What Is A “Denomination?”
Although some people feel that it would be ideal if all Christians held exactly the same beliefs and followed the same practices, that is not the way it is–and never has been. From the beginning of the Christian movement, various opinions have existed about different matters such as the nature of the church, the way of salvation and the meaning of baptism.
Denominations are a fact. They exist and they are not vanishing. In fact, some, such as the Baptist denomination, are growing throughout the world. And denominations are important. They make a big difference in the lives of persons and in the world. The denomination a person is part of certainly has an impact on that person’s life. So it is important to know what denominations believe and practice.
What Makes Baptists Distinctive?
If someone were to ask you, “What is the one thing that makes the Baptist denomination different from other Christian denominations?” what would you say? Is it baptism by immersion of persons who have believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Is it a strong commitment to the concept of the priesthood of the believer? Is it an enduring belief in religious freedom?
Each of these is certainly held by Baptist Christians. But Christians of other denominations also hold them, although in some cases with a bit of a different interpretation.
The fact is that there is no single belief or practice that makes Baptists distinctive from other Christians. So what makes a Baptist a Baptist?
A combination of beliefs and practices sets Baptists apart from other Christian groups. There is a distinctive group of doctrines and polities for Baptists, a sort of Baptist recipe. Like most recipes, each of the ingredients is not unique to Baptists, but the total mix is distinctively Baptist. Although some of those ingredients are part of the recipe for other Christian groups, no other Christian group has the same combination of beliefs and practices as Baptists do.
Baptists come in a variety of “flavors.” They hold different interpretations and views on certain issues, such as the Second Coming of Christ, worship styles and denominational organization. But all Baptists have the same basic ingredients. There are certain ingredients that must be included, or the recipe does not produce a Baptist. Leave the cornmeal out of cornbread and substitute white flour, and you do not get cornbread. Similarly, leave out a key ingredient of the Baptist recipe, and you do not get a Baptist.
The Baptist Recipe
Biblical authority (Matthew 24:35; I Peter 1:23; II Timothy 3:16 – 17)
The Bible is the final authority in all matters of belief and practice because the Bible is the inspired Word of God and it bears the absolute authority of God Himself. Whatever the Bible affirms, Baptists accept as true. No human opinion or decree of any church group can override the Bible. Even creeds and confessions of faith that attempt to articulate the theology of Scripture, do not carry the Scripture’s inherent authority.
Autonomy of the local church (Matthew18:15-17; I Corinthians 6:1 – 3)
The local church is an independent body accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church. All human authority for governing the local church resides within the local church itself. Thus the church is autonomous, or self-governing. No religious hierarchy outside the local church may dictate a church’s beliefs or practices. Autonomy does not mean isolation. A Baptist church may fellowship with other churches around mutual interests and in an associational tie, but a Baptist church cannot be under the authority of any other body.
Priesthood of all believers (I Peter 2:5 – 9; 1 Timothy 5)
The word Priest is defined as “one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God.” Baptists believe that every believer today is a priest of God and may enter into His presence in prayer directly through our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. No other mediator is needed between God and man. As priests, we can study God’s Word, pray for others, and offer spiritual worship to God. We all have equal access to God – whether we are a preacher or not.
Two scriptural ordinances (Acts 2:41 – 47; I Corinthians 11:23 – 32)
The local church should practice two ordinances:
1. Baptism of believers (not unbelievers or infants) by immersion in water, identifying the individual with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
2. The Lord’s Supper or Communion – commemorating His death for our sins. It is patterned after the Last Supper (Luke 22:19-20) in which believers communally eat the bread and drink the cup that are symbolically representative of the body and blood of Jesus.
Individual soul liberty (Romans 14:5–12)
Every individual, whether a believer or an unbeliever, has the liberty to choose what he believes is right in the religious realm. No one should be forced to assent to any belief against his will. Baptists have always opposed religious persecution; however, this liberty does not exempt one from responsibility to the Word of God or from accountability to God Himself.
Saved church membership (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 5:23–32; Colossians 1:18)
Local church membership is restricted to individuals who give a believable testimony of personal faith in Christ and have publicly identified themselves with Him in believer’s baptism. When the members of a local church are believers, there exists oneness in Christ and the members can endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Two offices of the church (I Timothy 3:1 – 13; Titus 1-2)
The Bible mandates only two offices in the church – pastors and deacons. The three terms: pastor, elder, bishop or overseer all refer to the same office. These two offices exist within the local church and not as a hierarchy outside or over the local church.
Separation of church and state (Matthew 22:15 – 22)
God established both the church and the civil government, and He gave each its own distinct sphere of operation; neither should control the other. Christians are to honour and pray for government officials, pay taxes and obey the government except when obedience would clearly be contrary to the commands of God.
What Difference Does It Make?
What difference does a person’s denomination make? It makes a lot of difference. There are wonderfully dedicated Christians in various denominations, but there are distinctive beliefs which we hold dear as Baptists that are compelling reasons to be part of the Baptist denomination. For example, Baptists hold that salvation is by grace through faith alone and not grace/faith plus baptism, or sacrament, or church membership. Baptists insist that a church ought to determine who its pastor will be rather than having a pastor assigned by a person or a group outside of the local congregation.
Does the Baptist denomination matter? Yes, most definitely! The Baptist denomination has made and continues to make a difference in the world. For example, we are free to worship in our country due in large measure to the sacrificial and unselfish efforts of persons who were part of the Baptist denomination. Baptists have championed religious freedom for all to worship according to the dictate of conscience without interference of government or religious organizations. They have done this in spite of persecution. Baptists continue to work for religious freedom for all persons throughout the world.