What are the distinguishing features of Baptist Belief's?
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© Trevor Forrester 2000
Synopsis. This essay will attempt to look at those things
which distinguish Baptist Churches and those who follow the Baptist theology from other
Christians who follow their own particular theology or denomination. These differences
then could be called Baptist Distinctives, and it is these that have set Baptist's apart
from the early days of the first Baptist beginnings and should continue to do so into the
future. The author recognises that to go into each particular distinctive in depth would
require far more space than this essay allows, thus the author will attempt to touch on
each point enough so as to fit within the space requirements of this essay.
It is important when considering the Baptist stand to keep in mind the root's of their
heritage. These stem back to the time of the reformation and is shared in part by the
Puritans, and the Separatist's. Their theology came with the conviction that salvation was
by faith and faith alone and that no one but Christ stands between the believer and God.
For them the authority of Scripture was final in all matters.
Baptist's like the other English Dissenters, developed a pattern of worship completely
devoid of any influence of the Book of Common Prayer, which has made most churches
suspicious of any form of set liturgy. Instead relying on the Holy Spirit to enable and
make the worship free and acceptable.
One area where Baptist's have always stood apart from most other Christians is in this
area of the authority of the word of God. W. West in his booklet "Baptist
Principles" states "the claim to stand by the authority of the bible as the word
of God, and the interpretation of it by individual Christians, produced the Baptist
situation" . As with the reformers Baptist's believe that the church is necessary
within the purposes of God because it is in the church that authority lies. For as West
puts it "each church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit , to
interpret and administer his laws" .
Therefore it is out of the gospel that the Baptist conception of the church and its
authority comes. This gospel centres on Jesus as Lord and an insistence that both the Old
and New Testaments are the sole authority for all belief and conduct.
Baptist's insist that the polity of the Church should express the Lordship of Jesus . They
feel that this has been obscured by the Roman Catholic church with it's papal authority,
as also it was in England during the sixteenth century. It has been attributed to John
Clifford at the Baptist World Conference of 1911 for stating "the deepest impulse of
Baptist life has been the upholding of the sole and exclusive authority of Jesus Christ
against all possible encroachment" .
Therefore the Bible to Baptist's is the word of God. It is also the story of Gods dealing
with man. It would be possible to give the Bible a subtitle "God in Action" ,
and this is what Baptist's belief it is about. About God's dealings with a disobedient
son. The bible then remains the focus for Baptist life, mission and thought. To talk about
the Baptists is to talk about the bible. From Scripture then we can see that Baptists
believe that the holy spirit is vital for conversion. Also that the proclamation of the
gospel is effective in the lives of sinful men and women only by direct influence from the
Holy Spirit. It is the holy spirit who brings a person to new birth .
The church then is also seen to consist of only true believers who give the church meaning
by their active participation in church life . This true belief is shown as believers come
to the church through the waters of Baptism, having come to the realisation and acceptance
that Jesus is Lord and the ultimate sacrifice for their sin.
Hence there is what is referred to as the priesthood of all believers, each with their own
personal relationship with Christ, as head of the Church. Every Christian is called upon
to fulfil the ministry of the Church. This ministry is the responsibility of the whole
church, and the church is comprised of it's members who are charged with carrying out it's
ministry using whatever gift's the Lord has seen fit to bless them with .
Rowland Croucher in his booklet on Baptist Church Membership points out that the
"Didache", which was widely accepted about 100AD as an instruction book for
church members, states that baptism should be by immersion were ever possible and only by
pouring if water was scarce.
It can been seen then that Baptist's would hold the word of God as paramount in all belief
and conduct. Hence they have the strong stand on Baptism they do, insisting that only
those who confess a belief in Jesus as Lord and redeemer should be baptised, not those who
have not been able to make that important decision for themselves. Therefore instead of
baptising infants the Baptist's carry out what is referred to as Infant Dedication, where
children of Christian parents bring them to the church and solemnly undertake to train
them in the ways of Christ .
Many Baptist churches today incorporate baptism with introduction into membership, so that
those who are baptised are on the same day welcomed into fellowship .
It has been seen that the church is a fellowship of believers, and how each member has a
personal relationship with the Head of the Church. Thus there are no differences or
degrees among its members. All share the same privileges and the same responsibilities and
exercise two priestly functions: they go to God on behalf of Humankind and they go to
Humankind on behalf of God . All believers are called to witness for Christ and as such
could be called prophets or as Wheeler Robinson states "the church could be referred
to as the prophethood of all believers".
At first Baptist churches believed that men with certain gifts should be ordained for
particular ministries and both Pastors and Deacons were ordained. Gradually however the
practice of ordaining Deacons was dropped. Those men who were ordained were seen as being
called by God and ordination was seen as the Church being obedient to God, and setting
these men apart for service. Pastors roles were clearly stated and they were expected to
lead the worship, and build up the fellowship in knowledge and caring.
