What makes a Baptist Church different to the rest?

What are the distinct beliefs of the Baptist Church which distinguish it from other denominations?  There is no universal acceptance of a standard set of distinctives.  Time has also seen what were once considered pivotal and primary distinctives become less and less useful in defining Baptists as a denomination.  Presented below is an attempt to show the development and connection between Baptist understanding of Scripture which has led to Baptist beliefs and Baptist practice, both of which make Baptists distinct from other denominations.

Biblical Authority

While any protestant denomination will argue that it believes in the authority of Scripture above all other authorities, Baptists have historically shown this to be the case.  Church tradition, creeds, confessions, episcopal pronouncements and conciliar statements all come nowhere close to the authority of scripture.[1]  Further to this, every other Baptist Distinctive can be traced back to the early Baptist’s attempts to live according to the most literal understanding of the bible.  For example, believer’s baptism by immersion, although not unique to Baptists, is the most literal practice associated with the NT requirements to believe and be baptised.  When early Baptists practiced this form of baptism they were persecuted, but their reliance upon the authority of scripture for form and practice dictated that they continue the practice regardless of the consequences.

Regenerate Church Membership & Priesthood of All Believers

The bible is the authority for all of those who have placed their trust in the Lord of the scriptures.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that those who are to have a say in the form and practice of the Church should be those who submit to the authority of scripture.  That is why the Baptist Church utilises Church membership.  Membership ensures that the bible remains the only authority by placing responsibility in the hands of those who acknowledge its authority.

This practice is not necessary in Episcopal Churches (def. – of, relating to, or involving church government by bishops) or Churches that do not recognise the Priesthood of all Believers.  Baptists believe that we are all born again and are in a personal relationship with God without need for a mediator.  In essence we are all priests and all have been gifted to contribute to the work God has given to the Church.  This means that God works through us as individuals and therefore we are each responsible to God directly for our actions.  If God deals with us as individuals and holds us accountable as individuals first and foremost, then our structures should reflect this.

In addition, we become priests of the Most Holy through faith alone.  Nothing we do can save us from the consequences of our own sin.  It is only through the work of Jesus and his life, death and resurrection that is able to save us, and our faith in that alone is enough.  Not all denominations hold such a view and so some identify ‘Salvation by Grace’ as a separate distinctive.

If God is the ultimate authority of the Church as spoken through his word, if only those who accept his authority and are regenerate should decide what form and practice the Church should adopt, and if God works through each individual to build up his Church, then the following distinctives all come from these foundational beliefs.

 Autonomy of the Local Church

Any list of Baptist distinctives has to include the form of governance.  Congregational Governance is a natural progression from the first three distinctives.  If individuals are priests who are responsible for their own relationship with God then the visible local Church , which is made up of personally accountable individuals, must also be self autonomous and responsible directly to God. In practice this means that the will of God is discerned and agreed upon through the vote of the members of the local congregation.

It is at this point that some Baptists would add the ‘Two Offices’, of Pastor/Elder and Deacon to their list of distinctives.  Although this is a very common formula for many Baptist Churches to follow, we hesitate to include it as each local Church is free to govern itself as it best sees fit.  What it does contribute to Baptist identity however is the recognition that although the local Church governs itself and majority vote is usually how God’s will is discerned, Baptist Churches still recognise and submit to God given leadership of the Church.  That from among the congregation God has gifted some to lead.

A further consequence of this distinctive is that the State, which has traditionally played a role in many denominations, is seen by Baptists to have no stake and therefore no say in the dealings of the Church.  This is clearly based upon the principle of regenerate Church membership and the desire to not allow those who do not belong to Christ to influence his Church.

Two Ordinances

Baptism and Communion are the only ordinances that are accepted by Baptists.  Baptists tend to reject the concept of a sacrament and the implied conveyance of Grace that takes place.  Baptism and Communion however are taken to be direct commands from Jesus for the Church to follow and administer, not for the conveyance of grace but for the benefit of obedience to Christ.  Neither are essential for a person to be saved but they are commanded by God for each individual to observe.  Hence Baptism and Communion are generally reserved for those who are held responsible for the decision to obey or not.  On this basis infant baptism is rejected as a practice.

Soul Competency

It has been referred to already, but the Baptist belief in Soul Competency or Freedom of Conscience holds that the believer is answerable only to God.[2]  The practical implications of this is that only God is able to instruct us in what we are to do, no leader or Pastor has that authority.  The role of the Church then is not to instruct people in what they are to do but to instruct them in what God says.  The word of God is the sole authority which we base our form and practice on and as responsible individuals we are held to account for our response to God’s word.  Some believe that the competency of the soul to relate to God in an accountable relationship is the primary Baptist distinctive.  E. Y. Mullins said, “The principle of the competency of the soul in religion under God is a distinctive Baptist contribution to the world’s thought.”[3]  Hobbs agrees and goes further saying, “Out of this principle flow all other elements of Baptist belief.”[4]  McBeth agrees wholeheartedly writing, “The concept of the soul’s competency is more than a single doctrine; actually, it undergirds all the other doctrines of the faith.”[5]  It does appear to be the logical conclusion of all other doctrines held by Baptists.

Mission

Lastly we would add Mission to the list of Baptist Distinctives as it is the natural consequence of what has gone before.  The bible says we are to go forth and make disciples, telling others of the good news of the gospel.  If individuals are responsible for their response to the invitation of God and it is through personal confession of faith that people are saved, then there is a true need to tell people of the opportunity they have to be saved.

 


[1] Rod Benson, “Why I Am A Baptist,” John Mark Ministries, http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/9014.htm, (accessed September 2, 2009).

[2] K. Faase and M. Frost, “Our Distinctives,” The Baptist Union of Australia, http://www.baptist.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=29&Itemid=15, (accessed September 2, 2009).

[3] E. Y. Mullins quoted in William M. Pinson Jr. and Doris A. Tinker, “Is Soul Competency The Baptist Distinctive,” Jane and Noble Hurley Baptist Identity Fund, http://www.baptistdistinctives.org/article5_3_07_05.pdf.

[4] Herschel H. Hobbs quoted in William M. Pinson Jr. and Doris A. Tinker, “Is Soul Competency The Baptist Distinctive,” Jane and Noble Hurley Baptist Identity Fund, http://www.baptistdistinctives.org/article5_3_07_05.pdf.

[5] H. Leon McBeth quoted in William M. Pinson Jr. and Doris A. Tinker, “Is Soul Competency The Baptist Distinctive,” Jane and Noble Hurley Baptist Identity Fund, http://www.baptistdistinctives.org/article5_3_07_05.pdf.