Anyone passing through Pittsburg County will see many different labels on churches: Methodists, SDA, Presbyterian, Cowboy, Baptist, and more.
What is the significance of being a Baptist church and why does Arpelar Baptist matter, in this grand sea of varied churches? There are four significant reasons it matters that Arpelar Baptist is a Baptist church. These are not mere denominational distinctives – every group has those. These four characteristics emerged as spiritual truths that should mark any Christian church. First, a little history.
Where did the name Baptist come from? In the 1500s and 1600s, Anabaptist (the word means “re-baptizer”) was a label widely used for all sorts of religious groups that did not submit to the state church, in England and on the European continent. People who practiced believer’s baptism and held to a few other key doctrines took measures to describe themselves to the state, in an effort to distance themselves from the factions that posed a threat to the state and its church. They protested that they weren’t Anabaptists, and it appears that after a time of protesting this, in answer to the inevitable question (if you’re not Anabaptists, what are you?), the name “Baptist” emerged. The manner and meaning of baptism was, from the earliest times, a distinctive doctrine and practice that has divided people for centuries. We are called Baptists because we see the importance of practicing believer’s baptism – that’s the only baptism we find in Scripture. This alludes to a long-time description of Baptists as “people of the Book.” To depart from His special revelation we call the Bible means we rely on our wisdom. And of that we find no approval of in God’s Holy Scriptures.
There are some who hold to various views of successionism which claims that Baptists have existed since the time of Jesus, often pointing to John the Baptist. History does not bear this out. John the Baptist had that label because of his main mission – baptizing people for repentance. What is true is that we find in Scripture and in history, credible accounts of people who held to certain distinctive doctrines that, when Baptists emerged from the chaos of The Reformation, were true of Baptists. We have kin-ship with them. But until 1609, history knows nothing about a people calling themselves Baptists.
Baptist Distinctives. It’s my experience that we are not well informed on what it means to be Baptist. So let’s first take a look at…
Baptism. This is the best-known Baptist distinctive, although why it’s significant is often not well understood. We will quickly look at three aspects of baptism, which will demonstrate why people have misunderstood and fought about it. Books have written about each of these points, this will be a brief summary.
- Mode.How is baptism administered? It ought not to be contested; the only mode found in Scripture is immersion. Many teachers of baby sprinkling admit this, but most of the professing Christian world sprinkles babies and calls that baptism. All we see, beginning with the baptism of our Lord Jesus, is clearly the manner of immersion – being dunked under the water. There’s not an exception to this mode and there are many example of it. Consider the eunuch with Philip, they went down into the water and came back up. If sprinkling was the mode, there was undoubtedly water in the chariot that would be plenty. They stopped at a river and went down into the water. The very word baptism comes from a Greek word that primarily refers to a ship that has sunk. We are people of the Book – we dunk people under the water.
- Candidates. Who is eligible to be baptized? Most recognize faith of some sort is required. Since babies cannot be examined to see if they believe, at least 8 reasons are presented by those who sprinkle infants. Advocates of baby sprinkling read between the lines of lines in Scripture and imagine babies being baptized in a few passages. There is no mention of small children being baptized in God’s Word. ‘Tis far more straightforward and biblical to require the individual presented for baptism to declare his faith in Christ; to be examined by parents and pastor to see if there be evidence of a new creature. Another man’s faith will not serve well on Judgment Day when we each stand before the Lord.
- Significance. What does baptism mean? This gets to the reason we cannot compromise on these first two points. The main reason baptism is given in Scripture is to point to the death and resurrection of Jesus. He said of His baptism, (Luke 12:50), I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! By this, Jesus was not referring to John’s baptism of Him in the Jordan, though that is a type and shadow of the spiritual truth of what Jesus speaks of in Luke 12. The Lord’s true baptism was when He was punished for our sins on the tree. No mortal man can stand where Jesus did – cursed by God for the sins of others, He laid His life down for us, knowing He would pick it back up again. When we baptize believers, we read, We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. This gives us a picture of what has been done to us, that as the Lord Jesus was put to death and raised up, so are we – spiritually. This is why baptism is significant and why we cannot compromise on this topic. The Lord’s death and resurrection are the keystones of our faith.
Nature of the local church. There are three forms of government given to man by our Creator: The family, which teaches children the things of God and is the smallest government of all. The civil government, which is to reward those who do good and punish evil-doers; handling disputes involving citizens of the world. The church, which is the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), represents the kingdom of God in this age and handles disputes amongst the saints. It is here that people gather, for worship, instruction, prayer, and fellowship. It is here, primarily, that God meets with His people, having given the church shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph 4:12-14). The church, both its local form and the universal form, represent the bride of our Lord.
With that background, we will take a look at 4 aspects of the local church.
- Local autonomy. This is another area in which the vast majority of Christian churches differ with us. We see in Scripture local churches in various towns that had relationships with other local churches, but not subject to men outside the church. The Council of Jerusalem, found in Acts 15, shows how the Apostles handled a contentious issue that affected many of the new churches. It was a one-time event, handled gently, with the desire that Christians stand before God with a clean conscience. The office of Apostle does not continue, and we see nothing in God’s Word about popes, presbyteries, or other denominational hierarchies that populate the professing Christian world and hold local churches under the thumb of elevated religious offices. The local church was founded by Jesus – these other religious institutions were dreamed up by man. Each church stands before the Lord, and her pastors will give an account to God for how they have served Him and them. This is why no man-made group can insert itself as lord over a local church – each pastor answers to Christ for his service and needs the love and support from the people the Lord has gathered there. The Scriptures are clear in describing two distinct offices or positions with defined responsibilities within the local church: elder/overseer/pastor and deacon are identified and qualified in 1 Tim 3. The men who serve in these offices are co-laborers, with distinctly different roles within the church. The qualifications from God’s Word for service in these offices are identical, with the exception that the elder/pastor must be able and willing to teach. Acts 6 gives us the best insight as to the function of these offices. The Apostles, forerunner of church pastors, were to devote themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word. Deacons were to tend to the physical needs of the dynamic and diverse body of Christ. As there are spiritual issues behind every temporal matter a deacon might be called upon to help with, these men must be qualified and there must be a good rapport between the deacons and pastors – so the body of Christ gets the best care possible.
- Deacon: Who can serve as a deacon in the church is a hotly contested issue. This issue exists because of the use of the Greek and English words refer both to one who serves the local church in this capacity as well as those who are simply known for being servants to the body of Christ. Deacons are not required to be spiritual guides, feeders of the flock, or teachers; they are required as to be trustworthy and of moral character as they deal with matters of temporal importance, each of which has a spiritual foundation. The Greek word, diaconos, means servant and oft times in Scripture refers not to those in this office, but to others who serve the local body of Christ in many ways. The health of the church depends on deacons functioning well, which requires the cooperation of the pastors and the people. As with all things, our stand as Baptists must be in line with Scriptures.
- Elder: This function can only be fulfilled by a qualified man. There is no possible interpretation that allows women to serve in this capacity; and yet many churches do. This is always a step to total apostasy for a church. In our English Bibles we see the words Elder/Presbyter, Overseer/Bishop, Shepherd/Pastor. Each pair of these words comes from one Greek word. They are used interchangeably and they all refer to a single office in the church. Man has developed unbiblical structures, imagining that Bishop is more honorific and must carry more responsibility (by which they mean fame). These words are not titles by which the men who serve are to be called, but descriptions of service they provide within the local church. The terms elder and presbyter refer to a man’s experience – in the Word and in the church. Overseer and bishop convey the act of being a spiritual guardian or protector, while pastor and shepherd refer to the spiritual care and feeding of God’s flock. And though these words are not meant to be used as titles, we find it convenient to put labels on functions and people. So one church will call these men elders, another, pastors. As long as the men serving in those offices are not being exalted, there’s really no harm.
- Membership. Local church membership important for two over-arching reasons: it reminds the members that we are not of the world, but aliens and sojourners; and it tells the world that we do not belong to them, but serve a different King. Membership is, for most churches closely related to baptism. For the vast majority of churches which sprinkle babies and call that baptism, this means the infants are declared “covenant children” unless they rebel later in life. The Bible does not talk directly about church membership, we learn about it by seeing it in practice: the unrepentant sinner is thrown out of the local church, the sinning elder is rebuked in front of the local church, disputes between members are settled within the local church, and the Lord’s Supper is taken together as church. None of these make sense if small children and unregenerate people are considered members, as they cannot judge accusations in light of Scripture nor examine themselves to see if they be in the faith. Everything we do see in the Word of God around local church membership tells us it does have a relationship with baptism: both require a credible profession of faith in Christ and a willingness to walk in obedience to Him. So we do what we can to insure that every member of our church is, as best we can tell, a born-again believer in Jesus Christ. Submission to the command to be baptized is an evidence of that faith.
