Desiderius Erasmus, incredulous and finally exasperated in his debates with Martin Luther, once nicknamed the great Reformer Doctor Hyperbolicus. In Erasmus’s view, Luther could not resist taking every argument to extremes. We can only imagine what Erasmus would have said of the Baptists, who believe that Luther did not take his arguments far enough. Even the eloquent Erasmus might have been speechless.
Of course, neither Erasmus nor Luther ever encountered a Baptist. The movement we know today as Baptist emerged not on the Continent during the sixteenth century but in England during the seventeenth. The world has been less quiet ever since.
Every great movement probably begins in an argument of some sort, and the Baptists emerged in the context of an argument that was intense, significant, and sometimes deadly. Luther had started it. The Calvinists believed he had not taken it far enough. The English Puritans likewise became convinced that the moderately reforming Church of England was not taking the argument far enough. The Separatists (who would include Congregationalists and Presbyterians) believed that the Puritans who remained in the Church of England were not taking it far enough. The Baptists then separated from the Separatists because they were not taking it far enough. Since then, Baptists have not stopped arguing. They often argue among themselves, but more urgently, they argue for the necessity of conversion, for the believers’ church, for the baptism of believers alone, and for liberty of conscience.
The Baptists did not claim to have reestablished Christ’s church, but instead saw themselves as continuing the process of reforming the church through the establishment of true and godly congregations of visible saints—each entering into the covenant fellowship of the congregation by personal testimony of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and personal commitment to obey Christ in baptism and faithful discipleship.
Those early Baptists were determined to clarify that they affirmed without reservation the great tradition of classical Christianity. They wanted the world to know their affirmation of the central doctrines of the Christian faith, evident, for example, in the Nicene-Chalcedonian tradition. By 1679, Baptists in London adopted the “Orthodox Creed” intended “to unite and confirm all true Protestants in the fundamental articles of the Christian religion.” But the Baptists were united in perplexity over the fact that other Protestants seemed reluctant to follow the logic of the Reformation to its conclusion. What did the famed solas of the Reformation mean, if the meaning and necessity of conversion could be so obscured, and the very nature of the church thereby so confused?
For Baptists, the foundation is the radical reality of conversion as the entry into the Christian life. Is this not the clear teaching of Christ himself, who told Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:7)? For Baptists, the necessity of conversion is the key to understanding the gospel and all of Scripture. The human race is divided between those who do not believe in Christ and those who do, between the once-born and the twice-born, between the rebels against God and those who have been conquered by the grace of Christ and belong to him forever.
Baptists reject the notion that a person who has not been born again is actually a believer. No doubt, this will sound alarming to those who understand the gospel and the church very differently. It was astounding and alarming to the Church of England in the seventeenth century.
In 1646, Baptist churches in London defined saving faith in these terms:
Faith is the gift of God, wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God; by which faith they come to know and believe the truth of the Scriptures, and the excellency of them above all other writings, and all things in the world, as they hold forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and of the power and fulness of the Spirit in his workings and operations; and so are enabled to cast their souls upon this truth thus believed.
Such saving faith, the Baptists continued, “is ordinarily begotten by the preaching of the gospel, or word of Christ.” When you find real Baptists, you will find the preaching of the gospel—the declaration of the great good news that salvation and the forgiveness of sins are bestowed upon all who hear the word of Christ and believe, who rest from their labors to make themselves worthy of salvation and by grace through faith receive the mercy of God, by the merits of Christ alone.
This declaration explains Baptists’ sense of urgency in the preaching of the gospel. When Baptist churches come together, as Southern Baptists in the United States did in 1845, they establish mission boards and organize evangelism before doing anything else. The Southern Baptists did not establish a theological seminary until 1859 or a publishing house until 1891, but they did not leave their first meeting without establishing mission boards. Getting first things first among the Baptists means preaching the gospel for the conversion of sinners. Everything else will have to wait.
But the necessity of conversion ran into conflict with the prevailing understanding of the nature of the church, especially as that understanding accorded with either Catholic or Anglican ecclesiology. How could Christ’s church include those who were not Christ’s people?
