What exactly is a Baptist? What must one believe if he is to consider himself a Baptist? What makes the ordinary Baptist different from the ordinary Methodist, Presbyterian or Episcoplian?
Parts 1 and 2 argued Baptists swim in the same stream of Christian orthodoxy flowing from the Protestant Reformation. There is no “Baptist” version, for example, of the nature of God, sinfulness of men, deity of Christ, his substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection or judgment to come. All Christians must affirm the same biblical truth about those essentials (and more) in order to be Christian at all.
So what is it that distinguishes Baptists from the other Christian traditions? There are three primary distinctives Baptist bring uniquely to the ecclesial table.
1. Believer’s Baptism. Baptists affirm, practice and defend believer’s baptism as the only and proper means of biblical baptism. Only those who willingly and demonstrably profess faith in Christ are to baptized into the local church. Baptists therefore reject infant baptism in both the Catholic (baptismal regeneration) and Reformed/Presbyterian (covenantal) senses. Therefore, Baptists espouse “regenerate church membership,” meaning only those confidently born again are to be baptized and considered members of a local church.
Baptists also defend the proper mode of baptism to be full immersion. Baptists reject the practice of sprinkling or affusion (pouring) of new converts. Rather, those professing faith in Christ are to be immersed in and raised from (!) water as a testimony to their union with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.
There are many “nondenominational” churches who pride themselves on resisting labels. But, if a church practices believer’s baptism then that church is de facto a Baptist church. That church may not be formally associated with a Baptist denomination (e.g. Southern Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention, Converge Worldwide, etc.) but if they only baptize believers then you have yourself a Baptist church. A church may have everything but “Baptist” on their sign. But if they practice believer’s baptism then they are indeed a Baptist church. And there is no shame in that.
Baptists can offer a hearty “Amen” to the gospel essentials expressed in the various historic confessions of different traditions. However, Baptists must part ways when dealing with the subjects and mode of baptism. This influences how Baptists understand the nature and members of the local church.
Music tastes, building style, carpet color, Sunday School curricula, evangelism programs or missions efforts do not a Baptist make. One is a Baptist who affirms, practices and defends believer’s baptism according to Scripture. No small amount of blood was spilled for this conviction. No Baptist church should be ashamed of her heritage.
2. Religious Liberty. Baptists espouse religious liberty. That is, Scripture prevents the State from dictating or restricting free worship according to one’s conscience. Baptists fought and died for the right to worship freely without State-sponsored censorship. Among others, Baptists endured their fair share of persecution from the Church of England and its early American iterations. But they never wavered from their commitment to a free church, unhindered by any Crown or Congress.
Baptists neither seek nor sanction a Baptist state church. Baptists believe, according to Scripture, Christ designed his church to be free from government coercion and correction. They are glad to worship across the street from Presbyterians or Pentecostals as long as they are able to worship freely.
3. Local Church Autonomy. Baptists defend the autonomy of the local church. No local church should be subject to or controlled by any institution other than itself. Baptists see that no pope, council, bishopric, district or other hierarchical organization dictate the doctrine, practice or polity of any New Testament church. Each church stands on its own authority under own elders who are subject to Christ himself and his instruction for his church. Contrary to public opinion, the Southern Baptist Convention does not dictate to Southern Baptist churches. No matter what the annual Convention may resolve, every Southern Baptist church can embrace, reject or ignore those resolutions without penalty.
Baptist churches certainly should and do associate together. These associations however are freely entered into and exited out of by the authority of any given local church. A Baptist church may well invite oversight or grant measured authority to another church or association of churches. In fact, I am of the humble opinion Baptist churches should invite more accountability from other Baptist churches. But again that is done voluntarily by the will of that church and not imposed on her by an outside agency.
Obviously, this sort of autonomy invites abuses. History is full of local Baptist churches who have abandoned historic Christian orthodoxy and Baptist tradition. Yet, Baptists still affirm the right of those local churches to own their own apostasy. No other Baptist church is required to associate with them. Every local church and her elders will be responsible to Jesus sooner than later. Better to allow the autonomy than to let a potentially more dangerous camel stick its nose in the foyer.
What is a Baptist? “Baptist” is not defined by missions efforts, praise bands, Discipleship Training, Lottie Moon offerings, altar calls or sequin banners. A Baptist, by definition, is one who defends particularly believer’s baptism, religious liberty and local church autonomy. Any given Baptist church may use instruments or not, have an “invitation” or not, give to a missions agency or not, have Sunday School or not, use Lifeway curriculum or not. Unfortunately, many Baptists fight over the “baptistness” of what are biblically and historically “aBaptist” issues. And they are all Baptist churches for the three reasons above whether the other Baptists like it or not.
You certainly do not have to be a Baptist to be a Christian. But being Baptist does matter and there is no shame in owning the convictions that come with it. So fill up the baptistery because we have a new convert to welcome.