by Gerhard Venter
Former IBC Pastor and Interim Pastor
Most Christians, especially those in positions of leadership, are familiar with the fact that Jesus prayed for His followers’ unity (John 17:20-21 – it’s best to look at these verses against the background of the context of the whole prayer in John 17). Apart from wanting to please our Lord Jesus in this regard, there are plenty of other references in the New Testament about the need to strive for unity among followers of Jesus, such as we find in Philippians 2:2, 2 Corinthians 13:11, and Ephesians 4:1-6, to name just a few.
The question, however, is not whether we know or understand that we should be one in Christ, but rather how we express this unity given the reality of differences among Christians in their understanding and application of their faith. The fact is that there are so many beliefs, creeds, theological interpretations, denominations, and more that it seems impossible to accept or embrace every expression of Christianity “out there” as part of what we can tolerate or identify with! No wonder there are literally hundreds or thousands of groupings and networks where Christians and local churches find a “home.”
Based on our own understanding of our faith and practice, it seems logical that we will somehow associate more closely with those with whom we can journey together, while not necessarily rejecting those with whom we have very little in common.
Baptists have a long history where people of similar conviction and practice form local churches, associations, and world-wide networks – an expression of their need for cooperation, support, accountability, and vision to extend the Kingdom of God. One important characteristic or strength of Baptists since the early 17th century is that they were able (broadly and generally) to emphasize certain basic principles of what they believed, without becoming prescriptive in what local churches should do or believe.
There are probably many reasons why Baptists should enjoy and celebrate unity, not only among themselves, but also with other like-minded Christians. Let me highlight just two.
- Emphasis on principles rather than rules
Many groups require adherence to a set of rules, statements of faith, creeds, or similar behaviour in order to enjoy the privilege of belonging to their organization or group. Baptists, however, avoid these ways of conformity by emphasizing some basic principles (beliefs, guidelines) without dictating how these principles should be applied.
We can enjoy the unity prayed for by our Lord Jesus Christ by majoring on the majors, rather than nit-picking on the minors. There are some basic teachings in the Word of God that determine whether we are truly saved and belong to Christ. It’s worth highlighting these, rather than becoming prescriptive about beliefs that do not determine our status as followers of Christ.
Baptists share the “standard” non-negotiables with other Christian expressions, such as our belief in the triune God and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone. However, Baptists also emphasize and apply some principles in a unique way, some of which are also shared with other Christian groups. However, it’s our unique understanding of these principles that not only make us unique, but help us strive for unity without seeking uniformity.
- Application and relevance of Baptist beliefs
Different scholars in different ages have described Baptist principles or beliefs (referred to above) in different ways and with different emphases, but I’d like to think that the following principles are beliefs we can apply and celebrate, helping us to enjoy our unity in Christ despite the differences we may have. The way we give expression to these principles will differ in different settings, but they should not affect our respect for and unity with one another.
Looking more closely at the brief summary of Baptist principles, it’s important to understand that the different principles are closely linked to and dependent on one another.
- Direct Lordship of Jesus Christ. Jesus is Lord of every believer and Lord of every congregation. Nothing outside the local church has more authority than Jesus Himself.
- Authority of the Scriptures. The Bible in its generally accepted 66 books of the canon forms the basis of our belief. No person, creed, or other statement of faith trumps the Bible. The latter sources have their place but cannot overrule what the Bible says.
- The local church, under the authority of Jesus Christ, is “owned” by every member of the congregation. The basic principle behind this belief is that there is full accountability for all members, including the leadership. This principle can be applied in different ways, but full accountability can never be abandoned.
- Autonomy of the local church. No body or person outside the local church has authority over it. Belonging to a larger group or network is by free association.
- Priesthood of all believers. Every Christian has direct access to God through Christ. Leaders have a role to play, but they are not intermediaries to God. It also implies that all members may participate in ministry according to their gifts.
- Religious liberty. Christians have the right and privilege to read and interpret the Bible according to their own conscience, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in fellowship with fellow believers.
- Regenerate church membership. Only people who are saved by the grace of God through Jesus’ death and resurrection are to become members of the local church.
- Adherence to the ordinances. Jesus instituted only two — baptism and communion. Baptism (of believers by full immersion) is a once-off declaration of faith in Christ, while communion is a regular reminder of what Jesus came to do for us.
- Separation of Church and State. Both are important institutions of God but each with its own function. Neither can dictate to the other what to do or believe, but there can be important interaction, especially for the Church to have a prophetic role in sharing how the State can ensure proper governance.
From this summary it is clear that Baptists avoid being prescriptive in matters of lesser importance. Examples of issues “on the periphery” include worship style, expression of gifts, cultural expressions of faith, theological beliefs that do not impact our salvation (such as differences around the Second Coming), specific definitions of sins, and much more.
Although there are many Baptists (and other Christians) with whom I disagree and probably will not be able to comfortably join their church, it does not affect my respect for and unity with them. This is why we as Baptists can celebrate our unity in Christ!