A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BAPTISTS: BEGINNINGS
There are many ideas about how Baptists began, from the pseudo-history “The Trail of Blood” to the Anabaptists (Mennonites), but historically Baptists began in Holland and England in approximately 1609. That means that this year Baptists celebrate 410 years of existence! I’ve checked on a cake, with 410 candles, but as yet have had no luck, so I decided to look back to how we got here, even if we won’t get to have a party.
The first Baptists were “Separatists” from the Church of England. The Church of England had split from the Catholic Church in the 1530’s when the Pope refused to grant Henry the VIII a second divorce. Henry took over the Catholic church in Britain and created a “middle way” between the Catholic and Reformation churches (Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.). This middle way was not enough for some English Christians, who wanted a purer, more faithful church. Some of these people stayed within the church and sought to reform it (and became known as Puritans; yes, those Puritans) while others gave up on the Church of England and separated to start their own congregations (thus becoming known as “Separatists”), an act which was illegal and meant persecution at the hands of the crown (the king or queen).
That persecution led one particular group of 40 separatists (led by John Smythe and Thomas Helwys) to flee England in 1608 for Amsterdam, Holland. There they became convinced of “believer’s baptism” (that baptism must follow belief in Christ) and were re-baptized (having been baptized as infants in the Church of England). For almost 1,000 years almost all Christian baptisms were of infants, but a return to the Scriptures by Christians in the 1500’s began to call that into question. They recognized that believers in the New Testament were baptized after believing in Christ, not as infants. After their re-baptism, trouble hit the group, as Smythe and most of the congregation decided to become Mennonites. Those who remained in the congregation (only about 10 people) returned to England with Helwys and are recognized as the very first Baptist church. In 1611 they made their home in Spitalfield, just outside London, and called themselves the “Church of Jesus Christ.” Two notes: 1) The name “Baptist” came later as an insult to their practice of believer’s baptism; 2) Note that the first Baptist church split even before it was a Baptist Church!!
Back in England, Thomas Helwys published “A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity” in 1612, making a bold plea for liberty of conscience. He said that the king is “a mortall man and not God” and “therefore has no power over y mortall soules of his subjects.” This challenge to the divine right of the king and his place at the head of the church landed Helwys in prison, where he would die in 1614. The king who imprisoned him was King James 1 (yes, that King James, of Bible fame). Helwys’ imprisonment did not quiet the movement: Leonard Busher argued that it should be lawful for “any person or persons, yea Jews or Papists, to write, confer, and reason, print and publish any matter touching religion.” That’s something we take for granted now, but at the time, only the Church of England under the king could publish anything dealing with religion. Thomas Murton, who succeeded Helwys as pastor of the church, wrote that “no man ought to be persecuted for his religion.” This is the idea of religious freedom, and those first Baptists were ahead of their time. Their ideas, though, would find fertile soil in the New World. Next week, we’ll look at what happened when Baptists came to America. -Pastor Tim
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BAPTISTS: IN AMERICA
Baptist history began in England in the early 1600’s, and those first Baptists had a strong desire for religious freedom. It led them into conflict with King James over his “divine right” to rule the Church (and churches) of England, and eventually led many to leave England and seek freedom in the “New World.” What they found in America, though, was that the exercise of their faith was often just as difficult as it had been in England. They faced persecution in Virginia at the hands of the Church of England and in Massachusetts by the Puritans (yes, those Puritans). While the Puritans had come to America for religious freedom, they did not allow that freedom for others, persecuting both Baptists and Quakers.
The Baptist dream of religious freedom was first realized in Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island) in the 1640’s, and Roger Williams and John Clarke played important roles. They secured a charter for the colony from England that guaranteed freedom of religion for everyone in the colony. Williams also founded the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence, in 1641 and Clarke the second, the First Baptist Church of Newport. Williams remained a Baptist for only a few months, however, saying Baptists cared “far too much about water and not enough for the Spirit.” In Providence Plantations not only Baptists, but Quakers and Jews, found a safe religious environment: Each person was free to practice religion – or not practice it – as they saw fit.
