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Baptist churches are part of a Christian movement often regarded as an Evangelical, Protestant denomination. Baptists emphasize a believer's baptism by full immersion, which is performed after a profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. A congregational governance system gives autonomy to individual local Baptist churches, which are sometimes associated in organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. In the late 1990s, there were about 43 million Baptists worldwide with about 33 million in the United States.



Baptist churches do not have a central governing authority, resulting in a wide range of beliefs from one Baptist church to another. Baptist distinctives are beliefs that are common among Baptist churches, some of which are also shared with many other post-reformational denominations.

Baptist distinctives acrostic

This acrostic is used by some Baptist churches as a summary of the distinctives or distinguishing beliefs of Baptists.

  • Biblical authority
  • Autonomy of the local church
  • Priesthood of all believers
  • Two ordinances (Believer's Baptism and Symbolic Communion)
  • Individual soul liberty
  • Separation of Church and State
  • Two offices of the church (Pastor and Deacon)

Believer's baptism

Believer's baptism is an ordinance that plays no role in salvation and is performed after a person professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is an outward expression that is symbolic of the inward cleansing or remission of their sins that has already taken place. It is also a public identification of that person with Christianity and with that particular local church. Most Baptist church used baptism as a criterion for membership.

Baptists emphasize baptism by full immersion, the mode used by John the Baptist, which consists of lowering the candidate in water backwards, while a pastor invokes the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19. This mode is also preferred for its parallel imagery to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Recognition of other modes of baptism by other Baptists and Christian groups vary from one church to another. A few Baptist churches allow for baptism by sprinkling as an alternative mode for the disabled or elderly. Some Baptist churches will recognize baptisms performed in other orthodox Christian churches that were not performed on infants.

Through Anabaptist influence, Baptists reject the practice of infant baptism or pedobaptism because they believe parents cannot make a decision of salvation for an infant. Only a person who has reached an "Age of accountability" is eligible for baptism. This is not a specific age, but rather the age at which God determines that person is accountable for their sins. Jesus began to visibly do the work of God at the age of 12 and somewhere around there is the typical "Age of Accountability". Children and those who are not mentally or emotionally capable of discerning their sins are not held accountable for their sins and are considered to be in a state of grace. Some Baptists do not hold the concept of an "Age of Accountability".


Congregationalist church governance gives autonomy to individual local churches in areas of policy, polity and doctrine. Baptist churches are not under the direct administrative control of any other body, such as a national council, or a leader such as a bishop or pope. Administration, leadership and doctrine are decided democratically by the lay members of each individual church, which accounts for the variation of beliefs from one Baptist church to another.

In a manner typical of other congregationalists, many cooperative associations of Baptists have arisen. The largest of these in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention. The second largest is the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., which is also America's second largest predominantly African-American denomination. There are hundreds of Baptist conventions and many Baptist churches do not fall into any of them. In addition, there are sometimes very strong disputes even within conventions, which are often divided between Christian fundamentalists and moderates.

Separation of Church and State

Main article: Baptists in the history of separation of church and state

Baptists who were imprisoned or died for their beliefs have played an important role in the historical struggle for freedom of religion and separation of church and state in England, the United States, and other countries. In 1612 John Smyth wrote, "the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience". That same year, Thomas Helwys wrote that the King of England could "comaund what of man he will, and wee are to obey it," but concerning the church -- "with this Kingdom, our lord the King hath nothing to do." In 1614, Leonard Busher wrote what is believed to be the earliest Baptist treatise dealing exclusively with the subject of religious liberty.

Baptists were influential in the formation of the first civil government based on the separation of church and state in what is now Rhode Island. Anabaptists and Quakers also share a strong history in the development of separation of church and state. Today, though, some prominant Southern Baptist leaders believe that the government, at some level, should favor Christianity in certain contexts.

Support of Seperation of Church and State does not imply a retreat from the political realm and Baptists do not generally eschew involvement in the political process. Currently in the United States, Baptist (particularly Southern Baptist) involvement in politics often involves controversies concerning gambling, alcohol, abortion, homosexual marriage as well as the teaching of evolution and state-sanctioned public prayer in public high schools. In parts of some southern U.S. states, Southern Baptists form a majority of the population and have successfully banned alcohol sales, and prevented the legalization of certain kinds of gambling.

