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Historical Background
Christianity  · Anabaptists
General · Strict · Reformed

Doctrinal distinctives
Sola scriptura
Priesthood of all believers
Individual soul liberty
Separation of church and state

Pivotal figures
John Smyth · Thomas Helwys · Roger Williams · John Bunyan · Shubal Stearns · Andrew Fuller · Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Baptist Associations and Conventions

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The beliefs of Baptist churches are not totally consistent from one Baptist church to another, as Baptists do not have a central governing authority, unlike most other denominations.

However, on major issues, Baptist distinctives are beliefs that are common among almost all Baptist churches. Baptists share so-called "orthodox" Christian beliefs with most other moderate or conservative Christian denominations. These would include beliefs about one God, the virgin birth, the sinless life, miracles, vicarious atoning death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Christ, the Trinity (the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, together with God the Father), the need for salvation (though the understanding of means for achieving it may differ at times), divine grace, the Church, the Kingdom of God, last things (Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge everyone in righteousness), evangelism and missions.

Some historically significant Baptist doctrinal documents include the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, the 1833 New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith, and the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message. Some individual Baptist churches adopt written church "covenants" as a statement of their faith and beliefs.


Baptists believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ in which time God will sit in judgment and divide humanity between the saved and the lost (the Great White Throne judgment Rev 20:11) and Christ will sit in judgment of the believers (the Judgment Seat of Christ 2Cor 5:10), rewarding them for things done while alive. Beliefs among Baptists regarding the "end times" include Amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism, with views such as postmillennialism and preterism receiving some support.

See also: List of Baptist Confessions or Doctrinal Statements

The following acrostic backronym, spelling BAPTIST, represents a useful summary of Baptists' distinguishing beliefs:[1]

Most Baptist traditions believe in the "Four Freedoms" articulated by Baptist historian Walter B. Shurden:[2]

  • Soul freedom: the soul is competent before God, and capable of making decisions in matters of faith without coercion or compulsion by any larger religious or civil body
  • Church freedom: freedom of the local church from outside interference, whether government or civilian (subject only to the law where it does not interfere with the religious teachings and practices of the church)
  • Bible freedom: the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best tools of scholarship and biblical study available to the individual
  • Religious freedom: the individual is free to choose whether to practice their religion, another religion, or no religion; Separation of church and state is often called the "civil corollary" of religious freedom

Biblical authority

Historically, Baptists have emphasized the sole authority of the Scriptures, or sola scriptura, and therefore believe that the Bible is the only authoritative source of God's truth. Chapter one of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith states:

The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience...

This view contrasts with the role of Apostolic tradition in the Roman Catholic Church, direct revelation in charismatic circles, and personal philosophy as in Liberal Christianity. Any view that cannot be tied to scriptural exposition is generally considered to be based on human traditions rather than God's leading, and though they may be accurate, such views are never to be elevated to or above the authority of Scripture. Each person is responsible before God for his or her own understanding of the Bible and is encouraged to work out their own salvation. A common "proof text" for this idea is found in Philippians 2:12 Sola scriptura is likely to be practiced by Reformed Baptist churches and many churches within the Southern Baptist Convention.

In more recent times, many Baptists worldwide have changed their position to Prima scriptura, whereby Scripture is given high authority, but with other allowable ways of guidance. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, for example, states:

The Fellowship believes in the divine inspiration of the Bible and its authority in the lives of Christians, who are free to follow and interpret it under the Lordship of Christ. Christians are responsible under God for their interpretation of Scripture.[1]

The American Baptist Churches USA has a similar stance:

Holy Scripture always has been for us the most authoritative guide to knowing and serving the triune God... As the divinely-inspired word of God, the Bible for us reveals our faith and its mandated practice.[2]

Biblical inerrancy is also a common position held by more conservative Baptists. Some more fundamentalist Baptists insist on contextually literal interpretations of the Bible. Moderate Baptists prefer the term inspired or God-breathed rather than inerrant to describe scripture, referring to the term Paul uses in 2Timothy 3:16.

Baptists traditionally have resisted any use of creeds. They consider historic Christian creeds, such as the Apostles' Creed, to be on lower footing in comparison to Scripture, even though they may in essence agree with them.

Autonomy of the local church

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. For each congregation, there is no higher authority on earth than the vote of the congregation's members. Administration, leadership and doctrine are usually decided democratically by the lay members of each individual church congregation. As a result, there is tremendous diversity of beliefs and worship practices among Baptist churches.

Exceptions to this local form of democratic congregational governance include a few churches that submit to the leadership of a body of elders, as well as some Reformed Baptists who are organized in a Presbyterian system and the Congolese Episcopal Baptists that have an Episcopal system.

Most Baptist megachurches lean towards a strong clergy-led style, whereby the membership has little or no oversight into the affairs of the church leadership. Though this does not follow the practice of congregationalist church governance, it is consistent with the principles of individual church autonomy.

In a manner typical of other congregationalists, many cooperative conventions (large national or international administrative organizations) of Baptists have been formed so that individual churches can pool resources, primarily for missions, theological education, and publications. Such conventions have no direct authority over the operations of individual local churches. Local churches decide at what level they will participate in these conventions. Conversely, a local association of Baptist churches can vote a member church out of the association by majority vote of other members. Recently this form of associational excommunication (from association membership, not from salvation), contrary to historical baptist practice, has happened to some local churches in the Southern Baptist Convention for such things as ordaining women, hiring a woman pastor, and accepting practicing homosexuals as members.

Baptist denominations cannot directly enforce any kind of theological or practical orthodoxy among their constituent congregations. The denomination can choose not to accept the money or participation of congregations whose beliefs or practices are outside whatever norms the group has established. Likewise, they can refuse to recognize the ministerial credentials of clergy (which negatively affects the ability of chaplains to be accepted into the military), and set boundaries for orthodoxy for institutions, such as universities, seminaries, schools, and hospitals) owned or operated by the denomination.

The largest association of Baptists in the US is the Southern Baptist Convention. Beginning in 1967, conservatives were elected to lead the Southern Baptist Convention removing theologically moderate and methodologically democratic leadership from control.[3] The new leadership now leads all Southern Baptist seminaries, mission groups, and other convention-owned institutions. All employees of those groups, as a condition of continued employment, now are required to sign a statement of beliefs that excludes among other things women in pastoral or administrative ministry, and a private prayer language.

The second largest Baptist denomination in the U.S. is the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., which is also America's oldest and largest African American religious convention with an estimated membership of 7.5 million.[4]

There are several other nationwide Baptist groups, as well as hundreds of regional and local Baptist associations. There also are many Independent Baptist churches that are unassociated but which usually have some sort of inter-church fellowship among themselves.

Priesthood of all believers

The doctrine of "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 hierarchy of priests. This doctrine is based on the passage found in 1Peter 2:9 and was popularized by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation and John Wycliff's Lollards before Luther.

Ultimately the individual Christian is responsible for understanding the Bible and its application to the individual. The Baptist position of the priesthood of all believers is one column that upholds their belief in religious liberty.

Two Baptist ordinances

Baptists practice believer's baptism and the Lord's Supper (communion) as the two acts of faith-obedience to the example and commands given by Christ for Christians. They differ from the other ordinances of God in that they were specially instituted by Christ. Most Baptists call them "ordinances"[5] (meaning "obedience to a command that Christ has given us")[6] instead of "sacraments" (activities God uses to impart salvation or a means of grace to the participant).[7] Therefore, historic Baptist theology considers that no saving grace is conveyed by either ordinance and that original sin is not washed away in baptism. Baptists have traditionally believed that they are symbols.[7] However, Reformed Baptists and possibly a few others affirm a Reformed view of baptism and communion as a means of grace and therefore by definition refer to them as sacraments in their theology.[8] Some Baptists, particularly in the UK, have been reexamining the theology of the ordinances by questioning the interpretation that they are solely symbolic acts.[9]

Some Primitive Baptists and Free Will Baptists also practice foot washing as a third ordinance.

Believer's baptism

Baptism, commonly referred to as believer's baptism among Baptists and sometimes other groups, is administered by full immersion in water after a person professes Jesus Christ to be Savior. It is seen as an act of obedience to the example and command of Jesus given in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). 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.

Baptists do not practice infant baptism (pedobaptism) because they believe parents cannot make a decision of salvation for an infant. Related to this doctrine is the disputed concept of an "age of accountability" when God determines that a mentally capable person is accountable for their sins and eligible for baptism. This is not a specific age, but is based on whether or not the person is mentally capable of knowing right from wrong. Thus, a person with severe mental retardation may never reach this age, and therefore would not be held accountable for sins. The book of Isaiah mentions an age at which a child "shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good" but does not specify what that age is.

