Disclaimer: Robert Lewis knows that Baptist are not Protestants and he does not subscribe to Calvinism nor the universal church theory which are mentioned in this document. There is, however a wealth of related historical material in the document.
The Baptists form one of the largest Protestant denominations, with worldwide membership of nearly 35 million. The following distinguish the Baptists from other Protestant communions:
- (1) their insistence on baptism of adult believers only;
(2) their concern for freedom of speech and conscience and for freedom from interference by any civil or ecclesiastical authority;
- (3) the primacy they seek to give to Scripture in matters of faith, doctrine, and morals; and
(4) the authority they give to the congregation in church affairs.
The forerunners of present day Baptists were the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.
ome Anabaptist congregations were settled in Holland in the early 17th century when groups of Puritan Independents, or Congregationalists, fled from England to Holland. Influenced by the Anabaptists, some of these Independents were persuaded that Christian baptism was appropriate only for adults with a personal faith and commitment. Returning to England, this group formed the first Baptist congregation in 1611. Shortly thereafter, Roger Williams formed (1639) the first Baptist congregation in Providence, RI. The Baptists grew rapidly in the United States. The democratic, informal, Scripture centered, relatively untheological mode of Baptist service was ideal for any unsettled, rural, or frontier situation. Thus the South, the Midwest, and the Far West were heavily populated – more than were the Northeast or the Middle Atlantic – by Baptists, a pattern that remains true to this day.
Baptists view the Christian life as one of personal faith and of serious dedication to live according to the highest Christian precepts. Each person is thus to be born again, converted into a new life, and gathered into the church community. For Baptists, the church is essentially the result of conversion and of Grace, a gathered community of committed believers; it is not the mother of Christian experience or the source (rather than the effect) of grace, as in the Catholic tradition. The church is, therefore, holy only because the faith and life of its people are holy; conceptually, the church has in itself (at least in principle) no authority over its members, over their freedom of conscience, or over their churchly affairs.
More than most church groups, Baptists have manifested startlingly opposite characteristics in their history. Because of their emphasis on the Bible, on a strict puritan, or Victorian, ethic, and on the absolute necessity of personal faith and personal holiness, most Baptists around the world have remained conservative, even fundamentalist, in matters of both faith and morals. They have been impatient with theological compromises with science, with modern philosophy, and with liberal politics. The pure gospel, that is, the Bible interpreted literally, traditional Baptist principles, and a pure Christian ethic are fundamentals that many Baptist groups will not relinquish. For this reason, many Baptist conventions still refuse to join the Ecumenical Movement in any official way; they have largely ignored the social gospel (a concern for establishing social justice in political, social, and economic life) while retaining a deep loyalty to the efficacy of individualistic Revivalism.
On the other hand, because of their emphasis on freedom of conscience and of personal believing, on the importance of Christian life and works rather than on ritual, on their distaste for creeds, dogmas, and ecclesiastical authority, Baptists have also been leaders in theological and social liberalism. Many Baptist seminaries and churches are known for their liberal theology, style of worship, and social attitudes; and Baptists were consistently important leaders in establishing the ecumenical movement of the early 20th century. In those controversies that have dominated 20th century American religion – the modernist – fundamentalist, the social gospel – individualist, and the ecumenical – exclusivist controversies – Baptists have appeared in leading roles on both sides.
J Barnhart, The Southern Baptist Holy War (1986); S Hill, Baptists North and South (1964); R G Torbet, A History of the Baptists (1966); J E Tull, Shapers of Baptist Thought (1972).
The Baptist Tradition
Advanced InformationIt is a popular misunderstanding about Baptists to think that their chief concern is with the administration of baptism. The convictions of Baptists are based primarily on the spiritual nature of the church, and the practice of believers’ baptism arises only as a corollary of this and in the light of the NT teaching. The theological position taken up by Baptists may be presented as follows.
Membership of the Church
According to Baptist belief the church is composed of those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit and who have been brought to personal and saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. A living and direct acquaintance with Christ is, therefore, held to be basic to church membership. Negatively, this involves a rejection of the concept that equates a church with a nation. Membership in the church of Christ is not based on the accident or privilege of birth, either in a Christian country or in a Christian family. Baptists therefore repudiate the Anglican and Presbyterian view by deleting the phrase “together with their children” from the definition of the church. Positively, this view of church is membership indicates that the church is entered voluntarily and that only believers may participate in its ordinance. All members are equal in status although they vary in gifts.
Nature of the Church
In distinction from churches of the institutional or territorial kind, the Baptist conviction is expressed in the concept of the “gathered church.” The members of the church are joined together by God into a fellowship of life and service under the lordship of Christ. Its members are pledged to live together under his laws and to enter into the fellowship created and maintained by the Holy Spirit. The church conceived of in this way is perceived the most clearly in its local manifestation. Thus, although the church invisible consists of all the redeemed, in heaven and in earth, past, present, and future, it may be truly said that wherever believers are living together in the fellowship of the gospel and under the sovereignty of Christ there is the church.
Government of the Church
Christ is the only head of the church, and the early Baptist pioneers earnestly contended for what they called “the crown rights of the Redeemer.” The local church is autonomous, and this principle of government is sometimes described as the “congregational order of the churches.” Baptists believe in the competence of the local fellowship to govern its own affairs, and because of the theological importance of the local church in contradistinction to connectional systems (episcopal, presbyterian) of church government, Baptists do not speak of the denomination as “the Baptist Church,” but as “the Baptist churches” in any given area. The congregational order of the churches, i.e., the government of the church through the mind of the local congregation, is not to be equated with the humanistic concept of democracy. Democracy is too low and too small a word.The Baptist belief is that the church is to be governed not by an order of priests, nor through higher or central courts, but through the voice of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the members in each local assembly. Whereas in a strictly democratic order of church government there would be a government of the church by the church, the Baptist position makes recognition of Christ’s rule in the church through the church. From the equality of status of every church member and the recognition of the diversity of gifts, two things follow. First of all, it is acknowledged that each member has a right and duty in the government of the local church, and secondly, that the church gladly accepts the guidance of its chosen leaders.
Baptist churches are usually regarded as independent in their government, but they do not glory in independence for its own sake. The independence of a Baptist church relates to state control, and the Baptists of the seventeenth century in England were in the foremost rank of those who fought for this freedom. Baptists have always recognized the great value of association between churches, and associations of Baptist churches have been characteristic of Baptist life down the centuries. All such association is voluntary, however, and the mistake must not be made of assuming that the Baptist Union or the Baptist World Alliance is coextensive with the Baptist community.
Ordinances of the Church
These are normally spoken of as two, namely, believers’ baptism and the Lord’s Supper, though it would be more proper to speak of three and to include the ordinance of preaching.Baptists have normally preferred to use the word “ordinance” rather than “sacrament” because of certain sacerdotal ideas that the word “sacrament” has gathered to itself. The word “ordinance” points to the ordaining authority of Christ which lies behind the practice. Baptists regard the Lord’s Supper somewhat after the Zwinglian manner. The bread and the wine are the divinely given tokens of the Lord’s saving grace, “but the value of the service lies far more in the symbolism of the whole than in the actual elements” (Dakin). Henry Cook writes: “Being symbolic of facts that constitute the heart of the Gospel, they (the ordinances) arouse in the believing soul such feelings of awe and love and prayer that God is able by His Spirit to communicate Himself in a vitalizing and enriching experience of His grace and power.” Baptists acknowledge that the ordinances are thus a means of grace, but not otherwise than is also the preaching of the gospel.
The position has been epitomized by saying that the ordinances are a special means of grace but not a means of special grace. It is also part of the Baptist position on this subject that believers’ baptism and the Lord’s Supper are church ordinances, that is to say, they are congregational rather than individual acts. Priestly mediation is abhorrent to Baptists and derogatory to the glory of Christ, who is the only priest.
