What does it mean to be Baptist? Part 1
What does it mean to be Baptist? Surprisingly this answer can be quite difficult to parse out if you’ve been born and raised in what I call “Baptistland.” You’ve never needed to name what is uniquely Baptist about you or your church because those things are a seamless part of “the way things are” or “church.” Fish wouldn’t have a word for water.
But unlike Fish, it actually does matter that we understand the legacy of Baptistness. Whether you’ve been part of the fold your whole life or are an immigrant in a strange land, you not only have a name but a community, an identity and an inheritance of spiritual gifts and faithful ancestors who have gone before you.
So what does it mean to be Baptist? One way to identify Baptists is by the unique practices they share as a church. Baptists are literally named for their most obvious practice, believer’s baptism. Baptists believe that while your community and family will have an impact on your spiritual life, your decision to join the church and your relationship with God is something that each believer has to come to in keeping with their own conscience.
Even if it sometimes feels that way, if you are a member of a Baptist church it isn’t because your grandfather was, it’s because you made a confession of faith of your own. Many other denominations practice infant baptism (which can have its merits), where an infant or child is baptized at their parent’s prompting. Their church commits to helping the parents in caring for them and raising them in the faith family (which is awesome) and they are automatically members of their church. This practice has a strong showing in the history of the Church but Baptists believe that this model of baptism and church membership is not the one seen in the New Testament. (For the same reason Baptists believe in full immersion as the preferred way to Baptize).
Another part of Baptist life are what we call local autonomy and free association. These are fancy ways of saying each local Baptist church takes its cues from God and Scripture directly which is then put into practice by leaders from that church community. Baptist churches are often members of many associations, national groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or Southern Baptist Convention or local associations like the Yates Baptist Association, but these associations are not in charge of the local church. In fact, it’s the other way around. In Baptist church’s authority starts with the local congregation and moves up. The Fellowships, Conventions and Associations takes their cues from the churches and offer resources and networks for churches to be better equipped to serve together. This is why most decisions in local Baptist churches are made by congregational vote. Baptist believe that God’s prompting is best heard by the faith community listening, discussing and deciding together. Baptist ministers are also ordained by the local church, sometimes in cooperation with other churches but ultimately in the hands of the individual congregation.
By contrast some denominations have an organizational structure that all their churches are a part of. Every individual Catholic, Anglican or United Methodist church is under the authority of their denominational leaders. Catholic churches answer to Bishops, Cardinals and ultimately the Pope. Methodists are organized under District Superintendents, Bishops and the United Methodist General Conference. While they can disagree with some of the things they are told and participate in the decision making process in certain ways, each individual church in these denominations has to largely abide by what comes from these bodies.
Baptists also believe strongly in the authority of Scripture. While every Christian denomination takes Scripture to be important, Baptists hold it in especially high regard as the source for our faith and practices. Baptists are often reluctant to practice things not specifically found in scripture (even if they’re beneficial) and discussion is often centered around interpreting scripture’s view on an issue rather than offering outside opinions. Baptists also generally encourage practices like verse memorization and personal and weekly bible studies. You can find all of those things in other churches but they just tend to be more prominent for Baptists.
These are just a few of the things that make Baptists distinct. I’ll be swinging back around to this topic soon to talk about the history of Baptists and the diversity of Baptist churches. If you are a Baptist, or especially if you are a member of another denomination, and you see something that doesn’t sound right about your church or denomination leave me a comment and let me know!