Four Distinguishing Marks of Baptist Theology

One of the unique features of Baptist theology is how diverse it can be. In my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a person can hold many different doctrinal positions while remaining in good standing. One popular example is the Calvinist/Arminian debate. In the SBC, we have Calvinists, Arminians, and people who claim to be neither. Though they disagree on this important doctrine, they can have a civil conversation about their differences without running afoul of Baptist doctrine. Indeed, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the official doctrinal statement of the SBC, is intentionally broad on issues that are not central to the faith. The idea is to be unified on the essentials while allowing disagreements on non-essential doctrines.

With that being said, there are several doctrines that a person must hold to be a Baptist. However, none of these doctrines are essential to Christianity. It’s possible to be a born-again, blood-washed Christian without believing these doctrines. These doctrines are what make us Baptist Christians instead of some other type of Christian.

The Foundation of Baptist Doctrine: The Bible

The foundation of Baptist doctrine is the Bible. Baptists are highly committed to following God’s Word no matter where it leads. For example, during the Protestant Reformation, most of the Reformers continued the practice of infant baptism which they had received from the Roman Catholic Church. The forerunners of the Baptist position on baptism realized that the Bible does not teach infant baptism. Infant baptism comes from a larger theological system which Baptists reject. Thus, the forerunners of Baptist thought forsook infant baptism even though it made them the objects of persecution.

As Baptists, we hold these four distinctive doctrines because we believe the Bible teaches them. If we became convinced that the Bible taught something different, our commitment to scripture would require us to forsake our uniquely Baptist beliefs in obedience to God’s Word. The Reformers called this principal sola scriptura, meaning that scripture is the ultimate standard for our beliefs and practices. As Baptists, we want to believe what the Bible tells us, and we believe that the following four doctrinal positions are scripturally based.

1. A Regenerate Church Membership

All churches have some form of membership. They have a way of identifying who is a member of the church and who is not. For Baptists, the first issue in considering who can become a member and who cannot is whether the person is a born-again Christian. If a person is not a born-again Christian, they cannot be a member of the local church because they are not a member of God’s universal Church. We believe that the local church should be a small section of God’s universal Church which is made up of all believers regardless of their nationality, race, or denominational affiliation. In short, we believe that the New Testament church is most honoring to God when it is comprised of born-again Christians serving God together.

Furthermore, since church members get to guide Baptist churches—as I’ll discuss momentarily—we want to be sure that all church members are Christians. Basically, we only want people who are guided by the Holy Spirit to take significant leadership positions. One way we ensure this is by attempting to maintain a regenerate church membership.

The quest for a regenerate church membership is one of the reasons that Baptists don’t baptize infants. Baptism is widely considered the introductory rite in Christian circles. Baptism is the way that a person identifies themselves as belonging to a local congregation. Baptists believe that only those who have a personal faith in Christ are proper candidates for baptism. Since an infant cannot exercise faith in Christ due to their age, they are not proper candidates for baptism. Infant baptism and a regenerate church membership are incompatible: you can have one or the other but you cannot have both at the same time.[1] As Baptists, we believe the concept of a regenerate church membership is biblical whereas infant baptism is not.

Baptists believe that the local church is a group of born-again believers with a personal faith in Christ. Only people who fulfill that qualification can be considered for membership in a Baptist church.

2. Believer’s Baptism by Immersion

This doctrinal position has two important parts. First, we only baptize people who have freely confessed a saving faith in Christ and a desire to be baptized. We never baptize anyone who doesn’t want to be baptized or who feels compelled to do so. Since we believe that each person is responsible for handling their own spiritual affairs, we believe that compelling a person to do any religious practice makes that practice illegitimate. Thus, the only people we will baptize are those who’ve confessed saving faith in Christ and fully understand the decision they’re making.

Second, we insist on baptism by immersion except in cases where immersion is not practical. The reason we insist on immersion is that βαπτίζω, the verb the Bible uses that is translated “baptize” in our English Bibles, means to immerse or to plunge. Thus, one could translate Matthew 28:19 to say: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, immersing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” If the Bible teaches baptism by immersion, all other forms of baptism are illegitimate. Since we’re committed to following the Bible, we baptize by immersion.

3. Soul Competency and Religious Liberty

These two doctrinal positions are connected. Soul competency means that each person is able to and responsible for handling his or her own spiritual affairs. I, as a Baptist minister, cannot go to God for another person. Each person must deal with God one on one. As 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.”[2] Additionally, soul competency means that each person is able to read and understand the Bible on their own.

Baptists were the first and most significant defenders of religious liberty. Only later did the Protestant denominations that grew from the Magisterial Reformers join the cause. Since we believe that religious practices cannot be compelled and that each person must voluntarily meet with God on their own, no state-church, government, or religious institution can force a person to salvation. Thus, if the US government mandated that the residents of Hessmer, Louisiana be baptized at my church, I would be forced to say that such baptisms were illegitimate. Since a person’s religious life must be uncompelled, there is no place for a state church. Religious liberty and soul competency go together.[3]

4. Congregational Church Government

When we read the New Testament, we see evidence that the members of the local church, who were each born-again believers, were involved in guiding the local church.[4] Thus, we believe that each church member has a right to know what’s happening in the local church, to express their opinions about the direction of the local church, and to have influence over their local church.

This position is not only biblical, but it also flows from our other distinctive positions. Since each person can go to God, the members of the clergy do not have any special standing in comparison to the laity. We are all on equal ground before God. Since each person can go to God, each person has a right to be involved in the government of the local church. This is why we publish financial reports, conduct business meetings, and have so many committees. We’re trying to share the leadership of the church with the entire congregation.


None of these four doctrinal positions are essential to the faith. There will be many in heaven who rejected every one of them! However, Baptists are convinced that these four interrelated doctrines are biblical. Since we’re committed to following the Bible, we believe them. In short, we’re Baptist because we believe that Baptist theology best represents what the New Testament teaches about the local church.

Notes & Sources

[1] R. Stanton Norman, More Than Just a Name: Preserving our Baptist Identity (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2001), 85-87.

[2] 1 Timothy 2:5, NIV.

[3] Norman, 148-58.

[4] In Acts 6, the entire church helped pick the deacons instead of the apostles making the decision.

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