A Baptist church is defined as a body of baptized believers in Jesus Christ. This means that they practice “believer’s baptism,” holding that valid baptism can only follow a publicly professed belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Baptist theology is not creedal, but it is derived from and agrees with the essential orthodox tenets: the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Atonement, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Afterlife, as they are presented in the Nicene Creed. Instead of any creed, however, the Baptist faith is grounded on the authority and inspiration of the Bible alone (“Sola Scriptura”), with primary emphasis on the New Testament. Hence, Baptists also call themselves “New Testament Christians.”
Baptist beliefs are formulated on the premise of soul competency and human dignity, i.e., the doctrine of “the priesthood of the believer.” The idea of “soul competency” means that every believer is competent and responsible to formulate his own faith based on Bible study and prayer - without the necessity for any human mediator or religious overlord to direct his belief or intercede with God in his behalf. The idea of human dignity means that every believer is equal to every other one. This ideal of religious democracy results in congregational polity.
Congregational government means that every church member speaks and votes for himself. Baptists like to say that “at the foot of the Cross the ground is level.” This precludes setting apart any priest or saint above anybody else. With Baptists, every church member, including the pastor, is a priest and a saint.
The local Baptist church is an autonomous body, independent of every other Baptist church. It accepts no organizational authority outside itself. In cooperation with other churches, it sends “messengers” to larger gatherings: associations, conventions, fellowships. Since Baptists have no higher, centralized government, it is never proper to use the term “The Baptist Church.” There is “the Baptist denomination,” and there are “Baptist churches.” A local body may be called “The First Baptist Church” or “The Calvary Baptist Church,” etc.
Baptist ceremony includes only two symbolic observances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is immersion in water, because the Greek term baptizo means “immersion.” This is the clearest sign of the washing away of sins and of resurrection to new life from the grave. It is a symbol and not a “sacrament,” that is, it has no magical, saving merit. Neither is it mandatory to salvation, else the thief on the cross could not have been saved without it. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is also symbolic, not being by any stretch of the imagination real flesh and blood. Neither is it a “sacrament,” since it does not confer any saving merit. Salvation is the result of faith, not magical ceremonies or works of any kind. Consequently, Baptists do not use the term “sacrament,” but opt for the term “ordinance,” which means that baptism and the supper were ordered by the Lord to be performed.
Baptist worship on the Lord’s Day is characterized by austere aniconistic furnishings, spontaneous prayer, Bible exposition, instrumental and vocal music, vestments for musical performers only, monetary contributions, and a general invitation to church membership. Baptist worship is orderly but not liturgical, informal but not irreverent, emotional but not irrational.
Baptists believe that the Bible prescribes only two offices in the local church: the pastor and the deacons. The pastor can have other ministers as his helpers in specialized areas of service to the congregation. The deacon council is not a governing body, but it does consider and advise on major decisions of the church. The final authority and power lies with the people voting in a general business meeting.
Baptist ministers are required to be God-called before they can receive ordination. Being of the Free Church tradition, Baptists select their own leaders, set up their own policies, elect candidates into membership, and withdraw fellowship from those who stray from right faith and practice.
Baptists promote good citizenship and accept military service when the need arises. Religious tolerance and freedom of expression undergirds Baptist insistence upon the separation of church and state.
Baptists commonly accept the doctrines of free will, unlimited atonement, continuing sanctification, and irrevocable salvation. Following in the Free Church tradition, there is no governing ruler or set of rules that can dictate in matters of faith and practice. However, most churches and their members do subscribe to a non-binding statement of faith and their local church’s covenant and constitution.
Baptism by immersion is a condition of church membership. The Lord’s Supper is provided several times a year and is usually open to all believers in Jesus Christ, whatever their denomination.
Churches are voluntarily united into loosely-connected organizations: local area associations, state and national conventions or fellowships, and the Baptist World Alliance. No decision of these larger bodies is binding upon any church or any individual.
Baptists accept several translations of the Bible and believe it to be God’s message (the Written Word) - colored by the personalities of various writers and their contemporary cultures and disclosed down through history in a progressive revelation, the culmination of which was Jesus Christ (the Living Word). Interpretation is by means of spiritual perception (enlightenment of the Holy Spirit), Christocentric standards, and rational analysis. Education in theology is valued and is supported by institutions of higher learning.
While some Baptists are given to interpreting current events as signs of the end times, they are not, in general, date-setting adventists.