Ministry of the Church
The ministry is as broad as the fellowship of the church, yet for the purposes of leadership the term “ministry” has been reserved for those who have the responsibility of oversight and instruction. Baptists do not believe in a ministerial order in the sense of a priestly caste. The Baptist minister has no “more” grace than the one who is not a minister; he does not stand any nearer to God by virtue of his official position than does the humblest member of the church. There are diverse gifts, however, and it is recognized that the gift of ministry is by the grace of God, as Paul himself intimated in Eph. 3:8. Pastors and deacons are chosen and appointed by the local church, though their appointment is frequently made in the wider context of the fellowship of Baptist churches.A Baptist minister becomes so by virtue of an inward call of God which, in turn, receives confirmation in the outward call of a church. Public acknowledgment of this call of God is given in a service of ordination, which ordination, when it is held, does not confer any kind of superior or ministerial grace but merely recognizes and regularizes the ministry within the church itself. The importance of ordination lies in the fact that the church itself preaches through the minister; and, though ordination is not intended to imprison the activity of the Holy Spirit within the bounds of ecclesiastically ordained preachers, there is, nevertheless, considerable importance attached to the due authorization of those who are to speak in the name of the church.
Ecumenicity of the Church
It might seem that the idea of unity would be foreign to Baptists, given their strong views on independence and their doctrine of the autonomy of the church, but such is not the case. It all depends on what is meant by unity. For Baptists unity can mean one of three things: organic union, which is generally looked on unfavorably; cooperation with other denominations, which is encouraged within limits; and cooperation with other Baptists, which is almost unqualifiedly acceptable. Let us look briefly at each of these.Baptist organizations are largely voluntary, cooperative ventures that have no legal binding force over their members. This is part of the Baptist ethos, allowing for freedom and concerted action to exist at the same time. Hence the denominations (and there are many) do not exist as units, but are simply collections of individual Baptist churches. It came as no surprise then that when the Consultation on Church Union was inaugurated in the 1960s, Baptists were cool to the idea of joining, especially since some form of episcopacy and recognition of apostolic succession (i.e., authoritative ecclesiastical structure) would be required of them. Only the American Baptists showed any interest, but when a general survey showed that fewer than 20 percent were interested in full participation, any plans of union were effectively scrapped. Organic union with other denominations, if it requires giving up Baptist distinctives, is simply out of the question.
Cooperation with other groups is a different matter. As early as the American colonial period Baptists cooperated with Quakers and Roman Catholics in the protection of religious freedom. In 1908 the Northern Baptist Convention was one of the founding members of the Federal Council of Churches; it has actively supported both the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. Baptists are also active in the American Bible Society, various mission boards, and numerous civic and social organizations. It should be noted, however, that not all Baptists favor this form of cooperation; Baptists in the North are more inclined to cooperate than those in the South. In fact, this has been a source of tension among various Baptist groups. But most Baptists consider cooperation with non Baptists appropriate.
Cooperation with other Baptists is strongly encouraged. Among the various Baptist groups exists a deep sense of comradeship that has historical, theological, and psychological roots. Although rather striking differences of style and expression exist among them, Baptists have managed to cooperate in supraregional groups (such as the American Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention) and in the international Baptist World Alliance, which claims over 33 million members in 138 countries. What unites them all is the express purpose of the alliance, to express “the essential oneness of the Baptist people in the Lord Jesus Christ, to impart inspiration to the brotherhood, and to promote the spirit of fellowship, service, and cooperation among its members.”
E F Kavan
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
A C Underwood, History of English Baptists; H W Robinson, Baptist Principles; H Cook, What Baptists Stand For; A Dakin, The Baptist View of the Church and Ministry; O K and M Armstrong, The Baptists in America; R G Torbet, A History of the Baptists; S L Stealey, ed., A Baptist Treasury; W S Hudson, Baptists in Transition; T Crosby, The History of the English Baptists.
The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.