The Baptist label is already attached to our church and for good reason- we are Baptists. This label has come under a lot of scrutiny and it is very hip to say one is post-denominational these days. Denominational labels are often accused of creating disunity but I’d argue they protect unity. Rather than secondary or tertiary issues becoming points of division in a local church we can separate according to those issues to preserve our unity around the gospel (we are really divided by faith when we must separate over primary issues- i.e. resurrection, virgin birth, inspiration of Scripture, etc). So what does the label Baptist mean? In other words, what secondary or tertiary issues distinguish a Christian as a Baptist?
I’ve come across a couple of clever acrostics that articulate Baptist distinctives. Here goes…
Biblical authority: Though this isn’t unique to Baptist the Reformation principle Sola Scriptura is historically a foundational conviction among Baptists. We believe that Scripture is the ultimate authority for faith and practice because it is the inspired Word of God and revealed will of God.
Autonomy of the local church: This is a dicey phrase since it can be very dangerous if abused or misunderstood. It is generally agreed to be a defining characteristic of the Baptist tradition though. This simply means that each local church is self-governing and not subject to a non-local church entity for direction. This does not mean that local churches shouldn’t associate or partner with each other. It also doesn’t mean that local churches should not willfully submit to each other for the purpose of gospel and doctrinal fidelity.
Priesthood of every believer: Simply put, every believer can confess sin, pray, worship, and receive grace by submitting directly to God through the blood of Jesus. In the New Covenant, inaugurated with His blood, Jesus has “removed the veil”. No other mediator is necessary. However, we do “act” as priests for each other by praying and interceding for each other to God.
Two Ordinances: The two ordinances or sacraments are Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Some denominations call these sacraments and though that word is perfectly appropriate Baptists tend to use the term ordinance to avoid any sacerdotal idea being associated with them. Baptists believe that Scripture teaches baptism to be only for professing Christians (and thus reject paedo-baptism) and practice it by immersion as a symbol of regeneration. The Lord’s Supper is viewed mainly as a symbolic observance in remembrance of Christ’s atoning sacrifice but also is for the purpose of testing one’s faith. Baptists do not believe Christ is physically present in the elements but some (like me) regard Him as spiritually present.
Individual Soul Liberty: This is also referred to commonly as “soul competency”. The conviction every person is accountable to God. One is not saved by their family, their church, or the state. Each person is responsible and competent to respond to God- either by continuing to act according to their sinful nature or by faith upon the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Some will make “soul competency” into a very Arminian statement like, “Each person determines his own destiny” (actual quote). That’s not what this means.
Separation of Church and State: This does not mean the church should be anti-government or that the government should be anti-church. It simply means that these are separate entities with separate purposes. One’s citizenship in one does not necessitate citizenship in the other. Furthermore, the authorities of these two entities should not mix.
Two Offices: Real simple, Baptists believe the Bible teaches two offices of leadership in the local church- elder and deacon. Baptists have historically had both and each represented with a plurality. Recent Baptist history has seen the term elder fall out of favor over terms like pastor (Biblical) and minister (not really Biblical). Recent history has also seen a move away from a plurality of elders and a blending of responsibilities for the office of deacon. Let’s hope Baptists keep away from trends and move back to the Bible on this matter.
Salvation by grace through faith: Sola Fide and Sola Gratia are two reformed principles that Baptists hold dear. We believe one is saved according to God’s gracious election which is applied through faith alone, apart from works of merit. I’ll stop there before I start preaching. One other point though, we believe that to be a member in the local church one must be saved (aka regenerate church membership).
So are you embarrassed to believe those things? If so then you’re right not to call yourself or your church Baptist. We shouldn’t be embarrassed by the label. The label has been tagged with some less than flattering things of late but we should redeem the term for the purpose of making clear what we believe and why.