Outside Rhode Island Baptists continued to face persecution. John Clarke and two of his members, including Obadiah Holmes (an ancestor of Abraham Lincoln), were arrested for visiting a sick man in Boston, and Holmes was publicly beaten “until blood filled his shoes.” In 1638 Anne Hutchison, a mother of fourteen children, was dismissed from the Massachusetts colony because she held a Baptist Bible study in her home. Despite these difficulties Baptists continued to grow in number, moving into the South and Midwest, and were avid supporters for – and participants in – the American Revolution. This earned the respect of their American neighbors, and as the new nation was taking shape the Baptists pressed for religious liberty and the “separation of church and state.” *
When the United States Constitution was ratified Baptists were uneasy because it did not address religious liberty: They wanted a definitive statement of their rights. John Leland, a Baptist pastor, decided to run for Congress to push for this issue, but his opponent was James Madison. The two made a political deal: Leland would withdraw from the race and Madison would spearhead the drive for a guarantee of religious liberty. Baptists wanted no government interference in their religious lives and did not want any official state religion or denomination (Later, when Patrick Henry proposed a federal tax to go to all Christian denominations, Baptists, along with Madison and Thomas Jefferson, said, “No way!”). They received that guarantee when the First Amendment, whose language had been worked out by Madison and Jefferson, became law. -Pastor Tim
*“Separation of Church and State:” This is a term that was later used to define the new situation in America. The phrase was first used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a Baptist association in Delaware concerned about their liberty but is now used to describe the genius of American government! Note that the Baptists were intent on keeping the government out of religion, not faith out of the public square.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BAPTISTS: “MISSIONARY” BAPTISTS
In 1813 Adoniram and Ann Judson, along with Luther Rice, had sailed from America as missionaries to India from the Congregationalist Church. On the long ride aboard the ship “Caravan” they spent their time studying the Scriptures and came to accept the Baptist view of immersion (the Congregationalists used sprinkling as their mode of baptism). Upon their arrival in India they resigned from the Congregationalist Church, unwilling to accept their funds if they could no longer in good conscience be part of their denomination. This position was a sign of their integrity, but it also put them in a quandary: Without any financial support, Luther Rice decided to return to America to seek help from the Baptists while the Judsons proceeded to Burma to begin work as Baptist missionaries.
Luther Rice found Baptists in America willing and able to support the Judsons (in fact, some Baptists had already sent help when they were first leaving as Congregationalists!), and he moved from church to church seeking financial assistance. So excited were the Baptists to participate in foreign missions that a national convention was called to organize the work. In May of 1814 the Baptist churches in America came together in Philadelphia to form “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions.” Because of the length of the name and the decision to meet every three years, the name “Triennial Convention” became the common title for the new body. Through this organization Baptists in America sponsored foreign missionaries (and some home missionaries) from 1814 to 1845.
The mission enterprise did not go off without difficulty. Home missionaries sent to share Christ with Native Americans fell in and out of favor, depending on the political climate. Missionaries would be sent but would then lose their funding when relationships with Indians were strained or Baptists were less charitable. Theological concerns also led to anti-mission Baptists. Some steeped in Calvinism felt that the atonement of Christ was limited to the “elect,” who would undoubtedly be saved. They felt, then, that it was unbiblical to send missionaries: If God wanted to save Native Americans or people in foreign countries, He would do it without our help. This view was taken seriously by many Baptists, despite the clear meaning of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples.” Anti-mission Baptists continue today as Hardshell or Primitive Baptists, and the phrase “Missionary Baptist” became a testimony of those who felt sending missionaries was a biblical necessity. Our church has always stood in this tradition, that it is a necessity for us to share Christ at home and throughout the world.
While there had been tension over sending missionaries to Native Americans, a greater tension was brewing among Baptists. Northern Baptists were more and more identified as abolitionists, opposing slavery, while many Baptists in the south were for keeping slavery and sought to give it biblical support. That issue would separate Baptists in America fifteen years before it would the country! More next week! -Pastor Tim
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BAPTISTS: SOUTHERN BAPTISTS
Slavery is one of the worst evils of humanity and the slave trade of the 1600-1800’s one of the saddest chapters of our nation’s history. African families and individuals were kidnapped, brought across the Atlantic in deplorable, inhuman conditions, and then sold for hard labor. It is amazing that while Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” he and many others who signed the Declaration of Independence were themselves owners of slaves. It would take many years for people in America to see slavery clearly, and not without the great struggle that culminated in the Civil War.
