Being Baptist (Part 1)

A good friend was recently exploring school options for his daughter.  He was drawn to a school which “embrace[s] and adopt[s] the essential truths of orthodox Christianity as articulated in the system of doctrine expressed in the creeds of the Protestant Reformation, including the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and the Heidelberg Catechism.”  He then asked if this contradicted anything he believed “as a Baptist.”  The answer is not quite as simple as the question,  but the answer is well worth the question.

The short answer is Baptists gladly affirm the “essential truths of orthodox Christianity” as confessed in, but certainly not limited to, the Reformed confessions of  faith mentioned above.   These confessions are not infallible but attempt to faithfully summarize what it means to be Christian in the community of faith.  They are tools designed to outlast any given generation so as to preserve essential Christian unity for “the children yet to be born” (Ps 78.6).

Baptists do not have a monopoly on the doctrine of God, the Trinity, human depravity, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, salvation by grace through faith and eternal life/judgment, to name a few. Rather, Baptists share these common fundamentals with the broader Protestant tradition.  In fact, not to share these biblical convictions is to deny Christianity itself.

Baptists do not offer a different God, man, Jesus, gospel or salvation than these other traditions.  Baptists believe there is, and has always been, one Church united by the essential truths of God’s salvation through faith in Christ alone.  Baptists did not invent the Church but hope to maintain the purity and presence of the church Jesus promised to build (Mt 16.18).  Thankfully, Baptists neither have been nor are the only tradition committed to that cause.  Jesus has a global brotherhood united by his broken body and spilled blood.  While Baptists may compete with the Methodists for first dibs at Ryan’s on Sunday, they nevertheless generally share the same bread and wine at the Lord’s Table.

What one believes “as a Baptist” requires defining what exactly a “Baptist” is.  What exactly do Baptists bring to the ecclesial table that is different that other Protestant (i.e. non-Roman Catholic) traditions?  Baptists bring unique biblical convictions to Christendom in certain matters I will delve into later, and for which many Baptists died.  But we must begin by saying  Baptists share a corner of the Christian umbrella.  In fact, most modern Baptists would be surprised to know how much they share with the broader Protestant, and particularly Reformed, traditions.

I do not suggest all Baptists are Christians (or that all Christians are Baptist!).   No one can say that of any Christian tradition.  It is to say what Baptists have historically confessed in matters of essential biblical truth aligns with what the Christian church has always proclaimed.  Baptists unashamedly share the essentials of the historic Christian faith which must be believed if one is to be a Christian at all in any tradition.

Further, I do not suggest that because a church’s sign has “Baptist” on it that it is to be categorically affirmed, trusted or joined.  Like any tradition, there is a way to be Baptist (or Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Congregational, etc.) that is not Christian.  So, we must not endorse, espouse or condone everything a Baptist church believes or does just because they claim the Baptist name.  Any Baptist and his church must be measured against the bar of historic Christian orthodoxy.

Most modern Baptists define “Baptist” by what their particular church or denomination does, and that primarily over the last few generations or so.  “Baptist” has come to mean “what we do as of late” rather than “what we have historically confessed.”  Suggesting a Baptist church do something different than they’ve done the last 75 years is often met with “That ain’t Baptist.”  We have then defined “Baptist” according what we do in recent memory rather than what we believe historically from Scripture.

For example, suggest your Baptist church should be led by a plurality of elders rather than a Senior Pastor.  Many assume elders “ain’t Baptist” because modern Baptist churches do not have them.  Historically, however, Baptists shared this biblical conviction with the other Protestant traditions and organized their churches accordingly. Read any Baptist confession of faith and you will find the officers of the church defined as bishops/elders/pastors (plural) and, as a separate office, deacons.  Baptist churches are not apostate for having a solo or Senior Pastor, which might be the only viable polity for the moment.  Nevertheless, to reject elders as “ain’t Baptist” is not biblically or historically defensible.

Or, suggest your Baptist church not use an “invitation” or altar call at the end of its service.  There might be a revolt in the name of preserving Baptist tradition.  But the altar call is not historically Baptist.  If anything, it historically Methodist and made popular by the Presbyterian Charles Finney in the 1830s.  Baptists were suspicious of emotionalism and hyper-decisionism.  While Baptist churches are not necessarily sinful for offering an “invitation,” we should be careful about calling it “Baptist” since Baptists were the last ecclesial tradition to walk the aisle.

Many Baptists assume what we have done over the last century is what Baptists have always done.  That may be true in some cases, but not so in many others.   Baptist history is as varied as any other Protestant tradition.  Not all Baptists have altogether believed all the same things all the time.  There are certainly some fundamental biblical convictions one must hold to remain Baptist, but many (most?) Baptists hardly even know what those are.  Rather, “Baptist” has come to mean how our church or denomination does missions, how our pastor dresses, how we receive members, how we do the Lord’s Supper, how we call pastors, and what music we sing in what order. While Baptist churches may do many of these similarly, they do not define what a Baptist actually is.

I am grateful my friend has asked me to consider these issues.  Over the next several posts I hope to review what it means to be a Baptist, and if indeed I really am one.  In the end, however, it is more important to know if indeed I am a Christian.  Perhaps we might come to those conclusions together.

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