Baptists insist upon baptism by full immersion,[10] the mode Baptists believe Jesus received when he was baptized by John the Baptist. The candidate is lowered in water backwards while the baptizer (a pastor or any baptized believer under the authority of the local Baptist church) invokes the Trinitarian phrase found in Matthew 28:19 or other words concerning a profession of faith. Baptism by immersion is a representation of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

For purposes of accepting transfer of membership from other churches, Baptist churches only recognize baptism by full immersion as being valid. Some Baptist churches will recognize "age of accountability" baptisms by immersion performed in other Christian churches of "like faith and order," while others only recognize baptisms performed in Baptist churches. Baptists are known for re-baptizing converts to their faith who were previously baptized as infants or small children. Because of this, the first Baptist congregations were dubbed "Anabaptists", which means re-baptizers.

For purposes of church membership, some Baptist churches will not accept:

  • prior baptisms by any means other than immersion
  • baptisms performed as an infant or child too young to make a personal decision to accept Christ
  • baptisms performed by any means, including immersion, if administered by a church not considered to be of "like faith and order" by the Baptist congregation. These are groups calling themselves "Christians" and baptizing beyond infancy by immersion—but not meeting the definition of "Christian" according to Baptist understanding.[11]

While there is no movement away from the practice of believer's baptism by immersion, some Baptist churches have re-considered baptism as an absolute requirement for membership. The proposal is to accept into membership Christians who articulate core Baptist belief yet who hold that their previous baptisms (as an infant, or by a method other than immersion as a believer) are valid and are unwilling to be re-baptized. Such acceptance would be with the understanding that baptism is not essential to "salvation," and that the members will submit to the teaching of the church on the necessity of believer's baptism by immersion, and hopefully, at some time in the future, be baptized by immersion.[12] Denominational organizations and seminaries have been vocal in their opposition to such a change, and in both of the cited cases, the proposals were later withdrawn by the church elders.[13]

The Lord's Supper

The Lord's Supper is the second Baptist ordinance. It is patterned after the Last Supper recorded in the Gospels, in which Jesus says to "do this in remembrance of me" Luke 22:19. Participants communally eat the bread and drink the cup that are symbolically representative of the body and blood of Jesus. Based on their interpretation of John 6:25-59, Baptists reject views of communion such as transubstantiation and Real Presence held by other Christians. 1Corinthians 11:23-34 is also commonly cited as instructional for the practice of The Lord's Supper.

Baptists traditionally serve the bread and cup elements to participants where they sit. A congregation may also choose any other means of serving since the method has no theological significance to them. The bread used in the service traditionally is unleavened, thought to be the type used at the Last Supper since it started out as a Passover meal for its Jewish participants. Usually bread cubes, wafers or small crackers are passed in plates to participants, though the "breaking of bread" from loaves is also acceptable.

Most Baptists and some Protestants in the United States use unfermented grape juice for the cup, citing the fact that the Gospel passages on the last supper mention only the "fruit of the vine," never calling it wine. The "cup" is usually served in small individual cups. A "common cup" (one large cup for the entire congregation) may be used, but for practical reasons it is usually reserved for small gatherings.

The elements of the bread and the cup are usually served by the pastor to the deacons, and by the deacons to the congregation. A deacon will serve the pastor, or if the church has multiple pastors, they will serve each other. The general practice is for the elements to be taken by the congregation at the same moment as a symbol of unity, first the bread and then the cup separately.

The Lord's Supper may be held at any frequency selected by a church, such as weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even annually. It usually takes place during a regular worship service.

Baptist churches typically consider believer's baptism to be a prerequisite to partaking of the Lord's Supper. Who is invited to partake in the Lord's Supper varies from congregation to congregation. There are three variations, with most prevalent listed first:

  • Open communion. Anyone professing to be a Christian may participate irrespective of church membership.
  • Close communion. The Lord's Supper is restricted to those who are members of other Baptist churches (or churches who practice believer's baptism by immersion).
  • Closed communion. Only members of that local congregation can participate.

Individual soul liberty

The basic concept of individual soul liberty is that, in matters of religion, each person has the liberty to choose what his/her conscience or soul dictates is right, and is responsible to no one but God for the decision that is made. A person may then choose to be a Baptist, a member of another Christian denomination, an adherent to another world religion, or to choose no religious belief system, and neither the church, nor the government, nor family or friends may either make the decision or compel the person to choose.

