Most of my readers probably know or have at least heard of the terminology, "the Baptist distinctives." The two words, Baptist distinctives, answer the question, what distinguishes a New Testament church in contrast to other religious denominations? What sets a church apart as a New Testament church? This assumes Baptist churches alone are the New Testaments churches. Baptist churches trace themselves to the Jerusalem church of the first century, the church of Jesus Christ.
The concept of Baptist distinctives does go back a long ways. The official terminology "the Baptist distinctives" I don't think you will find previous to the 20th century. However, the notion of Baptist distinctives you can identify with the Schleitheim Confession in 1527. That confession, written by Michael Sattler, is not a doctrinal statement per se, but a means by which those people of New Testament doctrine and practice differentiated themselves from Roman Catholicism. After that, you can read language such as "Baptist principles" (Thomas Crosby, The History of the English Baptists, 1740, and Isaac Backus, A history of New-England, with particular reference to the Denomination of Christians called Baptists, 1777), "historically distinctive Baptist principles" (Abraham Booth, A Defense for the Baptists: Being a Declaration and a Vindication of Three Historically Distinctive Baptist Principles, 1778), "the distinctive principles" (Nathaniel Scudder Prime, A Familiar Illustration of Christian Baptism, 1818), "the distinctive appellations of Jesus Christ" or "denominational appellations" (R. B. C. Howell, The Baptists, 1838), and "their distinctive tenets" (James Barnett Taylor, Lives of Virginia Baptist Ministers, 1838).
Distinctives are no kind of systematic theology or doctrinal statement. Lists of distinctives are intended to distinguish, which means that various lists will differ. However, over time you will see and do see a certain amount of homogeneity to what those distinctives have been and are. The lists of distinctives vary from one another in just a few ways. These lists are themselves not the Bible. I think every Baptist (or at least a vast majority) would say that the list of distinctives itself is not the Bible.
What are the distinctives? The follow are what I have believed they are, and I'm writing this from memory.
One -- Bible Sole Authority for Faith and Practice
Two -- Regenerate, Immersed Church Membership
Three -- Autonomy of the Church
Four -- Pastor and Deacons: Two Church Offices
Five -- Soul Liberty, Priesthood of the Believer
Six -- Immersion and Lord's Supper: Two Church Ordinances
Seven -- Separation of Church and State
Eight -- Separation Personally and Ecclesiastically
Even though most historic lists of distinctives include number eight, I'm pretty sure that most American Baptists and Southern Baptists would not include those any more, even though they call themselves Baptists.
Why am I even writing this? Do Baptists even think the Baptist distinctives are on par with the Bible? As I look at this list, I believe that many times they do, and especially two of them. I want to park on one of them, and that is the autonomy of church.
Certain very independent Baptists, and like them, I'm very independent, treat autonomy of the church as if it is the Bible. The church says it, so it goes. If certain churches (many) are challenged about almost any doctrine, they throw down the autonomy card -- argument over. Churches don't want to be questioned about what they do. This is what they see as being independent. If you gave them a yes or no test on autonomy on paper, they would say that first something must be biblical, but in practice, their church must believe it.
To go one step further, in many cases, the churches that obsess on autonomy actually don't really mean autonomy as much as they mean pastoral authority. It really isn't autonomy, but pastoral authority that is the issue here. It really is the pastor who doesn't want to be questioned, and so he uses autonomy as his defense.
Many problems become entrenched in a church and then those problems spread to other churches through treating autonomy like it is the Bible itself. If you are known to question another church, that spreads to other pastors and churches that you are opposed to autonomy, that you really don't like autonomy or that you like to mess around with the authority of other churches. Pastors have a lot of problems to deal with in their own churches, so they would rather not have other problems arising from men outside of their church. Rather than deal with a biblical issue, they claim autonomy like pleading an article from the bill of rights.
I see a threat with the view of autonomy I am describing. Certain Baptist traditions become canonized like they are scripture or like they are the dogma of the church. A tendency exists for certain churches to rise as greater than others, like the church of Rome after the first century. Today this often relates to size. The authority behind it isn't the Bible. If it were Bible, it would hold up to scrutiny. It is a tradition, and one that is defended by autonomy. The tradition continues unquestioned because autonomy itself has reached biblical authority. These traditions spread to other, often smaller, churches and become embedded as a biblical practice.
One point of having distinctives is that the church is one. There is one church and that is the church of Jesus. There is one Bible. A church is a church because it is that church. When Jesus said He would build His church, it wasn't two churches. There is only one. What makes it that one church is its unity with the Head, Jesus. If a church doesn't submit to the Head by submitting to His Word, it is diverting away from an identity as a true church. The distinctives are about being a true church. True churches have these distinctives. However, if a church stops obeying scripture and does that in part by replacing biblical doctrine with tradition, it is not a distinctly New Testament church any longer.
Autonomy still surrenders to the authority of Jesus and the Bible. Autonomy is not liberty to believe and act like you want. This is how Roman Catholicism became what it was. Church authority became preeminent to biblical authority. Each church of Jesus Christ submits to His Word, to scripture. This is very serious. As it corresponds to churches relating with one another, we get an example in Acts 15 of two churches, Jerusalem and Antioch, sublimating their autonomy to what is the right belief and practice, to the truth. Churches can work together because the common ground is the same Head and the same standard for authority, the Bible.
It would not be a goal of mine to change other churches. However, we have instruction in the New Testament for churches to cooperate with one another. That cooperation, which is fellowship, requires the same doctrine and practice. If one of the churches with whom our church is in cooperation or fellowship changes in doctrine and practice or at least manifests unscriptural belief and practice, to continue in cooperation and fellowship, our church must question or challenge. At that point, I really don't want to hear about autonomy, as if it is possible that autonomy has been violated. God doesn't give churches the authority to disobey scripture.
Autonomy is not the Bible. It is not more important to be Baptist than it is to be biblical.