In recent years there has been a hesitancy with regard to having “Baptist” in the name of a church or to even label oneself as such. I deeply resonate with folks who feel this way. By the time I graduated from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), I was very discouraged by some of what I saw going on in the SBC.
That being understood, I’d like to explain why I feel being Baptist is still very important, as well as the fact that being Baptist really has nothing to do with the SBC. My stance is that the SBC’s many recent failures should not discourage someone from being a Baptist. There is a rich Baptist heritage going back over a millennium that should be considered when thinking about church names and congregational beliefs.
As far as church names go, it’s true that having “Baptist” in the name is not a biblical requirement, and that’s not primarily the purpose of this article. Even though there are good reasons for doing so (mainly as one of many guardrails for protecting the body from biblical error for both the present and the future), it’s certainly not a command.
My main purpose here is to show that the historical convictions of Baptists are very important because, on the whole, Baptists have consistently upheld critical truths about God and His Word with greater conviction than other Christian groups. They recognize all of Scripture as God’s Word and desire to treasure and apply all of its teachings to all of life.
I also find that Baptists overall have been the most dedicated to accurately applying Scripture outside the pretense of creeds, confessions, status, popular opinion, and charismatic personalities. And while not perfect by any means, I find that Baptists have had the best discernment of the Scriptures, because of their deep commitment to God’s Word as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice (Sola Scriptura). They have also shown themselves more able and willing to modify errant beliefs.
And throughout the centuries, Baptists have been the greatest defenders of the supremacy of God’s Word, from the earliest “proto-Baptists” who were martyred for their credobaptist beliefs, to those who took on the established title in more recent centuries after the Protestant Reformation. This deep faithfulness of Baptists to the truths of Scripture has resulted in some of the most impressive and boldest heroes of the faith.
So I believe that being a Baptist is something to be proud of, not because of tradition or any institution, but because of the biblical principles and precepts it actually stands for, which is mainly the firmly held conviction that the Bible is God-breathed and that Christ is the preeminent King of Glory (James 2:1). Other denominations do the same, but I believe that Baptists do it best. So I feel it is important to look beyond the SBC and recent personal experiences.
Instead, we should look into the rich history and beliefs of what the word “Baptist” actually stands for, which is a dedicated group of independent congregations that have existed far before the SBC and remains to this day much, much broader than the SBC. My family has attended and belonged to several Baptist churches that were outside of the SBC, and we have many dear Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ who are in independent Baptist churches or those of other loose Baptist affiliations, and yet all of these are united in Baptist history and Baptist distinctives and we stand side-by-side with them in faith and doctrine.
A Brief History
As I have studied Baptist history and belief over the years, I found that my heart resonates deeply with the biblical convictions held and sacrifices made by many great Baptists that have come before us. Here are a few of many great Baptists worth considering.
Take Thomas Helwys for example. He was one of the first great English Baptists who died in prison around 1616 as a result of religious persecution by King James I and the Church of England (CoE). Helwys refused to submit to the King and the CoE’s demand to adhere to the Book of Common Prayer stating, “For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all…. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures.” He was a great defender of religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the priesthood of the believer. These are all important biblical doctrines that Baptists hold dearly to this day. He fought and gave his life for these convictions that most of us take for granted.
John Bunyan, author of one of the top 10 best-selling books of all time, Pilgrim’s Progress, was also a Baptist. He was a passionate preacher of the Gospel, and also a staunch defender of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, much to the disapproval of the CoE and the monarchy it controlled at the time. Bunyan was in prison for 12 years for refusing to stop preaching without the approval of the CoE and for being a nonconformist. Upon being imprisoned, Bunyan stated, “I will stay in prison till the moss grows on my eye lids rather than disobey God.” I highly recommend his works if you have never read them. His applications of Scripture will have a significant impact on your life.
