Soundings

The Baptist Tradition

Nov 2009    

THE ORIGIN OF THE BAPTIST TRADITION is a subject of considerable debate among historians and even among Baptist theologians and leaders. Historians like David Benedict and Walter Rauschenbusch (both of whom are Baptist) trace the Baptist heritage to the Anabaptist sects of the 16th century that rejected paedobaptism and reinstituted the baptism of believers.

“Anabaptist” is a comprehensive designation of various groups that mushroomed in the Continent as the result of the Reformation in the 16th century, for example, the Waldensians, Petrobrusians and Henricians, to name just a few. Other historians argue that the Baptist Tradition emerged from the English Separatists who, believing that the true form of baptism is “dipping under water”, renewed the practice of immersion in England.

Whatever theory one may hold regarding the origin of the Baptist Tradition, there can be no doubt that the churches that belong to it have made significant contributions in theology, mission and civil society in many countries.

In Singapore, Baptist presence was established in 1937 when the organisation of the Overseas-Chinese (Swatow) Baptist Church was set up. is led to the founding of the Overseas- Chinese (Cantonese) Baptist Church in 1949, and by 1970, there were 12 Baptist churches. Today, the number has jumped to 30.

The Baptist Tradition maintains that personal faith in Jesus Christ is an indispensable criterion for membership in the Church, the Body of Christ. This understanding can be traced to a group of early Baptists led by Thomas Helwys, who taught that “The Church of Christ is a company of faithful people … being knit together unto the Lord and one unto another by Baptism …upon their own confession of the faith.” By insisting on a living and direct acquaintance with Jesus Christ, the Baptist Tradition repudiates the idea that membership in the Church can be based simply on the privilege of birth, either in a Christian country or a Christian family.

The Baptist Tradition therefore rejects the Anglican and Presbyterian view that the children of believers are members of the Church by virtue of their relationship with their Christian parents. Commenting on the Baptist understanding of the Church, T. Furman Hewitt writes, “Baptists, therefore, have from the beginning spoken of the necessity of regenerate church membership. Membership in the church is neither automatic nor inherited.” It is precisely because the Baptists emphasise regenerate church membership that they practise only believers’ baptism. Baptism can only be administered to someone who has demonstrated explicit faith in Jesus Christ.

According to the Baptist doctrine, baptism is not a divine act of grace, but rather a human response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The baptised is not a passive subject receiving God’s grace through the ritual of baptism. Rather he or she is an active agent who has already put his or her faith in Jesus Christ.

Thus the late Baptist theologian, H. Wheeler Robinson, could say that the Baptist’s understanding of baptism must be distinguished from other concepts “as the only baptism which is strictly and primarily an ethical act on the part of the baptised”. To put this differently, for the Baptist, baptism is the sign of conversion. It signifies the believer’s union with Christ by faith. And the faith in question is the faith of the baptised, not that of the Church or community. In the words of R. Wayne Stacy, “Baptists disbelieve in surrogate faith. The encounter with God required for salvation and regeneration is necessarily an individual encounter.”

Baptists also maintain that baptism is an ordinance, not a sacrament. The word “ordinance” comes from the Latin ordo which means “to do something”. Ordinance therefore has to do with an authoritative command or directive. A “sacrament”,
on the other hand, is a means by which grace is bestowed on the participant of the ritual. Baptists baptise not because they believe that by this act the salvifi c grace of God is realised in the baptised, but because it is a command. Baptists generally maintain the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is also an ordinance of Jesus (See Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 11:24).

ANOTHER IMPORTANT ASPECT that distinguishes the Baptists’ practice of baptism from the other denominations is that for the Baptists immersion is the only appropriate mode of baptism. According to the Baptists, the New Testament model of baptism is immersion only. Furthermore, immersion alone captures concretely the picture of baptism presented by Paul in Romans (6:1-10). Consequently, the immersion pool (baptistery) traditionally occupies the most visible place in a Baptist Church.

Baptists have elected for a democratic or congregational approach to organisation in which every congregation is autonomous. Thus, Baptists do not speak of “the Baptist Church” in a particular city or area, but “the Baptist churches”. Members of each congregation are also given democratic rights, so that each member may vote on matters of importance to the congregation, especially the election of leaders and clergy. Because of their commitment to the priesthood of all believers and to a democratic community, Baptists regard the clergy as servants set aside for the tasks of preaching and exercising pastoral care. Unlike the Anglican Church where the authority of the clergy is inextricably tied to his ordination, in the Baptist church the clergy exercises a moral authority, that is, an authority that stems from the power to persuade.

Because of its autonomous and self-governing nature, each Baptist church is at liberty to decide whether it wishes to enter into ecumenical collaboration with other churches, especially those from other denominations. Baptist ecclesiology is premised on the belief that God directs each congregation differently. It is on the basis of this conception of divine agency that Thomas Helwys could assert in 1611 that “no church ought to challenge any prerogative of any other”.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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