What does it mean to be a member of a "Baptist" church? Every Baptist church is unique and autonomous, but if we trace the movement to its beginning, we can find some very important traits that can keep us focused on the heart of what it should mean to be a Baptist.
Baptists and the Great Commission
Baptists have always prioritized God’s Word in forming churches and organizing partnerships. A guiding passage at key moments in our history has been the Great Commission. In the Reformation, in his desire to cut down the power of the Roman Catholic Church, John Calvin argued that the Great Commission was given to the apostles alone; churches did not any longer have to worry about obeying it (!). One of Calvin’s contemporaries, Balthasar Hubmaier, insisted that every Christian was to obey the Great Commission. That became an organizing principle for early Baptists on the continent (Anabaptists and their kin). Unfortunately, Baptists in England followed Calvin, who was much more "respectable" than the ragamuffin Anabaptists. At least, that is until William Carey in 1792 proposed the following argument: if the command to make disciples of all nations is restricted to the apostles, then so is the command to baptize; but if Baptists believed they have been commanded to baptize, then they ought also evangelize! He published that in An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians and became the father of what we consider the modern missions movement. When Baptists in America decided that they needed to organize for the purpose of worldwide missions, Richard Furman chose to preach the first sermon of the Triennial Convention on the Great Commission, and that sermon became one of the first pamphlets they distributed to churches to help them understand the need for evangelism and missions. B.H. Carroll, the founder of Southwestern Seminary in Texas and one of the most influential of the early Southern Baptist leaders, considered the Great Commission to be the greatest of all authorities for Baptist churches.
The "Heart" of Being a Baptist
My mentor at Southwestern Seminary, Malcolm Yarnell, used 5 words from the Great Commission to summarize what Baptists should be focused on. The five words are Jesus, go, make disciples, baptizing, teaching. Yarnell uses the analogy of a heart. Jesus is the lifeblood of the heart, and the four chambers are evangelism, discipleship, a regenerate church, and the Word of God.
Jesus: The Lifeblood of Every Baptist Church
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying . . .
Yes, this should go without saying, but I’ve learned that when it goes without saying, people forget to say it. Jesus is the foundation of everything we are as a group of Christians. The disciples worshiped Him because He is God; He is Savior and Lord; He is the only way, truth, and life. Baptists believe that on earth, the Trinity is focused on Jesus—the Spirit points us to Jesus, and the Father glorifies Jesus. Why? Because the Plan has always been that Jesus would be the provider and source of human salvation. We worship each member of the Trinity equally, but in this life, our focus is on Jesus, the One who revealed God to us.
To be Baptist is to be Christ-centered.
Evangelism: God’s Plan to Grow the Church
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Therefore go . . .
In this passage, the only verb is “make disciples”. The words for go, baptize, and teach are all participles (verbal adjectives). That means the passage would literally read in English, “Therefore, make disciples of all nations, [while] going, [by] baptizing, and [by] teaching.” The first priority of every Baptist church (and every Baptist) must be evangelism. But let’s not confuse this with the work of a paid evangelist or missionary—those are called by specific churches and sent to specific places for specific purposes. This is an open calling and sending by Jesus. There is no limitation to its scope (to “all nations”) or to its timeframe. Consequently, no one person or group could complete this task—therefore it is given to all of us.
Here’s the amazing part about the grammar: Jesus’ command is not to go. His command is to make disciples! We make disciples while we go. While we go where? Everywhere! All the time! This is not like a short-term mission trip where we have a destination and a job list. We are always going. Which means we are always looking out for opportunities to make disciples. That means that everybody in our church needs to be a part of this task.
To be Baptist is to be an evangelist.
Discipleship: Our Responsibility to Grow
And make disciples of all nations . . .
A “disciple” is one who learns, listens, and follows. One cannot be a disciple without actually following Jesus in one’s life. In other words, there is no such thing as a Christian in name only. This is a two way street—yes, it is the responsibility of the follower to obey, but it is also the responsibility of the church to teach them how. The genius of the church network (and the reason why our mission agencies prioritize church planting) is that evangelism is not enough for a church’s mission. (It’s enough for salvation, but that is not our mission.) If a church is not making disciples, we are failing to complete the Great Commission. Why? Because it takes strong, growing disciples to faithfully lead and pass on that leadership to another generation of disciples.
To be Baptist is to be a disciple of Jesus.
Church: The Community of Disciples
Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit . . .
We talked about baptism when we went through Acts and how groups get it wrong by making it part of salvation. Jesus makes it very clear here that being baptized is not about being saved; being baptized is about being a disciple. How? Because baptism publicly identifies us with Jesus (and note that Jesus explicitly told us to make the entire Trinity clear—no other religion recognizes God as a Trinity; this baptism distinguishes us from every false baptism out there). This is where the rules Jesus gave us are so important: baptism for believers only, baptism by immersion only (the word “baptize” literally means “immerse”), baptism as a symbol of salvation, baptism as a commitment to discipleship.
