Some of the best questions in our inbox are the ones I least expect to read. I am a Baptist. So are you, Pastor John. We kind of take that for granted. It’s in the background, and rarely foregrounded here. So, what is a Baptist? That’s our question today, and here’s the email. “Hello, Pastor John, my name is Dennis, and I live in the Philippines. I would like to know: What is a Baptist? I know you are one, but I really don’t know what that means. Can you explain what distinguishes you?” Pastor John, how would you approach this one?
The approach I want to take in trying to answer Dennis’s question is to describe the kind of Baptist I am, in the hope that I’m not at all quirky, but, in fact, would consider all the defining traits of a Baptist that I’m going to mention as typical of most Baptist churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
And the reason I say “seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” is because Baptists, as I understand them, got their start in the early seventeenth century — that is, the early 1600s — and because in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the splintering effect of most churches (not just Baptists) has resulted in so many varieties of denominations that I couldn’t claim in the modern day, I don’t think, that I represent the majority. But I think I can claim that I do represent the majority of the Baptist churches in the early centuries of Baptist life.
I understand my roots and the roots of all Baptists in their earliest centuries to go back to the Reformation itself — namely, the renewal and the reform of the church, the Roman Catholic Church at the time, under Martin Luther and John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli in the 1500s in Europe.
Baptists would hold in common the five great emphases of the Reformation:
- justification on the basis of the work of Christ alone;
- provided and imparted to human beings by God’s grace alone;
- appropriated in a personal and effective way in each individual life through faith alone;
- so that God’s glory alone, not man’s, is exalted;
- and all of that based not on tradition or ecclesiastical authority but on Scripture alone.
“The aim is to have a church whose members are truly trusting Christ, a believers’ church.”
Those are the five, great pillars of the Reformation that Baptists share in common with virtually all Reformation churches, originally Protestant churches: (1) Christ alone, (2) grace alone, (3) faith alone, (4) the glory of God alone, (5) Scripture alone. That’s the starting point for Baptist life, as well as other Protestant branches of the church. I love these Christ-exalting truths, and I feel knit together with other denominations besides Baptists who cherish these great pillars of the Reformation and biblical pillars.
Baptism and the Solas
What distinguishes Baptists is that, as we pondered the implications of Scripture alone as our authority, rather than fallible human church authority, and as we pondered the implications of faith alone as what brings a person into a right relationship with God and makes him part of God’s redeemed people, what we Baptists saw (and I’m speaking of people now in the early 1600s) was that, in the Bible, the reform of the church hadn’t gone far enough.
It seemed to those early Baptists, and it seems to me, that the doctrine of justification by faith alone — and thus entrance into the new people of God, the church, by faith alone — implied that we should not think of entering into salvation and into the people of God through physical, family connections. In other words, we Baptists could not find in the New Testament, nor did it seem to be implied in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that children of believers should be considered part of the justified people of God just because there was a physical connection between them and their believing parents.
Therefore, since baptism was the outward sign of such acceptance with God and participation in the redeemed people of God, baptism should not be given to persons just because they had a physical connection with saved people — namely, their believing parents. This is why Baptists do not baptize babies, and this is the main reason why we’re called Baptists. We believe that there should be a credible profession of saving faith before a person receives the outward sign of that credible profession and that union with Christ. And that sign is baptism — a symbol of passing from death to life through faith in Jesus.
Immersion, Not Sprinkling
Historically, Baptists have understood baptism to be by immersion — that is, you take the whole person in a pool or in a river, and you put the whole person under the water, rather than sprinkling water on the head. We believe that because:
- That’s what the Greek word baptizō means: “dip” or “immerse”; it didn’t mean “sprinkle.”
- Immersion fits the symbolism in Romans 6:1–4 of being buried with Christ in baptism, and being raised up out of the water, signifying resurrection life.
- It appears that the early church baptized by immersion. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch “went down into the water” along the road (Acts 8:38), and John the Baptist baptized in the Jordan River: he needed a river, not a font to put a hand in and sprinkle some water.
So, we baptize by immersion. Those are two baptism distinctives: only baptize believers, and baptize them by immersion.
Other Baptist Distinctives
Now, several other marks of a Baptist church follow from this position as an ongoing reformation of the Roman Catholic Church. One is that the church is seen as an assembly of believers. That’s implied in what we’ve already seen. We know that some of those believers may be hypocrites; we can’t be perfect. But the aim is to have a church whose members are truly trusting Christ, a believers’ church — not a church that you’re part of just because your parents were part of it or you were born into it.
Another implication of the ongoing reformation among Baptists was that we have tried to take seriously the priesthood of all believers: that each of us has a direct, personal relationship with God through Christ. And it seemed to us that this churchwide priesthood is why, in the New Testament, congregations themselves — the congregation, not just a group of elders or a group of bishops — were the last court of appeal in the way the church governed itself. For example, when there was a matter of discipline, Jesus said in Matthew 18:17, as a final step before you have to put an unrepentant person out of your midst, “Tell it to the church.” And then, the church makes that rendering, that judgment. So, that’s why Baptists are usually called congregationalists.
Another implication of the ongoing reformation among Baptists was a recovered belief in the freedom that Christians have from coercive dictates, not only from centralized ecclesiastical authorities, but also from civil authorities. Most of the non-Baptist Reformation churches in their early decades, and longer for some, failed to disentangle themselves from civil governments, so that the people, like Baptists, were oppressed and persecuted even by their Protestant brothers and sisters who thought that state authority should be used by churches to coerce theological and ecclesiastical unity.
Fellowship Across the Waters
So, perhaps I can sum up the distinctives like this:
1. Baptists are Protestants who share the great pillars of the Reformation: justification on the basis of Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone, on the basis of the authority of Scripture alone.
“The only people who receive the sign of new life in Christ are those who by faith have received new life in Christ.”
2. We hold to believers’ baptism, so that the only people who receive the sign of new life in Christ are those who by faith have received new life in Christ.
3. Baptists hold to a believers’ church, in which the members consist only of those who give a credible profession of faith in Jesus.
4. We hold to congregational governance, governance finally by the congregation and administered practically through elders and deacons. Most of the early confessions always referred to elders and deacons among Baptists.
5. And then finally, we are committed to freedom of religious expression without any external ecclesiastical or governmental control over the local congregation.
For myself, Dennis, there are glorious things that I share in common with those of other denominations that enable me to have very sweet fellowship and camaraderie in mission with others. I don’t think that the distinctives we Baptists believe in keep us from such fellowship or common mission, especially if we share those great Reformation commitments.