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And so this is it, Christo Beetge’s* last installment.
In four previous editions we have been asking, and progressively answering, this very practical question, “What does it mean to be a ‘Baptist’?” We come now to the concluding article in this five-part series conceived to help us as a church.
family communicate more effectively and intentionally when we use technical designations such as ‘Baptist’. We have lamented the fact that increasingly it seems to be the case today that people who call themselves “Baptists” or “Methodists” or “Presbyterians” are unable to define what they mean when using such specific terminology. Yes, admittedly we live in a day where we increasingly shy away from being specific because it is not “politically correct” to make distinctions based on “privately held convictions”, since the philosophy of our age denies that there is any absolute truth. Such thinking is very much part of life today, but, in my experience it is not so much that people are unwilling to define their terminology, but more likely that they are unable to do so with any confidence. The reason why people are unable to articulate the distinctions between religious groups is that our post-modern world has successfully discouraged us from being aware of such potentially divisive issues. I am persuaded that ignorance is actually the problem – ignorance regarding church history and regarding Bible doctrine. It is to help bring some clarity then to the term “Baptist” that this series of articles has been written. These articles have sought simply to answer the very reasonable question, “What freight is implied by the term ‘Baptist’?”
Thus far nine issues have been raised. We have argued historically that Baptists are a peculiar group of believers who hold in common a commitment to a bouquet of convictions called ‘Baptist Principles’. To this point we have mentioned and briefly discussed the following:
- The Direct Lordship of Jesus Christ – every believer must by definition have a direct relationship with God the Father mediated only through the Person and work of God the Son;
- The Priesthood of all Believers – every believer is a priest unto God;
- The Congregational Life – because every individual believer has this direct access to God through Christ and is enabled by the indwelling Spirit to be a priest unto God, such members have the right and the responsibility to participate constructively and definitively in the life of the local congregation;
- The Authority and Sufficiency of the Bible – all matters of Faith and practise must be regulated and shaped by direct reference to the written Word which God has inspired, and preserved in written form for our eternal good;
- The Priority of Verbal Proclamation in worship and service – since saving faith comes from hearing the Word of God, our activities in mission, evangelism and discipleship must be heavily centered upon verbal proclamation and application of all of Scripture;
- Regenerate Church Membership – only those who are willing to make a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ and who engage in good works may be considered as members of a local church;
- Separation of Church and State – the authority of civil authorities is limited to civil matters, and must not encroach upon the authority of parents in the home nor on the authority of believers in the local church;
- The Two Ordinances – only two ceremonies were ordered by the Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ, namely baptism of confessors in Christ by immersion in water, and the eating of the Lord’s Supper as an act of remembrance in which Christ Jesus is present.
- The Autonomy of the Local Church – each local church with its formally recognised members and biblically qualified leaders, operating in obedience to the Scriptures and in the power of the Holy Spirit is not subservient to the authority of any other ecclesiastical body. There is no “Head Office” wielding authority and control over “branches”. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, is the Head of the Church. He mediates His authority by means of the Word and the Spirit directly into the local church and its members. The Church Universal is made up of local bodies, churches, that operate in obedience to God’s written revelation. Such practical operation and ministry happens without any additional level of authority being inserted between Jesus Christ and such local church families. Whilst local churches, in recognition of their inter-dependence upon one another, may associate and co-operate together for the benefit of the Kingdom of Christ, such association and co-operation does not explicitly or implicitly constitute another level of superior authority over the local church. In this respect Baptists are very different to Methodists, Anglicans, NG churches, etc.
Incidentally, just recently a very helpful practical example of this ninth principle, the issue of authority, appeared in the South African media. The Roman Catholic young lady, Francesca Zackey from Benoni, who claimed to be receiving “visitations and messages from the Virgin Mary” was instructed by “Head Office”, namely some ecclesiastical individual not directly associated with the local church to which she belonged, to cease from seeing people and speaking to the press about her “supernatural experiences”. As Baptists, we would say that the only people with any ecclesiastical authority in Francesca’s life are the Elders of, and the fellow-believers who belong to, that church.
