What Does It Mean to be Baptist?

Let’s Take it from the Beginning

Some people believe that Baptists can trace their roots all the way back to John the Baptist in the Bible – but unfortunately this is simply not true.  We can only trace our history back to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  During this time, many western Christians were troubled by what they saw as “false doctrines” and malpractices within the Catholic Church (the only church or denomination at the time).  People were also concerned with corruption in church leadership and the lack of separation between church and state.

In 1517 in Germany, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses criticizing the Church.  He had no plans to start a new denomination; he just wanted the church to reform.  When this did not happen, a group broke away from the church and formed what we know today as the Lutheran church.  In Switzerland, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli were doing similar work.  The Presbyterian (or Reformed or Calvinist tradition) church is a result of their work.  In England and other places, Anabaptists emerged.  These were folks who practiced believer’s baptism (one must profess faith in Christ in order to be baptized instead of following the practice of baptizing infants).  Many groups such as Baptists, Amish, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren descend from this tradition.

A Bit of Background

Before the Protest Reformation, most people could not read or write.  Prior to the invention of the printing press, books were very expensive and accesible only to the wealthy.  The church might own one Bible, written in Latin, and the local priest may or may not have been able to read it.  Martin Luther and all the Reformers felt it was very important for everyone to have access to the Scriptures in their own language.  The invention of the printing press at the time of the Reformation was a huge part of making this possible.

Historical Baptist Distinctives

Historically, mainline Baptists have held to four defining “distinctives.”  It is important for us to know these and understand how they give direction to how we live out our faith here at Truevine.

Bible Freedom

Bible Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation or belief that the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, must be central in the life of the individual and the church. Christians, with the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry, are both free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture.

Digging Deeper

Bible freedom can be seen in four ways:  freedom “under” “for” “of” and “from.” 

Here’s what those mean:

Freedom “under”:  When Baptists began, they insisted that Jesus was the only Lord of their lives.  Therefore, we stand with an open Bible “under” the Lordship of Jesus.  Put another way, Jesus is the  norm by which the Bible is to be interpreted.

Freedom “for”: Baptists wanted freedom of access to the Bible “for” the purpose of continuing obedience to God’s word. Because of the power of the Bible to make God’s will known to us, the Bible is a dynamic (not a static) book.  As people read and interpret the Bible, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, their lives are transformed.

Freedom “from”:   Early Reformers were committed to the idea of “sola scriptura” or Scripture alone.  This meant that they wanted to be free “from” all other religious authorities – no pope, no king, no human could hold more power than Jesus.  For Baptists, this means that we are “not a creedal people.”  Historically, there was no Baptist creed or confession of faith that people were required to believe or sign in order to be a Baptist.  We took this stance for two reasons.  First, no creed or statement can summarize what the Bible says about faith and behavior.  Second, creeds tend to become the “norm” and then people are forced to comply.

Freedom “of”: Baptists have no formal or informal teaching office that hands down correct biblical interpretation.  Freedom “of” interpretation by each believer is essential for Baptists. The Bible is open to every Christian and we must be free to interpret the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This approach to interpretation has brought inevitable disagreement among Baptists, contributing to our division into so many types of Baptists.  As unfortunate as this is, Baptists have preferred this risk to giving up our Bible freedom.

Soul Freedom

Soul Freedom, which is also called the priesthood of all believers, affirms the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate to God without the imposition of creed, or control by clergy or the government.

Soul freedom affirms our core belief in individual choice.  We believe that each person was created in the image of God. Therefore, we are able and responsible, under God, to make moral, spiritual, and religious decisions.  For us, faith is personal, relational, and direct.

This distinctive influences how we live out our faith in Baptist life in two key ways.

  1. First, we believe that faith is voluntary – everyone has the right to choose to follow Christ (or to choose not to). No one can force us to believe.
  2. Second, this has led us to the practice of believer’s baptism. For us, baptism is a sign or a symbol that we have chosen to believe and follow Christ.  That is why Baptists do not baptize infants – they are not able to choose to follow Christ in faith.

Church Freedom

Church Freedom is the historic belief that local churches are free, under the Lordship of Jesus, to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whoever they perceive to be gifted for ministry (male or female), and to participate in the larger Body of Christ (other churches and other denominations).

