Denominations did not exist when Jesus founded his church (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 4:4–6). Denominations will not exist after Jesus returns (John 17:20–21; Rev. 21:1–5). But that doesn’t mean denominations have no place in the present.
In fact, Baptists are at our best when we hold our distinctions with conviction, humility, and love. To do that, we must know where we came from, who we are, and how we can be Baptists for the glory of God and the good of the world.
Where Baptist Churches Came From
The Baptist tradition began in the early seventeenth century when English Separatists, who had already left the Church of England, took the crucial step of rejecting infant baptism in favor of believer’s baptism.
Like nearly all Protestants, early Baptists believed Scripture alone is our supreme authority for faith and practice. In following their Scripture-formed convictions, they continued to affirm the best of reformational theology. They believed salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.
The earliest Baptists also echoed the best of the so-called radical reformation as exemplified by evangelical Anabaptists. They believed churches should reflect the New Testament pattern of believer’s baptism, free churches, and the intentional spreading of the gospel.
Who Baptist Churches Are
In the four centuries since the beginning of the Baptists, the heart of our identity has been our Baptist distinctions. Almost all Baptists, in almost all places, for almost all of Baptist history have affirmed the principle of regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, congregational church government, local church autonomy, and religious liberty for all people.
Said differently, Baptists believe churches are communities of disciples wherein every member takes personal ownership of the church’s vision, which the congregation is free to pursue under the lordship of Jesus Christ as he reveals his will through his written Word.
“Baptist missionaries should plant Baptist churches that joyfully embrace Baptist distinctions.”
These distinctions are not unique to Baptists, but Baptists have uniquely emphasized them as a coherent web of beliefs. We believe each of them directly reflects or is a reasonable adaptation of New Testament practice. We also believe that each of them is grounded on the good news of Jesus’s perfect life, atoning death, victorious resurrection, ongoing intercession, and imminent return. For all these reasons, Baptist missionaries should plant Baptist churches that joyfully embrace these Baptist distinctions.
How Baptist Churches Have Struggled
While we must plant Baptist churches, we also must avoid insularity while we do so. Regrettably, our tradition has often struggled with this particular vice.
Sometimes we’ve had to guard against the insularity of ignorance. Some Southern Baptists have argued that only Baptist churches are “true” churches, that Baptist-like churches have always existed, and that the presence of said churches at all times and in all places is a biblical necessity. At times, variations of this view and its implications have had a toxic effect on our missionary endeavors.
Over the past century, however, the insularity of arrogance has proven to be a greater temptation. Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in America. As such, many of our churches are among the largest in our nation, our denominational ministries (especially the mission boards and seminaries) are among the largest in the world, and our Cooperative Program is the envy of many other denominations. Yet prominence often yields arrogance, and this has sometimes led to a malformed missionary vision among Southern Baptists.
Whether grounded in ignorance or arrogance—or both—our insularity has too often constituted a form of denominational idolatry that has failed to offer a winsome witness to the world and to our fellow Christians in other traditions.
Staying Unique without Being Unkind
While insularity is a denominational vice, a rightly ordered particularity—an unashamed affirmation of our unique identity—is a denominational virtue. This is especially true when we maintain particularity in the service of unity.
“Baptists are at our best when we hold our distinctions with conviction, humility, and love.”
Like all Christians who value the supreme authority of Scripture, Southern Baptists strive to follow the Bible in our vision of the local church. This bleeds over into our church planting efforts. While we must remain humble enough to admit we could be wrong in some areas, we must be honest enough to confess we think we’re mostly correct. (If the latter were not the case, then our Scripture-bound consciences would compel us to do something different or else align with another tradition that more closely reflects biblical patterns and priorities.)
We must guard against assuming that the Baptist way is the only way, but we can gently argue, with open Bibles and calloused knees, that the Baptist way is the way that most closely conforms with Scripture. Our vision of the church is a gift we bring to the wider body of Christ. When we plant Baptist churches, we offer this gift to our brothers and sisters, even as we remain open to receiving the gifts that they bring to the body.
They’ll Know We’re Baptists by Our Love
One famous hymn says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Yet particularity in the service of unity is a form of denominational neighbor-love.
This means Southern Baptist missionaries and their Great Commission partners should plant convictionally Baptist churches here, there, and everywhere. But these churches should also have a catholic spirit that recognizes God’s work in other Christian traditions as they look for ways to partner for the sake of gospel proclamation and the cultivation of human flourishing.
My prayer is that the world will know we are Baptists by our love. I pray they’ll know us by our love for Jesus. I pray they’ll know us by our love for his bride in all the places she is found. And I pray they’ll know us by our love for those who don’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Nathan A. Finn serves as provost and dean of the university faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is the coauthor of The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement, and he serves as a fellow for the Center for Baptist Renewal, a ministry that is defined by its commitment to particularity in the service of unity.