As early as the 1700’s several Christian denominations had voiced their opposition to slavery, including the Quakers and Mennonites, but not Baptists. There were several reasons for this: The Baptists’ all-consuming fight for religious freedom; a general policy of non-interference in civil matters; and a desire to keep the peace as much as possible, since many Baptists held slaves (in South Carolina, two-fifths of the ministers had slaves!) – and the majority of Baptists were in the South. Some Baptists in the South opposed slavery (East Tennessee being one area where a majority did) while many Baptists in the North hesitated to take a stand. The Triennial Convention (the mission organization of all Baptists in America) took a neutral position and maintained that stand until its final meeting in 1844.
During the 1830’s the situation between Baptists in the North and South intensified, with many Baptists in the North becoming active abolitionists. They did not want any dealings with slave holders, and critiqued Baptists in the South. At the same time, and in response to the abolitionists, Baptists in the South took a more militant pro-slavery position, with many pastors supporting slavery form their pulpits (the Bible assumed it, they said, so it must be God’s will). An Alabama Baptist Convention committee on abolition stated in 1840 that: 1) Abolition is unscriptural and unconstitutional; 2) Money would be withheld if the Triennial Convention took an abolitionist position and a new Southern foreign mission board would be formed. Alabama Baptists then sent a test case to the Home Mission Society of the Triennial Convention: It proposed
J. E. Reeve, a slave holder, as a missionary to the Cherokee Indians. The Home Mission Society refused Reeve and the Triennial Convention concurred, thus ending their position of neutrality. This reply led to the separation of Northern and Southern Baptists in 1845, fifteen years before the nation would follow suit. Due to the disagreement on slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed. In 1995, one-hundred-and-fifty years later, the Convention would officially apologize for their position on slavery. -Pastor Tim
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BAPTISTS: THE SBC
In May of 1845 a meeting was held in the First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, to organize the work of Baptists in the South. They had withdrawn from the national organization, the Triennial Convention, following that body’s refusal to approve a slave holder, J. E. Reeve, as a missionary to the Cherokee Indians. Three hundred people met to form the new organization, which they called the Southern Baptist Convention (the regional name reflected the spirit of the times as the nation moved toward war) and was based on the Triennial Convention: Work in several mission areas under one organization. This included a Foreign Mission Board (Richmond, Virginia), a Home Mission Board (Atlanta, Georgia), and a Sunday School Board (since 1891, in Nashville, Tennessee). The Southern Baptist Seminary was also founded in Greeneville, South Carolina in 1859, but would later move to Louisville, Kentucky.
While most Baptists in America lived in the South, the work began very slowly and was entirely suspended when the war began in 1861. Following the Civil War the South was devastated by the loss of men and property, and their money was worthless. The Convention slowly revitalized during Reconstruction, but not without hard feelings. Northern Baptists missionaries were sent to the freedmen in the South, and conflict developed between those missionaries and the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. A compromise between the two in the 1890’s would eventually end the tension.
In the years following the war there was talk of reuniting with the churches in the North (eventually all other major denominations would reunite, save for the Baptists), but in 1879 the Southern Baptists determined to continue separately. Why? First, was their form of organization. Northern Baptists did their work with several mission societies (Foreign, Home, Bible) without a strong central organization. They were afraid of any governing authority, which the Southern Baptist Convention favored (the North would later adopt a form of organization similar to the SBC, but not until 1907, when their societies found themselves competing with one another for the same church funds).
Another factor in the continued separation was that by 1879 the two groups had been separated for over 30 years, and few remembered the old mission union. The bitterness of the war was much fresher in their memories, and the intervention of the Northern Baptists in the South kept those tensions alive. They were perceived as “carpet baggers” invading Southern Baptist territory, whatever the intentions were of the Northern missionaries (most were sincere, but some did have biases toward the southerners).
The result was a slow but steady growth that reflected the South’s recovery, until today the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical denomination in America, with over 47,000 churches and 14.8 million members. From humble and humbled beginnings, God has been able to do a great work.
What Do Baptists Believe? Seven Baptist Distinctives
It has been said that a Baptist can tell you what they don’t believe quicker than they can tell you what they stand for. That’s understandable, since we began as a reaction to the abuses of the English church and government. One of our basic assumptions, that we have no creed but the Bible, is clearly a reaction against the use of such statements as a test of faith. Yet Baptists do have strong and distinctive beliefs that reveal who we are. Seven of those distinctives are listed below. In future weeks, we will expand on each:
1) Soul Competency – Each person is endowed by God with the inalienable right to make our own moral and religious decisions, and to decide how we will serve God. This is part of what it means to be made in the image of God, and that right cannot be taken over by any family member, government or law. Each of us can relate to God without intermediaries (priests, pastors, etc.) directly through Jesus Christ.