Baptists are aggressive missionaries, united in a cooperative effort to select, educate, send out, and support full time workers in evangelical outreach ministries. Baptists disciple their members by means of Sunday School classes, in which they use Bible study aids and their own published periodical literature.
Baptists employ organizations based on sound business methods such as the use of incorporated institutions, trustees, boards, committees, budgets, annuity funds, and Parliamentary procedure. They reject interdenominational comity agreements (in which church boundaries or parishes are set up to the exclusion of other churches).
As to ethical issues, Baptists usually reject the use of alcohol, drugs, and gambling. They are moderate on the use of tobacco, divorce, abortion, Sunday activities or entertainment, dancing, dress standards, and courtship practices.
Baptists are not in general agreement on Bible inerrancy, the Millennium, capital punishment, alien immersion, the ordination of women, school prayer, pastoral authority, fasting, faith healing, and exorcism.
AN ACROSTIC OF BAPTIST DISTINCTIVES
Bible Inspired and Sole Authority
(Not Popes, Councils, or Traditions)
Adult Baptism after Professed Conversion
(Not for Infants or by Proxy)
Priesthood of Believers
(Every Saint is a Priest)
Two Symbolic Ordinances
(Not Saving Sacraments)
Individual Responsibility before God
(Not Human or Saintly Mediators)
Self-Governing Churches and Democracy
(Not Hierarchies or Ranks)
Tithing and Cooperative Support of the Church
(Not Money-Raising Schemes)
Separation of Church and State
(Religious Tolerance and Political Independence)
BAPTIST TESTS OF FELLOWSHIP
Generally, the Baptist latitude of belief resulting from the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has been very broad. In fact, Baptist strength has been said to derive from “unity in diversity.” Nevertheless, certain beliefs and practices can cause a church group to fall outside the Baptist community. Some of these are as follows:
Faulty Christology: Any church holding unorthodox views about the person, nature, and mission of Christ must be excluded from Baptist association.
Alien Immersion: Fellowship with Baptist churches that accept new members having immersion from other denominations has been revoked in several associations in the past.
Charismatic Practice: Churches that teach the second baptism in the Spirit, complete sanctification, and speaking in tongues have been excluded from several associations.
Bible Literalism: Snake handlers, poison drinkers, rejecters of medical aid and blood transfusions, flagellants, self-mutilators, polygamists, proxy-baptists, date-setting adventists, flat-earth cosmologists, astrologists, occultists, spiritualists, magicians, and racial purists must be excluded. Those who ascribe divine approval to Old Testament regulations as binding on Christians (for practices such as Saturday worship, circumcision, kosher rules, etc.) are Ebionite Christians (Judaizers), not Baptists.
Landmarkism: Baptists who claim to being the only true Church and who claim to trace an unbroken lineage to the first disciples (so-called “apostolic succession”) are in the nature of Independent Baptists.
Millennialism: Pastors who will allow no other viewpoint on the subject of the Millennium than their own are out of step with the general Baptist tolerance on this doctrine.
Pastoral Authority: Churches whose pastors own the church property and govern without deacons or the usual congregational organizations (or who countermand their decisions) are akin to cult leaders and should be investigated and admonished.
Intolerance: Disruptive outbursts, personal insults, and condemnation of other churches must result in a severence of fellowship from the Baptist association.
Immorality of Leaders: A church with a homosexual minister or one living in grave sin cannot be admitted to fellowship.
Fraudulent Registration: Churches that secure votes for non-eligible messengers to Baptist meetings are subject to censure or removal from the association.
Commercial Holdings: Churches that have long-standing holdings in commercial property or that reap benefits from immoral interprises must sever these connections or forfeit fellowship.
Financial Secrecy: Churches that will not allow an audit of their financial records must be excluded from fellowship.
BAPTIST HISTORY AND HERITAGE
The first Baptist church on English soil dates from the year 1611. Baptists were born in England, but their conception was in Holland. Their progenitors were two bodies of Christians, an English Separatist congregation and a Dutch Mennonite fellowship, who met and mingled briefly in Amsterdam in 1607. The offspring of this encounter, a Baptist church, did not bear an exact resemblance to either parent body, but was something unique in history.
It happened this way. In the early seventeenth century the Nether-lands were a refuge of freedom and tolerance in an otherwise hostile world. It was there that William of Orange had thrown off the yoke of his country’s Spanish Catholic oppressors. It was there that the liberal monk Erasmus had felt free enough to criticize some of the more heinous faults of the Roman Church. And it was there that Anabaptists, universally hated in other European states, had been allowed to live and prosper and practice their quiet faith. (European Anabaptists had gotten started in Switzerland in 1525, when a group of Zwingli’s young students had rejected the doctrine of infant baptism and had re-baptized themselves. “Anabaptist” means “Re-baptizer.” Many Anabaptists in Holland were called Mennonites after their founder, Menno Simons.)
