Why I am a Baptist: A Way of Doing Church (Part 2) – Daniel Vestal


Being a Baptist is also a way of doing church, that is, a way of functioning in a community of faith and living in relationship with other Christians. For Baptists, a congregation is a people gathered voluntarily and willingly. Each individual belongs because of personal faith in Jesus Christ confessed openly and publicly in believer’s baptism. Church is a fellowship of individuals who have freely covenanted themselves into relationship with each other. No one inducts another into the fellowship or incorporates them by proxy. Each enters personally and individually.

When individuals enter, they see themselves as “members of the body” or “living stones being built into a spiritual house” or a “holy priesthood.” Each person is responsible for the life of the fellowship, discerning of the will of God for the fellowship, the health and welfare of the fellowship, and ministry in the fellowship. Understood in this light, no hierarchy should be visible. Within the church, first- and second-class membership is unacceptable. There are diversity of gifts and variety of functions, but no pyramid of authority or importance. All are ministers, all are servants, and all are witnesses.

In a Baptist vision of church, the freedom of each individual is treasured and cherished. Indeed, an authentic belief in freedom and a willingness to live with the consequences and even the confusion of that freedom is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Baptist. Freedom will inevitably result in diversity, not enforced conformity. There will be doctrinal differences, even within a church, along with differences resulting from ethical choices. Those differences may lead to discussion and debate, but debate is not necessarily bad. It can be dialogue where greater understanding of truth is the result. What is bad is when discussion and debate lead to exclusion and division. In a Baptist vision of church, each person is free and responsible to make doctrinal and ethical choices. But each is also free and responsible to love those whose doctrinal and ethical decisions differ from their own. Let me be specific: I am not a sacramentalist, but I must respect and love the sacramentalist who in freedom has come to such a conviction. I am not a Calvinist, but I must respect and love the Calvinist who in freedom has come to such a conviction. Galatians 5:13-14 says it clearly,

You, my brothers, were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge in sinful nature. Rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command, Love your neighbor as yourself.

Baptists have deep theological convictions but also recognize the one who differs as one to be loved and even to be served. In a Baptist vision of church, the episkopos (clergy leaders) and presbuteros (lay leaders) are not superior to the laos (the people). They do not make decisions and pass them on. Rather, they lead by humbly serving and helping each person to discover his/her giftedness and then strengthening the unity of the fellowship for congregational decision making.

In a Baptist vision of church, men and women are equal. Because of Christ there is no male or female, just as there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free. Participation and leadership in the church are not determined by gender, social status, or economic condition; these are determined by the grace and call of God. Likewise, there is no special class or office that can exclusively minister grace to the whole of the church. Each can minister grace, and all should minister grace. Not just a few are ordained by God to evangelize, baptize, and administer the sacraments.

In a Baptist vision of church, the Holy Spirit communes with and communicates to each member and to all members, resulting in a shared life and vision. The Baptist way of doing church is not easy, and it can be messy and very inefficient. But when a family of faith lives in mutual submission, gentleness, and patience, the result is glorious.

Originally appeared in Chapter 25: A Way of Being Christian in Why I Am a Baptist: Reflections on Being Baptist in the 21st Century, edited by Cecil P. Staton, Jr., 173-178.

Daniel Vestal is the Distinguished University Professor of Baptist Leadership at Mercer University and Director of the Baugh Center. The Baptist Deacon Network is a cooperative effort with the Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.

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