- Relationship to civil government. In the apostolic record of the Bible, each local church existed as on outpost for Christians in a hostile world. Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire because the church did not embrace the fable of the Caesar being a god. Until Constantine legalized Christianity, governments either persecuted Christian churches or tolerated them. When infant baptism was settled upon, initially for superstitious reasons, it was quickly seen as a wonderful tool for the newly crafted state church to determine how many little tax payers lived within her boundaries. Even to this day, the state church in Scotland allocates geographical regions to each local church. If you live there, that’s where you go to church – very much the way our government schools operate in this country. This is an issue that shows one reason the state churches hated the Anabaptists. All the so-called radical reformers had one thing in common – they believed the local church answered to Christ Jesus directly and that polluting the church with politics works against God’s people. Baptists developed this topic and embraced a healthy separation of church and state, a doctrine that recognizes the different spheres of responsibility God has given to each and recognizes that governments need counsel from churches so they can fulfill their roles – how else will a pagan government know “good” and “evil”? And contrary to many of the Anabaptists, who thought it sinful for Christians to serve in government offices, Baptists think such service is one way God’s church can influence civil governments to be better ministers according to Romans 13.
Liberty of Conscience. In practice, liberty of conscience is a product of one’s view of the nature of the local church. If the local church answers to none but Christ, then He alone rules the hearts of those in the church. If, however, the local church answers to a regional bishop, a pope, or a governor; that political/religious hierarchy inevitably asserts itself and demands obedience. Here’s how this doctrine worked out in the 1500s. Just as the Roman network of roads and the wide scale influence of Greek language and culture were orchestrated by God to bring about the fullness of time for the Lord’s first advent, so He brought about the printing press and common language Bibles to a people who were awakening from the dark ages and beginning to see a great light. Men such John Wycliffe and William Tyndale were used of God to bring His Word to the common people in their own tongues. As time progressed, Puritans refused to submit to the Roman Catholic Church regarding salvation – they believed in salvation by grace alone. They were persecuted by the Roman Church, which had the power of the state in hand, and fled to the colonies. Baptists who had fled from England, where the Anglican Church used the power of the state to persecute them for not sprinkling babies, landed in the American colonies and were persecuted by the Puritans for not submitting to their requirement that babies be sprinkled and churches submit to the colonial government. This shows what is meant by each Christian being part of the priesthood of believers – we each stand before God as individuals and our conscience can be bound by Him alone. Christians have minds that can comprehend spiritual truths but are still affected by inherited sin and active sin, keeping us from understanding Scripture perfectly. Hence, these tensions between Christians and the various views of secondary issues. This leads to my last point.
Authority of the Scriptures. Each of these points presented depends on the Bible being regarded as the express revelation from God. If we give passing assent to this but our lives are no different from the unsaved, we are either backslidden and in need of repentance or we are unsaved. How we see and submit to Scripture is a key indicator of whose we are. Two short observations:
- Necessity of individual knowledge of Scripture. If we do not read and prayerfully study God’s Word we cannot properly exercise this precious gift of liberty of conscience nor will we understand the spiritual significance of baptism, the nature of the local church, or God’s love for us and wrath for the ungodly. As people of the Book, we must cherish and study His Word so we can be faithful servants to His people and faithful witnesses to the lost and dying world.
- Living in light of eternity, not for things that will perish. Our natural tendency is to live for what our flesh craves; this is, as James teaches us, the cause of conflict among us. We are to be focused on the heavenlies, mindful of who we are in Christ and live for His glory, not our own. If the Scriptures are all we need for life and godliness, let our lives be marked the One who authored them and live not for ourselves but for the glory of the One who gave Himself for us.
Four points on why it matters that we are Baptists. Having that name is not the important thing. Being true to the Scriptures is. Each of these 4 points reminds us of Whom we serve and where our hope lies, not that our label is “Baptist”. We live as citizens of God’s kingdom; traveling through a world at war with Him, proclaiming His life-giving gospel and walking as children of the Light. Let us love one another in word and deed, spurring each other onto good works prepared for us before the foundation of the world – as people of the Book, to bring glory to the name of our Lord and Savior and do good to all in the household of God.
This post is a modified excerpt from the book I’ve recently finished and am getting ready for publication: Captive to the Word of God, a Particular Baptist Perspective on Reformed and Covenant Theology.