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What Makes Us Baptist?
The Rev’d Dr Daniel Medina
I have prepared this brief summary of the tenets of genuine Baptist beliefs and characteristics in an attempt to empower all believers in Christ Jesus who make their place of Christian worship a local Baptist community. Additionally, I have sought through the offering of this paper to invest in anyone and everyone who seeks to grow in knowledge and wisdom as it concerns the principles that make us Christians first and Baptists, second. Nowhere in Scripture does it make allowances for any one tradition or denomination to have a special or favorite place before Almighty God. In fact, although we belong to a local congregation it is somewhat ironic that our salvation is held individually and in no way, shape or form will any of the ones we call brothers or sisters be available to speak to God our on behalf on the day we stand before our Maker. Finally, I believe it is incumbent upon those entrusted to shepherd and teach the Lord’s flock to provide for worthy instruction and the necessary materials that will elevate the mind and soul. In doing so, we all benefit from brothers and sisters who will grow in appreciation for the rich heritage we possess and for the honor due to those who sacrificed so much for the purposes of the freedom we now have in Christ and from powers of this earth and the ever present darkness.
The Tenets of Our Tradition
Baptists believe in the following cardinal points:
(1) The Bible is God’s special revelation to humanity concerning His purposes and will for the human race and the world. The Bible represents the centerpiece of how we articulate our faith in Jesus Christ (1 Timothy -1). No creed or confession substitutes or surpasses the Bible. A creed represents a set of statements constituting beliefs one must subscribe to in order to be considered a member of a particular church community. Whereas confessions such as, The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689, are descriptive statements that explain beliefs a given Christian community holds as essential tenets of faith in God through Jesus Christ. In the case of creeds and confessions, the matters addressed are attempts by humanity to define and comprehend God’s purposes and will; therefore, not ever to be understood or accepted as inspired or infallible statements of faith.
(2) The local church is autonomous and the ultimate expression of the Body of Christ, i.e., the Church. In other words, a human being is supposed to experience, gain understanding, fully engage and integrate into the Body of Christ as members through the local gathered community of Christians. The local church is as much a part of the
and not inferior to any other
expression of it on earth. It is a free,
voluntary community that is assembled by the Holy Spirit. Those gathered therein exercise their faith
in freedom from any church hierarchy or national influences. Jesus Christ is the Lord and Head of the
Church. The local church can also choose
to enter, on a voluntary basis, into associations with other Baptist churches
for the purposes of advancing God’s kingdom and purposes. Kingdom of God
The method of church governance employed by the Baptists is Congregational. This means that all baptized members share in the decision making of the congregation. It also suggests that each local church congregation is self-governing. Insofar as this is true, it is also just as true that there is no such thing as Baptists following a “New Testament” method of church governance. For as current scholarship recognizes various systems of church governance during the unfolding ministry of the 1st generation of Christians after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, to somehow suggest that Baptist polity represent the New Testament model would be misrepresentation of historical record.
A local church cannot be forced to enter into any arrangements with other church communities. As it entered into any association out the local church’s freewill, it can also seek to separate itself from any relationship should the association fail to uphold orthodox Biblical principles or challenge the conscience of church members. The local church must uphold the Biblical tenets of membership discipline as the means of ensuring checks and balances on the spiritual integrity and health of the members. (For further information, please review The Gathered Community by Robert C. Walton, first published in 1946 in conjunction with the Kingsgate Press.)
(3) The Priesthood of All Believers is the Biblical heritage of all true Christians. Upon receiving Jesus Christ as your LORD and SAVIOR, you are grafted into the Body of Christ assured of eternal life. However, it is a Biblical mandate that every Christian embody Hebrews 13:1-16; 21, demonstrating and extending love toward all, offering up a sacrifice of praise to God in thanksgiving, through the surrender of our lives, in constant prayer, doing all things for the Lord with joy, in obedience, holding to the fear of the Lord and with due diligence. Every single believer has a responsibility to be a worthy testimony of the Lord Jesus and to embrace His will for each of us with gladness and singleness of heart.
