What does it mean to be Baptist?
There a lot of conceptions out there. Of course, my first and primary identity is as a Christian—there’s no disputing that—and that’s the case for my other Baptist brothers and sisters, along with our brothers and sisters from the Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, and other Christian denominations. We’re all Christians first, of course. But having denominations is wonderful—we live in a nation without a state church, so Christians who differ on points of doctrine are free to live out their biblical convictions and worship according to their consciences. But with so many denominations, what does it actually mean to be Baptist? The biblical and theological reasons for being Baptist are many, but I’ll lay out two:
1) Baptists believe that the church, the new covenant community of Jesus, is fully-regenerate. Everyone in the new covenant is represented by Christ, so everyone in Christ’s new covenant community enjoys the benefits Christ has won for us. We have the Holy Spirit, new hearts, new minds, and the full forgiveness of sins. So, Christ’s new covenant community, the church, is made up of only believers, unlike ancient Israel. Israel was a mixed community of believers and unbelievers. Baptists believe that Old Testament promises in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, and others teach that Jesus saves and keeps everyone in his new covenant. In fact, the New Testament teaches that the new covenant community is a royal priesthood—all new covenant members have equal access to our Heavenly Father through the Son by the Spirit. Baptists do not believe, as some other Reformed denominations do, that the new covenant is made up of believers and their unbelieving children. This idea affects baptism. Baptists baptize professing believers upon their conversion. Unlike Presbyterians, for example, Baptists don’t sprinkle infants or children with water. Israel’s old covenant community and Christ’s new covenant community are different in both their structures and their natures. Baptists aim only to baptize believers. And Baptists immerse you fully—you get dunked because that’s what the Greek word, baptizo, means. Full immersion reflects Romans 6 and gives the best picture of our salvation in Christ. Baptism by immersion gives a beautiful picture of the Christian’s faith union with Christ. We’ve died to sin with Christ, and we’ve been buried with him. But we’re now alive to Christ by faith through his resurrection.
2) Baptists believe in meaningful membership and church discipline. In Matthew 16, Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven—to bind and to loose—to Peter because of Peter’s confession of Christ as the Son of God. Two chapters later in Matthew 18, Jesus teaches about church discipline, the process of disciplining an unrepentant Christian. Jesus teaches that if an unrepentant church member won’t turn from sin after one believer and then two or three believers pursue him, then the entire local church calls him to repent in order to win him back to the faith. If the unrepentant member still won’t repent, then the local church is to treat him as an unbeliever, to remove him from church membership. Jesus takes the exact same language he used with Peter in Matthew 16 —the keys of the kingdom of heaven—and now applies it to the local church here—”whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The local church now has the authority of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What does that mean? Well, what do keys do? They open doors and lock doors. You let someone in or shut someone out of your house with your key. Jesus teaches us that the local church is God’s authority on earth to affirm or deny someone’s profession of Christian faith—to welcome people into God’s kingdom or to keep unwelcome people out of God’s kingdom. The local church affirms someone’s profession of Christian faith by taking them into church membership. Someone who professes faith but lives like a scoundrel, contrary to their own professed faith, the local church is supposed to keep them out. That’s meaningful membership. But since we don’t have the eyes of the Lord to see someone’s heart, local churches may take someone into membership who makes a credible confession and appears to be a faithful Christian, only for them to later run unrepentantly after sin. In God’s wisdom, He’s given local congregations church discipline as a means of guarding the unity, purity, and testimony of the church. If a church member is in unrepentant sin, the church seeks to win him to repentance through this process of church discipline. If that member won’t turn away from their sin and back to Christ, then the church disciplines him out of membership, and, with the authority of Christ, removes the church’s authoritative affirmation of that person’s faith. Someone disciplined out of a faithful, gospel-preaching church shouldn’t be confident that he or she is actually a Christian.
Sadly, many Baptist churches have moved away from meaningful membership and church discipline in the past 100-150 years, but it’s not because they’re being faithful to Scripture. They’re not being consistently Baptist. Baptists have, historically, argued for a high view of Scripture, a high view of Christ’s redemption, and a high view of the church. Meaningful membership, baptism, and church discipline are all grounded in the Baptist belief that Christ saves His new covenant people completely. And so the local church, as the visible expression of Christ’s new covenant community, should reflect those truths in our local congregations. Being biblical (and being Baptist) is a wonderful thing.