The definition of Christ’s church as wholly regenerate is perhaps the most radical of all Baptist doctrines. The necessity of conversion leads to the affirmation of the church as the body of those who are converted, who have heard the gospel and been saved. Others among the Puritans and Separatists approached this affirmation, but the Baptists plowed right through the arguments, insisting there could be no other notion of Christ’s church than that it comprises the twice-born, regenerate believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, who have individually professed their belief in Christ and demonstrated their regeneration through obedience to Christ and his commands.
With this affirmation, the Baptists transformed themselves into perceived enemies of the established churches and the civil order. The union of throne and altar rendered membership in the church and citizenship in the state effectively one and the same. The Baptists were accused of heresy and treason. Politically, as we shall see, Baptist logic severed the concept of citizenship from membership in an established church. One could be born an Englishman, but one had to be born again to be a Christian. The church consists only of Christians under the rule of Christ.
The powers that be—both civil and ecclesiastical—were scandalized. To monarchs, the threat was real. Can you have a stable national order (and a secure throne) if your subjects are not subservient to your priests? How can societal order be maintained if civil law and church law are totally separated? Can government wield true authority if the most it can threaten is execution? How could a person excommunicated by a church remain in good standing with the state? Are unbelievers and not-yet-believers part of no church?
The Baptists came to answer yes to every one of those questions. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Baptists had thought it through rather carefully, and they defined the church with these words:
Jesus Christ hath here on earth a [manifestation of his] spiritual kingdom, which is his Church, whom he hath purchased and redeemed to himself as a peculiar inheritance; which Church is a company of visible saints, called and separated from the world by the word and Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the gospel, being baptized into that faith, and joined to the Lord, and to each other, by mutual agreement in the practical enjoyment of the ordinances commanded by Christ their head and king.
The concept of a regenerate church, like that of conversion, was evident to the early Baptists as they read the Bible. They observed the churches around them and concluded that a reformation was improbable if not impossible. One cannot reform what has not been rightly formed. The Baptist conception was radical, and they knew it. King James I of England was famously worried about creeping Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” he reasoned. He rightly understood the Baptists as an even more pressing threat. The Baptists recognized no bishop, no mediatorial priest but Christ, and no presbytery. The Baptists did not invent Congregationalism, but they made it central to their ecclesiology.
They affirmed what Martin Luther would define as the priesthood of all believers, then proceeded to make clear that every rightly ordered congregation is fully empowered and authorized for ministry. No pope, no bishop, no presbytery, no permit needed or sought.
Francis Wayland, the influential president of the then-Baptist Brown University, when asked by an Episcopal bishop why Baptists were growing so fast on the nineteenth-century American frontier, responded, “We don’t ask permission.” He was likely tempted to add, “And we don’t have bishops.”
Baptists are often accused of lacking an ecclesiology, and many who have called themselves Baptists in recent times have lent credence to the charge. But such was not the case with Baptists in the formative era, who had carefully thought out an ecclesiology consistent with what later generations would call “New Testament principles.” Nor is it the case with those who today prize authentic Baptist identity and ecclesiology. The rightly ordered church is a body of regenerate believers, gathered by common faith and common confession and a church covenant that defines the commitments of church membership. This rightly ordered church appoints the elders and pastors needed for its ministry and organizes its work on its own authority.
One of the most venerable of our Baptist church covenants explains:
As we trust we have been brought by divine grace to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the influence of his Spirit to give ourselves up to him, so we do now solemnly covenant with each other, that, God enabling us: we will walk together in brotherly love; that we will exercise a Christian care and watchfulness over each other, and faithfully warn, rebuke, and admonish one another, as the case shall require; that we will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, nor omit the great duty of prayer, both for ourselves and for others; that we will participate in each other’s joys, and endeavor, with tenderness and sympathy, to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows; that we will earnestly endeavor to bring up such as may be under our care in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; that we will seek divine aid to enable us to walk circumspectly and watchfully in the world; denying ungodliness and every worldly lust; that we will strive together for the support of a faithful evangelical ministry among us; that we will endeavor by example and effort to win souls to Christ; and, through life, amidst evil report and good report seek to live to the glory of Him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.