John Gill is one of the most gifted theologians of all time. He also happens to be Baptist. He is one of the only Christians ever to single-handedly write a commentary on every single verse in the Bible. His accurate application of the Scriptures, knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, all areas of history, and emphasis on the supremacy of Christ’s work have been a major support to the church until this day. He faithfully pastored his church for 51 years which would later be succeeded by none other than Charles Spurgeon.
And of course there is Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist who needs no introduction, the “Prince of Preachers,” who was a passionate Baptist. Besides being perhaps the greatest preacher of all time, he was a great defender of Christian liberty and justice, defending the rights of the oppressed. This included the outward opposition to slavery, which at the time was vigorously upheld by none other than the Southern Baptist Convention. Spurgeon received many threatening and insulting letters from SBC members as a consequence. Nevertheless Spurgeon stood by his convictions of biblical truth, and never backed down.
And there are so many more. I could go on and on about the likes of John Smyth, Roger Williams, and John Clarke, all of whom were great English Baptists of the 16th and 17th centuries who sacrificed to teach and preserve crucial biblical truths like believer’s baptism, freedom of conscience, and the priesthood of the believer. Many do not realize the price that all these men paid so that we can all worship and serve God freely without the coercion of the government or a nationally sanctioned church. These men counted the cost, and decided that full obedience to Christ’s Word and religious liberty was worth the cost. That is primarily what it means to be Baptist.
And well before these early English Baptists, there have been numerous “pre-baptist” or at least baptistic groups and individuals since the very beginning of the church, such as Tertullian and the Montantists of the second century, the Waldenses, the Lollards, and so on whose only authority was Christ and His Word. These groups were all severely persecuted in various ways including imprisonment and death for their refusal to obey the unbiblical practices and beliefs of the Catholic (and sometimes even the Protestant!) church. Most of these ancient Baptist groups are forgotten, but the one commonality among them all is that they all strived to remain faithful to Christ and His Word, even if it meant going against powerful national church institutions.
Further, pages and pages could be written about the many famous Baptist evangelists who dedicated their lives to bringing the Word to the unsaved, like Adoniram and Ann Judson, Billy Graham, William Carey, Gladys Aylward, and Lottie Moon. Baptists have always been passionate about evangelism and missions and founded many of the enduring missions organizations that endure to this day and continue to bring the good news all around the world. And there are many modern-day baptists like John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Alistair Begg who are Baptist not because of the SBC, but Baptist by conviction regarding what the Bible teaches.
So my appeal to you is to remember that being a Baptist is not about being a part of the SBC or past experience. There is a deep and rich history of upholding God’s Word without compromise that goes back over a millennium, at least as far back as the great Tertullian. Baptists have always upheld the values of the Reformation before there even was a Reformation — even before there was Luther. The Baptist heritage is one to be very proud of and not to be easily forgotten or discarded.
Critical Distinct Baptist Doctrines
But how much this matters is determined by Scripture. Even if there is a rich history of Baptist heroes going back over a millenia, what are the biblical doctrines that these men and women of the faith counted so dearly? Here is a brief summary of common Baptist distinctives–beliefs which collectively are utterly unique among other denominations and yet are the defining marks of what it means to be Baptist, whether independent, SBC, or other Baptist affiliation:
- Biblical Authority – The Bible is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice, because the Bible is inspired and breathed out by God. It bears the absolute authority of God Himself. Whatever the Bible affirms, Baptists accept as divine truth. No human opinion, church institution, or government can override the authority of God’s Word. Final authority is not found in popes, bishops, church councils, or any other group’s consent. Even creeds and confessions of faith, which attempt to articulate the theology of Scripture, do not carry Scripture’s divine authority. 2 Timothy 3:15–17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:20, 21
