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 of Christ".
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 Ireland, 1961)
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, 1935)
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; 1976)
Robinson H Wheeler. Baptist Principles. (The Kingsgate Press; London; 1938)
Straton Hillyer. Baptists: Their Message and Mission. (The Judson Press: Philadelphia: 1947)
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; 1975)