What do Christians believe and why? Why are there so many different Christian churches and denominations? Do we all worship and serve the same God? Do we share anything meaningful in common?
Continuing this Sunday, May 22, with the Baptists, we will explore questions about what Christians believe and why in both Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall worship services. The following is a selection from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree,” which this sermon series is based on:
From Dissenters and Nonconformists to Baptists
In the English Reformation, Christians tried to navigate a middle way between Catholics and Calvin’s Protestants, combining elements of each. To this day, the Anglican Church, or Episcopal Church as its known in America, reflects this character and faith. In the 1600s in England, though, there were many among the clergy and laity who were dissatisfied with this middle path. They sought to purge the church of its Catholic or “high church” elements; to restore it to what they believed was its New Testament character; and to purify the church and its members, challenging them to lead a holy life. This group became known, initially in a derogatory way, as “Puritans”; for their emphasis was on moral and spiritual purity.
The Puritans were also known as Dissenters and Nonconformists. Many remained part of the Church of England, seeking to work for change from within; but the more-radical Puritans left the church, and among these were the Pilgrims. Another group of Puritans who called for more-radical reform and eventually left the church were the Baptists. Although some Baptists trace their faith to nonconformists throughout church history, the first Baptists as we know them came from the Puritan tradition in the Church of England.
“One thing I love about Baptists is something that mainline churches often have neglected in the last hundred years: an emphasis on the simple salvation message of the gospel.”
Among Baptists’ “radical” ideas was that baptism was only for adults; therefore, any Christian who was baptized as a child needed to be rebaptized. Every branch of Christianity we have studied so far (the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, and the Anglicans) practiced infant baptism. But the Baptists held that only those practices explicitly described in the New Testament were to be made normative for the church. Since the New Testament only reports the baptism of adult converts who were called to repent and be baptized, it was reasoned that adult baptism was the only valid form of baptism. (Those who practice infant baptism point to circumcision as the precursor to infant baptism and see baptism as the outward sign of God’s covenant with the people. They also see the stories of Lydia’s household and the Philippian jailer’s household being baptized in Acts 16 as possible examples of parents having their children baptized in the early church.)
Since infants were not mature enough to understand what it meant to repent or be baptized, the practice of infant baptism was to be eliminated. The name “Baptist” was originally a shortened version of Anapedobaptist, a mouthful of a term that refers to those against the baptism of infants. John Smyth, the first Baptist pastor we know of, rebaptized his entire congregation one Sunday. Interestingly enough, the early Baptists did not baptize by immersion or even by sprinkling but by a practice called affusion, pouring water over the believer three times, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Although early Baptists shared a belief in adult baptism, they actually were made up of two distinct groups: General Baptists and Particular Baptists. General Baptists believed in general atonement—that is, that Christ died to save all who would repent. This was the group initially led by John Smyth in Amsterdam. Particular Baptists, who got their start in London, believed that Christ died only for a particular group, the elect. Theological diversity has continued, within the Baptist churches, to the present day.
Too Radical for the Puritans
Baptists, in their call for more-radical reform, rejected not only infant baptism but also the liturgical elements of worship, the formal acts of worship, the vestments or dress of the clergy, and any other elements deemed to be Catholic. There was no processional; there were no acolytes and cross bearers, no candles. The early Baptists discarded symbolic acts and gestures.
They also eliminated the altar, which was a place of sacrifice. Catholics spoke of the sacrifice of the Mass and the offering of the Eucharist as a way of re-presenting Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Baptists, who rejected this view of the Eucharist, eliminated the altar entirely. Communion was deemed to be an act of remembrance, a memorial rather than a sacrament by which God conveys his grace; and it was observed far less frequently than in the sacramental churches. Instead of people coming forward for the Eucharist to receive Christ, they were invited forward to confess publicly their need for Christ and to invite him to forgive their sins and become Lord of their lives.
The process also led most Baptist churches to drop the saying of the Lord’s Prayer during worship, since they regarded it as an example of the vain repetition of words and as something that smacked of Catholicism. Baptist churches would not typically observe Ash Wednesday, Lent or Advent, though in our time some have begun to explore these ancient holy days and seasons.
Because Baptists were seen as radical even by many of the Puritans, they experienced persecution at times from both the high-church Anglicans and the low-church Puritans. This was true in America as well, which is why Baptists have traditionally been strong supporters of the separation of church and state, so that no one faith group’s perspectives are supported by the state to the exclusion of others.
Baptists Today: Churches and Conventions
“Baptist”is a term that applies to a very broad family of Christians. There are about forty-five million Baptists of various types around the world, with thirty-three million living in the United States. Baptists traditionally have treasured the autonomy of the local congregation, and Baptist churches do not answer to bishops or to any outside authority. They do affiliate with like-minded Baptists in what are called “conventions.”
Theologically, Baptist churches run the gamut from liberal to fundamentalist. The American Baptist tends to be the most moderate and are actually very close to United Methodists and Presbyterians in many ways. The largest group of Baptists is represented by the Southern Baptist Convention; but there are hundreds of other Baptist groups, including some who refuse to recognize the other Baptists as Christians. In part, diversity comes from the Baptist emphasis on the individual’s own conscience and liberty when it comes to interpreting the Bible. Since it is difficult to find any two Christians who interpret the entire Bible in exactly the same way, divisions naturally arise in churches; and because of the historic emphasis on purity of doctrine within the Baptist churches, there is, among some, less tolerance for diverse interpretations. This tends to foster a need for some to form their own church when there is a disagreement within the particular congregation over biblical interpretation.
One thing I love about Baptists is something that mainline churches often have neglected in the last hundred years: an emphasis on the simple salvation message of the gospel. In our sophistication, in stressing the social gospel and social action, we sometimes forget that the Christian life begins with a personal decision to follow Christ. We sometimes lose sight of why people need Jesus Christ, of why we need Jesus Christ. In the Baptist tradition people are invited to come forward, to express by the act of getting out of their seats and walking to the front of the church that they have chosen to follow Christ, to pray with one another, and in this way to make a commitment to Christ. As they do so, the prayer offered is often something like this one, which I think is an appropriate conclusion to our look at the Baptist tradition. I invite you to make this your prayer:
Lord Jesus, I need you. I accept you as my Savior. Forgive my sins. Wash me clean, and make me new. I choose to follow you as my Lord. Help me to live according to your will each day. I wish to be your disciple. Teach me your ways. I offer my heart and life to you. Use me as you will. I pray this in your name and for your sake, Jesus. Amen.