Pastors then were seen as Pastor-Teachers and shepherds, feeding Christ's flock and caring
for it . Their task; to equip all the members so that they will become spiritually mature.
His priorities are bible study, prayer and training others for ministry.
Unlike other denominations Baptist's believe the church has the right to ask one of their
own to carry out the sacrament of the Lords supper. Although some churches meet for the
Lord's supper every week the majority meet twice a month. In the observance of the Lord's
supper Baptist's are like the congregational churches, in that deacons and lay people are
involved in distributing the elements to the members of the congregation. For Baptist's
the Lord's supper is always a corporate act, something for the whole membership to partake
of together. They in general welcome all other Christians to share with them in this act
of remembrance. It is to them both an act of remembrance and an act of communion, for they
meet in the living presence of Christ. The Lord's supper is also seen as an act of
thanksgiving as they recall all that his death and continued presence means. Likewise the
Rev Ken Manley tells us " it is an act of hope as they continue 'until he comes'.
Communion thus includes a backward look, a present outlook, and a future look".
Baptist churches are sometimes described as democratic with each member being able to
exercise his or her right to vote on all matters. However the Baptist theory of Church
government only allows for the living Christ to be the Head of the Church, whose will is
made plain by the Holy Spirit. Some call this system of Church government Theocratic or
God ruled . A British Baptist church statement says that such a church meeting is
"the occasion when, as individuals and as a community, we submit ourselves to the
guidance of the Holy Spirit and stand under the judgement of God that we may know the mind
This individuality of each church does not leave the local church without support as most
Baptist churches form themselves into associations , where they can share the work load
but still remain independent. This is based on the Biblical precedents of Galations
6:2,10; and Acts 15. Thus it could be stated that the association principle becomes, next
to independency, the most potent single development in Baptist polity.
We could then in conclusion say that Baptist churches are distinguished by their adherence
to the use of believers baptism, as the only truly means of admittance to the church or
family of God. They are likewise committed to a system of church government which has
Christ as the head of the church and in which, each individual member seeks the guidance
of the Holy Spirit in matters of church welfare and discipline. Baptist churches are seen
by the members to a collection of priest's whose responsibility it is not only to carry
out the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, but also they are to carry out the
role of evangelist and prophet, so that the Word of God may be spread to those who are not
partakers of the gift of Christ, in that those who believe and are baptised become members
of his earthly church until he come. It is this commitment to the work of the Kingdom that
is a responsibility no to be taken lightly or passed on to only those who are ordained and
part of the permanent priesthood.
Baptist Union of NSW. Growing on Together. (Baptist Union of NSW; Sydney; 1976)
Champion L. The Doctrine of Ministry. (London; The Baptist Union of Great Britain and
Rowland Croucher, Baptist Church Membership (Clifford Press: Sydney)
Lyon Dr E.F. What Baptists Believe. (Australian Baptist Publishing House: Sydney)
Manley Rev K.. Baptists Their Heritage and Faith. (Centenary Committee of the Baptist
Union of NSW; Sydney)
McNutt W.R. Polity and Practice in Baptist Churches. (Philadelphia: The Judson Press,
Mullins E.Y. & Tribble H.W. The Baptist Faith. (Convention Press; Nashville; 1966)
Nicholson J. The Ministry, A Baptist View. (ed. Gilmore; London: Baptist Publications;
Robinson H Wheeler. Baptist Principles. (The Kingsgate Press; London; 1938)
Straton Hillyer. Baptists: Their Message and Mission. (The Judson Press: Philadelphia:
Torbet Robert G. The History of Baptists. (The Judson Press: Philadelphia; 1950)
Walton R.C. The Gathered Community. (Carey Press; London; 1946)
West W.M.S. Baptist Principles, (London; The Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland;
- 1. Rev Ken R. Manley, Baptist's Their Heritage and Faith. (Centenary Committe of the
Baptist Uunion of NSW; Sydney) p 44
- 2. W.M.S.West, Baptist Principles (London; The Baptist Union of Great Britain and
Ireland; 1975) p7
- 3. West, p12
- 4. Manley, p37
- 5. Manley, p38
- 6. West, p9
- 7. Manley, p23
- 8. West, p13
- 9. West, p19
- 10. Rowland Croucher, Baptist Church Membership (Clifford Press: Sydney) p 11
- 11. Manley, p54-55
- 12. Manley, p33
- 13 . Manley, p42
- 14. Manley, p42
- 15. West, p19
- 16. Croucher, p21
- 17. Croucher, p21
- 18. Manley, p47
- 19. Manley, p46
- 20. Manley, p47
- 21. Croucher, p19
- 22. Hillyer H. Straton, Baptists: Their Message and Mission (The Judson Press:
Philadelphia: 1947) p 131 ff
- 23. A quotation by Hillyer Straton of Dr Mcnutt p131.