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Topic: Complementarianism

Salters’ Hall Redux: Southern Baptists and the Law Amendment

June 5, 2024

Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Eikon.

The church faces new challenges in every generation.[1] In the eighteenth century, for example, the English-speaking church faced intense theological attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity. Today, doctrinal challenges revolve mainly around the ethics of human sexuality. Where Enlightenment rationalism and liberal toleration seized the eighteenth-century imagination, postmodern relativism and self-expressionism reign supreme today.

Salters’ Hall Fallout

During the seventeenth century, various forms of anti-Trinitarianism became endemic in England, such that Socinianism, Arianism, and other forms of Unitarianism remained constant temptations for the church well into the eighteenth century. The results were disastrous. Among the Dissenting[2] denominations, Presbyterians and General Baptists were the hardest hit by these waves of heterodoxy. The Church of England also struggled to maintain Trinitarian orthodoxy within its ranks. By contrast, however, Particular Baptists and Independents largely stood their ground, although even the most conservative congregations saw some fall away.

During the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a key factor of ecclesial decline was not merely a denial of the Trinity, but an aversion to confessionalism. Emblematic of this aversion was a series of meetings at Salters’ Hall in London in 1719, where Dissenting pastors were called on to give advice to Presbyterians in Exeter who had become suspicious that some of their pastors no longer adhered to the doctrine of the Trinity.[3]

While the initial cause of the meeting pertained to the doctrine of the Trinity, the point of controversy at Salters’ Hall ultimately came down to the issue of subscription — what we now refer to as confessionalism. The Subscribers, as they became known, contended that in order to uphold the biblical doctrinal of the Trinity, pastors should be held accountable by subscribing to a statement of faith. The Non-Subscribers, however, insisted that Scripture should be the only test of orthodoxy, and that it was, moreover, unscriptural to hold fellow believers to man-made doctrinal statements.

When the question came to a vote at Salters’ Hall, the Non-Subscribers carried a 57-53 majority over the Subscribers. The outcome of this vote led to a split within the assembly, with each party sending its own letter of advice to the Presbyterians in Exeter. While both sides officially affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity, they did not come to terms on how to maintain Trinitarian orthodoxy. Non-Subscribers insisted on liberty of conscience and argued against subscription. The Subscribers, however, were suspicious that the Non-Subscribers might be hiding less-than-Trinitarian convictions. At best, they believed them to be misguided in believing that they could maintain orthodoxy devoid of confessionalism.

While it may be the case that nearly all of the Non-Subscribers at Salters’ Hall were actually Trinitarian in their convictions, the Subscribers rightly understood the necessity of confessionalism for upholding orthodoxy.[4] Subsequent history provides clear evidence for their conviction, since the lax enforcement of the Thirty-Nine Articles within the Church of England and the outright rejection of confessionalism among the Presbyterians and General Baptists gave cover to anti-Trinitarians within these denominations.[5]

The connection between confessionalism and orthodoxy is especially apparent in the history of the General Baptists. In response to the anti-Trinitarian views of Matthew Caffyn, one of their pastors, the General Baptists chose to resolve doctrinal tensions within their community by the use of Scripture words only — in other words, without a confession. This anti-confessional stance among the General Baptists was maintained at Salters’ Hall, when only one of the fifteen General Baptists voted for subscription. By contrast, only two of sixteen Particular Baptists voted in favor of non-subscription.

The subsequent history of the Dissenting denominations after Salters’ Hall, particularly the two Baptist denominations, justified the Subscribers’ concerns.[6] As the eighteenth century wore on, most of the General Baptists fell into Unitarianism. Their objection to confessionalism made both doctrinal clarity and accountability impossible, which resulted — predictably — in heresy being tolerated. Baptist historian Raymond Brown recounts: “In several instances, resistance to subscription became the prelude to heterodoxy. People who refused to sign the articles came eventually to deny them and those General Baptists who were theologically uncertain ultimately became committed Unitarians.”[7] The account of nineteenth-century historian Joseph Ivimey is of particular importance, since he wrote about the reality of his day. He painted an even more bleak image of the General Baptists in the fallout of Salters’ Hall:

