pattern reveals, once in the territory of assumptions we’re in a very vulnerable place indeed:

The 1st generation believe and act on the word of God.

The 2nd generation assume they know the word of God and concentrate on acting.

The 3rd generation are acting.

The 4th generation have forgotten who wrote the script.

I’ve no idea who originally came up with this generalisation, but it contains more than a grain of truth. Our Baptist churches are believers’ churches, made up of disciples of Jesus Christ. Originally this served as a genuine demarcation line between cultural and confessional Christianity. Overall it has served us well, but my observations suggest we have become so accustomed in being included as part of the denominational mainstream ‘the people of the book’ as we became known have drifted from their roots.

Around twenty years ago Nigel Wright claimed the levels of biblical literacy among the UK Christian population were likely to be lower than they have been since the invention of the printing press. My recollection is Nigel Wright placed us (Baptists in the UK) somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd generations as described above. If twenty years represents a generation, we are another generation on today. This is ‘red alert’ territory.

The prevailing cultural landscape has shifted enormously. We all know this and yet we often talk about post-modernity and post-Christianity as if we can simply engage with either, or both on an intellectual level and remain immune from their practical impact within the ecosystem of the church. Mark Sayers sums up something of the threat to the church of unfiltered absorption: Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit. Post-Christian culture attempts to retain the solace of faith, whilst gutting it of the costs, commitments, and restraints that the gospel places upon the individual will. Post-Christianity intuitively yearns for the justice and shalom of the kingdom, whilst defending the reign of the individual will. Post-Christianity is Christianity emptied of its content. [1]

Again, around twenty years ago I recall many a discussion about church growth and decline. I recall the predictions of the numerical decline of the Methodists & URC ‘going out of business’ within forty years were heard by Baptists, as if we had in some way been vaccinated and consequently immune from such a future. The sobering truth is our overall membership has declined by over 25% [2] since the beginning of this century. Did we think we were immune because of our evangelicalism, our faithfulness to the Bible, our submission to Jesus Christ as Lord, or commitment to the Great Commission? Personally, I confess all of the above. John Hayward’s recent ‘Growth, Decline and Extinction of UK Churches’ [3] deserves on-going reflection, not least because he makes the link between decline and progressive theology.

Much of our arrogance (let’s be honest) arose from our general assumptions akin to the 2nd generation above. We assumed we knew the word of God and concentrated on ‘mission’. Many a recent conversation among Baptists have resulted in renewed attention being given to our Declaration of Principle, which is the basis of our Baptist Union. The Declaration of Principle has served us well for around a century, but whilst I have previously been a defender of its adequacy, I now question whether it remains sufficient to hold us together in covenant in any meaningful manner. The reality is the Declaration of Principle is the basis of our unity and not the basis of our faith.

The Declaration of  Principle of the Baptist Union states ….

The Basis of the Baptist Union is:

1  That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.

2  That Christian Baptism is the immersion in water into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of those who have professed repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who ‘died for our sins according to the Scriptures; was buried, and rose again the third day’.

3  That it is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelisation of the world.

Two common threads of an open generosity and core convictions are woven through every aspect of our Declaration of Principle:

  • There is generosity in terms of allowing one another to interpret Scripture within the boundaries of honouring Jesus Christ as Lord as revealed in Scripture.
  • There is a generosity which recognises the essential of individuals having freedom to make their own decision, whilst simultaneously maintaining the conviction we are all called to be radical followers of Jesus Christ.
  • There is generosity in terms of the welcome embrace of all believers through believers baptism, whilst simultaneously maintaining the conviction Jesus Christ is Lord, both of church and individual. Our very origins placed ‘baptisers’ outside the law of the land on various points of practice.
  • There is generosity in terms of the ministry of all disciples, whilst simultaneously maintaining the value we serve only one Lord to whom we bear witness in both word and deed. The ministry of all disciples and the role of some to facilitate the whole has throughout our history been rooted in any individual (whether minister is spelt with a capital letter, or not) being accountable within a local church of believers.

Baptists are inherently Evangelical. The briefest of forays into the annuls of our origins and history highlight this once obvious reality. Our origins are rooted in a radical obedience to following Jesus Christ. How was this discerned? By listening and obeying the Bible. Within approximately a generation what began with a few individuals was looking like an ‘Association’, a collection of like-minded congregations who identified together and consequently encouraged and supported each other, in the face of significant opposition and persecution. Whilst acknowledging the existence of anything resembling a national Union is much younger than recognisable regional ‘Associations’, the earliest Union constitution from 1813 begins with a doctrinal statement. [4] The redefinition of the objects of the ‘General Union’ in 1832 state firstly: ‘To extend brotherly love and union among the Baptist ministers and churches who agree in the sentiments usually denominated evangelical’. [5] The General and Particular Baptists formally ‘fused’, as David Bebington describes it, in 1891. ‘What Evangelicals agreed on seemed of infinitely greater importance than their disagreements, and their pre-eminent ground of agreement was the cruciality of the cross.’ [6] The Declaration of Principle is frequently misunderstood as Baptists taking a position of not requiring any statement of faith. There was clear disagreement with the alignment of national state and church and the subsequent practices. However, the Declaration of Principle was introduced with the express intention of allowing the two groupings, both General and Particular Baptists, to unite as one Union, whilst holding differing understandings of the nature of salvation. In essence, our present Declaration of Principle was designed to unite in covenant the two evangelical bases of the General and Particular Baptists.

Any local church departing from the general understanding ‘according to the scriptures’ would reasonable have been perceived as breaking the basis of the ‘covenant’. Every Baptist church older than recent decades had already adopted an evangelical statement of faith. Any reading of older Association records reveals countless evidence to disagreements among and between Baptist churches with regards to interpretation yet all within what was accepted and understood to be an Evangelical framework. That is, if there was no credible biblical rationale presented, whatever the issue was not on the table. Today ‘according to the scriptures’ appears to being used as a statement of rights, albeit by a small minority and I question, therefore, whether the Declaration of Principle is any longer sufficient for our needs and appears to be clearly insufficient to preserve our unity. Our history tells us this was never presumed it would be the case.

[1] Disappearing Church. Mark Sayers. Page 15.

[2] This is based on the 2018 combined membership of BUGB churches figures available, before the pandemic.

[3] https://churchmodel.org.uk/2022/05/15/growth-decline-and-extinction-of-uk-churches/

[4] The Baptist Union – A Short History. Ernest Payne. Page 24.

[5] Ibid page 61.

[6] Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. David Bebbington. Page 17.

Nigel Coles

Nigel is Regional Team Leader of the West of England Baptist Network. He facilitates the life of the webnet team and oversees the missional strategy for the region. He also works to develop missional strategy over a wider geographical area with our partner Associations and Baptists Together. Nigel believes that when Jesus sent out seventy-two others, he meant everyone who was there, and this passion to help everyone find their way in the mission of God is what inspired the development of Seventy-two.