As I mentioned in the previous post (on Baptist Confessions of Faith) the administration at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary asked me to write an essay on Baptist confessions and distinctives. For Voices, I divided the essay into two parts: one on Baptist confessions of faith and one on Baptist distinctives. You can find the previous post in this series here.
In a university course on world religions, the unit on Christianity would note that Christianity can be divided into three main branches: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. For its part, Protestantism can be divided into three divisions: Mainline, Evangelical, and Charismatic/Pentecostal. Southern Baptists are included among the Evangelical churches. Certainly, Southern Baptists share many beliefs with other denominations: The Holy Trinity, virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s atoning death on the cross, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and many others. For example, if one studied the beliefs of the Evangelical Free Church or a local Bible church, their statements of faith would be similar to the 2000 Baptist Statement of Faith and Message in most respects. Still, there are certain doctrines that Southern Baptists hold or emphasize that are distinctive. Mid-America Baptist Seminary’s Articles of Belief contains an article on Baptist distinctives that states: “We are Baptists because we believe that Baptists stand for distinctive truths to which other denominations do not adhere. We believe that we cannot compromise these truths without being disloyal to our Lord and to His Word. We do seek to cooperate with all others who are committed to Jesus Christ as Lord.” What are those distinctive doctrines?
Article 1 in the 2000 Statement of Faith and Message is The Holy Scriptures. The article reads thus:
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has
God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.
The founders of Mid-America Baptist Seminary adopted Articles of Belief and an additional position paper on the Scriptures. The position paper asserts these important points:
- God is the ultimate author of the Bible. Because God is the author, the Bible is authoritative. It is the words of God for mankind.
- God inspired the Bible. God used human writers, but He inspired them to write “exactly what God intended to be said.” For this reason, the Bible is infallible. That means the Bible does not contain mistakes.
- The Bible is inerrant. That means the Bible does not contain errors of any type.
- The Bible is the sufficient guide for the individual Christian’s belief and behavior.
More than one Baptist preacher has used a four-point alliterated outline to present the doctrine of the Bible: The Bible is inspired, infallible, inerrant, and irresistible. Indeed, King David wrote that God’s Word is irresistible three thousand years ago: “More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps 19:10, NKJV).
The Priesthood of All Believers
The New Testament teaches this doctrine in 1 Peter 2:9—“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (NKJV). The Criswell Study Bible lists four truths about this doctrine:
- Every believer has direct and immediate access to God the Father through Jesus Christ.
- The believer’s access to God is made possible by Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.
- Believers have the privilege and responsibility to intercede for each other in prayer.
- Christians serve as priests of the New Covenant, representing God to the people by witnessing and teaching.
Individual Soul Liberty
The doctrine of soul liberty, or soul competency, is related to the priesthood of the believer. In fact, the two are inseparably joined. Norman Cox explains this doctrine as follows:
The Bible positively affirms that God in creation invested man with the privilege, ability, and responsibility of choice. He is competent to obey or disobey God. Man can adore or scorn the Creator. God has given every man the right of spiritual self-determination. He is free to choose, but he is bound by the consequence of his choice. By his right of choice man is divinely clothed with the dignity God has given him. Each individual possesses it as a gift for which he is responsible…According to the Scriptures, each one, within the privileges of the gospel, is competent to seek and find salvation in Christ, apart from the authority of church, pope, prelate, or sacrament.
The Autonomy of the Local Church
The official website of the SBC (SBC.net) has posted a statement on local church autonomy:
We recognize that in the New Testament there was no centralized ecclesiastical authority over the churches that forced the churches into any for of compliance. There was encouragement, exhortation, and admonition, but there was never enforcement. We strongly adhere that principle. Jesus Christ is the head of the local church—we are not. Each church is responsible before God for the policies it sets and decisions it makes.
In practice, this means the SBC cannot dictate to the local churches. The SBC does not rule the churches; rather, the churches rule the SBC. The SBC can recommend to the churches, but the individual churches will decide for themselves what to do. For example, the SBC Executive Committee recommends that each church give 10 percent of its budget to the Cooperative Program, but many churches do not give that much. Autonomy also applies to the various levels of Baptist organization: local associations of churches, state Baptist conventions, and the national Southern Baptist Convention. These entities are autonomous and cannot dictate to each other. Each of these levels is composed of Southern Baptist churches that voluntarily join them. The member churches send messengers to the annual meetings of all three to vote on budgets, motions, and resolutions.
Regenerate Church Membership
The distinctive of regenerate church membership holds that only born-again people should be accepted as members. Norman Cox explains this: “The New Testament clearly shows who should constitute the membership of a local church. It should be composed only of regenerated, baptized believers.” Why does Cox write so definitively? Acts 2 describes the first church in Jerusalem. Notice Acts :40-41—“And with many other words he (Peter) testified and exhorted them saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation.’ Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (NKJV). Acts 2:47 reiterates the truth—“And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (NKJV).
These verses reveal the practice of the New Testament church. People heard the proclamation of the gospel and trusted in Christ for salvation. After they expressed their faith, the church baptized them into the fellowship of believers. The baptized believers diligently learned the doctrines taught by the apostles. They also joined in fellowship, corporate prayer, and observance of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42).
Many Protestant denominations practice infant baptism. Baptists reject this practice absolutely. One would search in vain for any reference or mention of infant baptism in the New Testament. In the New Testament accounts all those who received baptism expressed faith in Christ as a prerequisite for baptism. The Ethiopian eunuch serves as a prime example. Luke recounts his salvation and baptism in Acts 8:36-38—“Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him” (NKJV).
The Ordinances of the Church
The article in the 2000 Statement on The Ordinances of the Church reads thus:
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.
Southern Baptists insist that a correct baptism requires the correct candidate, the correct meaning, and the correct mode. The correct candidate is a person who has professed faith in Jesus Christ. The correct meaning is that baptism does not save a person; rather, baptism demonstrates the obedience of the new believer. Baptism is an “acted testimony” because through baptism the candidate testifies to belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Besides being a testimony about Christ, through baptism the candidate testifies that he or she has died to self, been buried with Christ, and is now risen to walk in new life in Christ. Baptists insist on the correct mode of baptism—baptism by immersion. Baptists believe in baptism by immersion for two main reasons. First, the Greek word for baptism is baptizo, which “literally means to put or go under water.” Second, immersion is clearly the mode of baptism employed by the New Testament church.
Separation of Church and State
Baptists have always held strongly for the separation of church and state. The article in the 2000 Statement on separation reflects this:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.
Baptists have consistently objected to any type of state church, like the Church of England. Also, Baptists have objected to government interference in church matters. Baptists demonstrate strong feelings about the separation of church and state for good reasons. Our spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptists, and English Separatists, suffered much persecution at the hands of state churches in Europe. Even in colonial America, Baptists experienced persecution in Virginia, where the Church of England was the “state church.” Government authorities in Virginia refused to grant Baptist pastors a license to preach. When the pastors preached anyway, they were arrested. For example, James Ireland was arrested in Culpepper County in November 1769 and held in jail without trial until April 1770, when a friendly attorney secured his release.
Virginia Baptists, especially John Leland, lobbied James Madison for his support of separation of church and state. With Leland’s support James Madison was elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Madison repaid the support of Leland and the Baptists of Virginia by introducing the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is often said that Baptists support a free church in a free state.
Are there other Baptist distinctives that you would add to this list?