As in the case of a body where different members are created by God to perform particular functions while working in concert with the rest of the members of the body, each member of Christ’s Church possesses gifts and graces which the Lord, before the foundation of the earth, did constitute as vital, necessary according to His plan. To that end, God has set aside some members for service as pastors, deacons, missionaries, evangelists, teachers, administrators and other roles according to His wisdom and timing. Therefore, we as Baptists believe that a Baptist minister’s ordination is valid and as authentic as those entitlements extended to individuals by the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican churches as well as those of any other nonconformist body claiming to be part of the universal Church of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:10-12).
As for churches who claim their ministers are in apostolic succession to those early fathers of the Church, specifically, the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, Baptist ministers, by nature of proclaiming the teachings of the Apostles as found in the Holy Bible and in submitting to the plans, purposes, commands and exhortations of our Lord Jesus Christ, also can claim to be authentic inheritors and ambassadors of the apostolic succession. These servants delight not in genealogies established by men or institutions, but by the grace and authority granted to by Almighty God only (1 Timothy 1:4).
Furthermore, the use of appropriate vestments as traditionally worn by the Reformers, and their adherents across the centuries does not constitute whether someone is or is not a Baptist. It is also inappropriate to perpetuate anti-Catholic sentiments misguide flocks into believing that vestments are solely used by the Roman Catholic Church and/or as conduits toward idolatry. Cultural contexts should never be employed to preserve ignorance or to restrict the use of liturgical resources. If we truly have liberty of conscience then we must diligently seek to learn, grow, challenge and deepen our faith and spiritual understanding of our membership in the household of God (1 Peter ; 5:1-4).
As the local church has autonomy over liturgy, music, administration and setting its course through prayer, fasting and wholehearted submission to the Will of God, the pastor of the local church has the freedom and authority to utilize the resources that mark the authority invested in him by the local church for the purposes of proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with reverence and decorum. The use of preaching robes, preaching tabs, clerical shirts and liturgical enhancements to the free church tradition of worship are part and parcel of the Baptist tradition, effective for the purposes of ensuring a self-effacing use of the pulpit, of increasing the presence of the Church’s ordained members in the cities, parishes, towns and counties wherein God has called them to serve and to ultimately create a conscientiousness of reverence, authority and dignity in the manner we worship Almighty God (Hebrews 12:28-29).
(4) The Separation of Church and State. This is highly polemic issue in the
United States. However, nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is
there any clause or statement regarding the separation between Church and
State. The statement, as found in the Bill
of Rights reads that the U.S. Government should, “make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The interpretation imposed on this phrase
originated in a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury
Baptist Association, , dated Danbury,
Connecticut October 7, 1801 (http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/jefferson-s-letter-to-the-danbury-baptists).
President Jefferson did share the views of Baptists concerning religious freedom, liberty of conscience and that no national church should exist whereby the personal freedom to worship God, as one’s conscience dictated, should ever be mandated by the government. However, neither the U.S. Constitution nor the letter reply to the Danbury Baptist Association, contemplated the misreading of the documents as they are today by the right-wing and the left-wing politicians and pundits of the day. The founders of the
States did not envision a theocracy, but
neither did they favor a secular nation wherein the practice of religion and
the authority of God’s Word would be silenced from the public square.
In essence, the clause ensured what Baptist do hold very dear to their hearts in light of Scripture; the purpose of ensuring the separation between church and state was to prevent this nation’s government from instituting a national church as in the case of the Church of England whose head is the ruling monarch of Great Britain and not the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the
United Kingdom, the Church of
England would receive revenue through taxation on the people, for
instance. Nonconformist (non-Anglican) taxpayers
would be forced to pay a tax that supported an interpretation of Christianity
that was opposed to their personal consciences.