So, whilst we are sceptical about what Francesca is doing, and are certainly critical of her alleged advice to a particular lady to look into the sun in order to catch a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, we would argue that the only people with relevant ecclesiastical authority in her life to admonish her would be the leadership within her own local church – not some “higher authority” in the church hierarchy. I trust the point regarding authority in the life of the individual believer and local group of believers is clear?
Related to this point in some sense is the final Baptist Principle known as “Freedom of Conscience“. Because Baptists believe as we do in the direct Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authoritative role of the Scriptures in the life of a believer who is actively dependent upon the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we want to defend the right of each individual to operate, within the law of the land, according to their own conscience before God. God alone is Lord of the conscience. James 4:12 and 1 Cor 4:3-4 establish this principle for us. We acknowledge that all people will give an account of themselves to Christ on the Day of Judgment. We have no right in the local church to demand an “absolute and blind obedience” in a manner that equates differing from the church with differing from God. This Baptist principle is best appreciated in the light of Church history and what can best be described as “Ecclesiastical Totalitarianism”.
For this reason, we Baptists want to defend what we believe to be the inalienable right of people to live according to the dictates of their own conscience. So, for instance, as a result of this tenth Principle, we will be willing to debate with local Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance. We believe they are mistaken in their convictions, and will seek to persuade them regarding the truth of Scripture. We will also obey Eph 5:11 and seek to expose such error. But, we will defend their right to continue in propagating their error if they so desire.
We would be opposed to their being restricted by civil authorities to live according to these (erroneous) convictions they have. We would be opposed to the civil authorities taking action against them on the basis of their error. Because we value the freedom we claim to have to live according to our consciences, we want to fight for the right of all people, likewise, to be allowed to live according to their consciences, even if we believe them to be wrong. Vengeance and coercion belong ultimately to God. As long as people are not in contravention of the law of the land, we will not call for punishment or coercion to be applied.
In the context of the local church, we see the importance of defining and recording up-front our convictions in a Statement of Faith. People then join us on the basis of their agreement with this Statement of Faith. In situations of conviction that are not dealt with by our Statement of Faith, we would simply seek to persuade people from the Scriptures, but we would not otherwise seek to bind their consciences. We would refrain from such action precisely because of our commitment to this tenth principle. Maybe it must be stated emphatically that this principle does not imply that we believe everybody to be right in whatever their convictions are. We will certainly not on the basis of this principle defend a “free for all” in terms of error being taught in the local church, or Biblically indefensible positions being held in the name of freedom of conscience. No, Baptists have simply believed historically by this principle that we do not have the authority before God to use manipulative “force” (emotional or physical) to bring about compliance. People must be left to stand or fall before the Lord – provided of course that their freedom is not intentionally undermining unity in the local church body.
As Baptists, we want to apply Zechariah’s prophecy recorded in Luke 1:74-75, and nurture people who will serve God “without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all [their] days”. We must be reminded that, for over 1000 years, amidst the mentality of the so-called “royal prerogative of kings” in the life and death for their subjects, this freedom of conscience did not exist! Baptists have fought for this freedom, and we must cherish it!
So, we have arrived at the place then, where we can peruse these ten principles and meaningfully answer the question for ourselves and for others, “Am I a ‘Baptist’ by conviction or simply through force of circumstance?” Here is the challenge then: The next time someone asks you, “What do Baptists believe?“, will you be willing and able to speak about more than simply the amount of water used in baptism? Will you be able, in an amiable and persuasive way, to mention and expand upon issues such as:
- The direct Lordship of Christ?
- The Priesthood of all believers?
- Congregational life?
- The Authority and Sufficiency of the Bible?
- The priority of Verbal Proclamation in worship and service?
- Regenerate church membership?
- Separation of church and State?
- The two Ordinances?
- The Autonomy of the local church?
- Freedom of Conscience?
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