– a polity

Just as we all have a way of thinking of God – our theology, we also have a way of thinking how we should do church – our polity. Tied into one or the other or both is denominational identity. The conversation concerning denominational identity tends to be muddled because typically we, as Christians, are not informed concerning what distinguishes one denomination from the other. It is not surprising then that we tend to be misinformed concerning what makes a church a Baptist church for example. I am a Baptist. In turn, this gives some identity to my ideas of polity. Concerning Baptist distinctives, there are some characteristics that can be found in all Baptist denominations. These distinctives are not just true today, but have typically been present throughout the history of Baptists. There are five distinctives that make a Christian church a Baptist church. These distinctives are as follows: 

  • Baptism by immersion for only professing Christians.
  • The belief that the local church is autonomous.
  • The emphasis on the Bible as our authority.
  • The church is evangelical.
  • Style of Worship.

Before we get into each distinctive, it is worth noting that every belief embraced by Baptists is also embraced by other Christian denominations. Therefore, Baptists are not, at any point, conveying a dogma that is solely Baptist in nature.  This distinction helps bring discussion about different denominations into clarity. For the most part, denominational identity is based upon doctrinal stands (how we interpret the Bible). For this reason, it is worth noting that churches which are self-proclaimed “non-denominational” actually fall into the doctrinal guidelines of some denomination. The word “denomination” is a word of identity. When a church declares itself Baptist or Methodist or whatever, they are simply informing us of how they interpret the Bible. This way, we do not have to guess as to how they view God’s word and how they expect us to respond to it. 

  1. Baptism by Immersion: This one belief has defined Baptists in an obvious way – it has become our name, our distinguishing mark. The issue here has primarily in view the historical issue of babies being baptized through sprinkling. For example, note in Scripture that there is not one instance given to anyone being baptized who wasn’t an adult. Also, the Bible clearly teaches that faith must accompany baptism for it to be acceptable. Infants are incapable of expressing this faith (Col 2.12; 1 Pet 3.21). The only way to think otherwise is to think that when Acts tells us a whole household was baptized, you must infer that the household includes infants. Yet, Luke steers us away from this by pointing out that first Paul preached to the whole household and then baptized them (Acts 16). In other words, the “whole household” was capable of hearing and responding. In response to this Baptists believe that baptism is an ordinance of the Lord by which those who have repented and come to faith express their union with Christ in His death and resurrection, by being immersed in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of belonging to the new people of God, the true Israel, and an emblem of burial and cleansing, signifying death to the old life of unbelief, and purification from the pollution of sin. We take this stand because the Greek word baptizo literally means “to dunk” and this dunking is how John the Baptist was baptizing, Jesus was baptized and His followers were baptized (Mt 3:13-17; Lk 3.21-22; Jn 3.23; Acts 8.35-39). We find other approaches concerning the manner of baptism to be misguided and misinformed. Simply, we believe baptism is only for professing Christians (true believers) (Mt 28.19-20), it is properly administered through immersion (being dunked completely into water), it is symbolic and has no salvific power of its own (Acts 2.41-42; 16.30-34; Gal 3.7, Cf Rom 9.7-8). Notice that there is always an order: first, one is to believe and then they are baptized (Acts 2.38). Also, we distinguish between water baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Lk 3.16; Acts 1.4-5; 1 Cor 12.13). Baptism by immersion is a picture of what Christ has done for us through our new birth (born again) (Romans 6:3-5). Baptism gives testimony to a salvation event that has already occurred. It is not a requirement, according to the Bible, for salvation. It is commanded as an ordinance in obedience to Jesus Christ (the other ordinance we observe is the Lord’s Supper). While baptism by immersion is certainly big for Baptists, it is possible that one other view rivals it for emphasis within a Baptist Church.
  2. Baptists believe that the local church is autonomous. We do not believe in a hierarchical body who tells us what to do or how to conduct our business. We believe each local church should select its ministry leadership team (Acts 5.11-14; 6.3-6; 13.1-3; 14.23, 27). If we own our building, then the local Baptist association, the state convention or the Southern Baptist Convention cannot take it away. If we should close our doors – God forbid – then we can dispose of our property as we see fit. Also, being autonomous means that none of the afore mentioned entities can require an amount of collection from us. Included in our belief of being autonomous is also the idea that the church is meant to be comprised only of believers. This does not mean unbelievers are not welcome, but it does mean that an unbeliever cannot become a member. It means that children born into the family of members are not members simply because mom and dad are members. Every person who consists of the body of the local Baptist church must confess and exhibit evidence of being a Christian. The idea behind this is the “priesthood of all believers,” which simply means that we do not believe any man can be the mediator between you and God (1 Cor 3.16; Eph 2.19-22; Phil 3:20). Jesus’ sacrifice has secured that each believer has a direct path to the throne of God Almighty. This then leads to the historical Baptist stand of fighting for freedom of speech and conscience to worship how we see fit apart from our civil government (Acts 4:19-20). We deny that any civil or ecclesiastical authority has the right to impede our worship (Jn 8.36; Galatians 5:1, 13). The result of this is freedom of religion.
  3. If baptism and church autonomy receive the most attention in what it means to be Baptist, then there is no doubt that the foundation Baptists builds everything else upon is the placement of the Bible as the centerpiece of Baptist Life. We believe that God is our highest authority. For this reason, we understand the one undisputable source of information concerning God and His will is His very word – Holy Scripture. It is because of the high esteem of God’s truth through the speaking of His Word that all other testimonies are filtered through this one source. All of the special revelation God has revealed to us is through this book. Everything we trust and know about Jesus is revealed by God through the Bible. Without the Bible, we would be ignorant and inconsistent on every issue. In this way, it is our standard (Dt 4.1-2; 8.3, Cf Mt 4.4 and Lk 4.4; 17.19; Ps 19.7-10; Is 34.16; 40.1; Mt 5.17-18; Lk 21.33; 24.44; Acts 17.11; Rom 15.4; 2 Tim 3.16-17; Heb 1.1-2; 4.12; 1 Pet 1.25; 2 Pet 1.20-21).
  4. Baptists are evangelical. This viewpoint believes that mankind is dead in our sin. We cannot work our way into a right relationship with God. Yet, Jesus Christ came and paid our penalty in full through His suffering and death. God then gives the gift of life to all who receive this gift, which includes believing that God raised Jesus from the dead. We believe that the Holy Spirit does a work called regeneration, which makes a person alive in Christ (as opposed to dead in our sins). This is the beginning of the salvation process, which we affectionately refer to as “being born again.” Part of salvation, Baptists believe, is a life that due to the working of the Holy Spirit gladly submits to the Lordship of Jesus. This change of heart ensures the evidence (or fruit) that a Christian life should exhibit. For this reason, Baptists do not believe that a person can lose her salvation. Of course we call this entire process the “Good News” and believe it to be vital in proclaiming anything worth hearing to the rest of the world. It is no surprise then to discover that Baptists are leaders in evangelism and missions since we value supremely the gospel message.
  5. Denominations are not just known for doctrinal stands, but also for their polity – that is they way they do church. Church governance is one example (which we already covered). Yet, the area this becomes most clear is how a church’s worship service is conducted. While it is not fair to make complete categorical claims concerning any denominations, most have a specific approach to worship. For example, Catholic and Lutheran worship services tend to have what is known as a high liturgy. This includes style of singing, music, reading of scripture, architecture, and preaching approaches. So, too charismatic churches are known for having a cutting edge approach to worship. Again this includes style of music, speaking approach, architecture, etc…Baptist, on the other hand, may be the anomaly of all denominations in this matter. Worship styles in Baptist churches varies considerably and spans the spectrum from liturgical to emotional, formal to informal, traditional to contemporary. Again, it is not fair to make complete categorical statements about other denominations. Certainly there is variety in worship among all churches in each denomination; however, this amount and degree of variety tends to be most pronounced among Baptist churches.

