What makes a Baptist Christian?

400 years of Baptist Life and Witness in England

Did you know that 2012 marks a very special anniversary for us? - it is 400 years since the forming of the first Baptist Church on English soil. Now to that ‘snip-it’ you might either say ‘oh ... wow’ or ‘oh ... so what.’ Now please don’t mistake me: my conviction is that, first and last, we are called to be followers of Jesus Christ. Labels really are of secondary importance. Our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus. So without question , and as the Baptist Union’s Declaration of Principle puts it our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures ...’

It is therefore timely to reaffirm a Baptist vision and understanding of the Church life and of the claims of Christ and the gospel. There is benefit in refreshing our understanding of or perhaps of appreciating for the first time the radical roots of Baptist history and heritage and of the missionary zeal and biblical inspiration which gave rise to a movement of which we are a privileged part. So as we celebrate this great anniversary, let us take a moment to outline something of the family ‘gene pool’ which together help identify a Baptist way of being church.

First thing to say is that there is no one distinctive Baptist belief! Although probably most people think of believer's baptism as the distinguishing feature of Baptists, they are not the only Christians to practise it. Nor are they the only Christians to believe in congregational church government, the priesthood of all believers, or the separation of church and state. It is the combination of these various beliefs which make Baptists distinctive.

The Lordship of Christ

Jesus is Lord is the central distinctive confession of faith. As individuals and as churches, Baptists seek to make Jesus Lord of every aspect of their lives.

The authority of the Bible

Baptists believe that the Bible shows us God's way for living. As radical believers, Baptists seek to root their lives in the revelation of God's truth. Baptists hold to an evangelical Christian faith, stressing personal commitment, a dependence on the Bible and the right to be free to respond to the gospel.

Baptism for believers

On the basis of the New Testament, Baptists claim that baptism is for believers only – for those who are able, in response to God’s grace, to declare Jesus as Lord. They do not baptize babies but wait for ‘years of discretion’ when candidates can take the decision for themselves. Baptism is normally by total immersion, which is dramatic and memorable, but the mode is secondary to the believing state of those baptized. In baptism, candidates symbolise their desire to die to self and to live for Christ.

The local church

In a Baptist context, baptism involves not only commitment to Christ, but also commitment to Christ's Church. For Baptists, church membership involves a commitment not only to work together to extend Christ's Kingdom, but also to love one another and stand by one another whatever the cost. Privileges of members will include contributing towards the support of the Church and its mission as God has prospered them and to lead lives regulated by the Spirit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Baptists understand the church as a fellowship of believers, a gathered and gathering community, bound to Christ and to one another, and who journey together in worship, witness and service. In the Baptist model of a believer's church every member has a role to play, whether in teaching, faith-sharing, evangelism, social action, pastoral care, guiding, serving, prophetic insight, praying, healing, administration or hospitality.

The priesthood of all believers

In a Baptist church, an illustration of the priesthood of all believers is the church meeting. This is the occasion when members come together to discern and understand in prayer God's will for their life together. In Baptist churches the final authority rests not with the ministers or deacons but with the members gathered together in church meetings. It is the church meeting which, for instance, appoints ministers, elders, deacons, and others who exercise various forms of leadership within a local congregation, agrees financial policy and determines mission strategy. Church meetings tend to take place mid-week, normally on a quarterly basis.

Because of their understanding of the priesthood of all believers, Baptists ordain
ministers rather than priests. They value those trained and set apart as full-time leaders but do not see them as fundamentally different from other members of the church who all have their part to play in the ministry of the whole people of God. Local churches will usually call a minister to serve among them. The minister functions as a church member with special responsibilities in caring for the members and leading in the church's mission. Their authority is in the affirmation of the congregation acting under God's guidance. They are almost invariably recognised by the wider family of churches.

Interdependence

Whilst Baptist cherish their independence, most have also fostered a strong sense interdependence between churches which draws Baptists along with others with differing emphases and in different places to work together for the common cause of Christ.  And so typically Baptist churches have always come together in regional, national and international associations for support and fellowship. On the basis of the New Testament, Baptists believe that churches should not live in isolation from one another but rather be inter-dependent.

Sharing the faith

Baptists believe that each Christian has a duty to share their faith with others. They seek to honour the missionary Spirit of God and to share the Good News of Christ in deed and word. William Carey was a Baptist who is known as the father of the modern missionary movement. Along with this emphasis on evangelism, however, Baptists recognise that mission includes social action and involves promoting justice, social welfare, healing, education and peace in the world.

Religious liberty

Founded in the midst of often extreme persecution, religious freedom for all has always been a keystone of the Baptist way. Within our communities Baptist Christians are encouraged to speak out for religious freedom. This stress on freedom includes the human right to freedom from slavery and oppression, from ignorance and poverty, and especially freedom of conscience, the right to religious liberty for all, and even for those from whom we may differ.