by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
We affirm the distinctive contributions of the Baptist tradition as a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. These distinctives include the necessity of personal conversion, a regenerate church, believers’ baptism, congregational governance, and religious liberty.
We have deliberately moved in the Manifesto from what we hold most in common with other Christians (the Trinity, the good news of Christ’s life & work) to what we hold in common with other Protestants, to, now, what makes us distinctly Baptist. This organization is deliberate, as a quest for true catholicity begins with acknowledging what we can affirm with Christians of all stripes, but also does not ignore what makes us distinctively Protestant, evangelical, and Baptist. The latter is our focus in this essay. While the canon of “Baptist distinctives” is debated, there are at least five that are readily identifiable and agreed upon by most Baptists throughout space and time: the necessity of personal conversion, a regenerate church, believers’ baptism, congregational governance, and religious liberty. Even though many of these distinctives are shared in some ways with other traditions, their inaugural explication by Baptists and their continued use by Baptists as an identity marker delineate them as distinctively Baptist (and in this sense, as Mark DeVine has argued, many non-denominational baptistic churches would qualify as Baptist, whether or not this fact is always self-consciously acknowledged).
At the outset, we should note that while none of these distinctives have theological priority in Baptist life, they do have a sort of logical priority or ordering. An emphasis on personal conversion gives rise to an affirmation of believers-only baptism, which in turn necessarily prompts affirmation of regenerate church membership, a corollary of which is congregational governance. The last distinctive, religious liberty (referred to by some as “soul freedom” on an individual level and “separation of church and state” on a governmental level), arises from the previous four and also provides the cultural and theological context in which they can be exercised to the fullest.
Baptists emphasize personal conversion because they recognize Scripture’s emphasis on God’s call to the individual to repent and believe in King Jesus. While none of us exist in a vacuum, and while God ultimately calls a people unto himself, his people is made up of individuals, each of whom is individually accountable to God on the Day of Judgment. It is not “God’s people” written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, but individual names, the names of those who have confessed with their own mouth and believed in their own heart that Jesus is Lord and that the Spirit raised him from the dead. This requires that conversion take place when an individual can assent to Christ’s kingship and his atoning work for that individual’s sins against Almighty God. We recognize that there can be an overemphasis on cognition in evangelicalism, and we want to state clearly that “assent” and “confession” do not mean a particular IQ level, cognitive ability, or the like. Nevertheless, we do believe that individuals are called to make their own choice with respect to whom they will serve, the Triune God or the powers of darkness. It is the individual, and the individual alone, who can assent to Christ’s kingship and repent of their sins. Conversion is thus a distinct and marked turn from an identity rooted in sin and disbelief to one oriented toward Christ and the pursuit of holiness by the power of the Spirit.
Ultimately, we believe this emphasis is rooted in the Christian affirmation of the Triune God’s work in Christ and in the five solae of the Reformation. God the Father sent God the Son to accomplish salvation for his people by his Spirit, the same Spirit who now calls women and men everywhere to repent and believe in the good news of Jesus Christ. This good news is that any person can be saved by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But it is precisely that middle affirmation, sola fide, that leads one to an emphasis on personal conversion. Faith as described in Scripture is an act of turning away from idols to the living God. No one does that for you; rather, an individual response is required.
Believers-only baptism is a logical corollary of personal conversion. The Baptist case for credobaptism (believers’ baptism) is largely based on the pattern we see in the New Testament: repentance and faith are prerequisites to the baptismal rite. Even the so-called “household baptisms” in the book of Acts do not mitigate against this pattern since almost all of the instances of household baptisms also mention that those in the household believed and were then baptized (e.g., Acts 16:31; 18:8). But the case for believers’ baptism is not simply a matter of prooftexting or of a bare primitivism. It is also grounded in broader, biblical-theological considerations. More specifically, the Baptist argument is predicated upon a particular understanding of the biblical covenants and the structure of the canon as a whole (as Steve Wellum has convincingly demonstrated). In the Baptist understanding, the New Covenant, while standing in continuity with previous biblical covenants (particularly the Abrahamic covenant), is genuinely new in terms of the structure of the covenant community. The promise of the New Covenant is that the forgiveness of sins and the internal circumcision of the heart are fully realized in the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Unlike the Old Covenant, which was a mixed community made up of believers and unbelievers, the New Covenant is a regenerate community in which “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). The realities of the New Covenant were present in previous dispensations in a promissory way but they are only fully established in the redemption accomplished by Christ and applied by the outpoured and indwelling Holy Spirit. Because of this definitive revelation in the gospel, the New Covenant must be set in contrast not only to the Mosaic covenant (with its stipulations and sanctions) but also to certain aspects of the Abrahamic covenant. In the Baptist view, the Abrahamic covenant cannot be reduced to its spiritual elements (the justifying faith of Abraham), while collapsing or eliding its national and even political elements. For this reason, Baptists do not believe that baptism simply replaces circumcision in a one-to-one fashion but rather that baptism fulfills the deeper reality to which circumcision points: namely the new birth, or the circumcision of the heart (Col. 2:11-12). Baptists need not treat their children as the equivalent of adult pagans. They should still catechize them and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. But neither should they presume that these precious little ones are automatically members of this eschatological New Covenant community simply by virtue of their biological connection to believing parents. After all, as both John the Baptist and Christ himself remind us, descent from Abraham is no guarantee of covenant membership (Luke 3:8; John 8:39). In the New Covenant, biological descent no longer serves as the decisive covenant marker; right relationship to the Messiah does.