2) The Church is made up of Regenerate Members – Only those who have had a personal experience with Christ and accepted Him as Savior are eligible to be part of the church. As Jesus told Nicodemus, we “must be born again.”
3) The Bible is our Guide to Faith and Practice – The Scriptures are the final authority for what we believe, and as the revealed words of God provide all we need to know about Him and His salvation.
4) Baptists observe Two Ordinances (Commands) – We believe that Jesus gave two commands that we are to follow:
- Baptism – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
- The Lord’s Supper – “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
5) Local Church Polity – The word “polity” refers to the form of organization that a church uses to carry out its work. Baptists are part of the “Free Church” movement that focuses on the local congregation. Each congregation is competent to determine its own calling and government, call its own leaders and pastors, etc., without the help of any overseer other than the Holy Spirit. The reason we cooperate with other churches is to do work that one church might not be able to do alone, such as foreign missions.
6) Priesthood of the Believer – This is a Reformation term used by Martin Luther to describe the “royal priesthood” of all Christians (1 Peter 2:9) in which we “bear one another’s burdens” and acts as messengers of grace and support to one another. This is the same for all Christians, not just a few: Every Christian is part of this priesthood, whatever their place of service in the church.
7) Religious Liberty for All, with Separation of Church and State – Baptists hold that “soul competency” (see #1 above) leads to these conclusions: Each person is responsible for their own faith and should be able to make those decisions without interference from any government.
Baptist Distinctive #1 – Soul Competency
“Baptists cherish freedom of conscience and full freedom of religion for all persons. Man is free to accept or reject religion; to choose his faith; to preach and teach the truth as he sees it, always with regard for the rights and convictions of others; to worship both privately and publicly; to invite others to share in the services of worship and church activities…Such religious liberty is cherished not as a privilege to be granted, denied, or merely tolerated, either by the state or any religious body, but as a right under God.” (Baptist Ideals: Sunday School Board, SBC)
In the early 1600’s when the first Baptists began to disagree with the Church of England (and thus the English government) over their religious rights, they did not seek “toleration,” but claimed those rights as God-given. This stance was often met with imprisonment, but the Baptists did not back down: Since it was God’s gift, they were determined to make their own choices, whatever the outcome. The idea of soul competency was latent in the Reformation doctrine of the “Priesthood of the Believer,” which stated the biblical truth that we all have a direct relationship with God. We do not need priests or any other mediators, for Christ alone is our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). We can speak directly to the Lord, our true High Priest, and have the right to make our own decisions about our service to God. This is part of what it means to be “created in the image of God.”
When the Lord made humanity, He made us in “His image,” and even though this image became marred by sin, it remains part of the dignity given to us by God. We are competent under the leadership of the Holy Spirit to make our own response to God’s call through the gospel of Jesus Christ, to commune with God, and to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord. Though sinful we can be recreated by God’s saving work, and this salvation is available to all. Any person can choose to turn their life over to the Lord (Romans 10:8-13). This is personal and voluntary and requires no religious rites or ceremonies. Christ alone effects salvation and we can come boldly to Him as our High Priest (Hebrews 4:16). He then begins to remake us in His own image (2 Corinthians 5:17, 3:18), working through the Holy Spirit. His Spirit:
- Draws us to God and awakens us to truth, convicting us of our need for salvation (John 17:7-13);
- Comes to live in our hearts, sealing us as God’s own (Ephesians 1:13-14);
- Responds to our spirits and confirms our place in the family of God (Romans 8:15-17);
- And is the source of life and power in the daily walk of the Christian and is all the assistance we need in prayer (Romans 8:26-27).
All Christians have a direct, personal relationship with the Lord. We are capable of reading and interpreting the Scriptures for ourselves and comprehending His truth. It is the responsibility of pastors and teachers to share the truth, but each Christian must test and examine their words for themselves. We are to discern the “spirits” (1 John 4:1), and that discernment is another right of the individual, as well as the community of faith.