Biblical authority

Authority of the Scriptures or sola scriptura states that the Bible is the only authoritative source of God's truth in contrast to the role of Apostolic tradition in the Roman Catholic Church. Any view that cannot be directly tied to a scriptural reference is generally considered to be based on human traditions rather than God's leading. Each person is responsible before God for his or her own understanding of the bible and is encouraged to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

Biblical inerrancy is also a common position held by Baptists in addition to literal interpretations of the bible and fundamentalist theologies. However, because of the variety allowed under congregational governance, many Baptist churches are neither literalist nor fundamentalist, although most do believe in biblical inerrancy. Even though it is only the Bible that is authoritative, Baptists also cite other works as illustrative of doctrine. One work which is commonly read by Baptists is the allegory Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.

Priesthood of all believers

Priesthood of all believers states that every Christian has direct access to God and the truths found in the Bible without the help of an aristocracy or hierachy of priests. This doctrine is based on the passage found in 1 Peter 2:9 and was popularized by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation and John Wycliff's Lollards before Luther. The Baptist position of the priesthood of believers is one column that upholds their belief in religious liberty.

Justification by faith

Justification by faith or sola fide states that it is by faith alone that we receive salvation and not through any works of our own. Baptists have a strong emphasis on the concept of salvation. Baptist theology teaches that humans have been contaminated by the sin of Adam and Eve's rebellion against God and that for this sin we are condemned to damnation. The theology holds that Christ died on the cross to give humans the promise of everlasting life, but that this requires that each individual accept Christ into his life and ask for forgiveness. Nevertheless, the Baptist view of soteriology runs the gamut from Calvinism to Arminianism.

Beliefs that vary among Baptists

Because of the congregational style of church governance on doctrine, doctrine on the following issues often varies greatly between one Baptist church and another.

Baptists generally believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ at which time God will sit in judgment and divide humanity between the saved and the lost (the Great White Throne judgment Book of Revelation 20:11) and Christ will sit in judgment of the believers (the Judgment Seat of Christ Second Epistle to the Corinthians 5:10), rewarding them for things done while alive. Amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism stand as the main eschatological views of Baptists, with views such as postmillennialism and preterism receiving only scant support.

Comparisons with other denominations

Baptists share certain emphases with other groups such as evangelism and missions. While the general flavor of any denomination changes from city to city, this aspect of Baptist churches is much more prominent than in most Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.

The Pacifism of the Anabaptists and the Quakers is not an ideal held by most Baptists. The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America was organized in 1984 to promote peace, justice, and non-violence, but it does not speak for all Baptists that accept the ideal of pacifism.

In Australia, the Baptist Union is very close to the Campbell-Stone Church of Christ. The two groups share similar theology, even sharing a bible college.

Worship Style

The focus of Baptist church services is the sermon. Sermons can range in time from about 30 minutes to several hours. They range in style from expository sermons that focus on one biblical passage and interpret its meaning, to topical sermons which address an issue of concern and investigate several biblical passages related to that topic.

The sermon is often surrounded by periods of musical worship lead by a song leader, choir or band. Musical style varies between hymns and Contemporary Christian music with many churches choosing a blend of the two. The choice in music style is sometimes correlated to the age of the members with older congregations preferring hymns while younger congregations prefer contemporary music. Some conservative Baptists will only sing hymns which usually includes songs in their hymnals written between the 1700s and the 1950s and are often played with a piano and/or organ. Some conservative Baptists oppose the use of drums and/or electric guitar in their service because those two instruments are associated with rock music which is considered sinful or Satanic to them.

Other common features in a Baptist church service include the collection of offering, the serving of symbolic communion and a period of announcements.

Communion services are typically held once a month on Sunday mornings, but may be held weekly, quarterly or annually. The communion portion takes place at the end of the normal service. Those who profess belief in Christ as their Savior are invited to partake¹ of the symbolic body and blood of Jesus, portrayed by bread and "wine" (which rarely may be grape wine, but is usually non-alcoholic grape juice). This is patterned after the Last Supper, which was a celebration of the Passover. The bread used in the service may be cubes of normal white bread, unleavened bread, wafers or small crackers. It is usually served by the pastor to the deacons, and by the deacons to the congregation. The grape juice is typically served in small glasses, though some churches use one cup for the entire congregation. Many church buildings are equipped with round receptacles on the rear of the pews for depositing the empty glasses after the service.

Though most Baptist churches are small, a significant percentage of megachurches are Baptist. These churches can seat thousands at once and can have sports fields, gyms, cafes, book stores and libraries.


There are several views about the origins of Baptists within the Baptist church.


Landmarkism is the belief that Baptist churches and traditions have preceded the Catholic Church and have been around since the time of John the Baptist and Christ. Proponents believe that Baptist traditions have been passed down through a succession of visible congregations of Christians that were Baptist in doctrine and practice, but not necessarily in name. This view is theologically based on Matthew 16:18 , "...and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." and a rejection of Catholicism as part of the historical origins of Baptists.

This succession grants Baptist churches the status of being unstained and separate from what they see as the corruptions of Catholicism and other denominations. It also allows for the view that Baptists predate the Catholic church and is therefore not part of the reformation or the protestant movement. Alexander Campbell of the Restoration Movement was a strong promoter of this idea.

J. M. Carroll's The Trail of Blood, written in 1931, is commonly presented to defend this origins view. Several groups considered to be part of this Baptist succession were groups persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church throughout history including Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists, Paulicians, Albigensians, Catharists, Waldenses, and Anabaptists. While some of these groups shared a few theological positions with current Baptists, many held positions that would now be considered heretical by current Baptists. It is also difficult to show historical connections between those groups which were often separated by large gaps in geography and time.

The works of John T. Christian offer the best presentation of this viewpoint.


Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites) were a group in the 1500s that rejected infant baptism and "rebaptized" members as adults. They share many teachings of the early Baptists, such as the believer's baptism and religious freedom and were probably influential in the development of many Baptist characteristics. While their names suggest some connection, some Anabaptists differed from the Baptists on many other issues such as pacifism and the communal sharing of material goods.

It is difficult to say how much influence the Anabaptists had on the actual formation of Baptist churches. One of the strongest relationships between the two groups happened when John Smyth's General Baptists attempted but failed to merge with the Mennonites.

The works of William Roscoe Estep offer the best presentation of this viewpoint.


This view suggests that Baptists were originally separatists in the Puritan reaction to perceived corruptions in the Church of England in the 1600s. In 1609, John Smyth, led a group of separatists to the Netherlands to start the General Baptist church with an Arminian theology. In 1616, Henry Jacob led a group of Puritans in England with a Calvinist theology to form a congregational church that would eventually become the Particular Baptists in 1638 under John Spilsbury. Both groups had members who sailed to America as pilgrims to avoid religious persecution in England and Europe and who started Baptist churches in the early colonies. The Particular and General Baptists would disagree over Arminianism and Calvinism until the formation of the Baptist Union of Great Britain in the 1800s under Andrew Fuller and William Carey for the purpose of missions. American Baptists soon followed suit.

This is the most common view held by modern Bapists, which is found represented in the works of H. Leon McBeth and many others.

Questions of Labeling

Some Baptists object to the application of the labels Protestant, denomination, Evangelical and even Baptist to themselves or their churches, while others accept those labels.

Those who reject the label Baptist prefer to be labeled as Christians who attend Baptist churches. Conversely, others accept the label Baptist because they identify with the distinctives they consider to be uniquely Baptist.

The name Protestant is rejected by some Baptists because Baptists do not have a direct connection to Luther, Calvin or the Roman Catholic Church. They do not feel that they are protesting anything and Landmark Baptists believe they pre-date the Roman Catholic Church. Other Baptists accept the Protestant label as a demographic concept that describes churches who share similar theologies of sola scriptura, sola fide, the priesthood of all believers and other positions that Luther, Calvin and traditional reformers held in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s.

The label denomination is rejected by some because of the local autonomous governance system used by Baptist churches. Being a denomination is viewed as having a hierarchy that substitutes for the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Another reason for the rejection of the label is the influence of the Restoration period on Baptist churches, which emphasized a tearing down of denominational barriers. Other Baptists accept the label, feeling that it does not carry a negative connotation but rather is merely a synonym for a Christian or religious group.

The label Evangelical is rejected by some fundamentalist Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that is not fundamentalist enough. It is rejected by some liberal Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that is too conservative. It is accepted by moderate Baptists who identify with the revival in the United States in the 1700s known as the First Great Awakening.

Famous Baptists

See also

Some Baptist Doctrinal Statements

Other resources


1. Baptists are not universally agreed upon the participants of Communion, varying from closed to et:Baptistid eo:Baptismo nl:Baptisme nds:Baptisten ja:バプテスト教会 pl:Baptyzm ru:Евангельские Христиане-Баптисты sv:Baptism zh:浸信会


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