“The Bible alone is our absolute rule of Faith and Practice.” Ever heard this before? Though many things define a Baptist, this is good place to start. It is easier to see what Baptists do (Practice) than it is to understand what we believe.
The Wikipedia article on Baptists under the series on Christianity correctly identifies us. “Diverse from their beginning, those identifying as Baptists today differ widely from one another in what they believe, how they worship, their attitudes toward other Christians and their understanding of what is important in Christian discipleship.”
One problem is identifying what “Baptist” means. As reported in the same Wikipedia article, there are 41 million people worldwide who identify themselves with the name “Baptist” but more than 100 million with Baptistic beliefs. (Baptist World Alliance). The largest single group is the Southern Baptist Convention with a membership of over 16 million worldwide. So every comment I make has exceptions. This includes comments about other Denominations. I am attempting to describe the mythical “ordinary, average Baptist.”
Baptist congregations range in size from less than a dozen to megachurches in the tens of thousands. They meet in homes, out in the woods, by lakesides, in chapels and beautiful, ornate church buildings. Compared to Lutheran, Reformed, Roman Catholic and Orthodox buildings, Baptist churches are considered “plain” or “simple” (the Amish term). Baptists (except for the Amish and Mennonite groups) have no doctrine against ornate buildings. Solomon and Herod’s temples were ornate golden buildings. But Baptists believe that the Church, the body of Christ, is made up of people, not buildings. In this age, from Pentecost in Acts to the Rapture (or the Tribulation if you do not believe in a Pretribulation Rapture), money collected should be used meet to needs of the saints, primarily missions. Building expenses must be minimized. There is a constant debate among Baptists as to what is the minimum. Even in America, Baptist churches range from beautiful buildings with organs, stained glass windows and elaborate sound systems to plain modular buildings with just a keyboard.
Some Baptist churches have services on Saturday, services almost all day Sunday and some form of service almost every night of the week. Other Baptist churches have just one service a week. Probably the most common is Sunday School on Sunday with one or two morning services, a Sunday evening service and a Wednesday evening service. Large churches often have multiple Sunday morning services because there are more people than the main sanctuary will seat.
The types of services vary from very informal (blue jeans and shorts) to suits and ties for members and robes for those on the platform. The average is for the pastor and anyone else conducting the service to wear business apparel while most of the congregation looks like a business on casual Friday, Dockers, etc. For some reason, sports coats and suits are more common in the South where it is hotter.
As is common across Christianity, worship services are divided into CCM (Contemporary Christian Music: electric guitars, drums and amplifiers), traditional (choirs, orchestras, congregational singing of hymns, piano and organ) and blended. Some do not believe in the use of any instruments.
Sunday School is a time for teaching the Bible. It might be book-by-book, topical (such as marriage in the Bible), or biographical (such as the life of Samuel). Sunday Schools are the small groups of large churches. A very large church will have hundreds of Sunday School classes. A very small church might only have three groups, preschool, school aged children and adult. The Southern Baptists and the General Association of Regular Baptists have standard curricula that aid teachers and unify teaching. Teachers can use flannelgraphs, videos, audio, PowerPoint presentations, small group discussions, blackboards and whatever else the teacher can think of. Some churches have classes that “teach the teachers.” This class usually covers the more difficult sections of the material with brainstorming to come up with answers. It also covers ways of teaching the material for the greatest understanding. Sunday School time is limited there is also an emphasis on starting on time and ending on time. Since the pastor preaches in the main service, a strictly lecture style is not common for these class times.
The main service has a beginning time where people may fellowship, sit quietly or pray. While there is no format that every congregation is expected to follow, most follow a similar order. The service normally begins with someone leading in prayer. This will be followed by (in no particular order) a public welcome, greeting and announcements, saying of a creed (or singing a Doxology), an opening hymn, special music, more singing, scripture reading (audience participation), more singing, public prayer, everyone but the pastor leaves the platform, and then the sermon. The sermon is the same as a homily in other denominations. While a pastor is free to preach whatever he wants, in practice there are fellowships that often agree to cover certain topics on certain days.
Some Baptist churches celebrate the ordinance of Lord’s Supper each week during the service. Other congregations celebrate it less often, but it is always on a regular basis. The service usually closes with Believer’s Baptism, or if there is no one to be baptized, prayer. Offerings might be taken in the middle of the service, at the end of the service or not at all. Some congregations simply have a place to put tithes and offerings as you leave.
Sunday evening services are usually informal and once a year (or quarter) are devoted to financial business. While anyone may ask a question or bring up a point, there is enormous peer pressure to keep these meetings as short as possible. The real business is delegated throughout the year. These meetings are much like a stockholder’s meeting.
Sunday evening services can be singspirations (the entire service devoted to congregational singing), fellowships (food), missionary presentations, question and answer sessions, presentations by people other than the pastor or another sermon, this one usually more in-depth.
Weeknight services are usually prayer services and if the congregation is geographically spread out, the services are often in people’s homes so people do not have to travel very far. There is usually little or no singing or preaching. This is where personal information is given out that is often not intended for the general congregation. In some congregations, these smaller, local groups are sometimes Sunday School classes.
