I was recently reading about Westboro Baptist Church and thinking to myself, “I wish they didn’t have ‘Baptist’ in their name.” The problem is that most people don’t understand how loosely knit, how varied, Baptist churches can be from each other.
Unlike some other Christian denominations, Baptists are autonomous and operate independently. This includes the massive number of churches gathered under the “Southern Baptist Convention” umbrella. Each church is run by it’s own local congregation, elects it’s own pastor and elders and can therefore vary drastically from one to another in both doctrine and organization.
So what does it mean to be a Baptist? Here are a few things:
1. By and large, Baptists believe that after a person expresses belief in Christ (i.e. are “saved”), they demonstrate their belief by publicly participating in the symbolic ritual of baptism. Generally speaking, they follow the example of Christ when he submitted to John and was baptized in the Jordan river, supposedly by immersion. Some Baptist churches will hold a few special events each year where they will meet at a river or lake or beach and perform the ordinance in a natural body of water.
Baptists don’t believe that this is a requirement to be saved or to go to heaven, it is simply an outward show of their affiliation. It is also done after the person expresses their faith, so if a person was baptized as an infant or during a ceremony before they believed in Jesus they will often be encouraged to do it once as a believer.
2. They practice the ordinance of the Lord’s Super. This is typically reserved for professing Christians. Unlike some Christian faiths, Baptists consider the elements to be merely symbolic of the body and blood of Christ and is done in remembrance of the final teaching of Christ before his crucifixion.
These above two points are very common among Baptist churches. The following points are going to be often the same from one church to another but no where near as common as the first two.
3. Baptist churches tend to be very evangelical and emphasize missions and personal evangelism. One main reason for the various Baptist associations is to pool resources when sponsoring mission agencies.
4. As stated above, Baptists churches usually elect their own church leadership. Different congregations (a congregation is the group of people who attend a particular church) can have differing forms of leadership, but commonly there is some variation of a senior (or head) pastor, some number of associate pastors and a board or committee of lay elders (or sometimes deacons). In the case that a church needs to appoint a senior pastor, the elders will often create a pastoral search committee responsible for interviewing and vetting candidates for the role. The selection of the pastor may be voted on by all active members of the church.
Most congregations will entrust day-to-day management to the church staff, then reserve important decisions for the board of elders, and finally bring critical decisions to the active church body. The particulars are often codified in a church’s legal documents.
Despite the appointment of a head pastor who preaches and generally leads the church, they do not consider him to have a special connection with God. He is just a man with a gift for leadership and/or teaching. Every person in the congregation shares the same ability to speak to God on their own behalf. Contrast this to some Christian groups that believe the priest has a special role to intervene before God on behalf of the people.
5. Baptist churches tend to be conservative. This is exhibited in an inclination to accept the Bible as literal, including a literal second coming of Christ, to abstain from consumption of alcohol, and the appointment of primarily men to leadership roles. Let me emphasize that these are tendencies and do not always hold true. There are several Baptist colleges in America that are known as being very liberal in their views. However, even those that are considered liberal by Baptist standards will often be considered conservative in their views compared to ecumenical or humanist churches.
What about “Southern Baptists”?
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest baptist association. There are other groups of Baptist churches that are not in any way affiliated to the SBC. One of the common traits of Souther Baptists is that they formally acknowledge the autonomy of the individual church. Churches cooperate together whenever possible, sometimes sending a pastor to preach if another church’s pastor is unable to do so.
Just to illustrate how this work, the church I attend in Des Moines Iowa has started 4 other churches in nearby areas. The pastoral staffs for each of the churches encourage each other and help each other, but each church is separate and autonomous from the others and the parent church that originally founded them.
Ultimately, the take-away is that except for the first two points above, it is very difficult to make assumptions about what a Baptist church stands for. There can be two different churches in town that both say “Baptist” on their sign but otherwise share very little in common.