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 "command what of man he will, and we 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.

In the United States today, there are still Baptist groups that support and actively attempt to maintain the separation of church and state. At least 14 Baptist bodies, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., American Baptist Churches USA, and the Baptist General Association of Virginia support financially and ideologically the mission of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. This organization tries to uphold the traditional Baptist principle of the separation of church and state. On the issue of school prayer, for instance, the Baptist Joint Committee argues that prayer is most pleasing to God when offered voluntarily, not when the government compels its observance.[14]

Few Baptists believe that this separation necessitates the withdrawal of religious people from the political sector. Baptist involvement in politics has been seen in controversies concerning gambling, alcohol, abortion, same-sex marriage, the teaching of evolution, and state-sanctioned public prayer in public high schools. In some parts of the Southern United States, Baptists form a majority of the population and have been heavily involved in successful campaigns to ban alcohol sales and prevent the legalization of certain kinds of gambling.

Keep in mind that Baptists hold to a classic, or historical, understanding of the Separation of Church and State, in which they acknowledge that the church and the state are separate institutions established by God for separate purposes, and should be allowed to do their separate jobs. They do not generally advocate that people have no right to influence the state through their religious beliefs. However, Baptists oppose a state-established religion, as there was with the Anglican church before the pilgrimage of the Mayflower. They also do not believe that the church should hold governing authority over the state, as was the case with the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. The church and state are two separate entities who hold each other accountable, but have different roles and jobs within the nation.

Two offices

Generally, Baptists recognize only two Scriptural offices: pastor-teacher and deacon. Most Baptists consider the office of elder, common in many other evangelical churches, to be the same as that of pastor and not a separate office. Some Baptist churches in Australia and other countries acknowledge the position of elder. Others dispose of the position of deacon altogether. Baptists consider the office of overseer or bishop to be the same as that of pastor.


According to Baptist policy, any local Baptist church can "license" and ordain a person to be an ordained minister. Licensing is the first step, often done shortly after a young person publicly responds to a perceived "call" to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Licensure gives the licensee the right to preach, and in most states the legal right to perform most clergy duties(especially marriages and funerals). Ordination, which can come at any time, is also the purview of the local autonomous Baptist church—not the denomination.

Historically, Baptist churches have not required completion of seminary or any other higher education prior to ordination, although that is changing as a matter of practice. Today it would be difficult for an ordained Baptist minister to secure a position in a larger Baptist church without a degree from a Baptist seminary, which as a prerequisite requires a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. Although it used to be acceptable and popular for pastors to attend unaccredited Bible colleges for seminary training, particularly medium and large churches now would insist on a degree from a seminary operated by that Baptist denomination.

In the Jamaica Baptist Union a Baptist minister is required to have a Diploma in Ministerial Studies or denominationally approved certification of formal pastoral training. The Jamaica Baptist Union is among the few Baptists groups in the world that ordains women as pastors.[15]

In baptist churches, the most visible role of the pastor is to deliver the weekly sermon.

In smaller churches, the pastor will often visit homes and hospitals to call on ill members, as well as homes of prospective members (especially those who have not professed faith). The pastor will also perform weddings and funerals for members and at business meetings serve as the moderator. In very small churches the pastor may be bivocational, work part or full time outside the church to supplement his income.

All but the smallest churches will usually have one or more "associate" pastors, each with a specific area of responsibility, who may be part or full time. In these cases, the overall pastor is considered the "senior" pastor. Some examples are:

  • music or worship (the most common)
  • youth (most common in Australia) (in smaller churches, often combined with music)
  • children or families
  • administration (in the larger churches)

or even

  • evangelism or missions
  • teaching
  • community
  • college or singles

Typically, the pastor will be married with children, though there is no formal requirement for this. Associate pastors may or may not be married, but if not married, they may find it difficult to be considered for a senior pastor position, because the pastor's wife is often expected to take on a part of the work load. Many Baptist churches will make a point of interviewing the whole family when considering a new pastor.

Some Baptists, especially Reformed Baptists, believe in a plurality of elders. In that case usually only full-time paid elders will be called Pastor, while part-time volunteer pastors are more often called Elder, but these are regarded as the same office.