It is worthy of observation, as it respects the non-subscribers among the Baptists, that the churches to which they belonged, have become extinct; or, if there are any vestiges of them remaining, those who compose them are found marshalled under the banner of Socinus. The truth of the gospel has not continued with them; and these remarks are applicable to all the Presbyterian churches. It is pleasant also to remark, that most of the Particular Baptist ministers in London were so zealous for the doctrine of the Trinity, and the proper divinity of the Lord Jesus, as to subscribe with their hands what they believed in their hearts; thus contributing to stem the torrent which threatened to deluge the whole of the Dissenting churches.[8]

To summarize: the Baptist churches that rejected confessionalism eventually lost the gospel; but the churches that embraced confessionalism preserved the gospel.

Confessing the Truth to Preserve the Truth

The contrast between the Particular and General Baptists on the matter of confessionalism has much to teach Southern Baptists today. As Dissenting pastors met at Salters’ Hall in 1719 to debate how best to respond to concerns raised about heterodox anti-Trinitarianism, Southern Baptists will meet in Indianapolis to determine how best to respond to the presence of female pastors within its Convention. In both cases, the matter boils down to the issue of confessionalism.

At last year’s annual meeting, the SBC strongly indicated its convictions about female pastors. It did so by clarifying and strengthening its definition of the pastoral office in the Baptist Faith & Message (BFM) and by disfellowshipping churches with female pastors — including the well-known and influential Saddleback Church. Yet, not all are agreed on how to handle the issue moving forward.

Some within the SBC believe that female pastors should be included among its membership — even though this practice clearly contradicts article six of the BFM.[9] Some proponents of this view appear to be advocating for a “Baptist” form of confessionalism that ultimately amounts to confessional minimalism. An article from earlier this year appears to make the case that holding churches within the SBC accountable to the BFM amounts to a dangerous form of “creedalism” that would wrongly force its doctrine upon churches.[10] This article seems to communicate that while confessions serve some important functions, they should not be used to set strict doctrinal boundaries as markers of fellowship. In other words, adherence to the words of the BFM should not be a requirement for cooperation.[11] The problem with this construal is that Baptists have long used confessions for such a purpose. Furthermore, the Preamble to the BFM itself states that Baptist confessions have served “as instruments of doctrinal accountability.”[12]

Far from using confessions in an altogether different way from other protestant denominations, Baptists (both General and Particular) advocated alongside Presbyterians and Independents for subscription at Salters’ Hall.[13] The claim that Baptists are “not creedal,” meaning they do not use confessions as tests of orthodoxy or as a doctrinal basis of unity, is historically unfounded.

It should go without saying that the SBC cannot impose the BFM on any church since denominational cooperation is voluntary. Churches choose to enter into fellowship with the Convention. This voluntary polity preserves freedom of conscience and demonstrates genuine doctrinal unity — if all parties enter that fellowship with a good faith commitment to the teachings of the BFM.[14] Furthermore, the SBC does not even require churches within the Convention to formally adopt the BFM as its official statement of faith.[15]

Like the General Baptists in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it is certainly the case that some Baptists throughout history have rejected confessionalism (sometimes negatively referred to as “creedalism” in reference to the use of confessions as a means of doctrinal accountability). But they often did so at their own peril. One will be hard pressed to find historical examples where biblically-faithful confessionalism hindered the progress of the gospel. But you can very easily find examples to the contrary. The anti-confessionalism displayed at Salters’ Hall provides a sobering reminder about the cost of rejecting confessionalism. In time, such a rejection inevitably leads to the rejection of gospel truth — or indicates that those truths have already been compromised.

The Need for Confessional Clarity in the SBC

If the Law Amendment is ratified at the upcoming annual meeting, Southern Baptists will have taken a clear stand, not only for complementarianism, but confessionalism. They will have decisively determined that the BFM represents their doctrinal standard of unity and cooperation. And that is exactly what is needed at this time.

