Note: What follows is adapted from a paper written for my college course, Baptist History and Distinctives. This was originally written in March, 2018. The assignment was to identify what we felt to be the most important Baptist distinctive and then discuss it. Given that I also get asked offline what, exactly, a Baptist is, I felt it was worth adapting here.
When asked to describe the basics of Baptist theology, the easiest way to answer is to describe the parts that are most visible. The Baptist believes in believer’s baptism, through immersion, given no earlier than the baptized is able to make a true confession of belief and has done so. The Baptist believes the elements of communion to be fundamentally symbolic, bringing to mind the work of Christ. One may even go political and talk about the historically Baptist argument for the separation of church and state, or the ways Baptists have been seen interacting with the modern political environment. However, at the core of all of this, and much more, is the Baptist concept of the believer’s church. The Baptist, and those who have borrowed theology from Baptists, holds a view of the body of Christ manifest in the world that is distinct from other streams of Christianity and produces all the visible practices of the local church.
At the core of this issue is the question of what the church is. If the church is basically a regional expression, a sort of divine government over a parcel of land, then it should make sense that people be incorporated into it based on their place of birth, as citizens of both a physical and a spiritual nation. However, there is no trace of this idea in scripture. If Paul could say to the church in Corinth, “now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it,” then the church must be defined by its relationship to Christ (1 Cor 12:27 NASB). That is, in order for the church to be Christ’s body, the church must be in Christ - and no one is in Christ who has not been redeemed by him. If the church are specifically those who have become “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” then there can be no one in the church who are not yet dead to sin, and only those who have been made alive in Christ can be members of it (Rom 6:11 NASB).
So the Baptist holds that the defining trait of the church is that it is the body of Christ, or more specifically, the gathering of those who are in Christ into one body. This doctrine naturally flows into all others by which the Baptist can be recognized. If the body of those in Christ gathered is the body of Christ, then the local church is able to stand as the body of Christ. The local church is independent, not reliant on a larger body whether religious or secular for authority to operate as Christ’s body, and has for itself Christ as its head (cf. Col 1:18). This frees the local church not only from the structures of a larger religious body but also from the dictates of any mortal government. The local church is an expression of the fullness of the body of Christ just as Christ, though finite in His body, was able to express the fullness of the infinite God while walking the Earth. This enables the local church to carry out the full mission of Christ’s body in the world without borrowing authority from a larger structure, including ordaining, releasing, and holding accountable their own leadership; while leaving the local church free to partner with other local churches as equals.
If the church is composed of those who are in Christ, then the mark of entry into the body must be given only to those who are in Christ. The idea that baptism is the mark of entrance into the church is not specific to Baptists - most, if not all, denominations would agree with that claim. The different ideas on when baptism should be applied are based not on the function of baptism, but are fundamentally built on differing ideas of what the church is and therefore who receives entry. As stated above, a view of the church that equates entry with physical citizenship must baptize immediately, as the child is understood to be in the church at the time of birth. A belief that the church is the gathering of those in Christ’s body, however, demands that baptism be withheld until a person is actually in Christ’s body.
This also informs the difference between those bodies who believe that baptism has any ability to save or impute grace onto the baptized, and the Baptist who believes it to be only a sign. If baptism is applied after one is already in Christ, then the baptism itself cannot hold any power to place one into the body. It cannot change one’s nature into that which it already is. In fact, all ordinances of the church must be symbolic. If a person can only be in the church by already being in Christ and redeemed by Him, then no practice of those already in the church will have the power to bring people into it. Baptism cannot redeem because it is applied to the already redeemed, and the same goes for the taking of bread and wine in communion. The body and blood of Christ have no need to be physically present in the bread and wine because the body gathered is the physical manifestation of the body of Christ already. Christ is present in a special way whenever and wherever His people are gathered, they do not need to invoke Him into presence through another medium (cf. Matt 18:20).
When one is asked to define the distinction Baptists and Baptist-like bodies have with all other groups of Christians, the answer must begin with the doctrine of the believer’s church. All other things that define the Baptists as a specific and unique movement are born from this doctrine. However, the need to grasp this distinction goes beyond simply defining Baptists to those who are not Baptists. Keeping this understanding in mind also enables the local church to hold itself, its members, and its leadership accountable to its effects. The local church, as the body of Christ, must be working on the mission Christ has given it. The church must be vigilant that it recognizes those who are in Christ and refrains from giving undue authority to those who are not, whether they are attending church services or sitting in positions of political power. In order to faithfully carry out the identity Baptists have, the individual Baptist must know what that identity is- and it begins by grasping the doctrine of the believer’s church.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation