In John 13:25, Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I was never especially drawn to a specific church name or denomination. Like most Christians, I knew little about denominational labels. In the end, we fell in love with a specific church—a specific people of Christ we consider family to this day—and they just so happened to be Baptist. It was later, while in seminary, studying church history and Baptist history, that I learned that the labels “Baptist” and “Southern Baptist” have a rich and storied history. It is a history that has influenced a tradition, a tradition that has fostered a deep conviction, convictions rooted in Scripture and expressed in love, sharing the gospel of Jesus, and standing confidently on the word of God—but, I am getting ahead of myself.
Baptist’s are first and foremost gospel affirming, Jesus believing, baptized Christians. Baptists were non-denominationalist before non-denominationalism held any meaning. At the heart of every local Baptist church is a tradition of independence from government and outside ecclesial influence. Baptist is not a hierarchical denomination but rather an ideological denomination—one centered around Christ and the local church. Baptist’s firmly hold that Christ is the head of the church (Col 1:18) and the local church is operated through a Jesus believing congregation—again, much like you would see in most Christian non-denominational churches. This often raises the question, if a Baptist church is like a non-denominational church, why continue to be Baptist and not simply identify as non-denominational? There have been many former Baptist churches that asked themselves that very question and answered by dropping Baptist from their name and eliminating any hint of their Baptist roots. This parallels a trend in contemporary Christianity to present a minimalist theology—but that’s a different article for a different time.
While Baptist’s are fiercely independent which is why Baptist churches come in all sizes, styles, traditions, and attitudes—most Baptist churches affirm similar fundamentals of the faith: a love for Jesus, commitment to the spread of the gospel, salvation through faith, the priesthood of all believers, biblical inerrancy, trinitarian theology, religious liberty, and believer’s baptism. Of course, Baptist independence also means that a few organizations have added Baptist and Church to their name while holding to neither Baptist distinctives nor identifying Jesus as Lord. I think we should recognize they have co-opted these names because there is a historic and cultural weight behind them. It is this meaningful historic tradition that I and tens of millions of other evangelical Christians respect.
People often associate Baptist with familiar Baptist pastors—say Charles Spurgeon, Billy Graham, W. A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, or John Piper. At the heart for these men is a deep and convicting love for Christ and for the people they ministered. An unyielding commitment to teach Scripture and foster a gospel community around the word of God. Baptist’s lead the way in church planting and global evangelism—this means, Baptist congregations are known for being generous with their time, prayers, money, and expertise. And yes, like so many of Christ’s people, you will find a friendly and loving fellowship—it’s a big part of our culture. At this moment, you are probably thinking, these characteristics describe many Christian churches—yes, and many of them were or still are Baptist.
Some Baptist churches have voluntarily chosen to cooperate with other Baptist churches through associations. These associations have no power/influence over the individual church. Such associations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, Venture Church Network (formerly the Conservative Baptist Network), American Baptist Association, and there are many, many more. These associations facilitate the cooperation between individual churches for the purpose of church planting, global missions, and furthering theological education.
While the name, “Baptist,” comes with a rich history, every church ought to be evaluated by its own fruit. I am a faithful Baptist because I respect the heritage from which it flourished—and during a time when history and words are being confused and obfuscated—I appreciate being part of a community which stands dedicated to Biblical preaching, teaching, discipleship, and outreach.