Englishmen too had gotten a taste of freedom when they had broken with the Mother Church in Rome and started reading Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible in their own tongue. Hearing about the reforms of Luther and Calvin abroad, many of them longed to find a fresh kind of belief free from Papist pomp, corruption, and superstition, and modeled more nearly on New Testament practice.
Those who began to insist on purity of doctrine and practice in the English State Church became known as Puritans or Independents. Those who went even further and sought to develop their faith outside the Anglican denomination were called Separatists, Dissenters, and Non-conformists. Under the repressive domination of King James I, all of these innovators were greatly oppressed, and many fled the land to find freedom in places like Holland and America.
John Smyth, at first a minister of the Church of England, had developed Puritan views and had tried to reform the church he was leading. When this failed, he joined a congregation of Separatists at Gainsborough, about 130 miles north of London. As this congregation grew in numbers, it became dangerous for them to meet openly, so they divided into two smaller groups. One of these moved six miles away to Scrooby.
By 1607 the Gainsborough remnant had decided to move to Amsterdam. In Holland these religious refugees, led by John Smyth and a wealthy lawyer named Thomas Helwys, came into contact with Dutch Mennonites. Whether as a consequence of this meeting or from independent Bible study, they decided in favor of believer’s baptism. In 1609 Smyth proceeded to baptize himself, and then he baptized all of his congregation. This baptism was done by pouring. One writer of the period stated that Smyth “cast water upon himself.”
The Scrooby congregation, led by John Robinson, William Brewster, and William Bradford, came over to Holland a year after the Gainsborough church. They went first to Amsterdam in 1608, to Leyden in 1609, and finally they sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. These were the renowned Pilgrim Fathers who sailed on the Mayflower. Since they differed with Smyth’s group over the issue of infant baptism, they had decided to part company with these new “anabaptists.” In America they became known as Congregationalists.
Later on, because he had met with such opposition from his fellow Christians, Smyth began to question the validity of what he had done, and so, he decided to simply unite with the Mennonites. Not everyone in his group agreed with this decision, however, and so a year before the time of Smyth’s death in 1612 a group of ten people, including Thomas Helwys and John Murton, split off and decided to return to England. Upon their arrival in their homeland, they settled at Spitalfield, north of the London wall, and set up the first Baptist church in England. The decision to locate outside the city wall was so that they could be free from the Anglican Church’s jurisdiction. Spitalfield at that time was beyond polite society, being an army camp and the site of the insane asylum, Bethlehem Hospital (known as “Bedlam”). It was also the location of mass graves from the plague, at “Bone Hill” Fields. Baptists wanted the freedom to think for themselves, even if it had to be in a place of human squalor and misery.
Still, Baptists did not avoid trouble, and their pastor soon found himself in jail. Thomas Helwys had written an inflamatory pamphlet advocating religious liberty and advising King James as follows: “The King is a mortall man & not God, therefore hath no power over ye immortall soules of his subjects...” For this effrontery, he was imprisoned and soon died. After his death, the congregation elected John Murton as its pastor and continued to preach believer’s baptism and congregational church government. By 1626 this one church had produced four more. By 1644 they numbered forty, and by 1650 there were at least forty-seven General Baptist churches in and aroung London.
The spiritual descendants of Smyth and Helwys came to be known as General Baptists, because they taught the Arminian doctrines of general atonement and free will. Another group known as Particular Baptists were so called because they accepted the Calvinist doctrine of a particular atonement only for the elect. These came directly out of the Church of England as a result of intense study of the New Testament.
The first Particular Baptist assembly was formed by John Spilsbury, a cobbler, in 1638. Then a few years later this congregation sent one of its members, Richard Blunt, who knew how to speak Dutch, to Holland to confer with an Anabaptist group on the subject of baptism. When he returned to England in 1641 he introduced the practice of immersion, and by 1644 there were seven new congregations of the Particular Baptist faith. (General Baptists soon took up the baptismal mode of immersion as well.) The First London Confession of Particular Baptists, adopted in 1644, says of baptism that “the way and manner of the dispensing of this ordinance, the Scripture holds out to be dipping or plunging the whole body under the water.”)