As for the community of faith, the church, there is an inherent danger that the individual may become more important than the Body of Christ, so we must point out the difference between “individuality” and “individualism.” “Individuality” contributes to the group (“we are members of one body;” Romans 12:4), while “individualism” disregards the group (“Lone Ranger” Christians). While Christian faith is always personal, it is never private. We must make those choices for ourselves, but it is within the church that they are lived out. Thus “soul competency” proclaims our right to know the Lord for ourselves, to come directly to Him, but does not deny the New Testament assumption that being a Christian means being part of the Body of Christ and serving and having fellowship with other believers in His Church. -Pastor Tim
Baptist Distinctive #2 – Regenerate Membership
Historian Robert Torbet said of the early Baptists: “English Baptists of the seventeenth century were clear on what makes a true church. They regarded the church as a gathered community of redeemed men and women who had covenanted to walk together under the discipline of the Word of God and, with a properly appointed leadership, to proclaim the gospel and observe regularly the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Believer’s baptism became the symbol of their identification with the risen Christ through the experience of individual conversion.”
The key phrase is “redeemed men and women”: a church of Christ is made up of “regenerate members,” people who have been “born again.” Baptists had read the New Testament and found no mention of infants being baptized, or of people becoming members without first giving their lives to Christ (being saved or converted). This was very different from their culture, where all children were baptized as babies and all citizens were considered members of the state church, whatever their actual practice. Baptists proclaimed this to be unbiblical, determining that only those who trusted in Christ and had been baptized as believers could be part of their churches.
They pointed to the teaching of Jesus in John 3, when he confronted Nicodemus’ religiosity with the declaration that we must be “born again” or “born from above” (John 3:3-8). This new birth or “regeneration” was the work of the Holy Spirit and was a necessity to follow Christ – and this teaching is found throughout the New Testament. Peter said that “according to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3) and John wrote that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). Paul told us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that “if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things are passed away; behold they are become new.”
The church of Jesus Christ, then, is made up of those who have had a personal experience with Christ and have accepted Him as Savior. We are saved “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8) when we “confess with our mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead” (Romans 10:9). Only those who have experienced this new relationship with the Lord are eligible for church membership, after the public profession of their faith. Our faith experience may have been a very private, personal decision, but it requires a public profession of salvation and a commitment to serve the Lord within a body of Christ, a church.
Each congregation is the body of Christ and those who make up its membership covenant together to do His work. Each member has their own callings and spiritual gifts, and therefore their own responsibilities within the church. God uses our varied gifts in different ways in the work of the congregation to bring about His will, confirming Paul’s words that we are “one body, but many members” (Romans 12:5). The life of the church is founded on the assumption that all its members are there because Christ has placed them there, for He alone makes us eligible to be part of His Body. – Pastor Tim
Baptist Distinctive #3 – The Bible Is Our Guide to Faith & Practice
The New Hampshire Declaration of Faith (approved by New Hampshire Baptists in 1833, and revised by J. Newton Brown in 1853) says of the Scriptures: “We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, the truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions shall be tried.”
E. Y. Mullins, a pastor and scholar in the early part of the 20th century, said that three marks sum up what Baptists believe about the Scriptures: That they are sufficient, that they are certain, and that they are authoritative. The Bible has sufficient truth for all religious purposes, since it is the revelation of God. Other revelation exists (in nature, etc.) but although it provides the knowledge that God exists (Romans 1:20), it is not sufficient for salvation. Only the revealed words of God as recorded in the Scriptures provide the information we need to know about God.
While scientific “truth” changes daily with new discoveries and new theories, thus becoming an uncertain source of knowledge, the Scriptures do not change. They are certain in the truth they relate to us about the Lord and are the path to finding Him. As such, the Bible has authority that no other earthly source has, because it has His authority. The Bible is God’s will: He brought it about through its many writers, scribes and translators. Recognizing its divine origin and inspiration, it is the basis for all we believe as Christians.
In the world of early Baptists, biblical truth often took a backseat to centuries of church tradition. What the church had evolved in practice was considered more important than what the biblical text said, and tradition was considered equal or even more valuable than the words of the Bible. There were two reasons for this: First, the tradition in the Catholic Church that synod rulings and papal decrees were binding, and second, the fact that most of the laity did not have access to the Bible.
Before the printing press, the Bible was usually read in Latin by priests to people who did not know Latin. With the Reformation, Luther sought to make the Bible available to all German-speaking peoples in their own language, and other language groups followed. The Roman Catholic Church opposed this move, considering it dangerous to let common people have ownership of the “Holy Book.”
