For Other Churches, Baptists Assert a High View of a Low and Free Church

Yes, by all means, let us maintain, undergird, and strengthen our precious Baptist distinctives … but let us do this not so that people will say how great the Baptists are but rather what a great Savior the Baptists have, what a great God they serve. — Timothy George

Whereas Baptists have made unhelpful contributions to the Christian tradition throughout their history (see the Landmark movement as just one example), they have also made helpful contributions.

In contrast to the discord of the nineteenth century, Baptists have also served other churches in helpful ways by a healthy articulation of the place of the local church in the lives of Christians, while at the same time, sought to defend the freedom of other churches and religions to disagree with them.

These two contributions, a healthy ecclesiology and religious liberty, have a larger end in mind than the petty attempts to show how the Baptist tradition is “the most thorough” among all Protestants. In short, Baptists have had much to contribute to the church catholic when they have sought to build local churches and defend the freedom of religion with the Gospel and for the Gospel.

In essence, I am summarizing what evangelical Baptists have discussed often in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, namely Baptist Distinctives and Baptist identity, and thus am not aiming to say anything new, but rather to reassert and affirm the path whereby future Baptists can continue to make a helpful contribution to the Christian tradition.

Baptist historians and theologians regularly engage in an ongoing discussion of what exactly comprises a list of Baptist distinctives. In the seminary classes I teach, after weeks of building a case for the value of the Baptist tradition, despite its many flaws and errors in history, I conclude each term by summarizing what identifies the Baptist tradition as marked by:

(1) a People of the Book who preach the Gospel and have found it helpful to summarize what the Bible says about the Christian life and practice in the church and the world in confessions of faith.

(2) The practice of believer’s baptism by immersion as the entrance to a

(3) believer’s church that is

(4) free and separate from the state and thus advocates for the religious freedom for all in society while

(5) seeking to share the Gospel with all in society and to the ends of the earth in an intentional and organized Great Commission focus of evangelism and missions.  All of this is done through

(6) biblical cooperation among churches.[1]

For simplicity, I often condense all six of these distinctives into the two categories of church health and religious liberty, both advocated by Baptists for and from the Gospel in service of other churches.

Or to put it another way, as one my PhD students said recently, playing their part in the larger Christian tradition, Baptists assert a high view of a low and free church.[2]

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In February, I had the privilege of delivering the second faculty address at Midwestern Seminary on the topic, “The Thorough Reformers? Baptists, the Consensus Quinquesaecularis, and the Future.” The above is a portion of that address, the entirety of which will comprise the chapter I submitted this week for inclusion in the forthcoming volume, Baptists and the Christian Tradition, edited by Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps for B&H Academic.

To hear the entire address you can listen to the audio here:

[1] These are concomitant with other interpretations of Baptist theology in history as unique Baptist contributions to the Christian tradition. As the Center for Baptist Renewal’s manifesto of Evangelical Baptist Catholicity states,”We affirm the distinctive contributions of the Baptist tradition as a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. These distinctives include the necessity of personal conversion, a regenerate church, believers’ baptism, congregational governance, and religious liberty.” The CBR explains “Other Baptist groups and theologians have utilized the notion of “Baptist Catholicity” or “Bapto-Catholicity” (see, for example, the manifesto for Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity (1997)), but we are seeking to stake a claim for a particularly evangelical expression of this impulse.”

[2] Gratitude to the creative and thoughtful S. Mark Fugitt.