Back by popular demand, unbelievable as it is, is my series on the "Baptist Distinctives". But since those few brave souls that actually seem to read these things on a regular basis have continuously pressed and because I am going to be teaching a class on the subject come January, I've brought it back (fireworks please!).
The last distinctive was (Religious Liberty), admittedly, one of my favorites largely because I knew I would get the same reaction from others that I have when I compare the distinctive as understood by early baptists and how most view baptists today. My Mom, who reads my blog but only comments through email because she doesn't want to "embarrass me" - haha -, summed it up well: "The distinctives that historically define them are certainly not what comes to mind when one thinks of a Baptist." In 21st century US, Baptists are thought often thought of as those trying to institute a Christian State, which, considering the awful effect post-Constantine Rome had upon the church, may not be as grand an aspiration as it sounds. It is extremely ironic that today's baptists are often seen as re-instituting what they were trying to end.
BUT, I must get off of my little soap box and climb onto another one. The distinctive I will now discuss is the "Priesthood of the Believer", another distinctive that I think will resonate with most, even those who do not think of themselves as Baptists, but was not always warmly received in the 17th century. I think I'll be able to keep these next few shorter, but no promises.
Explanation of the Distinctive
The Priesthood of the Believer is one of several Baptist distinctives that focuses upon the individual (see also "Regenerated Membership"- the focus on the faith of the individual; Congregational Polity - the role of the individual church members [not only the clergy] in church polity decisions; and Liberty of Conscience). It stands in stark contrast to the Catholic, and most other Protestants in varying degrees, view of the priest as a mediator between the christian and God. This distinctive is very closely related to the "Two Ordinances" distinctive and the Baptist rejection of Sacramentalism.
Baptists affirm that all Christians have equal access to God and that every true believer is a priest. No mediator, save Jesus Christ, is needed for access to God. Neither is an ordained clergyman needed for Baptism, Communion, or preaching, though these are most often performed by the clergy. Baptists do not believe there is a difference in the eyes of God between a pastor and any other believer. This does not mean that Baptists do not have Pastors or Church Government but that they are not needed in order to approach God.
This distinctive is not merely an affirmation of the privileges of individual believers but implies responsibilities as well. The modern missionary movement, which began with William Carey - a Baptist, has seen Baptists at the front and center again and again. Because Baptists take the Scriptures as their sole authority, not the church, they tend to apply passages of the Bible, such as the Great Commission, individually.
How this Distinctive works out practically
Mostly, this is self explanatory. A Baptist church without an ordained pastor can still have communion and can still perform Baptisms.
Although this distinctive may seem to have an overwhelming individualistic bent, there are communal implications. Because there is an inherent equality amongst believers, baptists should be more focused upon their own contribution to the life and growth of the church. Baptists should not go to church merely for the purpose of being taught or hearing music but should go, as priests, in order to minister themselves. The gathering of believers in a Baptist church should be different than the gathering at a Lutheran, Catholic, or Presbyterian church. Instead of going with the mindset of being fed, being taught, and being encouraged, this distinctive should emphasize the dual emphases of being fed and feeding, of being taught and teaching, of being encouraged and encouraging. I do not mean to imply that Christians from other denominations or traditions do not every think of how they can contribute and be a blessing to others, only that this distinctive should result in a greater emphasis upon this attitude in Baptist(ic) churches.
Why this Distinctive is Good
1) The priesthood of the believer should result in a focus amongst individual believers to examine and care for their own individual walk. Although individualism can certainly be overemphasized, as it has in this country, the awareness of one's personal relationship with God and his/her contribution to the church body is essential for the life of the church.
2) This distinctive should influence people to more actively take responsibility for their own growth. It is not the Pastor's job to confer grace but the believer's responsibility to listen to the sermon and apply it personally. When a Baptist takes communion, s/he does not believe that the priest is conferring grace upon him, but s/e should be thinking about and contemplating the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
3) This distinctive can help prevent the descension of a church into heresy or liberalism. If the spiritual health of the church is not only the responsibility of the clergy, congregations can more effectively prevent the infection of false teaching or corrupt leadership in their church. At least in part, I think this Baptist strength contributed in the shocking reversal of the SBC from liberal to conservative in the recent past. This would not have been so easy in a Methodist or Presbyterian denomination.
4) This distinctive tends to put a greater emphasis upon the individual reading of Scripture and prayer.
Challenges and Problems for those who hold to this Distinctive
Although this distinctive is important and a strong point for many baptistic churches, there are some very difficult implications that often follow. These are not necessary, but they do seem to be a specter in many baptist churches.
1) This distinctive can result in legalism and, sometimes, "anti-intellectualism". It is not usually the educated who lead congregations into legalism but the uneducated masses who are uncomfortable with change in their culture or thinking. The uneducated often have a difficult time distinguishing between cultural adaptation and theological or moral compromise. How does this relate? Just as a strength of this distinctive is that it helps prevent the inception of liberalism, the power of the laity tends to put "church that I grew up with" on the same plane. If a pastor's changes make them uncomfortable they are more likely to rebel against him all the while thinking that they are upholding the integrity of their church. I am sure that this goes on in non-baptistic churches as well, but there is a reason that "King-James-Onlyism" is more prevalent in Baptist churches. No one with a decent theological and linguistic education could possibly, with intellectual integrity, believe that the King James Bible is inspired or the only legitimate translation. This is not to say that there are not a few who, with intellectual integrity, believe that the Byzantine text family is more reliable and thus prefer translations that follow it, but there is a world of difference between the (rather) few scholars who hold to this position and the shrill "hand over their ears" crowd who believe that any other translation is a part of Satan's evil scheme to blaspheme God with disrespectful language (you!) and cause Christians to abandon belief in the deity of Christ!
2) This distinctive can encourage Christians to think too individualistically. This is wildly obvious and the implications are far too great too expound upon here so I'll just make a couple of comments and let it be done. When one focuses upon reading the Bible personally, one often gets a much more narrow and much less educated perspective and thus the Bible becomes whatever the individual reading it wants it to be. Bible studies can become a "what does this mean to you" session instead of asking and deciphering what the text actually means. The important role of community in the reading of Scripture and prayer is often diminished and lost.
Let me take a quick shot at how to fix this last problem. We are not to be isolated individualistic priests but a community of priests fellowshipping and worshiping together. Paul's illustration of the church as a body is most helpful. An eye, ear, hand or foot by itself is quite useless. But functioning all together are quite useful. So it is with the believer. Trying to read and understand the Bible needs to be done in community. Worship should be done in community. Prayer needs to be done in community. This does not mean that one cannot or should not read their Bible, worship, or pray unless they are gathered with their church family, but it is important to avoiding the radical overemphasis on the individual, without denying the importance of the individual application and living out of the Christian life.
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