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Five Baptist Principles

By Gary F. Zeolla

There are five historic Baptist principles that are important in understanding Baptist thought and practice. Each of these principles have implications for how the Baptist church should function in the world today.

1).  Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and should receive primary allegiance from the Christian Church.

This principle separates the Baptist from most cults. In the cults, a member's faith is very often in being part of "God's organization" and in the leader of the group. Thus, if a Baptist truly understood this principle, it would keep him from being deceived by the cults. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work in practice as many Baptists and other Christians have been deceived into believing and joining the cults.

2).  The Holy Scriptures are authoritative in all matters of faith and Christian practice.

This principle relates to the first. The Baptist does not believe God has only one organization or that He is giving primary revelation today. Hence a Baptist should not be looking to "the Church" or "God’s organization" or a pope or other leader for definitive answers to doctrinal or moral questions. He should look to the Bible for his answers while receiving direction but not final answers from his church.

Again, if this principle was clearly understood and followed it would prevent a Baptist from joining a cult since cults usually add to the Bible in some manner. However, too often Baptists and other Christians place too much faith in a particular leader or church organization. Thus, they are open to disappointment and cultic methods.

3).  The Church is a fellowship of persons who have received by faith the new life of the Spirit and given witness to this faith in believer's baptism.

This principle separates Baptists from most other denominations, except for Mennonite/ Anabaptist groups and Pentecostal/ charismatic churches. It grows out of a "gathered church" concept and a rejection of a covenantal or sacramental view of baptism. Hence, the Baptist puts an emphasis on personal conversion while rejecting the idea that a parent can exercise faith for the child.

Problems start when this doctrine degenerates into "adult" baptism rather than true believer’s baptism. Some Baptist churches will baptize a child when he or she reaches a certain age, usually between 8 and 12, and upon completion of a catechism program. This practice leads to false conversions and is not really that different from infant baptism.

Reaching the next generation with a vibrant, living faith rather than a just memorized faith should be a constant concern based on this principle for Baptists. This is not to say that doctrinal teachings are not important - they are. A strong intellectual knowledge of basic Christian doctrines and an ability to defend them are essential in preventing the cults from making inroads into the church.

However, a purely intellectual knowledge of the Gospel is not enough. A personal experience and abiding relationship with Christ is essential. An experiential knowledge of Christ will also prevent cult involvement as the Spirit within will warn the believer of deception. These points are a natural outgrowth of this principle.

4).  All believers have equal access to God through the one mediator, Jesus Christ, and are responsible to offer themselves in grateful service to Christ and their neighbors.

This principle came about as a reaction to the Catholic Church placing itself and the clergy between the believer and God. It is also a reaction to the belief that only full-time ministers are serving God.

However, this principle is often only given lip service and not lived out in day-to-day practice. One example would be when a believer has a prayer request and feels he has to get the pastor to pray for him. If we are all priests before God, then a layman's prayers are just as efficient as a clergyman's. Any other believer would be a proper prayer partner.

Also, too many feel that evangelism is the job of the pastor only. Paul said that the job of the pastor is, "the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph 4:12). This concept is a natural outgrowth of the doctrine of the priesthood of believers.

Peter's injunction to, "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you" (1Pet 3:15) is for all believers, not just the clergy. The pastor's job is to prepare his flock to do apologetics. Unfortunately, this teaching is not generally done. Hence, the proliferation of the cults in this country.

The same idea goes for social work. Christ's command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. is for all believers, not just professionals. Too many believers feel giving a few dollars to a food outreach program fulfills their obligation to the needy. More believers need to seriously consider if Jesus wants him or her to get actively involved in the social programs of their church.

5).  God has granted the liberty of conscience to everyone, and the Church therefore should be free from the control of the state.

This principle is probably the most difficult one to carry out. In the United States, there are constant struggles over church-state issues. Some Christians feel the government is slowly trying to control the Church. A recent example was a case where the courts awarded a $330,000 suit to a woman who sued her local church for disciplining her for committing adultery.

The other side to this principle is that the state should be free from the control of the Church. Some Baptists don't seem to be able to accept this part. Some noted Baptist personalities seem to believe the state should be run by Biblical principles and that Christians should force their moral values on society at large.

If we want the right to believe as we choose and to live by God's commandments, then we need to realize that others have the right not to believe and not to live up to God's standards. Separation of Church and state goes both ways.

Conclusion:  I basically agree with these five stated Baptist principles. In theory, they're logical and Biblically sound. The difficulty comes in actually living them out consistently. Baptists need to constantly reaffirm belief in these principles in theory and in practice.

Note:  The above article was originally written as a class assignment at Denver Seminary. The "five Baptist principles" themselves were taken from a class handout titled, A Brief Baptist History, written by the professor Bruce Shelley. Our assignment was to write an exposition of the principles and relate them to the type of ministry we were planning on going into.

Five Baptist Principles. Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above article was originally written as a class assignment at Denver Seminary in July 1988.
It was revised and posted on this Web site in February 1998.

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