This summary gives room for polity to work. There is a lot of flexibility in these statements. For example, Baptists can be elder ruled or deacon run or Congregationalist in all matters. The good thing is that each local body determines what she believes to be the best answer. We hope that we base this answer on a great amount of prayer, study of Scripture and historical research. As for myself, I am an “elder rule” guy. Leaders of the church are accountable to the flock, but not in the way that most churches have it set up. Too often we hire a pastor with the aspirations of a CEO and treat the entire body (or at least the deacons) like the board of directors. It doesn’t work because God has called your pastor to lead you, not for him to be led by a select group within your body. As long as he is fulfilling the qualifications of elder in the Bible then the body needs to let him lead us. Even in a quorum of elders there is one who has the final say so.

This is not to say that there are not things that cannot go before the body because Scripture gives clear guidelines that there are times for that. One example is the final step in church discipline. The body must be in agreement. I think the calling of the pastor is another example. People need to agree together that the guy being voted on should be the shepherd to lead, feed and protect the flock.

This position does not seek to remove deacons from the body for they have their place too. It just seeks to put them back into their biblical place. Deacons, after all, are the chief of servants – those to whom the elders can turn to delegate ministry responsibilities. Unfortunately, there are too many churches where there is an identity crisis – the deacon body runs both as elders and deacons. Thus roles, responsibilities and requisites are confused. I believe this confusion is largely behind the CEO and Board of Directors mentality in churches today.

Beside these points, my polity is wide and diverse – age segregated, not age segregated, rock or a cappella, church meetings or no church meetings, everyone praying at once or one person praying. As my father told me once, “We have no idea how many ways the church can go about doing church and still be biblical.” That’s right. We don’t need an American approach to be biblical or an African approach or an Asian approach. The sky is the limit on a lot of these things. Our comfort and imagination are what get in the way.

%d bloggers like this: