Teaching the Baptist distinctives will not answer all of our questions or solve all of our problems; it just points us in the right direction. Teaching the Baptist distinctives is a way to summarize New Testament teaching about the church, and a way to develop these ideas into a theology that helps us understand how the church works. With this goal in mind, I’ve become more convinced than ever that the B-A-P-T-I-S-T acrostic is harmful rather than helpful in discussing Baptist distinctives.
On the surface, the acrostic doesn’t seem to include one of our important distinctives. I’m aware of a situation where a churchchanged its form of government from congregational to elder rule. The pastor sent a challenging letter to the state association,saying congregational church government is unbiblical. This pastor further claimed that our fellowship must not believe in congregational government because there’s no “C” in the B-A-P-T-I-S-T acrostic. Apparently someone actually took the B-A-P-T-I-S-T acrostic as the official definition of the Baptist distinctives, and not simply a handy artificial memory device! Even so, I think it is fair to question a memory device that does not include one of our core ideas—congregational government.
More importantly, I think the acrostic is dangerous because people who use it don’t have to think logically. The B-A-P-T-I-S-T acrostic was like most of our sermons with alliterated outline points—sounding good but never completely effective for teaching. The commonly used acrostic is not a form that causes anybody to say, “You know what, now I really understand the doctrine of the church.” Instead, the acrostic contains assorted doctrines that are artificially imposed onto an outline with no logical progression from one point to another.
For instance, the B stands for Biblical Authority because that’s where we wanted to start. But there is no logical and natural flow from Biblical Authority to the next point, Autonomy of the Local Church. Next, the outline returns to Priesthood of the Believer and proceeds to jump to either Two Ordinances or Two Officers. At the very end of the B-A-P-T-I-S-T acrostic teachers tack on another S because they want to include both Saved Church Membership and Separation of Church and State. And if teachers don’t make the word plural, they are never quite sure which S—which doctrine—to leave out.
There is no way of looking at these alliterated points as formal theology. Instead, the usual outline is simply a group of things that are kind of true about the church, with a futile hope that young believers will remember the verses that explain the outline points.
This is a dangerous lapse, because we are teaching a generation that says, “Show me this truth from the Bible” (and can you blame them for wanting to see it from the Scriptures?), but we need to do more than merely show people truths from the Bible. We should show the logical development of theology: how theology begins in Scripture, how it hangs together with Scripture, and how it influences the way we do things.
This theological approach becomes important when we discuss the distinctions between Baptists and other groups. Many people introduce these differences by explaining our beliefs about pastors and deacons. We often contrast Baptist church structure with Presbyterian and Episcopalian forms of government. But these differences are the logical results of more basic principles regarding what we believe about the members of the congregation.
Baptists believe that all believers have equal access to the will of God; that is, they believe in the priesthood of the believer. This is the foundational idea that results in congregational government. And the priesthood of the believer is based on two other important principles, Biblical authority and a regenerate church membership. By putting these ideas in their logical order, we discover the best place to begin our discussion.
Discussing the authority of the Bible is not the same as discussing the inspiration of Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church begins with the inspiration of Scripture. But the Church does not believe in or teach Biblical Authority, which holds that the Bible is the supreme authority for faith and practice. This concept does not mean that the Bible is the only authority, as if your parents don’t have authority or the police officer who stopped you for speeding doesn’t have some authority. It means that the Bible is the supreme authority for all matters of faith and practice. That’s why when we talk about church government, we emphasize that the Bible is a guidebook for the practices of the church.
We believe our definition of the church is based on what God says about the universal church: how the Bible defines it, describes its beginning, and anticipates its completion. Our definitions of the word “church” are in part what makes us Baptists.
Is the church a kind of “holy hiccup” between God’s real plan for Israel and His plan for the millennial Kingdom? I’ve heard it described this way. But I think it’s wrong to look at the church as just some sort of temporary step without any real importance in the plan of God. And I believe it is wrong to look at the church as the fulfillment of everything, with the resulting conclusion that God is done with Israel in His plan.