Historically, creeds and confessions have arisen out of controversy, when the presence of heterodox teaching prompts the church to define and then declare what is true, biblical doctrine. These confessions provide a “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) with which to communicate true, biblical doctrine, and with which to reject false doctrine. While the SBC has a confession in place, the Law Amendment would utilize the SBC’s Constitution to not only strengthen Southern Baptist commitment to its complementarian convictions, but to clarify its confessional identity.

At a time when many churches within the SBC operate in contradiction to the BFM by ordaining females to the pastorate (lead, co-pastor, associate, or otherwise), confessional clarity is necessary.[16] One could go so far as to say that in moments like these, it is the spiritual duty of Southern Baptists not to just say what they believe, but to be doers of what they believe (James 1:22). Our shared commitment to Scripture demands no less.

When the clear teachings of Scripture and our shared confession are contradicted, it is not sufficient to cite personal commitment to the teachings in question. If Southern Baptists are to maintain the biblical traditions that were delivered to them (1 Cor. 11:2), they must confess and practice them. The history of Salters’ Hall and the General Baptists teaches us that when churches stop confessing those truths together, at some point down the road, they are no longer kept. At the time when they most needed confessional clarity, they opted for a confessional laxity that led to their demise.

While complementarianism is not as foundational as the doctrine of the Trinity, it is nonetheless an important issue that we must not downplay. How many denominations must we see slide downward from egalitarianism into LGBT-apostasy before we realize its significance? Regrettably, Wayne Grudem and John Piper have been proven right again and again when they wrote, “the feminist minimization of sexual role differentiation contributes to the confusion of sexual identity that, especially in second and third generations, gives rise to more homosexuality in society.”[17] The decision by the United Methodists last month to lift its ban against LGBT-ordination is but the most recent manifestation of this decades-old observation.[18]

There certainly are churches that have inadvertently mislabeled some female staff members as pastors. But just as the anti-confessionalism among orthodox General Baptists opened the door to anti-Trinitarianism, such a practice within the SBC will eventually prove corrosive to later generations by obfuscating the biblical qualifications for pastors/elders/overseers.

Rather than compromising on its commitment to complementarianism and confessionalism, the SBC should rather provide instruction for correcting what may in some cases be honest mistakes. Mislabeling a staff member is a simple fix, if it in fact involves an inadvertent mislabeling. Churches that truly desire to maintain confessional unity with the Convention would be happy to correct their mistake and use it as an opportunity to teach the biblical doctrines of church leadership and male-female complementarity.

But there are also certainly churches where such a designation is not inadvertent, but intentional — which is the issue the Law Amendment seeks to address with crystalline clarity. Will Southern Baptists be united under a common confession or will they not? Will the BFM reflect Southern Baptist practice or will it not? A positive answer to these questions describes Baptist confessionalism, the latter some form of pragmatic doctrinal minimalism.

The Ancient Paths of Confessionalism

Similar to the decision faced by Dissenting pastors at Salters’ Hall, Southern Baptists have an opportunity to strengthen their commitment to sound doctrine through a commitment to confessionalism. They should be reminded that when we look back at Baptist history, those churches that rejected confessionalism often drifted away from the faith and lost their gospel witness. By no longer following the pattern of sound words, they conformed to the pattern of the world (Rom. 12:2). If Southern Baptists wish to learn from their past, they will follow the ancient paths of confessionalism and ratify the Law Amendment.

Jonathan E. Swan is Managing Editor of Eikon.


Image used by permission From the British Library Collection

[1] I am grateful to Clint Bass, Michael A.G. Haykin, and Tom Nettles, whose feedback improved this essay.

[2] The Dissenters (also called Nonconformists) were Protestants in England and Wales who did not conform to the Church of England and thus separated to form their own congregations.

