The Baptist movement was forged in an age when a kingdom’s subjects were required to belong to the monarch’s own religion, and in an age when that religion was being switched back and forth with every other new monarch. Moreover, the Baptist movement was forged in an age when infants were baptised into their parents’ religion. And finally, the Baptist movement was forged in an age when everyone belonged to the church. These cultural factors significantly influenced Baptist distinctives.
In broad categories, Baptist distinctives can be brought down to two urgencies. The first urgency has historically been known as Soul Competency. Soul competency arises out of the conviction that the Spirit dwells in every believer. To be sure, this was an emphasis in all the Reformation churches, providing the impetus for bypassing intermediaries such as priest, bishop, and pope for one’s access to God’s forgiveness of sin. However, Baptists thought more deeply and more consistently about the indwelling of the Spirit than other movements. This doctrine informed their polity in that they accepted “congregational governance,” refusing to accept the notion that a powerful bishop or powerful elder board should rule over the congregation by fiat; rather, they embraced the notion that the congregation itself was competent to make decisions about its own ministry. This also implied that Christians did not have to embrace the religion or theology of the Crown, resulting in the martyrdom of many Baptist preachers who languished under poor health conditions in jails throughout Britain in the 17th century, including, for example, John Bunyan. Thus, the concept of the separation of church and state historically was first espoused and cogently argued by Baptists, although the term has been much abused in recent American history and political life.
The second urgency was a view of the church as a “voluntary association.” That is to say, people were not members of the church on the basis of their parents’ decision to have them baptised as infants. Rather, inclusion in the church was on the basis of the individual’s decision to follow Jesus, and upon his profession of faith as he was immersed in the waters of baptism. Early Baptists recoiled at the notion of baptising unbelievers, which is precisely what happens when an infant is baptised.
These two urgencies had several practical outcomes in the local church. First, Baptist churches were countercultural; in a culture where everyone belonged to the official, State-sponsored church, Baptists withdrew and formed their own independent congregations. Secondly, Baptist churches often had a congregational intimacy and purity which was practically impossible with those churches which included into its membership the whole of society on the basis of infant baptism. Thus, while the term “Believers’ Church” ought to have been theologically redundant, it was a practical reality, given that membership in the “Cultural Church” did not even include a person’s own declaration of faith.
Regrettably, many Baptists today have no clue as to these two primary distinctives and urgencies.