The early Baptists understood what everyone else (those who baptize infants) had forgotten: baptism is a part of discipleship. You cannot be a disciple of Jesus if you have not been saved by Jesus. That means that Baptists alone could make the next important deduction: Jesus did not give the Commission to individuals but to a group—in this case those who would become the first church. Only true disciples in that church, and therefore only true disciples in our church! The protection God gave for the making of disciples was the lifelong community of a church, and as churches spread around the world, so would that safe community for disciplemaking. That’s why Baptists talk about a “regenerate church”—only disciples of Jesus should be members. The best symbol we have for that is believers’ baptism. Therefore if we do not baptize, we are not fulfilling the Great Commission!
To be Baptist is to hold to a regenerate church and believers’ baptism
The Bible: Our Only Teaching Authority
Teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you . . .
To be a disciple of Aristotle meant that one learned everything that Aristotle taught and passed it on to others. To be a disciple of Jesus means the same thing. But how do we know what Jesus taught? His followers passed it on to us in written form: the Bible. This is why Baptists seem so obsessed with the Bible: it is the content of the Great Commission. Jesus does not prohibit us from teaching about worldviews and politics and whatever else, but if we are not teaching the Bible, we are not obeying Jesus’ command! And this is why we believe the Bible is inerrant and inspired—Jesus would not set us up to fail, and that is why we trust the decisions of the disciples so long ago as to which books should be a part of the Bible. Consequently, the obey the Great Commission is to teach everything in the Bible—and just to be safe, let’s not worry about teaching anything else.
To be Baptist is to teach the Bible entirely and the Bible alone.
So that’s what Baptist have traditionally believed the Great Commission commands us and how the Great Commission has shaped our movement throughout church history. It really is a great summary of everything we should be focused on: (1) Jesus; (2) going throughout our life with the intention of seeking the people around us with the gospel; (3) taking those people who respond to the gospel and making them into disciples of Jesus; (4) integrating disciples into our church; (5) teaching them (and us) from the only authority we have been given: God’s Word. There you go -- the heart of what it means to be a Baptist.
Quick Aside on Baptism by Immersion
I pointed this out when we went through Acts, and it bears repeating. A lot of our Christian friends use baptism by sprinkling. Why? I hate to sound so trite, but it’s because that is the easiest way to “baptize” an infant, not because the Bible tells us to do it. The word “baptize” is the Greek word that literally means “immerse”. It’s not a translation, it’s a transliteration (in which we take a foreign word and create a word that sounds like it in our own language; we usually do this with proper names). So the English translators of the Bible translated the rest of these words into English, but left the word “baptize” as “baptize”. Why is that? Because the “ruling” churches of the day when the Bible was translated (like the Anglican church when the King James Version was released) all practiced infant baptism by sprinkling—the Catholics because of their “Christendom” model, the Lutherans because Luther didn’t want to mess with that, the Calvinists because they took “covenant” very seriously, and the Anglicans because they also had a “Christendom” model. And they all hated Baptists because Baptists believed that churches should be self-governing. If they translated the word “immerse”, they would be encouraging the Baptist cause, and that wasn’t an option!
If there’s a good outcome of this questionable choice, it is that “baptism” is certainly more than “immersion”. There are some words that in the Greek mean more than they do in English, and we lose that in translation. Baptism means a lot more than getting dunked. It is an identification with, a public declaration.
Quick Aside on the Trinitarian Formula of Baptism
Would you believe me if I told you that there was great controversy in these words? No really! Today, we realize that the formula of baptizing into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is a perfect picture of the doctrine of the Trinity—a singular “name” and a truly unique feature of the One True God. However, there are scholars who believe that Matthew inserted this, that Jesus could not possibly have said it because we have no other clear references to the Trinity at this point. Plus, the passages in Acts only mention baptizing in the name of Jesus. (As an aside, there is a worldwide movement of “Jesus-only” baptizers; in their statement of faith, they reject the Trinity as a later invention of the early church.) What do we say about this? Well, we do have a clear sense of the Trinity among Jesus’ followers. Paul used the three names together regularly—Rom 8:11, 1 Cor 12:4-6, 2 Cor 13:14, Gal 4:6, Eph 4:4-6, 2 Thess 2:13. And Jesus spoke extensively about Father, Son and Spirit, even if He did not use them all together in this kind of “formula”. I think we are better off accepting that Jesus simply said it. It’s certainly possible that Matthew condensed what Jesus said into a phraseology that was common in his day, but even then that would only make sense if it were a phraseology inherited from the apostles and thus Jesus. The apostles did not teach beyond what Jesus taught—certainly not in a matter as central as the identity of God and His church. Now that Jesus has been resurrected and is about to ascend to heaven and send the Holy Spirit, the disciples are finally equipped to understand what He means. And even then, I would guess that it was not until the Spirit came at Pentecost that they really got the parallelism of “Father / Son / Spirit” in the sense of realizing that each was God.
Of course, that’s why we still use that formula today. No religion has a God like ours because there is no god like ours. And the best way we have to identify Him is as “Father, Son, and Spirit”. If baptism is a public identifying, then this is it.