[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 9, 2008.]
A few days ago, I posted on the topic of The Gospel and Baptist Identity. I shared some concerns I have about those who divorce, often unintentionally, our ecclesiastical identity from the good news. Beginning with this post, I want to move from description to prescription with a short series that I hope will make a constructive proposal about the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. These posts are more or less expansions of my classroom lectures on Baptist identity and distinctives.
Though most discussions of Baptist identity understandably focus upon Baptist ecclesiological distinctives (regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, etc.), it is important to note that Baptist identity is not exhausted in these distinctives. Baptists are first and foremost a type of Christian, which means Baptist identity is one expression of Christian identity. To say it another way, our Baptist identity is fundamentally a Christian identity that is nuanced by that cluster of ecclesiological beliefs that we refer to as Baptist distinctives.
Because our Christian identity is essential to our Baptist identity, we share a number of convictions with the wider catholic tradition, whether in its Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant forms:
1. Baptists believe in the Triune God who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2. Baptists believe that this Triune God created the world good, but that his good world has been corrupted because of the sin of the first human beings.
3. Baptists believe that Jesus Christ is the unique God-Man, the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, both truly divine and genuinely human.
4. Baptists believe that God is redeeming the world and rescuing lost sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
5. Baptists believe that every human being will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell, and each person’s eternal destination is based upon how that person responds to God’s revelation in Christ.
6. Most Baptists believe that all Christians everywhere are adopted into God’s family and are part of his universal church, a group which includes all presently living believers as well as all the redeemed of all the ages.
7. Baptists believe that all of these truths are taught in the Bible, which is God’s authoritative written word to humanity.
It is probably not enough to argue that Baptists are merely one type of Christian. To be most precise in our understanding of Baptist identity, we need to recognize that Baptists are a certain type of Protestant Christian. The Baptist movement began among third generation English Protestants with historic roots in Puritanism and Separatism and ecclesiological affinity (whether intentional or not) with some Continental Anabaptists. Though most of us argue that the early church was substantially baptistic in its ecclesiological beliefs, and though many of us concede that some baptistic distinctives were at times embraced by some groups that predated the reformations of the 16th century, the ecclesiastical movement with which modern-day Baptists identify began, in at least two stages, during the first half of the 17th century.
Because of our historic milieu, Baptists embrace a number of convictions that are embraced by most other Protestant Christians:
1. Baptists believe that salvation comes by grace through faith and that sinners are justified by faith rather than by good works.
2. Baptists believe in the supreme authority of Scripture, arguing that the Bible is the ultimate norm for faith and practice and is thus of a greater authority than traditions, creeds, confessions, and individual opinions.
3. Most Baptists believe in only two ordinances (or sacraments), baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and reject a sacerdotal understanding of salvation.
4. Baptists believe in the priesthood of all believers, claiming that every believer has direct access to God as a result of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.
5. Baptists argue against the existence of a special priestly class of Christians, arguing that all believers are spiritually equipped for the work of the gospel ministry within their unique vocations.
Baptists are Christians. Even more specifically, Baptists are a type of Protestant Christian. The vast majority of our beliefs are not unique to Baptists, which is a good thing; when too many of your beliefs are different from other Christians, what you have is likely an alternative to Christianity.
Having established that most of our beliefs are shared with other types of Christians, I want to briefly consider those beliefs that are typically associated with Baptist Christians. There are at least five distinctives that are uniquely emphasized by Baptists:
1. Regenerate church membership
2. Believer’s baptism by immersion
3. Congregational church polity
4. Local church autonomy
5. Liberty of conscience
Note that all of these distinctives relate in some way to ecclesiology. This is no accident: remember that Baptist identity is fundamentally a Christian identity that is nuanced by that cluster of ecclesiological beliefs that we refer to as Baptist distinctives. The Baptist movement is, at its core, an ecclesiological renewal movement within the wider Protestant Christian tradition.
It is true that each of the above Baptist distinctives are embraced by other types of Christians, with varying degrees of consistency. But it is also true that these convictions are only embraced, in toto and consistently, by baptistic Christians. I would argue that when you find a local Protestant Christian church that emphasizes the above five distinctives, you have a theologically Baptist (or baptistic) church. This remains true even if the word “Baptist” does not appear on the church building’s sign or the pastor’s letterhead.
I hope to tease out these five distinctives over the course of the next few weeks, with emphasis on each distinctive’s relationship to the gospel. I hope to show that Baptists are Protestant Christians who honestly believe our unique identity is not only substantially like New Testament faith and practice, but is also the most consistent application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. In other words, I will be arguing that our Baptist distinctives are nothing more or less than the ecclesiological fruit of the good news as it is embodied in local churches.