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Baptists are amongst those who would be so brazen (some opponents would unfairly say “opinionated” or “arrogant”) as to say, “If you understood the Bible the way we understand it, then you too would be a Baptist”. We would like to utter such sentiments with genuine humility – we do not think we have arrived. The reality simply is that whilst we are happy to have fellowship with Christians of another stripe, we ought to be Baptists by conviction. Yes I know – in post-modern ears that phrase does not sit well. We live in an age where all “convictions” are at more accurately understood to be “temporary persuasions”. The reality is, that even if you were oblivious to this fact up to this point, be well aware of it now – the word [“Baptist”], carries some freight – it has some weighty practical significance.
Of course, for some Christians, and even for some Baptists, the term “Baptist” causes some irritation and rankle. Maybe it would help if we gave the assurance that our purpose in even discussing the term and its meaning is with a desire precisely to cut us loose from the misunderstanding that the word Baptist is a denominational word. No! The term ‘Baptist’ is first and foremost a theological designation – and for that reason we submit to every educational endeavour that will enable us to understand this word and appreciate its use.
[allow me lay out some of the angles]. Let me briefly explain some of these distinctive Baptistic convictions – see where you stand on the issues raised.
Baptists are a unique group of believers in that historically they alone have held, and continue to hold, to a cluster of ten defining convictions. Many other believers share some or many of these convictions with us, but only Baptists hold to all ten. In this and the [following articles], we plan to examine these convictions, and in the final article will attempt to demonstrate how these various convictions strengthen and under-gird each other.
The first and most significant Baptist conviction is that the New Testament teaches the necessity of a direct relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. Repeatedly Jesus is given the title “Lord”. This is appropriate because He alone is our Master. We can only be reconciled to the Father, and we can only receive the Spirit, if Jesus Christ alone is trusted and embraced as our Advocate, our only Mediator, our Substitute, our elder Brother, our Friend. And this faith-relationship is a direct one. In other words, the Lordship and authority of Christ is not mediated to us, or exercised in our lives through an intermediary, such as our parents, or a human priest-figure. Between us and the Father stands one Man, Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5-6; Heb 9:15). Jesus Christ is the One sent by the Father to be our ultimate truth-revealing Prophet, and our ultimate self-sacrificing Priest, and our ultimate King who rules over us with justice. Baptists make no clergy-laity distinction. Together, both Pastors and non-pastors benefit from the direct Lordship of Jesus Christ as they relate to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is because of this conviction that Baptists make much of words and phrases such as “conversion”, “the new birth”, “born again” – because without such an experience this direct relationship with God the Father through the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ is not possible!
Closely related to this conviction is the persuasion that as believers in Jesus Christ, we are all priests unto God. The New Testament images of the church, such as “the body of Christ” (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:12-31), affirm identity of status, though differentiation of function, for all believers. The “Great Commission” is addressed to all believers. Paul envisages all of God’s people being prepared for works of service in Eph 4:12. All believers are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, and so Peter can be emphatic in saying, “But you (plural!) are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Pet 2:9). All converted sinners, whose hope for eternity is centered in Christ alone, have a certain dignity of status and a significance of function – we are all priests serving God!
This directness of relationship and this status and significance before God lead naturally to a third conviction, namely that we all have a constructive, God-given role to play in the household of Faith. Although there are traces of other forms of church government (called ‘polity’ in theological discussion) in the New Testament, Baptists believe that the principle of congregational life emerges strongly and is most consistent with these aforementioned convictions. God has designated and equipped some to perform the role, and fill the office of Elder in the congregation. This role carries with it tremendous responsibilities of authority and leadership. But such responsibilities are performed and exercised in an atmosphere of mutual submission between people who all stand before God. We see this dynamic in action in Acts 6:5-6, where the apostles initiated a strategy which was enforced by a decision taken by the whole church. So too, we see that the New Testament epistles are addressed to the whole church, not simply to its leaders. So, for example, church membership, disciple-making and discipline are all congregational affairs (Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:2-5; 2 Cor 2:4-6). Baptists are convinced from Scripture that the local church is a ‘theocracy’ (as opposed to a democracy on the one hand or dictatorship on the other) in which men designated to exercise authority are held accountable to the Word by the congregation before God. (Thoughtful Baptists cringe at the suggestion that this conviction is fairly referred to by the popular ecclesiastical phrase “congregational rule”. Christ rules the local congregation, by means of designated officers who are accountable to the gathered family) [editor: I’m cringing. Being an “elder rule” proponent I’m busy digesting this.]. So, Baptists believe that the whole congregation is responsible for determining and implementing the will of Christ.
Here then are the first three convictions which Baptists are persuaded by. Yes, we need to say it again: There are obviously other Christians who do not use the name “Baptist”, but who none the less also hold to and live by, to a greater or lesser extent – the direct Lordship of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, and congregational accountability. But, what will become clearer as we examine further Baptistic convictions in subsequent articles, is that we are unique in being persuaded about all of these inter-linked convictions, as a package-deal!
But what does all this mean practically? It means, that Baptists are involved people. Baptists are not passive “church-attenders”, simply coming in and going out as clinically as possible. No, Baptists are thinkers, students of the Word, prepared to administer truth to each other and to unbelievers. Baptists care passionately about the local church and its witness in the community.
What’s the verdict then – are you a Baptist? Or do you simply happen to worship God at a “Baptist” church?
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