The other Baptist distinctives follow naturally upon these foundational principles. The church is to be a regenerate community, made up of those who make credible professions of faith. Of course, human discernment on these matters is not infallible. So church discipline becomes an important and necessary (if often neglected) mark of the church. When the church determines after much prayer and entreaty that a professed believer has decisively contradicted his or her profession by persistent false doctrine or unrepentant sin, then it is the duty of the congregation as a whole to remove their affirmation of that individual’s profession. This communal responsibility implies, in turn, that the governance of the church is shared by the believing congregation as a whole. So while church officers—pastors and deacons—have a crucial role to play in leading and serving the church, respectively, it is the congregation as a whole that bears the final responsibility to safeguard the doctrine and purity of the church (Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:5-11). Baptists have also spoken about this congregational governance in terms of local church autonomy (better, local church responsibility), but this must be balanced with a recovery of another Baptist principle, namely, stronger associational bonds of cooperation and accountability. The ministerial authority of the local church and a rejection of episcopal forms of church government should not be set in contrast to or used as a means to forsake the bonds of association that exist between Baptist churches, bonds that can and should provide mutual edification, exhortation, and (when necessary) rebuke.
All of these Baptist distinctives assume a certain kind of (qualified) individualism, as Steve Holmes has rightly pointed out: every human being is individually responsible before God. This principle must be balanced, again, with the authoritative role of the believing community as a whole, but individual responsibility remains crucial. So in order to facilitate the free proclamation of the gospel and the uncoerced nature of its claims upon individuals, religious liberty and the separation of the church and the state become crucial Baptist principles as well. The Baptist movement was born in persecution, and so Baptists have always sensed in an existential way the necessity of religious liberty. But, as Russell Moore as argued, this principle is not merely a matter of self-preservation; it is also predicated upon a proper understanding of the call of the gospel, which demands a free and willing response in repentance and faith. No human authority can coerce salvation. “God alone is Lord of the conscience”; so, in the Baptist vision, the Christian ideal is “a free church in a free state” (BF&M, XVII). As such, Baptists have long been defenders of religious liberty not only for ourselves and our fellow Christians but also for all people regardless of their religious convictions. It is to our shame that Baptists in an American context have sometimes lost sight of this ideal and have sought recourse to civil religion and to a presumed “Christian nation” narrative. Baptists should seek to be exemplary citizens insofar as submission to the governing authorities does not conflict with Christian faithfulness, but we should also fiercely defend our prophetic distinction from all earthly powers, be they monarchical, tyrannical, or even democratic—or perhaps more to the point, be they Democratic or Republican.
While, conceptually speaking, these distinctives serve as markers of what makes a particular church a Baptist church, they are not necessarily the only or even the main things that predominate in everyday Baptist spirituality. In that regard, missions, evangelism, and life together are more prominent. But these distinctives serve as the structure that supports those spiritual and ecclesial practices. For instance, Baptist emphasis on personal conversion gave rise to the modern mission movement through the efforts of William Carey, and it continues to be a major impetus behind Baptist mission work here and abroad.
By emphasizing these Baptist distinctives, we have not left catholicity behind. As we will argue in our commentary on article XI of this Manifesto, ecumenical dialogue is not a venture in finding the lowest common denominator for Christian unity. It is also an effort to clarify our differences. We believe that these Baptist beliefs have much to commend them both biblically and theologically. So we do not wish to keep them to ourselves, as it were, but instead to press them home to all willing partners in cross-denominational dialogue. As we have stated previously, we believe that the Baptist tradition is a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Thus, we commend our distinctives for consideration by the whole church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not all will be persuaded on every point, but as Richard Mouw has suggested, denominations are analogous to holy orders taking their own “special spiritual theological vows” within the church. Each tradition has its own unique gifts to offer the whole church. Presbyterians rightly remind us of the central place of the glory of God. In their own unique ways, Methodists rightly remind us of the power of the gospel to effect holiness in the lives of God’s people. The charismatic movement has encouraged all of us to be open to the Spirit’s manifold work in the church, even if not all will follow them on every point. The richness and beauty of Anglican worship can serve an inspiration to all congregations. And likewise, on the points that we have explicated, we believe the Baptist movement has much to contribute, as well as much to receive, in the great collection of traditions that constitute the holy catholic church.