This month we begin our series of brief articles on Baptist beliefs and history. Today I want to give a quick description of those unique beliefs that give Baptist their identity. Dr. Robert Torbet, former professor of church history at two of our American Baptist seminaries, summarizes Baptist principles in his book The Baptist Story (Judson Press, 1964). I also refer to the article, "Ten Facts You Should Know About American Baptists" from our denominational website. I would summarize our distinctives like this:
- Jesus Christ alone is the head of the church. Our allegiance to Him should be total, not in conjunction with any human leaders.
- The Bible is our authority in all matters of Christian faith and practice. We are non-creedal. Human creeds and confessions can aid understanding but should not be used as tests of authenticity. The Bible is the final word and standard.
- Regenerate church membership: the local church is made of those who have received new life in Jesus and have testified to that new life through believer's baptism by immersion.
- Baptists observe two "ordinances" of our faith. Along with believer's baptism by immersion, we celebrate The Lord's Supper, with the bread and cup serving as memorial symbols of Christ's broken body and shed blood. We differ in this aspect from other traditions who believe the elements transform into the body and blood, or that Christ's real presence is in the elements themselves.
- Priesthood of the believer: Every Christian has direct access to God through the one Mediator, Jesus. As such, they are all responsible to give a witness of their faith through sharing the gospel news and living it for others to see. The responsibility for the life and ministry of the church, then, is upon the congregation as they contribute their spiritual gifts to the work of the whole.
- The local church is the fundamental unit of mission in how Baptist churches carry the Gospel to people locally and globally. Local churches identify and help equip members gifted for mission, and Baptist churches cooperate to send them out and support them.
- Soul freedom: Each person is responsible to God for decisions that will determine his/her eternal destiny. So, everyone must be free to worship God as the Scriptures and Holy Spirit direct the conscience.
- Local church autonomy: As Jesus alone is the head of the church, the Bible is our only authority, the local church is the fundamental unit of mission, and individuals are responsible before God to serve according to the dictates of conscience, it is natural that we uphold need for “autonomous congregations, responsible for articulating their own doctrine, style of worship and mission.” (“Ten Facts…” ABCUSA website)
- The Church, therefore, must not be dominated by the State. Baptists are among the pioneering advocates of separation of Church and State, having faced much intolerance and State oppression in our past.
When we return next month, we’ll gaze down through history, looking for people and movements that started to lay the groundwork for the beliefs that Baptists hold today. I hope you’ll find it interesting, and encouraging to those who’d like to know why Baptists believe the things they do.