- Autonomy of the Local Church – The local church is an independent body accountable ultimately to the Lord Jesus Christ, the King and Head of the church. All human authority for governing the local church resides within the local church itself. Thus the church is autonomous, or self-governing. No religious hierarchy outside the local church may dictate a church’s beliefs or practices. Autonomy does not mean isolation. A Baptist church may fellowship with other churches around mutual interests and in an associational tie, but a Baptist church cannot be a “member” of any other body. Colossians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 8:1–5, 19, 23
- Priesthood of the Believer – “Priest” is defined as “one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God.” Every believer today is a priest of God and may enter into His presence in prayer directly through our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. No other mediator is needed between God and people. As priests, although no Christian is infallible, we can study and apply God’s Word for ourselves and each other, pray for others, and offer spiritual worship to God. We all have equal access to God—whether we are a pastor or not. 1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 5:9, 10
- Two Ordinances – The local church should practice two ordinances: (1) baptism of believers by immersion in water, identifying the individual with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, and (2) the Lord’s Supper, or communion, commemorating His death for our sins. Matthew 28:19, 20; 1 Corinthians 11:23–32
- Individual Soul (Religious) Liberty – Every individual, whether a believer or an unbeliever, has the liberty to choose what he believes is right in the religious realm. No one should be forced to assent to any belief against his will. Baptists have always opposed religious persecution. However, this liberty does not exempt one from responsibility to the Word of God or from accountability to God Himself. Romans 14:5, 12; 2 Corinthians 4:2; Titus 1:9
- Saved, Baptized Church Membership – Local church membership is restricted to individuals who give a believable testimony of personal faith in Christ and have according to Christ’s command, publicly identified themselves with Him in biblical believer’s baptism. When the members of a local church are believers, a oneness in Christ exists, and the members can endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Membership however would not exclude Christian paedobaptists (who hold to infant baptism) since these, who are also members of heaven, should not be excluded as members of the local church. Acts 2:41–47; 1 Corinthians 12:12; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 4:3
- Two Offices – The Bible mandates only two offices in the church–elder and deacon. The three terms—“pastor,” “elder,” and “bishop,” or “overseer”—all refer to the same office. The two offices of pastor and deacon exist within the local church, not as a hierarchy outside or over the local church. 1 Timothy 3:1–13; Acts 20:17–38; Philippians 1:1
- Congregational Governance – Through the example of the Early Church and instructions of the New Testament, the local church is to be governed according to the consent of the whole congregation, with the caring oversight and shepherding of the elders by example. God has given clear instructions that major decisions of the church such as officer election, church discipline, and preservation of biblical truth should involve the consent of the whole congregation. Acts 1:15-26; Acts 6:1-6; Acts 15:1-35; 1 Corinthians 12:26; Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Corinthians 1:1-7; Matthew 18:15-17
- Separation of Church and State – God established both the church and the civil government, and He gave each its own distinct sphere of operation. The government’s purposes are outlined in Romans 13:1–7 and the church’s purposes in Matthew 28:19 and 20. Neither should control the other, nor should there be an alliance between the two. Christians in a free society can properly influence the government toward righteousness, which is not the same as a denomination or group of churches controlling the government. Christians are citizens of heaven and are to set their minds on heavenly things, not dominion of earthly governments. Matthew 22:15–22; Acts 5:17–29; Philippians 3:20; Colossians 3:15; Colossians 3:2
Adapted from here.
I hope that at least some of this has been helpful and given you some things to think about as far as the weightiness and beauty of what “Baptist” actually means.
Throughout the centuries, Baptists have been Baptists whether or not it was popular, because they were people who passionately treasured Scripture to their own hurt, even if it meant ridicule, persecution, or even death. I encourage everyone to consider the rich heritage of what it means to be Baptist and be careful to not to easily discount the incredible history of Baptists that is so deeply rooted in sound biblical doctrine and marked by the lives of so many Baptists who have sacrificed their life’s work, even their blood, so that we could all enjoy the religious freedoms we enjoy today.
So when you think of “Baptist,” I would encourage you to associate your thoughts with what “Baptist” actually means — a richness and heritage of biblical convictions..
If you would like to learn more about Baptist history, it is very much worth the time. Here are a few resources I recommend.