Reformed or Confessional?


Last week I broached a question on Twitter about whether Reformed Baptists should instead be referred to as Confessional Baptists.  I’ve heard both used of late and I’m wondering if one is better than the other.  In other words, what’s in a name?  Certainly this isn’t an issue to divide over, but labels do indeed matter.  We live in an era in which we’re either trying to dispose of labels altogether or attempting to redefine them.  I’m in the camp which says that labels are necessary, even if we don’t always prefer their use.  Moreover, we have to use labels which communicate a clear and solid message as opposed to something murky and mushy.

Recent trends in church-planting, for example, include the practice of dispensing with any kind of specific label in a church name.  This goes for denominational names as well.  So rather than have “Smithville Baptist Church,” the new trend is to have “Smithville Community Church” instead (or insert some other generic-sounding name).  The theology of the “Smithville” church would still be Baptistic, but they wouldn’t advertise that in the name.  Part of the motivation for this stems from the idea that a perception exists that denominational names are unpopular today.  People don’t want to be seen as divisive.

An objection to this demands that we must have “truth in advertising,” so to speak.  We should want people to know upfront where a particular assembly stands in terms of doctrine and practice.  “Smithville Baptist” is definitely acceptable according to this view and “Smithville Reformed Baptist” would be even better.  I totally get where this argument is coming from, but I’m not quite sure it’s necessarily a good practice.

I’m the last person in the world who thinks that we should cater to what the world thinks or make the Christian life look like something it surely isn’t in order to attract unbelievers into the pews.  Yet at the same time, I think the name of a particular congregation doesn’t have to be so theologically specific.  The name “Smithville Community Church” is definitely communicating something, even if it sounds generic at first glance.  Indeed, the concept of community is apparently important to these brethren.  What it tells me is that they value the “one another” aspects of Scripture more than possessing a particular denominational label.

Moreover, “Smithville Community Church” can still freely hold to the 1689 London Baptist Confession just as faithfully as any church which names itself Reformed Baptist.  It may even be in a stronger position to do so, for the term “Reformed” has come to have all sorts of baggage, justified or not.  We may wish to deny this inconvenient truth, but Reformed churches in general have come to be associated with arrogance, pride, and an overemphasis upon the more intellectually rigorous aspects of the Christian faith.  The so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” (YRR) phenomenon of the last decade certainly didn’t do anything to quell this perception.  Sadly, one is assumed to be engaged in theological snobbery if he just happens to embrace Calvinism.

The existence of the “cage-stage Calvinist” rings true to the stereotype.  I’ve been there myself and I imagine that I was quite obnoxious at the time.  Those who receive grace enough to see the truth concerning the doctrines of grace, regulative principle of worship, elder-led church government, covenant theology, or any other distinctive of Reformed doctrine are subject to becoming puffed up with pride.  We’re prone to be argumentative, trying to save all other Christians from bad theology.  Even if we have good intentions, our pride and arrogance are all too often injected as the leaven which ruins any meaningful discourse among the brethren.

I say all of this to openly ponder whether there’s any benefit to the Reformed Baptist label.  Even the term Baptist has baggage.  I fully concede to that reality as well.  “Shouldn’t we take it upon ourselves to redefine those terms over and against the negative baggage associated with them?”  Perhaps we should.  I’m not against the use of terms like Reformed and Baptist per se, but I don’t know if their use in a church name is required in order to have theological solidarity with like-minded believers.  That’s probably the best way to sum up my point.

Now there’s also the term Confessional Baptist which has a much more limited use.  I wouldn’t necessarily slap the word “confessional” on a church sign either, but it’s not a bad label to have either.  In fact, I’d say there’s much more depth to this term than even the term Reformed.  When you tell someone that you’re a Baptist, inevitably the person will ask you what kind of Baptist you are.  If you say you’re a Confessional Baptist, then you’re in a better position to point them to the 1689 LBC and explain the historical roots of Baptists generally.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think the term Confessional Baptist has quite the negative baggage (if any) and is more useful in communication.

In point of fact, there’s already a group of Reformed Baptists in Georgia who belong to what is called the Georgia Association of Confessional Baptists.  Every church which is part of this association subscribes to the 1689 LBC.  This is an example of the term Confessional Baptist used correctly.  An addition, another drawback to the term Reformed is that it has become so thoroughly misused and abused that anything that remotely smells of Calvinism is given the Reformed label (we can thank the YRR movement for this).  In today’s discourse, it’s not at all uncommon for theologians from John Piper (charismatic) to John MacArthur (dispensationalist) to be casually given the Reformed label.  So what exactly are we communicating by using it?

I humbly suggest that there should be great liberty given in the naming of individual churches, but doctrinal labels do matter and we should employ that which most accurately describes who we are.  The term Confessional Baptist does a much better job of communicating our theological tradition than any other term.  And it may not be that way in the future.  How many churches and theologians today use the term Paticular Baptist to describe what they believe?  It’s a term which had a particular application in the 17th century.  In our 21st century context, I think term Confessional Baptist best suits a need for a short yet descriptive label.

Again, I could be wrong.  I welcome further discussion with my fellow Confessional…err…Reformed Baptists on this matter.  This also reminds me of the whole discussion about whether we should abandon the use of the term Evangelical.  And that’s a whole other discussion unto itself.  I look forward to a pleasant exchange.

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6 Responses to Reformed or Confessional?

  1. Ivav Secord says:

    My thoughts go back to Scripture and I see that names have defined meanings. Names are identy. I like names that clearly identify the subnect. I believe a fuzzy name is deceptive and harboring on dishonesty. I Se
    E the Ned to identify clearly for example. In identifying a Methodist churvh, there is. a night and day difference between a Free Methodist Church and a Methodist Church.

  2. pgordon2222pg says:

    It seems to me the early church did not have a problem here. With no buildings to place a sign on, no Association to baptize with a name, no Confessions of faith to subscribe to and defend they were free to be Christians or followers of the way or disciples or just the plain old church in whatever place they lived. While these names and distinctives have history and have some utility, it seems to me they should be way down the list in terms of priorities. Call yourself whatever you are comfortable with and let your life and ministry define you.

    More troubling than opting for an appropriate label is the tendency among those in the Reformed Baptist movement to desire to claim ownership of a label and to deny to others the right to its use or to claim they alone are the truly Reformed Baptists or the really, really Reformed Baptists. Such moves really do not help the well deserved reputation we have gained of being proud, sectarian, and intolerant.

    Paul Gordon

  3. Jeff says:

    I agree Names mean something. Can a Church be judged by its sign? The real question might be what do the Words mean in that name? For most Americans (the warm) when looking at a building may see a Cross and think it is a Protestant Church, A Crucifix and think it is Catholic, A Stair of David and think Jewish, and a crescent moon and think Islam. I would think you would want the sign to be short and descriptive as passable. So why not Calvinistic Baptist.

    • The phrase “Calvinistic Baptist” may be accurate, but it doesn’t go deep enough. For example, you can be a Calvinistic Baptist and still reject the regulative principle, covenant theology, etc.

      • Jeff says:

        The Cross outside the Church what dose that say about it? Dose is mean you preach Resurrection? Would you change it to a Crucifix for it looks like it preaches Christ Crucified? What dose the bible say we should preach? What would is say if you changed it?

  4. Well written. I am one who really doesn’t worry about labels. If the congregation is one group of like minded believers, then that is what defines the church, not it’s label. Also, are we not going to be judged by our fruit anyway? 🙂

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