On the other hand, if they chose to not pay the tax, the taxpayer would
be open to incarceration, fines or other severe consequences resulting from tax
evasion. This is one of several reasons
why the separation between church and state was and continues to be of vital
importance to Baptists here and abroad.
Conscience/Religious Freedom/Soul Competency. References to this aspect of Baptist identity
have already been mentioned on several occasions in this paper, but it is
essential to provide a more in-depth description of these key aspects of
Baptist life. The idea is simple to
digest, but it has profound implications in how we live out our faith in Jesus
Christ. The belief is that every person
has access to God the Father through Jesus Christ without the need for any
other mediator whatsoever. Every member
of the Body of Christ has the same unhindered accessibility to God irrespective
of their condition on earth, education, race, gender, socio-economic situation,
etc. Therefore, no church governing body
can dictate anything over and above what God reveals to His children. Liberty
Although God’s revelation to each of His children occurs through a proper study of His word, through prayer, fasting and in the intentional gathering with other Christians for the purpose of instruction, worship and fellowship, the ultimate engagement between God and us is personal and no one can inflict any resistance upon said relationship (2 Peter 1:20). Additionally, one’s conscience before God must be tempered with the habits that only come through a surrendered and contrite heart being offered up to God. Upon this sacrifice, the process of sanctification, i.e. moving toward holiness, is initiated by God’s mercy and grace in order for us to acquire to the measure of His pleasure and purposes the great Christian virtues as outlined in 1 Peter 1:1-11.
One of the most moving depictions of conscience found in the New Testament is in 2 Timothy 4:1-7. Herein, the Apostle Paul clearly outlines the cost of discipleship as he seeks to enjoin Timothy to not negotiate or compromise the charge that has been bestowed upon him by God and by Paul himself. Each and every soul in Christ’s possession and care has been elected to stand fiery trials and to remain persevering through tribulations. Of course, we are frail and at times, the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh momentarily prevails. Conscience is what calls us to repentance, to contrition and to remain obedient despite the apparent failures on our behalf to remain steadfast. Our competency is not of our own volition, but out of God’s abundant mercy (1 John -24; 4:1).
In issues of interpreting Scripture, morality, peace, war, art, culture and politics, liberty of conscience is how we as Baptists address how God’s will and guidance unfolds in our individual lives. Indubitably, there will be times when we will bear loneliness in maintaining our convictions concerning God and His nature, will and plan for us. Set firmly on the promises and the security that what we say, believe or do is in accordance with Scripture, we can resist the enemy and remain faithful to the end. The ability to interpret the times is possible with soul competency. The Spirit makes it possible for us to enjoy God and experience the freedom that comes in a personal relationship with Him. Rather than in accepting the interpretation as designated by a hierarchy or bishop, the intimate relationship with Christ is both a privilege and mystery no official or church can dictate over one’s soul.
(6) Believer’s Baptism. This is the most evident difference between us and other Christian Protestant traditions. Along with Anabaptist groups such as the Bruderhof, Mennonites and the German Baptist Brethren (Church of the Brethren), Baptists believe that only after individuals have attained a personal conviction of faith and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ should baptism be sought. Baptism should not be afforded to infants as they cannot choose in conscience to follow the Lord nor are they in danger of eternal damnation should they pass away prior to baptism. Baptism should only be entered into after careful study, prayer, fasting and a clear understanding of the cost of discipleship. For Baptists, believer’s baptism is the means of attaining membership in a local church. Baptism should also be by immersion alone. This is the method of baptism that the early Christians seem to have preferred.
In closing, these are the distinct Baptist beliefs that if any local congregation and its individual members subscribe to them, they would be designated as Baptists. The breadth of diversity among Baptists is also part of the unique spirit of the tradition whose humble beginnings in 1608 AD have spread across continents reaching the four corners of the earth.
Soli Deo Gloria
Second Sunday in Advent