Introduction | Baptist Distinctives

Lesson 1: Introduction to the Baptist Distinctives [1]

We live in an era of ecumenical unification in which theological distinctions have been downplayed and ignored. Ecumenism emphasizes similarities and promotes agreement among those of differing views. Modern Christians often no longer see the need or benefit of using denominational names. Some see such names as a hindrance to reaching their communities with the gospel. Many formerly Baptist churches have dropped the name “Baptist” altogether.

Baptists have a rich history of faithfulness and fruitfulness for the cause of Christ. Baptists are a distinct group with a set of theological beliefs that set them apart from other Christian groups. Unfortunately, the term “Baptist” has lost much of its distinctiveness because groups of all sorts use it, even those who no longer subscribe to the historical theological viewpoint that first distinguished the Baptists. The purpose of this series is to explore the history of the Baptists and to examine the biblical distinctives that Baptists have historically affirmed. The student should be able to understand and appreciate the theological distinctiveness of Baptists and be committed to continuing in that tradition.


What distinguishes Baptists from other Christian groups? Using the word BAPTISTS as an acrostic, we can briefly describe those distinctive theological positions that Baptists have historically subscribed to:

  • B – Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice
  • A – Autonomy of the local church
  • P – Priesthood of the believer
  • T – Two church ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s supper
  • I – Individual soul liberty
  • S – Saved church membership
  • T – Two church offices: pastor and deacon
  • S – Separation of church and state

A Brief History of the Baptists

Many lengthy books have been written on the history of the Baptists. We won’t go into that much detail here. But it is beneficial to examine where we came from. There are three basic theories that explain the origin of the Baptists:

Apostolic Church Succession: This theory suggests that the Baptists began with John the Baptist or Jesus Christ. Being Baptist is synonymous with being a faithful Christian. There has been a direct line of faithful churches and believers going all the way back to the early church in Jerusalem. These churches and believers may have been independent of one another and called by various names, but there have been faithful churches at all times from the beginning of the church until now. Non-Catholic groups such as the Montanists, Euchites, Novatians, Donatists, Paulicians, Albigenses, Waldenses, Cathari, and others are seen as baptistic in their beliefs and practices. A New Testament church has existed in every age. This view is espoused by J.M. Carroll in his little red book The Trail of Blood and by Thomas Armitage in his History of the Baptists as well as by others. A similar idea is that baptistic believers had been part of the Roman Catholic Church until the time of the Reformation, when they were forced out.

Anabaptist Kinship: The word anabaptist is a compound word meaning “re-baptizers.” Eventually the ana part of the name fell off, and now such groups are simply called Baptist. Baptists commonly baptized those adults who exercised faith in Christ even if they had been baptized as infants. Other groups ridiculed the Baptists because they refused to acknowledge the validity of infant baptism. Baptists have historically insisted that believers are the only legitimate candidates for baptism. In Holland, Menno Simons headed a group that came to be known as Mennonites. In Switzerland, the Anabaptists came to be called the Brethren. Unfortunately, some Anabaptists became well known for their fanaticism. One northern European group was called the “mad men of Munster” because they tried to set up the millennial kingdom in Munster, Germany.

English Separatist Descent: The Baptists descend from a group of English believers who separated from the Church of England in the 1600s. Catholics and some Protestants persecuted such separatist groups. The Pilgrims who came to America were a group of this type. Nonconformists were forced to leave England under Queen Elizabeth I, and many of them fled to Amsterdam. John Smyth formed the first English-speaking Baptist church in Holland. Eventually some of these Baptists returned to England and established Baptist churches. Some of these immigrated to America. Modern Baptists descend from this group. Of the three theories of Baptist descent, this one has the best historical support.

John the Baptist was not a Baptist. He was called “Baptist” because he baptized people. He should more accurately be called “John the baptizer.” He was killed before the first church was established, and his baptism was not the same as Christian baptism. Although modern Baptists have things in common with earlier groups of genuine believers, like the Novatians, the Donatists, and the Paulicians, there is no true connection historically between these groups and modern Baptists. Many groups subscribed to baptistic distinctives, but a full-fledged Baptist movement did not surface until the early 1600s in England. Baptists are part of a long line of believers who have tried to remain faithful to the Bible. Technically, Baptists are not Protestants. Our spiritual forefathers have always been a part of the free-church movement and not a part of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation helped baptistic groups, but the Baptist movement emerged after the Reformation was in full swing.

Modern Baptists reflect a condition that was true of the early Baptists– differing theological views. There were two main types of Baptist from the very beginning of the movement: particular Baptists and general Baptists. The particular Baptists were quite Calvinistic in their theology, believing that only the elect were included in the atonement of Christ (limited atonement). General Baptists, who were Arminian theologically, believed that Christ died for all men, even unbelievers (unlimited atonement). Both Calvinist and Arminian theological viewpoints are common in Baptist churches today.[2]

The story of the Baptists in America dates back to the early 1600s. Roger Williams was the son of Anglican (Church of England) parents, but he became a nonconformist and identified himself with the Puritans, who were hated in England. Williams graduated from Cambridge University and was ordained in the Church of England. He arrived in America in 1631, and started a Baptist church in Rhode Island in 1639. At this time it was illegal and dangerous to dissent from the teachings of the Anglican Church. The early Baptists suffered persecution and ridicule from all sides. But persecution did not stop expansion, and within a few decades Baptist churches had spread through the northeast and into the south. By 1776, there were about 35,000 Baptists in America.

The Baptist movement has spread worldwide. Baptist churches, missionaries, evangelists, and other organizations are rooted in most countries of the world. There are nearly 35 million Baptists around the world.[3] Unfortunately, there are churches and organizations that are called Baptist who no longer accept the theological viewpoint that Baptists have historically embraced. The Baptist name does not insure faithfulness to the Scriptures or to the historical Baptist viewpoint. But there are many Baptist churches and organizations that have remained faithful to their roots and are still practicing Christianity the same way Baptists have for hundreds of years.

Today, many Baptist churches have added words like “fundamental” and “independent” to describe what kind of a Baptist church they are. That’s necessary because the name Baptist has lost much of its original impact. Other churches are dropping the name Baptist altogether because they think the name is an obstacle in reaching their communities. That’s unfortunate, because the name Baptist and the historical distinctives that have set the Baptists apart are nothing to be ashamed of.

In this series we will be discussing those theological beliefs and practices that have historically distinguished Baptists from other groups. This does not suggest, however, that the Baptists are the only believers who subscribe to these principles. Other Christians would affirm some or most of the ideas we’ll be discussing. Nevertheless, Baptists (and baptistic groups that may or may not use the name) are the only group who affirm all of these distinctives. Those groups not holding these views are not genuine Baptists no matter how they may label themselves.


[1] Much of this material is based on the work of Dr. Charles Wood, South Bend, Indiana.Updated and expanded by Brad Anderson.

[2] Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God in all things, and especially in the matter of salvation. God predestinates and chooses who will be saved. Christ died only for those who would eventually trust him as their Savior. Arminianism, on the other hand, emphasizes the free will of man. God extends the offer of salvation to everyone, and everyone is fully able to respond if they so choose.

[3] One scholar states that In the United States one can count 28,921,564 individual Baptists in 122,811 local churches in 63 different denominational bodies. Worldwide one can identify 37,334,191

Baptists in 157,240 local Baptist churches. Walter B. Shurden in “How We Got That Way: Baptists on Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State.” http://users.erols.com/bjcpa/pubs/shurden.html