Introduction: Who Are the Baptist?
The name 'Baptist' began as a derogatory term used by their opponents. It rises from the Baptist practice of baptising people through immersion in water in contrast to the convention of baptising infants. The name 'Baptist' was coined in the seventeenth century by opponents to the new movement but rejected by followers ('Baptists') themselves. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that Baptists accepted the use of the label to describe themselves.
A Brief History.
BAPTISTS SHARE THE SAME PROTESTANT, REFORMATION HERITAGE WITH MANY OF THE MAINLINE DENOMINATIONS. The roots of the Baptist 'movement' date back to the sixteenth century and the post-Reformation period. The first Baptist congregation appeared in 1609 in Holland. This included the Church of England minister, John Smyth, associate Thomas Helwys and number of people who had fled religious persecution in England. It was here that they first performed what was considered a radical and scandalous act of undergoing Believer's Baptism.
Their three core beliefs went on to shape future Baptist belief and practice. They were:
In 1612 Helwys and others returned to England to establish the first Baptist Church on English soil. He eventually died in prison because of his baptist convictions. Throughout the seventeenth century, Baptists continued to be persecuted for their beliefs, being known as 'Separatists', 'Nonconformists' or 'Dissenters'. They refused to become members of the Church of England, saying Christ - and not the monarch - was head of the Church. The Baptist movement came to Scotland with Oliver Cromwell's troops in the mid 17th century. When the army withdrew, these churches disappeared, and for the next 100 years Baptist life in Scotland ceased to exist. Baptist churches were to be established in the eighteenth century through the influence of a number of individuals who had personally embraced Baptist convictions. In addition, the late eighteenth century saw the beginning of the modern missionary movement as we know it through the sending of Baptist, William Carey to India. The nineteenth century saw a period of significant growth for the Baptist movement. Great preachers such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon in London and Alexander Maclaren in Manchester drew crowds in their thousands.
Today, Baptists form the fifth largest Christian church denomination in the world. Baptist churches are found in almost every country and have about 40 million members worldwide. In Britain, several thousand churches belong to the various Baptist Unions in the UK, and have in excess of 150,000 members.
Distinguishing Features of a Baptist Church
BAPTISTS SHARE THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL CHRISTIAN BELIEFS WITH ALL THE MAJOR PROTESTANT CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS; the beliefs that are expressed in the creeds and confessions of the early church such as The Apostles Creed and The Nicean Creed. However, as with any denomination there are several features that mark them out from other traditions, although none of them is exclusive to 'Baptist's alone:
BELIEVERS BAPTISM: This is perhaps the most obvious difference between Baptists and other denominations. This practice rose out of their convictions regarding who actually constitutes the church, the Body of Christ. Baptists concluded from scripture that it is only those who have received eternal life through their personal confession of faith in Christ. Not surprisingly, Baptists reject infant baptism, seeing no credible support for it in the Bible. Some churches will re-baptise those who were baptised as infants in another Christian tradition, others respect that various denominations do things differently. The Lighthouse Church respects those who, by conviction, stand by their infant baptism but will baptise on request any who wish to undergo Believer’s Baptism.
The baptism is carried out by full immersion. Most Baptist churches have a baptistry, which is more or less a small pool in the church capable of gently immersing an person. Baptists believe that this practice most faithfully represents the witness of the New Testament practice of baptists.
PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS: Baptists believe that everyone, ordained or lay, is directly responsible before God for his/her own walk of faith before Christ. Baptists believe that Christ alone is the great High Priest performing the priestly intermediary role before God on a person’s behalf. Therefore, no other earthly intermediaries such as clergy are necessary to represent Christians before God. Every believer has direct access to, and acceptance before God the Father through God the Son by means of God the Holy Spirit. That means that in Baptist churches which appoint a Minister and Elders, they are equal member in the church meeting but with special responsibilities in terms of ministry as determined by the congregation.
CONGREGATIONAL: Baptists believe in congregational church government. That is, each church can govern itself with absolute autonomy.
SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE: Baptists believe that the state and church should be separate from one another in terms of authority and control. This applies to any external Christian or secular power, such as the state, being involved in church matters. Therefore Baptists reject the idea of an established or state church. This conviction resulted in the persecution of the early Baptists and their emergence as the first advocates and campaigners for freedom of conscience and belief.
How Are Baptist Churches Governed/Run?
IN THE BAPTIST MOVEMENT EVERYONE IS CONSIDERED EQUAL BEFORE CHRIST. There is no separate ecclesiastical hierarchy of clergy such as archbishops, bishops or priests, or presbytery exercising authority over local church congregations and the selection and appointment of clergy. In particular, Baptists reject the idea that authority flows down from previous church leaders who can be traced back to the apostles in ‘apostolic succession'.
CONGREGATIONAL: Baptists are congregational: each church is self-governing and self-supporting, made up of members, each with a role to play. The churches encourage those attending to become church members through baptism on proclamation of faith in Christ. This entitles them to participate in seeking the will of Christ with respect to decisions in the life of the church. Final authority rests not with the minister, elders or deacons but with the Church Members Meeting. It appoints and elects ministers, elders, deacons and others who take a leadership role, agree financial policy and determine mission strategy and the content of congregational worship.
INTERDEPENDENT: Despite their autonomy and congregational government, local Baptist churches have always recognised the need to come together in regional, national and international associations for support and fellowship. Baptists believe that churches should not live in isolation but be interdependent.
Technically, there is no such thing as a Baptist denomination. The organisation has a 'bottom up' rather than 'top down' approach. However, in the UK most Baptist churches belong to a Baptist Union. This isn't a central authority but rather a central resource for assisting churches and coordinating regional and national interaction and support.