Baptists have distinctives, and in a typical ordination council, a Baptist ministerial candidate is asked to articulate them. Though some people may include additional items, these seven elements are at the heart of Baptist distinctives:

  • The Bible: the only rule of faith and practice
  • Priesthood of the believer
  • Soul liberty
  • Autonomy of the local church
  • Two ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  • Regenerate church membership
  • Separation of church and state

Once, as part of an ordination council, I witnessed something a bit unusual as questioning proceeded along the lines of the distinctives. It quickly became apparent that the candidate was really not a Baptist. Not surprisingly, there was no small stir among the brethren!

I’ve noticed a fair number of “Baptists” who undoubtedly claim these distinctives and yet violate several of them in their practice—and practice reveals actual theology. Ironically, those who violate specific distinctives are often the ones making the most noise about being Baptist. In practice, perhaps, these are at best “partial Baptists.” As I think about it, three particular issues stand out:

Priesthood of the Believer
This distinctive maintains that every believer is a “priest” before God and, as such, has direct access to God. First Timothy 2:5 states, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Therefore, you do not have to go through a man to get to God. Yet there are pastors who give the distinct impression that they provide the will of God for their flock. Such domineering “leadership” infringes on and even threatens to entirely eclipse the role of the Holy Spirit. I have met people who were afraid of ever doing anything different from their pastor’s counsel, as if his counsel was on the level of God. “Pastoral authority” in organizational oversight is both legitimate and needful, but when taken beyond into the spiritual realm, it becomes Catholic (see article “Leading versus Lording”).

Soul Liberty
Soul liberty, the freedom to be persuaded by the Holy Spirit in areas where the Word of God is not explicitly clear, is ignored by some pastors and as well as some people. Regarding these kinds of matters, Romans 14:5 states, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Yet some set themselves up as the standard setter for others. While for the sake of corporate church unity, individuals should defer in matters of church leadership policy, in the realm of the home or personal life, others should let each one be persuaded by the Spirit.

Local Church Autonomy
The autonomy of the local church is the belief that each church must follow God directly and is not under any religious human authority or hierarchy. However, I’ve noticed that autonomy is often ignored, and this has been displayed as Baptist preachers castigate other Baptist preachers who differ from them in the way they handle certain church matters. Conformity is sought and intimidation is too often the means for achieving that end. The “bigger” the preacher, the greater the intimidation brought to bear, and the pressure to bow to man can be great. While bantering about ideas is often helpful and appropriate, bashing those who differ is not. When the situation turns to man fearing man, it brings a snare.

It just seems strange when the very ones who emphasize being Baptists are the ones violating these Baptist distinctives. Perhaps those of us who are Baptists should carefully look at our practice and make sure it lines up with our Baptist doctrine. Otherwise…we could end up merely as partial Baptists.

John Van Gelderen

John Van Gelderen

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