One person actively involved in publishing an English Bible was William Tyndale, who was considered a criminal because he wanted every “plough boy to be able to read the Bible.” King Henry VIII had him hunted and later killed for this “deed,” but then needed an English translation when the Pope refused to grant Henry a second annulment (divorce). In fury Henry claimed the Catholic churches in England as his own (thus the Church of England) and his Archbishop used Tyndale’s translation as the basis for a new English Bible (which would lead to the King James Version in the next century). It is no coincidence that the availability of an English Bible came at the time of the Puritans and Separatists: Reading the Scriptures for themselves, they realized how “unbiblical” their churches were. The Puritans sought to reform (“purify”) the Church of England along the lines of the New Testament, while the Separatists (such as the Baptists) gave up on the English church and founded new churches based on the New Testament.
The invention of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into the common languages made it possible for everyone to read and study the Scriptures. Baptists cherished the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves and saw it as a blessing from God. This resulted in the rejection of set creeds, which set forth in a few sentences what one believed and held to be important. Baptists rejected creeds as man-made and held firmly to Scripture: The Bible or at least the New Testament was their only creed! The right of reading and interpreting Scripture and the refusal of creeds has been basic to Baptists ever since (although they do accept non-binding confessions of faith). Only God’s word is authoritative and if we adhere to that, then that is as clear a statement as we need.
It is difficult to imagine a world where the Bible is inaccessible or is read each Sunday in a language we do not understand. In our day the Bible is available in multiple translations, in various study formats, and in thousands of languages. Still, the greatest threat to the church remains biblical illiteracy, where people do not know what the Bible says. Baptists call themselves the “People of the Book,” but for that to be true, we must read, study and know the Word of God. It is our basis of faith and practice only if we are familiar with its wonderful words!
2 Timothy 3:16 – “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”
Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two- edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
2 Peter 1:21 – “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Baptist Distinctive #4 – The Ordinances:
Baptism & the Lord’s Supper
What is an ordinance? In military terms it refers to ammunition, but in Baptist life it means the two “orders” or “commands” of Christ. In Matthew 28:19-20 (“The Great Commission”) we are told to baptize and in Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Jesus told us to take the bread and the cup “in remembrance” of Him. These observations aren’t sacred events (Baptists have no sacraments, where events bestow special grace or salvation), nor is the bread and wine more than just bread and wine. They are special in that they fulfill Christ’s commands and are a sign of true devotion and worship.
C. Brownlow Hastings says that Baptists ask three questions about religious rites that Christians are to observe: 1) Did Jesus command it? 2) Did the church in the New Testament practice it? 3) Does it have meaning for the believer in the community of the church? He says that “marriage does not pass the first test, foot washing fails the second…and the baptism of infants fails all three.” That’s why the two we observe are those Christ commanded and we see practiced in the early church: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
BAPTISM: The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message says, “Christian Baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried and risen Savior; the believer’s death to sin; the burial of the old life; and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.”
The first step in that process for Baptists was that baptism was for believers. Smythe and Helwys determined this in 1609, based on what they read in the New Testament. They found this in Matthew 28:19-20 (above) when Christ told us to “make disciples,” then “baptize them.” Their first baptisms were by affusion (“pouring”), but within a few years (by 1641) most Baptist groups were immersing. This again was based on Scripture, since the word “baptizo” in Greek means to “immerse” or “dunk.” Since baptism symbolized the death and resurrection of Christ, as well as that of the believer (see Romans 6:1-14), the form was appropriate. When we are baptized we are stating publicly what has happened in the privacy of our hearts: We have given our lives to Christ, our sins are forgiven, and we are living a new life in Him.