As others have noted, the Baptists have not been ardent ecumenists. But they have always recognized that there are true Christians in other churches and communions. They have believed that no entity that lacks the preaching of the gospel is any church at all, and that even some churches that preach the gospel are, measured by the New Testament, wrongly ordered. Baptists are not Baptists for nothing.
The rightly ordered church as a gathered and covenanted visible assembly of the saints exercises a comprehensive gospel ministry. The Word of God is preached, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are observed, church discipline is applied, and the congregation advances the gospel through missions and evangelism.
The practice of baptizing only those persons who personally profess faith in Christ became the defining issue for Baptists. Reading the New Testament, they concluded that infant baptism was no real baptism and that baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, was not a sacrament but an ordinance—an act commanded by Christ. The new believer, having given evidence of saving faith and a commitment to follow Christ, is baptized into the fellowship of the church, with the waters of baptism the context for the believer’s profession of faith. Baptism is also the ordinance of entry into the membership and fellowship of the congregation.
The sixteenth-century Anabaptists in Switzerland had professed the baptism of believers only, but they had not generally practiced immersion. The early British Baptists concluded that texts such as Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:4 clearly indicated the full immersion of the new believer in water, portraying the death, burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Millions upon millions of Baptists have been immersed in water, with the words “buried with Christ in baptism” as the believer is lowered into the water, and “raised to walk in newness of life” as the believer emerges from the watery grave.
Baptists probably did not at first denominate themselves Baptists. It appears that others, probably derisively, affixed the label to the new movement of churches in England. In the next century, the Methodists would receive much the same treatment, due to their method of devotion. Eventually, the Baptists (and the Methodists after them) accepted the name. Why not? To the Baptists, the practice of believers’ baptism was shorthand for their entire system of doctrine and ecclesial practice.
In the words of the London Baptists in 1646, the “plunging” of the body under water is “a sign,” and as such “must answer the things signified; which is, that interest the saints have in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and that as certainly as the body is buried under water, and risen again, so certainly shall the bodies of the saints be raised by the power of Christ, in the day of the resurrection, to reign with Christ.” Given the language of “plunging the body under water,” the Baptists could easily have been named the Plungers. I’ll just be thankful for Baptist.
The necessity of conversion led logically to the concept of the regenerate church, which led in turn to the understanding of baptism of believers as the public profession of faith and entrance into the covenant assembly of the local church. In our time, other Christians are often scandalized by the insistence of Baptist churches that members be baptized, by immersion, as believers. Sometimes even Baptists fall into the practice of speaking of “rebaptism” as required. In fact, the historic Baptist position is that any act that claims to be baptism, but is not the baptism of a professing believer, is not actually baptism at all. Likewise, any baptism of a believer that is not conducted by full immersion in water is not a rightly obedient baptism. We do not “rebaptize” people, we baptize them.
By now you see the pattern. I did warn you in advance: It all started with an argument.
The radical idea of a believers’ church, a regenerate assembly, came into conflict with several nearly universal assumptions of the age: that the church must be conjoined with the state, that baptism (of infants) was combined with notions of citizenship, and that the state bore responsibility for religious order, conformity, and orthodoxy. To think otherwise was considered both heretical and treasonous, subversive of both the nation and social stability.
To most modern people living in Western nations—and particularly to most Americans—the idea of a state serving as guardian of souls and protector of orthodoxy probably seems outlandish. To King James I and his bishops, the same idea seemed obvious, and the Baptists soon felt the fury of persecution.
The Baptists were hardly alone in experiencing religious persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What set them apart was the growing realization that their own theological logic required the recognition of religious liberty for all persons. They might have come to such conclusions apart from their own experience of persecution, but the threat of injury and imprisonment and death clarified their beliefs rather quickly.
One of the earliest Baptists, Thomas Helwys from Nottinghamshire, penned in 1612 a powerful tract titled, “A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity.” In his handwritten inscription to King James I, Helwys wrote:
Hear O King, and diligently note the counsel of your poor, and let their complaints come before thee. The king is a mortal man, and not God, therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual Lords over them. If the king have authority to make spiritual Lords and laws, then he is an immortal God and not a mortal man. O king, be not seduced by deceivers to sin so against God whom thou oughtest to obey, nor against thy poor subjects who ought and will obey thee in all things with body life and goods, or else let their lives be taken from the earth. God save the king.
