Church members will often ask, “What is the difference between Baptists and other denominations?” Providing an answer to that question would require much more than a single blog post. However, I submit the following as a major theological difference between Baptists and other denominations.
Nature of the Covenant Community
Perhaps the main theological difference between Baptists and others is found in their understanding of the nature of the covenant community. What is a covenant community? A covenant community is a group of people in covenant with God. The group of people in covenant with God in the Old Testament was the nation of Israel. However, not everyone who belonged to this old covenant community was a believer. Not all of ethnic Israel was also spiritual Israel. (Romans 9:6-7) The nation of Israel was a mixed covenant community. It was a community consisting of both believers and unbelievers.
Many non-Baptist denominations believe that the covenant community described in the New Testament is still a mixed community. It includes both believers and unbelievers. Baptism replaces circumcision as the sign that a person is in the covenant community. Infants and converts are baptized to signify that they belong to the covenant people of God.
Historically, Baptist theology differs from the tradition above. Baptists agree with others that the nation of Israel was a mixed covenant community consisting of believers and unbelievers. However, Baptists believe that the new covenant community is for regenerate persons only. The new covenant community consists of professing believers. They believe that the way a person professes faith in Christ is through the public display of baptism.
Rather than recognizing a mixed community of believers and unbelievers, Baptists attempt to recognize a redeemed community of believers. One way people have described this Baptist understanding of the covenant community is to say that Baptists believe in regenerate church membership.
Regenerate Church Membership
To be ‘regenerate’ is to be ‘born again.’ One way Baptists believe they strive for the purity of the Church is by operating as though their local churches consist of regenerate members. What does this look like? In Matthew 18, Jesus provides us with clear instructions regarding how we are to interact with other church members who publicly profess Christ.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Matthew 18:15-20 (ESV)
Note in verse 15 the offending person is called a “brother.” And yet, by verse 17, he is called a “Gentile” and a “tax collector.” This person, though he professes Christ, is not actually a believer. The means by which we learn he is not a believer is simple. He is confronted about a sin by another person who professes Christ (v. 15), then he is confronted by two others (v. 16), and finally he is brought before the church (v. 17). Because he refuses to repent, or turn away from his sin, the church is commanded by Christ to regard him as an unbeliever. He should no longer be a member of the church.
We All Sin
The problem here is not that the professing Christian sinned. As people are quick to point out, we all sin. The church is a place for sinners. The problem is that the professing Christian refuses to repent, even though he is confronted about doing that very thing not just by one believer, and not even by two, but by the entire local church body. When a person refuses to repent for his or her sin, it is a strong indication that the person is not actually a believer. Unbelievers have no place being called members of a local church body, because the local church body is representative of the larger body of Christ, and that consists of believers.
Jesus does not tell us to excommunicate someone from the church because of his or her sin. Jesus tells us to excommunicate someone from the church because that person refuses to repent. Repentance is required for church membership initially in baptism, and continually through the discipline of the church.
Who begins the process of church discipline? Most people think it’s the pastors. And of course it could be. But church discipline rests first and foremost with all of the members of the local church body, not just the pastors (or deacons). In verse 15, it’s the offended party that starts the process of church discipline.
The church is also the group with final responsibility in hearing a matter (v. 17). Upon receiving this member into its fellowship, the church made a (fallible) proclamation that this individual is, indeed, regenerate. The church did so upon the basis of this person’s profession of faith through baptism. But now, because the member in sin refuses to repent, the church must replace its former proclamation with another. It is the duty of the church to regard this unrepentant person as an unbeliever (v. 17). Or, if the person does repent, to welcome him back into the church as a restored member.
Thus the church either binds the offender through church discipline, or looses him from the church discipline process in restoration, and God grants his stamp of approval whatever the congregation’s decision (v. 18-20). So, to be a member of a church is to be granted some assurance of salvation by God and his people. To fall under church discipline is to have that assurance removed by God and his people. Please notice I am not claiming that church membership is the means of salvation, or that church membership is the only means of assurance available to the believer.
The way the aforementioned observations have worked themselves out in traditional, biblical, historical Baptist churches is (roughly) as follows:
1. Baptists receive as members only those who have repented of their sins and professed Christ through baptism in order to establish a regenerate church membership.
2. Baptists hold those members accountable through the application of Scripture to the concept of a church member in their Statements of Faith, Church Covenants, and guidelines on Membership Duties and Termination of Membership in their Church Constitutions in order to maintain a regenerate church membership.
3. Baptists confront those members who refuse to repent from sin, carrying out the church discipline process in accordance with Scripture, and especially Matthew 18, Galatians 6, and 1 Corinthians 5 in order to maintain a regenerate church membership.
4. Baptists regard their members as regenerate, and thus partakers of the new covenant which is in Christ’s blood, able to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
5. Baptists regard their members as regenerate, and thus the local congregation as capable, under the Lordship of Christ and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, to rule the church through democratic process as exemplified in the final step of church discipline.
The five practices mentioned above can be largely derived from the portion of Matthew 18 quoted in this post. Unfortunately, many Baptists today are in the dark about the importance of this passage for their Baptist theology and practice. Additionally, legalistic abuse of church discipline in the 1800’s coupled with the so-called “church growth” movement of the 1900’s has resulted in a general distrust of Baptist principles even by self-described Baptists! And yet, the aforementioned theology and its resulting practice is one of the main factors that distinguishes Baptists from virtually everyone else.