The Baptists do have a distinct place in God’s wonderful, diverse worldwide Church. But the first thing we need to say here is that this kind of identity isn’t important to a lot of Christians. Perhaps fewer than half of the people who come to our church are choosing it because of the ‘Baptist’ label. They might be saying something like ‘I’m not a Baptist, but I go to a Baptist church…’ While we are Christians first and Baptists second (or third!), there are some things which make a church ‘Baptist’ and they do shape our church’s life whether we stop to think about it or not.
The first Baptist distinctive is that we baptise believers in Jesus Christ. We enjoy good relationships with other churches who ‘christen’ babies. But we don’t do that, because as we read the Bible we see that Christian baptism is reserved for those who have made – for themselves – the life-long, life-changing decision to follow Jesus. This goes hand-in-hand with the truth that being a Christian is a personal decision and not a matter of upbringing, race or nationality. It is that last point which got Baptists into trouble in Britain in the 1600s, when to worship outside the state church, not Christening one’s children, was seen as disloyal to the Crown.
The other main Baptist distinctive is ‘congregational government’ which means that each local Baptist Church makes its own decisions among its own local members. There are leaders (in our case deacons, elders and pastoral staff) but these are recognised and elected by the membership, and the job of leadership is partly to create a concensus among the membership when a new initiative or direction is needed. This is born out of the conviction that leaders are not a breed apart, and that all believers have the ability and responsibility to hear from the Lord and discern His will together. The emphasis on the local congregation means that there is no other authority structure. We belong to a national grouping of Baptists (actually the largest, the Baptist Union of Great Britain); they act in a supportive role in terms of charity / legal advice and setting standards for the training of Baptist ministers but they don’t tell us what to do, nor do they send us any money! Each Baptist church depends on the giving of its own congregation for financial support; many, like us, contribute INTO a Baptist Union fund in order to help start up new Baptist Churches.
It is these two principles which go to make a church ‘Baptist’ or at least ‘Baptist-like’. The lack of a national authority structure means Baptist churches will differ in style and in some matters of Christian belief. As evidenced by our membership of the UK’s Evangelical Alliance, we are an evangelical Baptist church, and you can see our Basis of Faith here.