What makes a Christian a Baptist? Other than by way of membership acceptance in a local Baptist church, the set of Baptist Distinctive provides biblical convictions on what we believe and how we function, patterned after the New Testament church. They are essential components of a healthy church. The conviction was true for our Baptist ancestors and should characterise Baptists today.
The importance of holding on to our Baptist Distinctive is not to differentiate us as better than our brethren from the other denominations of God’s Kingdom. Rather, the Baptist Distinctive, the result of a well-grounded biblical and theological reasoning, defines the organic and inter-relationship of our convictions. It is a clarion call to hear and obey the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ through the inspired Scriptures, and seeking to glorify God in everything that we do.
Baptist Distinctive helps Baptist churches to be faithful to our theological heritage and appreciate our founders for their faith and spiritual insight. Without our Baptist Distinctive, the essence of our Baptist identity and the foundation of association of Baptist churches are in danger of extinction.
The main components of the Baptist Distinctive are:
1. The Supreme Authority of the Bible
When faced with challenges, defining doctrine, or seeking overall guidance for one’s life and church, Baptists first ask, “What does the Bible teach?” Baptists affirm the Protestant Reformation principle of sola scriptura - the Bible alone is the supreme source of authority for the faith and practice of the church. Church tradition is not equal to Scripture but can be helpful in so far as it accurately reflects the truth of Scripture and guides the church to gospel fidelity. Baptists have always acknowledged the importance of the broader Christian tradition of orthodoxy as long as that tradition conforms to and reflects the teaching of the Bible. Baptists look to the Bible to understand who God is and the manner in which He relates to the world as Creator and Redeemer. Baptists also look to the New Testament to derive their understanding of the church for its structure, governing principles, and leadership models. Far from a “dead letter” the Bible “is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). For this reason, Baptists have always emphasized the central nature of preaching and teaching the Word of God in the life of the church.
2. The Congregational Nature of the Church
Baptists believe in regenerate church membership. The New Testament church is one composed of baptized believers in covenant with the Lord and one another to fulfil the Great Commission given by the Lord Jesus Christ. The church is the center of Great Commission activity. The church has two offices: pastors and deacons. The ultimate human authority in the church is the congregation. The ultimate spiritual authority is Jesus Christ - the Head of the Church. For Baptists there is no denominational HQ that directs the affairs of the church. Each congregation is autonomous and responsible for guiding and directing the worship and witness of the congregation under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The church operates through democratic processes but is not a democracy. The church is a Christocracy, with Christ as her only Head and Lord.
3. The Priesthood of All Believers
Baptists believe, along with other Reformation tradition denominations, that each member plays a key role in the overall ministry of the church and has a special responsibility in helping to direct the overall ministry of the church. The priesthood doctrine primarily means that each believer has access to God through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. For this reason, each believer has the joyful responsibility and stewardship of prayer and ministry to the body of Christ. The priesthood of all believers does not emphasize individual rights but communal responsibilities. The spiritual priesthood implies that every Christian has a gift(s) to contribute to the edification of the body of Christ and the responsibility to participate in the stewardship of ministry given to the church. The members of the local body of believers, therefore, are responsible for hearing and obeying the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ that speaks through his holy Word, the Bible, and to obey Him completely. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should never be abused to promote individualism but should be taught to emphasize the stewardship every Christian in the church has to the overall ministry and direction of the church. Rightly interpreted, the priesthood doctrine gives place to pastoral leadership in the church and the delegation of ongoing duties and responsibilities to various bodies within the church. On the day of accounting, however, the church as a whole will be held accountable to her Lord for its life and witness.
4. The Two Ordinances of the Local Church
Baptists have chosen to use the word, ordinance, rather than sacrament, to describe Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Ordinance refers to commands. Christ commanded the church to practice baptism as part of the Great Commission and to observe the Lord’s Supper as a vital part of the ongoing aspects of community life in the local church. The two ordinances of the local church do not convey God’s grace through physical means but are symbolic of a grace already received at the moment of salvation.
(a) Baptism by Immersion for Believers
Baptists view the New Testament pattern for baptism as believer’s baptism by immersion. The Greek word for baptism, baptizo, means to plunge or to dip. Jesus established this pattern by submitting to the baptism of John in the Jordan River. Baptism is the outward sign of an invisible grace. Paul in Romans 6 gives us a theology of baptism, signifying our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Christians publicly testify to the work of the Lord in their lives when they receive baptism by immersion as believers. By symbolically identifying with Christ in baptism, Christians are also identifying with His people, the local body of Christ. For this reason, Baptists view baptism as the door into the local church. Baptism is commanded by Christ in the Great Commission given in Matthew 28:18-20. It is a church ordinance and should be administered by someone commissioned by the church to perform such. Baptist theologian, B.H. Carroll, summarized his view of baptism by delineating four elements inherent within baptism that validates its meaning and importance: 1) Baptism can only be observed by proper authority, which is compliance with the New Testament. 2) The subject of baptism must be a repentant believer, a saved person. 3) The act of baptism must be immersion. 4) The intent of baptism is to declare one’s faith, symbolizing the cleansing from sin and commemorative of the resurrection.
(b) The Lord’s Supper
Baptists believe with other Christians that the Lord’s Supper is given to the local church to observe. Baptists have generally been unified in their understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial to Christ’s death on the cross for believers. No special grace is conveyed to the one who observes it. Observance of the Lord’s Supper, however, is not just remembering what Christ did in His death; it is also part of the church’s joyful worship of the living resurrected Christ. Christ blesses His church as they obey His command. The elements of the Lord’s Supper - the bread and the fruit of the vine - symbolize the body and blood of Christ that was shed for the church. When the church partakes of the elements they symbolize their participation in the death of Christ by faith. As Christians observe it, they remember Christ’s death. The church also proclaims the Lord’s death until He comes when they faithfully partake of the elements of bread and the fruit of the vine together. Christians also reaffirm their unity in Christ as the body of Christ as they observe the Lord’s Supper.
5. Church Cooperation
While each church is autonomous in its operations, Baptists have always valued and practiced church cooperation. The Baptist understanding of denomination is unique because cooperation among Baptists is voluntary, founded on basic doctrinal consensus, and is primarily for the purpose of carrying out the Great Commission. Baptists throughout their history have formed associations and conventions for one sacred work - making disciples of all nations to the ends of the earth. Churches in cooperation have done more together than separate. For this reason, Baptists have formed agencies that have facilitated the sending of Baptist missionaries and church planters to carry out the Great Commission together. Cooperation, therefore, is a key Baptist distinctive. Baptists have also valued ministry partnerships with other like-minded denominations to extend the witness of Christ to the nations.
6. A Passionate Involvement in the Great Commission
It has been said that Baptists are a people of the Book. Baptists are equally a people on the go, precisely because they are a people of the Book. The Great Commission of Jesus Christ, as given in Matthew 28:18-20, says the church should go and make disciples of all nations. The command of Christ has shaped the worldview and mission of Baptist churches. For Baptists the Great Commission does not just involve going; it primarily involves making disciples. Making disciples involves proclaiming the gospel, baptizing and teaching.