Monday, March 07, 2016

The Baptist Distinctives Are Not the Bible

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.


Farmer Brown said...

Wait a minutes, does this mean I have to stop preaching "Jesus was a Baptist!"?

KJB1611 said...

Dear Farmer Brown,

Good day! I just wanted to let you know that I had responded to your comments on my Trump article at:

before the post here at What is Truth got deleted. I believe that being accurate in what we say is very important. If you have further concerns about my post, please contact me using the "contact us" link at and I'd be happy to discuss the matter further.

Thank you.

Jeff Voegtlin said...

It appears to me that churches or pastors that throw down the "Autonomy Card" have forgotten the "first" of the distinctives...Bible as Sole Authority.

Perhaps we begin to look at them separately rather than together. And, at the risk of being misunderstood by some readers, I suggest that we should rank our distinctives. The Bible as Sole Authority for Faith and Practice should "trump" all other distinctives.

Ken Lengel said...

So Jeff, a little tongue and cheek, are you saying some are essential and some are non-essential?


Jeff Voegtlin said...

Hi Ken,

I know you were being "tongue in cheek" (and so was I, sort of), but I think that I am not saying that at all. It didn't strike me until after I saw your comment, but I'm saying just what the article is about. The "Distinctives" are not Bible. Everything in the Bible is essential, even those parts that would "overrule" a freestanding "distinctive."

Many independent Baptists do not recognize the coherency or organic quality of Scripture. They think that the Bible is thousands of pieces of inspired information that they can use in whatever way they please. They would never consider preaching a dry expositional style sermon. They have better things to say than just going with what's there in the Bible. They'll use the Bible, but they don't preach it. This is what Kent was referring to in his last post, I think.

But the same tendency is happening with this Autonomy "distinctive." They don't understand the distinctives as a whole. They'll just use whichever one seems to be handy in the current situation.

And to your friendly jab about essentials... Since the Bible is one, no part of it can be deemed to be non-essential. There are no non-essentials in Scripture. In religion, yes. In what has become typical church practice, sure. But Scripture has nothing in it that is non-essential. All the more reason to preach all of it and not just the parts we need to get across what we think is important.


Brendon Dunn said...

Thanks for this excellent analysis of a serious and widespread problem. Church "autonomy" has provided pastors and churches who refuse to separate from disorderly churches with a convenient excuse for their disobedience.

Recently we had to cease supporting a missionary whose sending church had gone contemporary. When I spoke to the missionary, his response was, "Yes, but we're INDEPENDENT baptists," with emphasis on INDEPENDENT. I understood him to be saying that even though his church was engaged in false and ungodly forms of worship, we should still maintain fellowship with them because it is a "local church issue" (another frequently used weasel phrase).

The Autonomy Card allows pastors to turn a blind eye to all manner of sin in the churches they fellowship with; it absolves them from rebuking sin and error in those who ought to be rebuked; and it encourages those who err to continue in their error, as silence is often seen as sanctioning.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hello men,

Sometimes after writing a post, and I start getting comments, I want to be sure to get those posts published, but I don't think I want to take the time to answer the comments, because of other things I'm doing out of the cyber or virtual world. I enjoyed reading your comments though. Thank you. Now I'm going to answer them.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Farmer Brown,

Some Baptists, it's true, seem to find Baptist history and Baptist stuff period, to be more important than the Bible, which is missing what it is to be a Baptist. We still call ourselves Baptist, but we have to define it in a more thorough way than ever.

Kent Brandenburg said...


It's impossible, it seems, to be opposed to what you wrote without supporting Trump, as seen in recent comments, some of which I did not publish from others. If I'm negative about what you wrote, then I must be for Trump, which in itself is the type of argumentation that I hear often from the anti-Trumps. When I read your article, it is better than what it was but there are still multiple problems that aren't true -- I'll put it that way. I am amazed at the type of argumentation. It somewhat boggles my mind. I also don't believe it is effective at persuading anyone, and I mean anyone. Some people already persuaded will enjoy it, and then others will become more set in opposition to it. This is not a discussion about that, however, but since I published your comment, I believe I should say it.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I don't disagree with anything that you said. I agreed with all of it.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I've understood Jeff to be on the same page on the essential/non-essential issue, but I think you were joking with him anyway.

Kent Brandenburg said...


You nailed exactly what I've seen too. In certain ways, I think you said it better than me.

Ken Lengel said...

Kent, I agree with both you and Jeff, just a little levity. Thanks.