THE LORD’S SUPPER: While the issue of the Lord’s Table is one of the most hotly contested issues of Christendom, Baptists hold that the Supper is symbolic and the elements (the bread and wine) have no special significance in themselves. The meaning comes from Christ’s presence among His people as they remember His death and proclaim His Second Coming (“for as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes,” 1 Corinthians 11:26). We obey Christ by commemorating His death and worshiping Him in a very special time of “communion:” “Fellowship” with Him and with one another. As for our church, we practice what is called Open Communion: Any Christian is welcome to share in the Lord’s Supper with us whether they are members of our congregation are not. Some Baptists practice “Closed Communion,” which allows only members of that congregation to share in the Lord’s Supper. Why do we practice Open Communion? We feel it’s the Lord’s Table, not ours! -Pastor Tim
Baptist Distinctive #5: The Priesthood of Believers
The “Priesthood of the Believer” is a Reformation term used by Martin Luther to refer to the “royal priesthood” of all Christians (1 Peter 2) who “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and have an active concern for the world in which the Lord has placed them. This was in opposition to the priesthood that had developed within the Catholic tradition, where the priest supposedly held a higher status before God than the “common folk” and was considered a mediator between the laity and the Lord. Luther rejected any need for “priests” since Jesus Christ alone was our Mediator: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). The idea that other mediators were necessary was not in line with the New Testament teaching that all of us could come directly to God through Christ. Luther saw in 1 Peter 2:9 (“but you are a…royal priesthood”) and in Romans 12:1 (where our duty is to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service”) the truth that this is the calling of all Christians, not just a select few. The community of the church was to be a place where everyone acted as priests to one another, as messengers of grace and support.
Ordination was not an elevation to a new spiritual realm, where one’s relationship to God became more important than that of laity, but rather the act of setting aside those whose spiritual gifts were preaching and teaching the Word. Each Christian stood on level ground before Christ, and each calling was just as much from God, whether it was pastor, farmer, ditch-digger or doctor. If one was following Christ’s call in life, then that was pleasing in the sight of God.
The priesthood of believers was part of the background in the development of Baptists and led directly to their concept of soul competency. We all have a direct relationship to God, one which we are responsible for. Out of our relationship with the Lord comes our relationship with others, for we are to support one another in prayer and encouragement and are to minister to one another. The “Church Covenant” (Baptist Hymnal, 1956) states that we will “engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember each other in prayer; to aid each other in sickness and distress.” This is a statement for the whole church, not just its spiritual leaders.
For spiritual leadership we do set aside the offices of pastor and deacon. Despite accepting those defined roles in our churches, Baptists maintain that there is no spiritual difference between those leaders and other Christians, only their function within the church: Their gifts are recognized as given by God and they are set apart for a special ministry. Ordination then becomes an act of recognition of God’s spiritual gifts, and the church’s endorsement of those gifts. While some preach and teach, all are called to minister in the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus said that the world would know we belonged to Him by our love (John 13:35), and that goes for every Christian!
Baptist Distinctive #6: Polity of the Local Church
The word “polity” refers to the form of organization that a church or denomination uses to carry out its work. Baptists are part of the “Free Church” tradition, which places authority in the hands of the congregation. Baptist scholars have noted that the word “church” is used over 100 times in the New Testament, and of these all but four refer to local congregations. Baptists have focused on the “congregational principle,” seeing the local church as the basis of God’s work on this earth.
The “congregational principle” works out basically in a democracy: The church decides by majority vote how it will carry out its work. The hope is that it will be a theocracy (that God’s will is found through the decisions of His people) but this is not always realized. The results for Baptists have been both wonderful and frustrating, with the growth of many strong congregations who tailor their ministry to their community, but also many clashes in church settings due to our independent spirit. While it takes years to grow a strong congregation, the destruction of a church can occur in a short time: We have to balance our independent spirit with the well-being of the church, always seeking the guidance of the Lord through His Holy Spirit.
This independent spirit has been a part of Baptist life from the beginning and is found in the concept of “soul competency” (Baptist Distinctive #1): Each of us is responsible for our faith and study of the Scriptures and for determining how we will serve the Lord. This is on the personal level, but the same spirit is also found on the congregational level, for Baptists have guarded the church’s rights just as strongly as they have defended our personal freedoms: Baptists do not want anyone dictating to their congregation what they will believe or practice, or how they will function as a church.
Some Baptist Math (from C. Brownlow Hastings)
- “Soul Competency + Regenerate Church Membership = Congregational Polity” – A church should use democratic methods to find God’s will, with each member guided by the Holy Spirit (and using prayer, Bible Study, and conscience). This allows the free expression of the individual member, as well as unselfishness in deferring to the will of the majority.
- “Local Church Autonomy + Interdependence of Churches = Denominational Structure” – Each church is responsible for its structure, budget, leadership, etc., but cooperates with other churches to do things they cannot do alone (foreign missions, for example). Denominational participation is always a voluntary act of the local church (within associations and state & national conventions: For us, that means the Knox County Baptist Association, the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention).