To preserve the balance between these two extremes, we must talk about what the universal church is. After this, we reach a logical step that requires theology. A local church is simply a visible subset of the universal church. This means that not everyone in the universal church is in a local church. But it also means that everyone in a local church must be part of the universal church.
Describing the local church as a visible subset of the universal church explains so much about every doctrine. It explains why we believe in regenerate church membership: If you are in the universal church, you are regenerate, so you can’t become a member of a local church unless you are in the universal church.
This description also helps explain what we believe about the practice of baptism. A believer becomes part of the universal church by Spirit baptism. It is helpful to explain that baptism always places a person into something and identifies a person with something. This is why it is important to begin our doctrine of the church by defining the church.
What does the Bible teach about where the church began? At Pentecost. Why did the church begin at that time? Because that’s when God gave the Holy Spirit with a new and different ministry. When will the church be completed? At the Rapture. What is the future of the church? The Judgment Seat of Christ.
All of these ideas are introduced by teaching Biblical authority, then teaching the meaning of the universal church, and then describing the local church as a visible subset of the universal church.
It is the Bible that caused me to be born again. The Bible is the agent of regeneration. I was born again by the Word and the Holy Spirit. Just as it takes two human parents, so it took divine parents to give me the second birth. When the work of the Holy Spirit meets the work of the Word (quickens the Word), the believer has spiritual life.
We believe in Biblical authority over the church’s members because the Bible is what brought them into the church. The Bible is one of the two agents that caused believers to be born again. And therefore, the Bible is like a parent and has parental authority. Just as your parents had the authority to give you whatever weird name they gave you, if you are a born-again Christian, you are under the authority of the Bible. It was the Bible that gave birth to you.
Regenerate church membership
Unless the church has a Regenerate Church Membership, Biblical authority is not possible. The Bible teaches that unsaved people cannot be under the authority of the Bible; they cannot obey the Word of God. Perhaps you’ve observed a youth pastor who is trying to lead a group of great, sweet, unsaved kids who are trying to do something they cannot do. It can be very frustrating! The teens may be trying to keep the laws of God and keep the laws of their parents and their church. But they can’t keep these laws because they are not saved. This is the teaching of Romans 8: Unsaved people cannot be expected to keep the Word of God.
So without regenerate membership you can’t have Biblical authority. And without Biblical authority, you can’t have church membership. Continuing to build in a theological way, the third distinctive is Priesthood of the Believer. Normally, by this point, students—even new believers—are starting to get the idea that one doctrine should build with another. Baptist distinctives are not just a bunch of doctrines hanging off a tree like ornaments. One doctrine logically grows out of another.
Priesthood of the believer
The reason we are all priests with equal access to God is that we are all born again; we all possess the Holy Spirit. This is why we are a kingdom of priests. First Peter 1 teaches the priesthood of the believer just after teaching that newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the Word. So, believers are born again by the Word of God, believers desire the sincere milk of the Word, and then believers learn they are part of a spiritual house. Every stone in the building is a spiritual stone; that is, every believer is born again. This is where the discussion of the priesthood of the believer begins.
The priesthood of the believer holds that God works through each one of us individually first, and then to the whole. A Baptist church is not organized from the top down. It’s not about the pastor coercing his people to worship and study the Bible. It’s a group of people who have been praying and praising and witnessing all week who then come to church and are led in worship and teaching.
Individual believers open the Bible, and God speaks to them. Individual believers speak to God and pray to God. Then they come together as a group in a corporate expression of their individual priesthood.
In way of summary, so far we have discussed a logical progression of Baptist distinctives from biblical authority to a regenerate church membership, followed by the priesthood of the believer. I believe that each of these three basic concepts results in another distinctive.
We believe in Biblical authority; therefore we believe in Congregational Church Government, which simply teaches the New Testament pattern. God’s will is objectively given through the vote of the local congregation. Whether it’s His will for discipline, for officers, for how money should be spent—it is done by the vote of the congregation. That’s God’s way.