[3] The following account of the Salters’ Hall controversy is dependent on the following sources: Anon., An Account of the Late Proceedings of the Dissenting Ministers at Salter’s-Hall, 3rd ed. (London, 1719). Anon., An Authentick Account of Several Things Done and Agreed Upon by the Dissenting Ministers Lately Assembled at Salters-Hall (London, 1719). Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters, vol. 1, From the Reformation to the French Revolution (1978; repr., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 1:374–376. Jesse F. Owens, “The Salters’ Hall Controversy: Heresy, Subscription, or Both?” in In Essence One, in Persons Three: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Particular Baptist life and thought, 1640s–1840s, eds. Michael A.G. Haykin with Roy M. Paul (West Lorne, Ontario: H&E Academic, 2022), 45–68.

[4] Jesse Owens has recently argued that nearly all the General Baptists at Salters’ Hall were orthodox Trinitarians, but merely opposed subscription. Jesse F. Owens, “The Salters’ Hall Controversy: Heresy, Subscription, or Both?” in In Essence One, in Persons Three: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Particular Baptist life and thought, 1640s–1840s, eds. Michael A.G. Haykin with Roy M. Paul (West Lorne, Ontario: H&E Academic, 2022), 45–68.

[5] See Clint C. Bass, The Caffynite Controversy, Centre for Baptist Studies in Oxford Publications 19 (Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2020), 124–131.

[6] For this reason, Michael Watts noted that “in time the fears of the Subscribers that the attitude adopted by the Non-Subscribers would lead to Unitarianism were justified.” Watts, The Dissenters, 1:375.

[7] Raymond Brown, The English Baptists of the Eighteenth Century, A History of the English Baptists, vol. 2 (London: Baptist Historical Society, 1986), 22–23. This assessment is consistent with Owens’ more recent treatment of Salters’ Hall: “No matter how well-intentioned the Nonsubscribers at Salters’ Hall were, if they hoped to maintain any sort of theological orthodoxy on the doctrine of the Trinity, their categorical opposition to subscription proved unwise.” Owens, “The Salters’ Hall Controversy,” 68.

[8] Joseph Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists (London: B. J. Holdsworth, 1823), 3:166.

[9] Denny Burk makes a compelling case that confessionalism within the SBC requires non-contradiction to the BFM. Burk uses the term “subscription” to refer to the formal adoption of the BFM by a church as its official doctrinal statement. This is different from the way this essay has been using “subscription” with reference to Salters’ Hall and Baptists of that era. In that latter case, subscription refers to agreement or consent to a set of doctrinal articles. Denny Burk, “Non-Contradicton (not Subscription) Is the SBC’s Confessional Standard,”, June 21, 2022, accessed, May 21, 2024,

[10] Malcolm B. Yarnell III and Steven A. McKinion, “FIRST PERSON: For Baptist confessionalism,” Baptist Press, January 2024, accessed May 13, 2024,

[11] This statement should not be understood to mean that each church in fellowship with the SBC must formally adopt the BFM 2000 as its confessional statement. A church does not have to adopt the BFM as its official doctrinal statement to adhere to the words of the BFM. So long as the church’s doctrine is consistent, and not in contradiction to the teaching of the BFM, it should be understood to confessionally align.

[12] “Report of the Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee to the Southern Baptist Convention” The Baptist Faith and Message, June 14, 2000, accessed May 13, 2024,

[13] Furthermore, General Baptists had previously used a doctrinal statement, A Brief Confession (1660), “as a test of fellowship” within their denomination. As Bass has documented: “Obviously, those who signed the confession were expected to believe the doctrines expressed in it.” Anti-confessionalism was a later development and a departure from earlier General Baptist practice. See Bass, The Caffynite Controversy, 113–124.

[14] See Colin J. Smothers, “Not a Freelance Club: Identity, Association, and Confessionalism in the SBC,” Christ Over All, March 20, 2024, accessed May 21, 2024,

[15] See footnote 9.

[16] Kevin McClure, “How Many Female Pastors are in the SBC?” American Reformer, June 10, 2023, accessed May 13, 2024,

[17] John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 50 Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 64.

[18] Christina Grube, “United Methodists Repeal Ban on Gay Clergy, Pass Other LGBTQ Policies,” World, May 1, 2024, accessed May 15, 2024,

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