This is part 2 of a 4 part series on Baptists, recorded by video for an instructional curriculum on mainstream Protestants over at this cool new online learning site for churches, ChurchNext (I know, I’m as surprised as you are that we made the mainstream list). So much thanks to friend, teacher, mentor, superstar Dr. Rosalie Beck, for her help remembering what I learned in class 25 years ago. Any inadvertent misinformation here is all mine, not hers!
I want to talk for a bit now about what Baptists believe. That sentence in itself is a bit humorous because the label “Baptist” encompasses perhaps the widest possible variance of theological positions. In fact, underlying everything is a firm conviction that any coercion of belief is unacceptable. So, what do Baptists believe? That’s a tough question to answer.
There’s no single doctrine unique to Baptists. There are some generally accepted Baptist perspectives, but what really makes Baptists unique is the way they put their doctrines together. Baptists, as a rule, voluntarily assemble a variety of perspectives, positions they hold individually at the prompting of God’s Spirit. So as I go through this list of what Baptists’ believe, then, try to imagine me nailing Jell-o to a tree:
A first and very foundational theological perspective for Baptists is the noncercion of belief. (Is that a belief? Yes!) You may recall that early Baptist Thomas Helwys wrote a trouble-making essay in 1612 about this core value: A Short Treatise on the Mystery of Iniquity. Helwys said, “You can make a man kneel at an altar, but you cannot touch his heart.” (And though he didn’t specify, I’m sure he meant women, too.) Basically, Baptists are all about voluntary church—no coercion, no telling you what you have to believe, no forcing faith on anyone. Period. Out of this foundational conviction came the adherence to the priesthood of the believer (everybody has the right and responsibility to tend to their relationship with God); the importance of Scripture (everybody should read it and find its meaning); and belief as the conscious act of an adult (you have to know what you’re doing to come into faith). So, as you can see, the noncoercion of belief is a big one for Baptists (hard to believe with what you see on the news these days, isn’t it?).
A second foundational belief is that of democratic governance. Baptists are congregationally organized; they insist on everybody having a say in the life and direction of their communities. There are no bishops or district superintendents or very reverends or anything like that. The local church body votes and decides all matters of polity and practice. All.
Closely related to that value of democratic governance within a congregation is the Baptist value of autonomy of the local church. As at their congregational level Baptists are democratically governed, moving up the ladder congregations then freely associate with larger bodies. In other words, there’s not central national or international body or person dictating belief or practice of Baptists. There are associations and larger groups where Baptist congregations come together around issues of conviction, but association with any of these groups is purely voluntary by each congregation. Local churches are completely independent. So, you could go to any town in America, walk into two Baptist churches on the same street, and have two completely—maybe even radically—different experiences.
And this system of democratic governance and congregational autonomy is great because everybody’s free. And this system of democratic governance and congregational autonomy is hard because there’s nobody to step in when the crazy gets out of control.
A fourth Baptist standard of belief is the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Coming as they do out of a movement—the Protestant Reformation—insistent on an individual’s right to access scripture, Baptists cling tightly to that individual freedom. It doesn’t take a priest, or even somebody vaguely theologically trained, to read the Bible and come to conclusions about God based on that reading. And that’s great, right? Baptists are noncreedal—we don’t recite or adhere to creeds. So the way we have traditionally kept ourselves in line is to judge everything by the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.
(As Jesus turned water into wine during his ministry, who knows how Baptists got to be leaders in the Prohibition Movement. But that’s another session altogether.)
Let’s just say this: in our best moments, we align our belief and practice with the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Period.
A fifth and super important foundational belief of Baptists is that of religious liberty. Baptists were born in a climate of oppression; their theological convictions were forged in the furnace of extreme hardship and persecution. Baptists, in their purest and most admirable expression, hold religious liberty as a nonnegotiable conviction. Baptists have been outspoken defenders of religious liberty, far beyond even their own ranks. Early American Baptists like Roger Williams, John Clarke, Isaac Backus, John Leland strongly argued against any expression of a religious state, against everything from compulsory church attendance, to a tax to support religion, to discrimination against non-Christian religions.
Apparently frustrated, John Clarke (a contemporary of Roger Williams’) wrote in his diary, “A year in this hotbed of religious tyranny is enough for me. I cannot bear to see men in these uttermost parts of the earth not able to bear with others in matters of conscience and live peaceable together. With so much land before us, I for one will turn aside, shake the dust of Boston off my feet, and betake me to a new place. There I shall make a haven for all those who, like myself, are disgusted and sickened by the Puritan dictatorship. I shall make it a place where there will be full freedom of thought and religious conscience.”
And, that about sums it up. But when you add noncoercion to democratic governance, you can, in theory, do whatever you want—so see how hard it is to answer the question, “What do Baptists believe?”?
Still, these are the foundational doctrinal pieces that most closely characterize Baptists. Let’s review one more time: Baptists believe in voluntary church (the noncoercion of belief); democratic governance in their congregations; autonomy of the local church (the right to freely associate with others and not be bound by hierarchical rule); the person and ministry of Jesus Christ as the ultimate grounding of faith; and religious liberty.