In recent years, denominational differences have been downplayed as divisive or insignificant. I do not believe this is the case. In fact, the creation of denominations is, in reality, helpful for kingdom unity and work. Denominations exist so Christians with differing convictions can still acknowledge one another as Christian family and work in some Christian ministries and efforts together (like pregnancy resource centers, special prayer efforts, etc.), without causing division, distraction, or confusion in the local church as we seek to live out those differing convictions on how God desires to be worshiped and for His people to be discipled. Imagine if, in the same local church, half believed in infant baptism and the other half in believer’s baptism, or a quarter believed in women pastors and three quarters did not, or if three fifths believed speaking in tongues means speaking in an angelic tongue and the other portion of the church believed it means speaking in known human languages in missional situations, or if half the church believed an outside authority, like a bishop or superintendent, had jurisdiction over the local church and the other half believed the church to be autonomous. There would be so much confusion in such a church that kingdom growth would be greatly hindered and subverted. So what is it at the core of being Baptist? What have Baptists historically believed that differs from many other Christian denominations?
The primary Baptist distinctive is regenerate church membership.
Baptists believe that no one can be admitted into church membership until he or she has first received salvation and baptism. Therefore, infants do not automatically become members. Furthermore, those joining must present sufficient evidence of a conversion experience.
The second Baptist distinctive is local church autonomy.
Baptists believe that each local church has authority from Jesus to govern herself under His authority. While Baptists believe in cooperation between local churches, no religious entity exists which has authority over a Baptist church. Conventions and Associations exist as cooperative networks rather than governing bodies. Such practices as “church campuses” subvert this distinctive.
The third Baptist distinctive is congregational polity.
Baptists believe in the priesthood of all believers—that God has regenerated every believer by His Spirit and in so doing equipped every believer for service in and for the church. Therefore, the local church is governed by the congregation. Members are guided by the Holy Spirit to discern His will together, typically in the form of a vote.
The fourth Baptist distinctive is symbolic immersive credobaptism.
Baptists believe the only legitimate form of baptism is that in which the baptized individual is a born-again believer in Jesus Christ who is baptized by immersion.
Baptist credobaptism is different from Campbellite baptism as Baptists see it as an an important sign which cannot earn, merit, or dispense God’s saving grace. Instead, it announces that one has already been saved prior to baptism and is now walking with Jesus and desiring to walk with the church. Baptists believe that Scripture reveals four aspects of rightful baptism:
The right person: a born-again believer
In the Bible, there is never a hint that anyone should be baptized who has not decided for him or herself to surrender to Jesus in faith and repentance. Therefore, infants cannot be baptized. One who has undergone infant baptism should seek obedience to the Lord by being baptized legitimately as a believer.
The right reason: obedience and declaration of your new faith.
Baptism is a sign to others that the new believer has joined with Jesus and with His church. Baptism should be motivated by a desire to love and obey the Lord—not in an attempt to gain salvation.
The right method: immersion under water
The New Testament term for baptize (baptizō) means to immerse in water. Sprinkling (aspersion) and pouring (affusion) are not biblical methods found anywhere in the New Testament. Immersion is the only method of baptism that correctly portrays the death and resurrection which baptism represents (Romans 6:1-7).
The right authority: a local church
Jesus commanded His Apostles to baptize new disciples with water (Matthew 28:19-20). The Apostles were the foundation of the church and this responsibility to baptize passed from them to local churches, as did the responsibility to make disciples for Jesus (Ephesians 2:19-22). Therefore, the local church is the only right authority and entity to baptize a new believer.
These four Baptist distinctives are not exhaustive but they are primary to what it means to be Baptist.