According to Baptist polity, deacons also are ordained by a local Baptist congregation. When a deacon moves to a different church, generally (but not always) the prior ordination is accepted in transfer, but the deacon is made an "inactive" deacon until elected by the church to serve a term as an "active" deacon.

The scriptural model of the deacon is to serve members' needs. Deacons usually are the only ones allowed to assist during communion. Today, Baptist deacons have largely become administrators or the governing body of the church. In many churches, the pastor takes on the role of spiritual leadership, while a deacon serves as moderator of board meetings. Deacons are usually chosen from men who are the "the husband of but one wife and (who) manage his children and his household well" 1Timothy 3:12. They serve without pay.

A common practice is for each family to be assigned a specific deacon, to be the primary point of contact whenever a need arises. Some larger "mega" churches which use cell groups have the cell group leaders serve the role of deacon.

Gender restriction of some Baptists

Certain Baptist groups see it as a significant expression of the Christian message to emphasize equality between men and women in all areas of service. They cite the perspective of central passages, such as Galatians 3:26-28 and Ephesians 4:1-7, to indicate that all believers have an equal calling to serve according to their gifts.

The Southern Baptist Convention and other more fundamental groups have varying restrictions on the ordination of women as pastors or deacons. Many Southern Baptist churches have women as deacons (or deaconnesses) and associate pastoral roles, but will not consider calling a woman to their senior pastorate; others restrict all those roles to men. Their objection is based primarily on their interpretation of the scriptures 1Timothy 2:12-13 and 1Corinthians 14:34-35. Often, only men serve as ushers in Southern Baptist churches, although this is by tradition and culture, rather than theology.

Still other Baptist groups view the difference between the qualifications for overseers and deacons in 1Timothy 3:2-11 to draw a distinction between the two offices. These groups only appoint men as elders or overseers, but appoint both men and women to the role of deacon or deaconness.

Divorce a disqualifier?

Another controversial issue is whether divorced individuals may serve as pastors and deacons. This concern is based on 1Timothy 3:2: "the overseer must be…the husband of but one wife (literally, "man of one woman"). Some Baptists interpret scripture to prohibit a divorced individual from serving as a pastor or deacon under any circumstances, or even one who married a divorcée. Other Baptists believe that the issue is monogamy, not divorce. In between are those who accept divorces which took place before conversion, or which resulted from the infidelity, abuse, or abandonment by the other spouse.


  1. Cummins, David L. This Day in Baptist History 2. Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2000.
  2. Shurden, Walter B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1993.
  3. University of Virginia Library
  4. The National Baptist Convention :: National Baptist
  5. This distinction by Baptists dates at least back to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
  6. Sacrament versus Ordinance - Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Baptism: Sacrament or Ordinance? :: :: A Reformed, Christian Blog
  8. FAQ on the Reformed Baptist View of Baptism
  9. (1) "Is Baptist Sacramentalism an Oxymoron?" in Baptist Sacramentalism, eds. A. R. Cross and P.E. Thompson (Carlisle (UK): Paternoster Press, 2003); (2) Baptist Sacramentalism (Studies in Baptist History and Thought) James I. Packer (Forward), Carlisle (UK): Authentic Media 2004; (3) More Than A Symbol: The British Baptist Recovery of Baptismal Sacramentalism (Studies in Baptist History and Thought) Stanley K. Fowler Carlisle, UK: Authentic Media 2004. Fowler's research encourages Baptists to consider the view of baptism as sacramental as a viable option. He argues that understanding baptism as "sacramental" is not a new concept for Baptists but rather is an idea that is firmly rooted both in the biblical text and historically in mainstream seventeenth-century Baptist thought. In the twentieth century, British Baptists began to reexamine baptismal theology, and Fowler finds a number of prominent British Baptists who question the interpretation that baptism is solely a symbolic act. The argument is primarily dependent on the writings of prominent British Baptists. Fowler includes theological voices, including that of Karl Barth, that critique the sacramental position.
  10. Exceptions are generally made to baptize by sprinkling or pouring as a practical alternative for a person physically incapable of immersion.
  11. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and others
  12. Baptism and Church Membership, from Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
    "Baptism as requirement for membership set for church vote," Baptist Press, July 24, 2006.
  13. "Concept of believer's baptism gets wide-ranging defense in new book", The Alabama Baptist, April 2007.
  14. Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
  15. Welcome to Jamaica Baptist Union

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