There are also AWANA clubs, summer camps, retreats, men’s and women’s fellowships, projects to repair homes, feed people and run Christian Schools. The total number of projects various Baptist groups are involved in would take hundreds of pages. Did you know that the Southern Baptist Convention was second only to the Salvation Army in providing aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina?
The Other aspect of Faith and Practice is our Faith. First, the word believe in the Bible is not just a matter of opinion. Did you think the word believe, as used in the Bible, meant accept something without thinking, blindly? It means to examine the facts and come to a conclusion. The best example that I have come up with in our culture is a jury foreman, when the judge asks if the jury has reached a verdict. When the foreman responds “We find the defendant is guilty (or not guilty)” he means that they believe, because they have come to a conclusion based on the evidence. Yes, it is an opinion, but it is a reasoned, informed opinion based on the facts.
The word Baptist is used because it emphasizes our belief in a congregation made up of believers. While there is no age mentioned in the Bible for being old enough to be baptized, it means that the local congregation is made up of believers, not people who were baptized as infants by someone else without any understanding on their part.
Our form of Church government is Congregational (the property is owned by the Congregation and the Congregation votes on the selection and retention of the Pastor). Episcopalians, Anglicans, some Lutherans, Methodists and Roman Catholics are Episcopal in their form of church Government. The Denomination owns the property and chooses the leadership. Presbyterians, Reformed and some Lutherans have a Presbyterian or Representative form of Church government. While the Denomination owns the property, individual congregations vote on their own leadership as well as the denomination’s leadership. As I said in the opening, there are exceptions to everything, but I am attempting to describe the mythical “average.”
The major difference between Baptistic groups and the Denominations I just listed are a belief in what makes up the true Church, the Bride of Christ. Each of the above listed Denominations believes, in some way, that the Church replaces Israel, at least for now. Baptism replaced circumcision, the Lord’s Table (Eucharist) replaced the temple sacrifices and Peter and the Apostles replaced the priesthood. None of these beliefs have any basis in Scripture.
Baptists believe, that is, they have searched the Scriptures and have concluded based on the facts, that the Church, the Bride of Christ is made up of believers who are obedient to the Word of God. While there should be, and can be, an organic unity (direct connection to a founding Church, Apostle, Evangelist, Pastor or Deacon) the New Testament does not require it. There is certainly not an unbroken line of believers in any Church office back to the time of Christ. The priesthood of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches have no greater authority than any other believer. One foundational doctrine Protestants and Baptists share is the priesthood of every believer. A seven-year-old unbaptized girl has the same standing in prayer before God as any Pastor; more if she has confessed her sins and the Pastor has not. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9). The word confess, homolegeo, means to say the same thing about our sins that Gods says. It does not mean to say it out loud to someone else.
Then some of the Pharisees and Scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3 NASB) Baptists view traditions as important, but not inspired. We use the Word of God to judge traditions. Traditions do not judge the Word of God. For example, when the days of creation say and the evening and the morning were the (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th) day, any tradition which allows you to choose to disbelieve these words is in error.
The Scriptures must be taken at face value. You do not get to determine what face value is. They are to be read as any other work of literature. For example, Mary has directed Shakespearian plays. While there were people with a High School mentality who had no idea what Shakespeare meant, they average person understood. After he is mortally wounded in a swordfight with Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, the witty Mercutio says “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” Everyone who understands Shakespeare at all sees the double meaning of the word “grave.” Hamlet, as he contemplates suicide in perhaps the most famous words in all of Shakespeare, says “To be or not to be.” and “To die, to sleep, To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay there’s the rub.” He wonders aloud if his problems will hound him beyond the grave. There are similar word plays in the Scriptures. So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56 NASB) This is explained clearly in the same passage when his disciples came to him confused about this saying. “Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe”. (John 6:61-64 NASB) So Jesus is clearly saying this is a figure of speech that he used to force people to examine their own beliefs. Like Shakespeare, all authors sometimes use figures of speech.
While there is a debate among Baptist over the office of Apostle, that is, does the office of Apostle still exist, the only two other offices mention in the Scriptures are Deacon and elder (also known as Pastor, Presbyter or Episcopal). The term priest belongs to Israel and is not part of the Church.
Traditions can be helpful to understand various doctrines, but the doctrines themselves are determined by the infallible authority of the Word of God, not the fallible authority of human traditions. It is not that traditions are unimportant. For example, the word “Trinity” is not found in the Word of God, though the teaching is there. The Word Trinity is a good and helpful word, though it is not inspired. Creeds which we recite in services are not inspired. Creeds are not only useful, but also necessary to simplify some complex doctrines.
Some have asked about our origins. It is not very important to us, since the requirement of Scripture is obedience to the Word of God, not man made traditions. Many groups throughout the world have suffered severe persecution, and have no written records left. Ukrainian Baptists are from the Mennonite heritage. Roger Williams, the first Baptist Minister in America was ordained in the Church of England. The first Church in England to use the name Baptist was a Separatist congregation. There is one group of Russian Baptists who claim to be part-descendants from the Russian Orthodox Church. Baptists examine what you believe, and fellowship based on those beliefs, not your physical heritage.
Important Baptists, such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Jesse Mercer hold that Baptist beliefs go back to Christ, though there is not a direct unbroken line.