Helwys insisted that “man’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king will not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it does not appertain to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”
King James I saw otherwise, having argued, “It is the chiefest of all kingly duties . . . to settle affairs of religion.” Helwys, along with other early English Baptists, fled to the Netherlands. He would later return to England, suffer arrest, and die in the infamous Newgate Prison.
Robert Louis Wilken has referred to Helwys’s “compelling luminosity” in including not only Protestants and Catholics but Jews and Muslims in his defense of religious liberty. As Wilken noted, “If liberty of conscience is recognized for any, it must be recognized for all. Helwys had the clearness of mind to discern that as a matter of justice the ruling authorities must grant liberty of conscience no matter what faith people held.”
In the New World, Roger Williams would be driven by the same Baptist convictions to establish the colony of Rhode Island (originally known as Providence Plantations) on the principle of religious liberty. In 1644, he published his most famous book, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. In it, Williams (a mercurial personality who would later declaim Baptist identity) argues that the king has no right to coerce belief, confession, or conviction. Williams saw the church as separate from the world, a vineyard that belongs to God alone. He insisted that the church in the world must be separated by a wall or hedge “between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world.”
Like Thomas Helwys, Williams extended religious liberty far beyond the imagination of his contemporaries—to the inclusion of “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships.” His broadmindedness was not appreciated in London, nor for that matter in Boston, and the House of Commons ordered that The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution be burned.
Later, President Thomas Jefferson, though considered an infidel by many Baptists then (and now), was presented with a 1,325-pound cheese made by Baptist women in Massachusetts and delivered to the White House by Elder John Leland in appreciation of Jefferson’s support for religious liberty. Writing to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in 1802, Jefferson had borrowed language from Roger Williams, defining “a wall of separation between church and state.”
In more recent times, Jefferson’s language of a “wall of separation” has been employed to mischievous ends by those who oppose any religious influence in civil society. But in its historical context, Jefferson’s assurance to the Baptists stood in contrast to the persecution Baptists had experienced at the hands of governments on both sides of the Atlantic.
In much of the world, religious persecution continues. In our own context, what Walter Lippmann called the “acids of modernity” threaten to burn through the entire society, consuming all religious conviction. An increasingly aggressive secularism, joined by forces aligned with moral progressivism, renders all traditional theistic beliefs subversive and retrograde. The entire inheritance of Christianity and Christendom is dismissed as inimical to the project of secular liberation.
Those of us who hold to traditional forms of Christianity, revealed religion, and religious authority find ourselves and each other in communities of conviction. We engage in conversation and common courage as we seek to remain faithful, making clear that our beliefs have public as well as private significance.
Perhaps part of our Baptist contribution is just to remain authentically Baptist, still refusing to ask permission. Period.
Why am I a Baptist? I must admit that having been born to Baptist parents has something to do with it. But no one becomes a real Baptist by birth—only by rebirth. I professed personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior as a boy and was baptized, head to toe under water, into the membership of a Baptist church. Later, like most adolescents, I decided that I had better take a closer look at my own beliefs and look into the beliefs of others. I became an even more ardent Baptist, and I have spent my entire adult life in the Baptist ministry.
I believe that Baptists have something important—even crucial—to add to the Christian tradition and to strengthen Christian witness in the world today. Baptists are often a noisy part of the Body of Christ, but I hope we are a needed part as well.
In any event, don’t expect us to ask permission. Put us in jail, take away our earthly goods, do your worst—we will not ask permission from the powers that be. Whatever happens in the unfolding of history, we will still be preaching the gospel, plunging believers under water, telling people about Jesus, and singing the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
As a young man, I heard an old Baptist say, “I was Baptist born and Baptist bred, and when I am old, I’ll be Baptist dead.” At the time, I thought these words trite, tribal, and woefully lacking in theology. Now, in my seventh decade of life, I hear them a bit differently, mixing gratitude to the church with defiance of the world. Given the way our world is going, I am ready to stand with that old Baptist, now long gone, and pledge to be faithfully Baptist, faithfully Christian, even unto death. No earthly permission needed.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. has served as President and Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1993.