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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. 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, which are often used as the "official" doctrinal statements of individual local Baptist churches or the starting point for an official statement.

See also : List of Baptist Confessions or Doctrinal Statements

Baptist distinctives acrostic

This backronym 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 (baptism and communion)
  • Individual soul liberty
  • Separation of Church and State
  • Two offices of the church (pastor and deacon)

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. Baptists generally consider historic Christian creeds to be on lower footing in comparison to Scripture even though they may in essence agree with them. However, a group or local church may have a general "Statement of Faith" such as the Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention).

Biblical inerrancy is also a common position held by fundamentalist Baptists in addition to literal interpretations of the Bible and other 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 authority. Most moderate or non-fundamentalist Baptists prefer the term inspired or "God breathed" rather than inerrant to describe scripture, referring to the term Paul uses in 2 Timothy 3:16.

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.

Autonomy of the local church (Congregationalism)

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 usually decided democratically by the lay members of each individual church, which accounts for the variation of beliefs from one Baptist church to another.

Exceptions are some Reformed Baptists, who are organized in a Presbyterian system, the Congolese Episcopal Baptists that has an Episcopal system, and some Baptist megachurches who lean towards a strong clergy-led style, in some instances abandoning congregational governance altogether (though as independent congregations within an association, are free to adopt any style).

In a manner typical of other congregationalists, many cooperative associations or conventions of Baptists have arisen. These associations were formed for missionary and other charitable work and have no authority over the operations of individual local churches. Local churches decide at what level they will participate in these associations. The largest association 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 Independent Baptist churches do not fall into any of them, believing such associations to be unscriptural. In addition, there are sometimes very strong disputes within conventions which are often divided between Christian fundamentalists and moderates.

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. Baptists are encouraged, though, to discuss scriptural and other issues with their minister when appropriate. The Baptist position of the priesthood of all believers is one column that upholds their belief in religious liberty.

Two ordinances (Baptism and Communion)

Generally, Baptist churches recognize only two Biblical ordinances that are to be performed on a regular basis by churches: baptism and communion. Some churches, including some Free Will Baptists, also practice foot washing as a third ordinance.

Believer's baptism

Baptism, commonly referred to as Believer's baptism, is an ordinance that, according to Baptist doctrine, 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 churches use baptism by full immersion, subsequent to salvation, as a criterion for membership.

Through Anabaptist influence, Baptists reject the practice of pedobaptism (infant baptism) 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 necessarily 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.

Baptists emphasize baptism by full immersion, the mode presumed to have been used by John the Baptist. This consists of lowering the candidate in water backwards while the baptizer (a pastor or any baptised believer) invokes the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19 or other words concerning a profession of faith. This mode is also preferred for its parallel imagery to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Recognition of baptisms by other modes and Christian groups vary. Many Baptist churches only recognize baptism by full immersion as being valid, while a few will baptise by sprinkling as a practical alternative for the disabled or elderly or in times of drought. Some Baptist churches will recognize adult baptisms performed in other orthodox Christian churches, while others only recognize baptisms performed in Baptist churches. In rare instances, a church may recognize only its own baptisms as valid.


Communion, which is alternately called "The Lord's Supper", is an ordinance patterned after the Last Supper recorded in the Gospels which Jesus says to "do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:19). Participants communally eat the bread and drink the cup that are representative of the body and blood of Jesus. Baptists emphasize that the remembrance is symbolic of Christ's body and reject literal views of communion such as transubstantiation and consubstantiation held by other Christian groups based on their interpretation of John 6. 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 is also commonly cited as instructional for the practice of Communion. Many Baptists refuse to refer to this ordinance as Communion due to its prominent use by the Roman Catholic Church and instead use the alternate "The Lord's Supper".

The bread used in the service may be cubes of unleavened bread, wafers or small crackers, generally of an unleavened variety which is thought to be the type used at the Last Supper. The general Baptist embracing of the Temperance movement, prohibition, and teetotalism in the U.S. led to the practice of using non-alcoholic grape juice for the cup, but some Baptists do use wine. The grape juice is typically served in small individual glasses, though some churches use one large 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. Both "elements" of the bread and the cup are usually served by the pastor to the deacons, and by the deacons to the congregation. The general practice is for the elements to be taken by the congregation as a whole as a symbol of unity, first the bread and then the cup separately, although sometimes both elements are taken together.