Unrest with the repressive measures of the monarchy eventually built up to the point that it exploded into civil war in 1642. During this time Baptists joined with other sects in the Parliamentary Army that deposed King Charles I and cut off his head. The overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell in 1649 at first brought a measure of relief to Baptists, and their numbers mushroomed. But then Presbyterian Puritans gained the power in Parliament, and they tried to force their “Westminster Confession” down the throats of all Englishmen, so once again Baptists were subject to censure. As the sympathetic poet John Milton put it, “New presbyter is but old priest writ large.” When Oliver Cromwell died, his son Richard replaced him. But Richard eventually gave up trying to deal with the stubborn bigots in Parliament, and when he abdicated in 1660, the English people restored the monarchy and the Anglican Church to power.
Under the new king, Charles II, the fortunes of Baptists generally waned. It was during this period that the famous Baptist preacher, John Bunyan, was imprisoned. Thus it happened that from his cell in Bedford, Bunyan produced one of the finest masterpieces of literature, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Plots and counter-plots disturbed the government of England until in 1688 the English decided to offer their throne to a champion of freedom from Holland. This was William, the son of the old liberator William of Orange. William was wed to Mary, the daughter of the last English king, and together they instituted a time of relative peace. The English Act of Toleration followed in 1689.
Across the Atlantic, Baptists in America were divided, as in England, over the question of predestination, but they took new names. In America, General Baptists became known as Regular Baptists, and Particular Baptists were called Separate Baptists. These two groups continued side by side in the colonies until they were finally merged in 1801 as United Baptists.
In 1812 when Adoniram and Ann Judson applied to the United Baptists of America to become their first foreign missionaries, there was no central structure or organization to deal with their request. Thus came into being in 1814 the first general meeting of Baptists in America, the Triennial Convention. Thus the stage was set for the phenomenal growth of American Baptists both at home and abroad.
Richard L. Atkins
THE BAPTIST CONTROVERSY
On May 11, 1991, Moderates within the Southern Baptist Convention formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. At its inception the CBF cited six differences between themselves and the Fundamentalists holding the reins of power.
1. THE BIBLE
Fundamentalists proclaim that the Bible is inerrant - completely and literally accurate and infallible in all areas of knowledge.
Moderates do not believe that the Bible claims or reveals inerrancy. They emphasize the priesthood of the believer (the right of each Christian to interpret the Scripture for himself). It is not deemed essential to salvation to believe in a literal six-day creation, an underworld abode of departed spirits, rain falling through windows in the firmament, a global flood in historical times, flying fiery serpents, or the commandment to execute witches, etc. The Bible is not an oracle or an idol. It has both a divine and a human side. Its interpretation is free of creeds. Diversity is a vital part of the Baptist heritage.
Fundamentalists educate by indoctrination. They are not interested in alternate views, unbiased research, or the open-minded reception of new truths. To them all scholarship is suspect. They think that reading should generally be restricted to the Bible alone, because other books only give human knowledge or satanic deception.
Moderates do not claim a monopoly on truth and see real education as a broadening and maturing process free from coercion and challenging to spiritual growth. All ideas are welcome to a free discussion. The Holy Spirit will lead into all truth.
Fundamentalists emphasize evangelism and building large local church memberships.
Moderates broaden the scope of missions to include preaching, teaching, healing, and ministries of peace, mercy, and social justice - on a global scale. They see this as the way Jesus carried out His own ministry.
Fundamentalists argue that a pastor should be the ruler of his congregation.
Moderates are opposed to setting up priests or popes in local churches, who have the final say in how the church is run. Baptists have always been opposed to an autocratic clergy. They view the role of the pastor as a servant shepherd. They respect the rightful place of lay leadership, and they believe in the right of congregations to make their own decisions in a democratic manner. Likewise, they do not want to be spoon-fed their doctrine by any priestly overlord.
Fundamentalists do not allow women to be ordained or assume places of leadership in the church. Women are restricted to subordinate roles of ministry.
Moderates feel that Jesus treated women as equally capable of dealing with sacred issues. They refute first century views on the place of women and slaves as inferior members of society. Each church can ordain whatever leaders it chooses.
Fundamentalists are isolationist militants who presume to judge the salvation of those who disagree with them or adhere to other Christian doctrines.
Moderates profess an ecumenical and inclusive attitude toward Christians in general. They believe that the Church should be a unified fellowship and that they should cooperate with other Christians (whether liberal or conservative) and love them, just as they will eventually in heaven. A Free Church must remain separated from the State. Love of country is not the same as love of God.
Richard L. Atkins