- “Voluntarism + Lay Leadership = Internal Growth” – This truth is often lost in many congregations, who expect pastoral staffs to handle all ministry and do the “work of the church.” Churches grow when the members accept their calls form the Lord and participate in ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16). This is how we do Sunday School, which has been the most successful venture in Baptist history. A survey in the late 1990’s asked people how they came to be part of their churches: 80% said a friend has invited them!
Baptist Distinctive #7: Religious Liberty for All
& The Separation of Church and State
Although most religious groups came to this country for freedom of worship, it is amazing how few of them were willing to grant the same freedoms to other Christians. The Massachusetts Bay Colony established Puritanism, Virginia and the Carolinas the Church of England, and New York was Dutch Reformed (until the British took over and it became Anglican as well). Early on Maryland had an act of toleration for both Catholics and Protestants (Lord Baltimore was a convert to Catholicism) but later the Protestants took over the legislature and forbade Catholic worship. Baptists were arrested, whipped and banished in both Anglican and Puritan areas, and as late as the Revolutionary War they were still being imprisoned and fined for preaching and conducting assemblies. The exceptions were Pennsylvania and Rhode Island: William Penn was a Quaker and opened the colony to all (but restricted public offices to those who professed faith in Christ). Rhode Island guaranteed full liberty to all, with no restrictions on the basis of religion.
The “father” of Rhode Island was Roger Williams, considered to be the first Baptist in America. Williams had been banished from Massachusetts because he believed: 1) The Church and State are different entities, since the church is made up of regenerate people; 2) There is no such thing as a Christian “state;” 3) Citizenship cannot be restricted to the regenerate, nor should the ideals of the Church be lowered to include the populace; 4) The “Sword” belongs to the State for “civil vengeance and punishment;” and 5) The “Word” belongs to the Church as the power to change men. Williams felt the Church and the State were different and should be separate. While Massachusetts threw him out, his ideals were realized in Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island) and its charter of 1663 became the blueprint for religious freedom in America.
In 1776 the Virginia legislature passed an act of tolerance for religion in a state bill of rights, but James Madison pressed them to change the term “tolerance” to “free exercise of religion.” This was in keeping with the Baptist ideal that religious freedom was not just “allowed” but was a “right.” When the constitution of the new nation was ratified, the same was sought by Baptists, with the help of Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Their battle was on two fronts: 1) The guarantee of religious freedom in a Bill of Rights, and 2) the ending of “State churches.” The last state church was in Massachusetts (ending in 1833!) and the Bill of Rights guaranteed no state church and no government interference in the practice of religion. In addition to the Bill of Rights (“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) another important document is President Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in 1802: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for this faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that the legislature should “make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
From these documents we arrive at several important conclusions:
- The term “separation of church and state” is actually unofficial in American history documents. Jefferson used it in a letter to a Baptist Association, thanking them for an award they had given him.
- The language of the Bill of Rights does not guarantee any favoritism toward Christianity in this country. At the time it was created the issue was mainly that of Christian denominations (plus Judaism, Deism, and atheism) but that is not in the wording. Even the Southern Baptist Convention confession says that “no ecclesiastical group or denomination” should be favored.
- The historical context was that Baptists were seeking protection from the state due to previous persecution (at the hands of other Christians!): Present issues are over protecting the state from religious interference. Because of the language of the Bill of Rights, the courts have often ruled against Christian groups (not establishing “religion”) resulting in conflicts with “the free exercise thereof.”
- Places where the “wall of separation” are being tested are:
- The removal of all Christian symbols from the public square due to the charge that it “establishes” Christianity as a religion;
- Government support of parochial schools: Federal funds being used for religious schools, such as for transportation, etc.
- Tax Exemption for churches. This will be a battle in the future, since tax exemption is seen by many as veiled public funding.
The battle between Christian truth and the cultural standards. Any statement of what the Scriptures say about sexuality is already a “hate crime” in Canada, and many are echoing that charge here. “Fit in with where we are or shut up” is the present attitude toward Christians and the church, and our own stand for religious freedom is now being used against us! We desired protection from the government when it aligned with a religious entity and then persecuted other religious groups. In attempting to make America a “secular nation” (avoiding the “establishment of religion”) Christianity is being constantly attacked and we now find ourselves worried about its free exercise! -Pastor Tim