Communion services may be held weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even annually. It usually takes place at the end of a normal service, but may take place at any time during the service. Participation may be either "closed" (only members of that church can participate), "cracked" (members of other Baptist churches may participate, but not of other denominations), or "open" (anyone professing to be a Christian may 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 otherwise. And, a person may change his/her mind over time.

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 "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. Anabaptists and Quakers also share a strong history in the development of separation of church and state.

The original objection was opposition of the monarchy or government setting religious agenda for churches or a "National Church" and did not imply a retreat by Christians from the political realm or involvement in the political process. Modern debates about church and state separation involve disagreements about the extent to which Christian groups are able to, or should, set the legal and moral agenda for the government, and conversely whether government is preventing Christians and Christian groups from equal access to public forums.

Currently in the United States, Baptist involvement in politics often involves controversies concerning gambling, alcohol, abortion, same-sex marriage, the teaching of evolution and state-sanctioned public prayer in public high schools. In parts of the Southern United States, Baptists form a majority of the population and have successfully banned alcohol sales and prevented the legalization of certain kinds of gambling.

Two offices (Pastor and Deacon)

Generally Baptists only recognize two Scriptural offices, those of pastor and deacon. The office of elder, common in some evangelical churches, is usually considered by Baptists to be the same as that of pastor, and not a separate office.

The prevalent view among Baptists is that these offices are limited to men only, following the model of Christ and His apostles. However, the issue of women pastors/deacons has surfaced as controversy in some churches and denominations.


In the Baptist church, the primary role of 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 made salvation decisions). The pastor will also perform weddings and funerals for members, and at business meetings serve as the moderator. The pastor may also be required to find outside work to supplement his income.

Larger churches will usually have one or more "associate" pastors, each with a specific area of responsibility, whereby the overall pastor is considered the "senior" pastor. Some examples are:

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

In the majority of instances, the pastor will be married with children (associate pastors may or may not be married, but if not married will find it difficult to be considered for a senior pastor position by other churches).


The main role of the deacon is to assist the pastor with members' needs. Deacons also assist during communion.

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 megachurches, especially those using cell groups, use the cell group leader(s) to function in the role of deacon(s).

Deacons are usually chosen from members who have demonstrated exceptional Christian piety, and serve without pay.

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 willfully accepts Christ into his life and repents of sin. 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 emphasis 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 Anglican, Methodist, 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. Moreover, Baptists are strongest in the southern United States, an area known for strong support of the military and thus generally not supportive of pacifist views.

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.

For the most part, Baptists strongly disagree with Pentecostal and charismatic teachings, specifically the practice of speaking in tongues.

Worship style

The focus of Baptist church services is the sermon. This can be seen in traditional Baptist church architecture--the pulpit, which is symbolic of proclamation of the Word of God, is the largest piece of furniture and centered on the platform, while the communion table placed below it in a symbolically "subservient" position (in sharp contrast to the Roman Catholic church which places the communion table at the center of the platform, since communion is the focus of its services, while the pulpit is off to one side). However, some of the modern megachurches have abandoned traditional architecture in favor of an entertainment-type stage, where a small podium and chair are brought out after the musical worship is complete.

Sermons often range in time from 30-60 minutes. 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 often correlated to the predominant age of the members, with older congregations preferring traditional hymns played with piano and/or organ (the latter is becoming less frequent due to fewer organists) and featuring a choir, while younger congregations prefer contemporary music with modern instruments and no choir. Larger churches may have a full orchestra along with the choir. Some fundamentalist Baptists will only sing hymns (which usually includes songs in their hymnals written between the 1700s and the 1950s) and generally oppose the use of drums and/or electric guitar in their services because they associate those instruments with rock music.

Other common features in a Baptist church service include the collection of offering, an altar call, a period of announcements and Communion. Most Baptist congregations are small in number with membership under 200 people while other congregations are megachurches with membership in the tens of thousands.


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 origin's 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 Baptists, 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. Also, a recent trend is to eliminate the name "Baptist" from the church name, as it is perceived to be a "barrier" to reaching persons of no church background who have negative views of Baptists. Conversely, others accept the label Baptist because they identify with the distinctives they consider to be uniquely Baptist, and believe those who are removing the name "Baptist" from their churches are "compromising with the world" in order to attract more members.

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; Landmark Baptists believe they actually 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.

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