A Bit of Background

Baptists emerged during a time when people were “born” into the church.  One was baptized shortly after birth and accepted into the local “parish” church.  When you were older, you confirmed the faith that you had been raised with after a time of study (now known as confirmation classes and a confirmation service in these traditions).  Baptists, on the other hand, insisted on what they called a “believer’s church” or a “gathered church.”  They believed that the church membership should be reserved for those who had made a conscious and voluntary decision to believe in Christ and to dedicate their lives to following him.

How We Live Out Church Freedom

Have you attended your first business meeting in a Baptist church yet?  They can be interesting and engaging! Everyone can voice an opinion, discussion is often lively, and it occasionally takes a while to get things done.  Why in the world do we conduct our business this way?  Wouldn’t it be easier and more efficient to have an executive board or lead team make most decisions?  Yes, but there are good theological reasons why we choose this method of church governance.

A Bit of Background

There are basically three types of church government:

episcopal (where one person, usually a bishop, holds authority and makes decisions for local churches) presbyterian (where a small group makes the decisions) and congregational (where the church members as group have the authority to make decisions for their own congregation).

Congregational church polity (as this type of structure is called) is consistent with the Baptist distinctives of Bible freedom and soul freedom. We believe that each person has an equal voice in determining the mind of Christ and that each congregation has both a freedom and an obligation to determine the will of God for her own church.  No state, regional or national group has authority over us (this is called “autonomy of the local church.).

What This Means for Us

This means that as a Baptist church, we are free to determine who our members will be, who our leaders are, how we worship, how we minister, and who we want to cooperate and fellowship with. There are only two ordained offices (those who are set apart for a specific type of service) in the Baptist church, ministers and deacons.

Ministers (pastors, ministers of education, youth, children, music, mission, etc) are usually called from outside the congregation, although leaders emerging from within the church is becoming more common. Ministers are tasked with providing vision and leadership for the church and for empowering the congregation to carry out the ministries that emerge from the church’s vision and call.

Deacons are elected church members that serve with the ministers on behalf of the congregation.  All members are expected to share in the privilege and responsibility of discipleship (personal growth in our faith), worship, fellowship, and service.

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion, and freedom FROM religion.  Churches and individuals should be free to worship in whatever manner they choose and with whomever they choose.  All people, no matter their religious background, should be free from any coercion to worship and free from the intervention of the state in matters of religion.

A Bit of Background

Baptists began out of a quest for religious liberty – we wanted to be able to worship the way we believed God was calling us to worship and serve, not the way the state church told us we had to.  As a result, we have always been deeply committed to and passionate about religious liberty for all.  Baptist voices made major contributions to the establishment of religious liberty in the formative days of this country.

 Our commitment to religious freedom is based on:

The nature of God.  We believe that God is the ultimate liberator of humanity.  In the Old Testament, God worked against people or power structures that limited the freedom of people.  Jesus is our ultimate model of one who freed us from all that keeps us from fulfilling our potential under God. Therefore, God, not the government or the courts, or our laws, is the source of our religious liberty.

The nature of human beings. People, created in God’s image, are God’s crowning achievement.  We were created with free will and freedom of conscience.  To deny any person religious freedom is deny their full humanity. 

The nature of faith.  To be authentic, faith must be free.  Genuine faith cannot be forced upon anyone or denied to anyone by the government or a controlling religious organization.

Baptists have always argued for full religious liberty, not just religious toleration. Religious toleration is a concession, religious liberty is a fundamental right; there is a big difference between the two.  This right must be extended to all people, regardless of what they believe.

The Separation of Church and State

A Bit of Background

Historically there have been four models of church-state relations.  In medieval times, we saw the model of the church above the state.  In this model, the church held the ultimate authority and the government served the state. The second model, the church under the state, was seen in communist countries in the twentieth century when the state limited or sought to extinguish the church.  In the third model, the church with the state, all have religious freedom, but preference is given to one group.  The Anglican Church in England is a current example of this model.  The fourth model is the separation of church and state, or a free church in a free state.  In America, the church and state exist side-by-side, neither has power over the other.  Baptists have always advocated for this model. 

It is easy to argue for the separation of church and state when we are the ones being denied the right to worship freely.  On the other hand, when we are guaranteed the right of religious freedom, it is easy to become complacent and not protect that right for all.  Many in America today would argue for the church with the state model – giving liberty for all but preference for Christians. This leans much more toward concession than full liberty, and it is contrary to who we are as Baptists.  Many Christians are also loyal Americans, but we must be careful not to confuse our citizenship and our discipleship.


8 Baptist Distinctives