Acts 1 is fascinating. When the believers wanted to choose a leader before Pentecost, what did they do? They cast lots. That’s the Jewish way. Why? Because the Jews believed that when someone cast lots, the whole disposition of the dice was in the hands of the Lord. Once a person cast lots, that was God at work. It was a startling thought: “To settle an issue, let’s do something random, because there is no such thing as randomness. God will settle it.” This was the typical Jewish method of asking, How do I discern the will of God?
In Acts 6, however, when the church wanted to choose officers, what did the apostles do? Let the congregation select. The difference between Acts 1 and Acts 6 is such a perfect example of congregational church government. The apostles were seeking the will of God by a vote of the congregation. This is an amazing process. Oh, sometimes it is also a nasty, dirty process—but so is changing a diaper or raising children. Our lives here are never quite as clean as we want to make them. Congregational church government has some very clear principles, but some very muddy applications. Because we believe congregational government is a direct result of Biblical authority, we believe it is God’s plan for the local church: It is how God expresses His will.
Because we believe in a regenerate church membership, we believe in two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both are ways of demonstrating regenerate church membership.
The Lord’s Supper is practiced when the church gathers together as a body, and it pictures the church’s unity and gratitude for the saving work of Christ. Whenever the ordinances are mentioned in the New Testament, in Corinthians especially, they are mentioned with the unity of the church body: They are intended to unify the church.
Baptism, too, is practiced when the church gathers together as a body. This ordinance demonstrates the common experience of death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But some of our Baptist churches practice baptism in a way that historical Baptists would not recognize. Traditionally, Baptists would not baptize someone who was not joining the local church. One reason: When Jesus commanded baptism, it was part of discipleship. If baptism is a step of discipleship, how can a church baptize someone who is not that church’s disciple? Having a proper understanding of New Testament teaching on Baptist distinctives will force churches to reconsider why they do what they do. Studying and applying the New Testament will make us better Baptists.
Individual soul liberty
Because we believe in the priesthood of the believer, we believe in individual soul liberty. This belief is the unique gift of Baptists—along with their cousins, the Mennonites. But it is often a doctrine we misunderstand or underemphasize. Simply put, the priesthood of the believer is the idea that every believer answers only to God through his or her conscience for his or her religious beliefs and behavior. Believers answer only to God and their own consciences.
So if you are going to persuade believers, you must use the Bible. A believer cannot be persuaded with moral force or individual force or legal force. We do not use human means to persuade people of spiritual things. We do not use the government.
This emphasis on the Bible is why Baptists have always taught that infant baptism is wrong: It’s done without the infant’s permission. Those who practice infant baptism force church identification on a child. The issue here is not just the mode of baptizing the infant; it is the meaning. Infant baptism is done without the conscience agreement and consent and decision of that child. Therefore it violates individual soul liberty.
“Soul liberty” is very different from “Christian liberties.” When we discuss soul liberty, we are not discussing American individualism. Believers are part of a body, and members of the body have a relationship to one another. Believers persuade each other—provoke each other to be godly, to be accountable to one another, to be submissive to one another. That’s a far cry from American individualism.
We cannot have autonomy of the local church without separation of church and state. If the government is permitted to control what we believe or what religion we practice, we have no soul liberty.
Teaching the Baptist distinctives will not answer all of our questions or solve all of our problems: It just gets our feet pointed in the right direction. The core ideas that I have introduced here will have many applications as we continue to study God’s Word and apply it to our churches.
A proper understanding of Baptist distinctives begins with Biblical authority. And without Biblical authority, you can’t have a regenerate church membership. From this follows our beliefs about the priesthood of the believer. Each doctrine builds and grows logically from another. Because we believe in Biblical authority, we believe in congregational church government. Because we believe in a regenerate church membership, we believe in two ordinances. Because we believe in the priesthood of the believer, we believe in individual soul liberty.
These ideas are the basis of the New Testament Baptist church. We should introduce each of these distinctives using the Scripture passages that teach them, then show the logical development of our theology, and then make application to our church polity.
Colin Smith (PhD, Cornell University) taught at Piedmont Baptist College, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches in 2006.