Baptists are Christians that subscribe to a theology and belong to a church that, among other things, is committed to believer's baptism (opposed to infant baptism) and, with respect to church polity, favor congregational model. The term Baptist also describes a church, or denomination made up of individual Baptists.
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Baptists are characterized by both individual and local church autonomy and a disavowal of creeds that result in wide diversity in beliefs and practices among individuals and groups who would call themselves Baptist. Though the term Baptist origates with the Anabaptists, and sometimes was viewed as pejorative, the church itself is linked to the English Dissenter, Separatist, or Nonconformism movements during the 16th century.
In general, Baptist churches associate with denominational groups providing support without control. The largest Baptist association, apart from the Baptist World Alliance, is the Southern Baptist Convention, but there are many different Baptist associations. Also, there are churches that remain independent of other denominations and association.
Baptists number over 110 million people worldwide in more than 220,000 congregations and are considered the largest group of evangelical Protestants estimating over 38 million members in North America. Many Baptist congregations also exist in Asia, Africa and Latin America, more notably in India (2.4 million), Nigeria (2.5 million), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (1.9 million), and Brazil (1.7 million).
According to a poll taken in the 1990s, about one in every five Christians in the United States claim to be Baptist. U.S. Baptists are represented in over fifty groups. Ninety-two percent of all Baptists can are found in five of those bodies — the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC}, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (NBC), the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; (NBCA), the American Baptist Churches in the USA (ABC), and the Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI).
Only those baptized can be members of a Baptist church and are included in the total number of Baptists. Some churches do not have an age restriction on membership, but will not accept as a member a child considered too young to understand and make a profession of faith of their own comprehension. In these cases, the pastor and parents usually meet together with the child to verify the child's comprehension of their choice to follow Christ. There are occasions where persons make a profession of faith but do not follow through with baptism. In these cases they are considered saved but are not church members until they are baptized. Most churches will require you to be baptized to be a member, or, to transfer membership from a church of a similar faith. Baptists believe that being baptized alone will not save you; Only through the outward showing of the washing away of the consequences of the sin nature through the acceptance of the sacrificial death and shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ.
Baptists believe that baptism is an outward display of the death, burial, and the resurrection of Christ. When a person, who has already been saved and confessed Christ, submits to a scriptural baptism, they are then identifying publicly with Him in His death to old self, burial of all their past sinful thought and action, and resurrection in newness of life, and to walk with Christ the rest of their days.
Some churches do not require their members to have been baptized as a believer, if they have made an adult declaration of faith. For example: being confirmed in the Anglican church, or becoming a communicant member as a Presbyterian. In these cases, believers generally transfer memberships from their previous churches. This allows those people who grew up in one faith, but now feel settled in their local Baptist church, to be a part of the day to day life of the church, such as voting at meetings. It is also possible, to be baptized without becoming a church member right away, though it is very uncommon.
Baptists do not have a central governing authority. As a result, beliefs are not totally consistent from one church to another, especially beliefs that may be considered less important. However, on major theological issues, Baptist distinctive beliefs are held in common by almost all Baptist churches.
Baptists do share orthodox Christian beliefs with most other conservative Christian denominations. These include the belief in one God, the virgin birth, miracles, atonement through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity, the need for salvation through belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God, his death and resurrection, and confession of Christ as Lord, grace, the Kingdom of God, last things ( that Jesus Christ will return in glory to the earth, the dead will be raised, and Christ will judge all people in righteousness), and evangelism. Several historically significant Baptist doctrinal documents include the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, the 1742 Philadelphia Baptist Confession, the 1833 New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith, the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message, and different written church covenants which some individual churches adopt as a statement of their faith and beliefs.
Baptists believe in a literal Second Coming of Christ, at which time God will divide humanity between those that are saved and lost and Christ will sit in judgment of the believers, rewarding them for the things done while alive, knowing that works will not get someone to Heaven. Beliefs among mos Baptists regarding the "end times" include amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism, with views such as postmillennialism receiving some support.
Most Baptist traditions believe in the "Four Freedoms" articulated by Baptist historian Walter B. Shurden:
The polity of autonomy is closely related with the polity of congregational governance. Just as each Baptist priest having soul competency is equal to all other Baptists in the church, so it applies that each church is equal to every other church. No churches or ecclesiastical organizations have authority over a Baptist church. Churches can relate to each other under this polity only through voluntary cooperation, never by coercion. This calls for freedom from governmental control. Exceptions to this include a few churches who submit to a body of elders, as well as Episcopal Baptists who have an Episcopal system.
Because of the priesthood of every believer's importance(the centrality of the freedom of conscience and of thought in Baptist theology), and because of the congregational style of church governance, doctrine varies greatly between one Baptist church and another (and among individual Baptists) regarding the the following issues:
The majority of Baptists worship on Sunday, opposed to the Old Testament tradition of a Saturday Sabbath, and follow the New Testament tradition of the disciples meeting on the first day of the week. However, historically there have been a small number who have held to Sabbatarian doctrine.
There is a group known as the Seventh Day Baptists. Some trace their origins to earlier Anabaptist or pre-Reformation sects but most acknowledge the denomination's establishment in the mid-seventeenth century in England. Seventh Day Baptists are both General and Particular Baptists but they are united in observance of their day of worship, Saturday. Though the degree in which they observe the Sabbath varies, there is a consensus that none should judge the spirituality of another person's personal practices.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a Seventh Day Baptist tract eventually led to a large portion of the Adventist movement to adopt Sabbatarian teachings, eventually forming the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Scholars see the Baptists as descendants of the Puritans, who were influenced by Anabaptists, thus products of the Reformation. Johannes Warns states the first independent Anabaptist church was in Augsburg, Germany, founde in about 1524.
Baptists separated from the Church of England early in the 17th century. Puritan separatists John Smyth and Thomas Helwys are acknowledged by many historians as key founders of the Baptist denomination. Early Baptists were divided into General Baptists, Arminian in theology, and Particular Baptists, Calvinistic in theology.
The Baptist perpetuity view holds that the Chirst's church founded in Jerusalem was Baptist in character and that similar churches have had perpetual existence from the days of Christ till today. This view is based on Matthew 16:18, where Jesus says to Peter, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," as well as Jesus' commission and promise to be with His followers as they carried on his ministry, "even unto the end of the world."
Baptist perpetuity sees Baptists separate from the Catholic Church, and the Protestant religious denominations, and considers that the Baptist movement predates the Catholic Church, therefore is not part of the Protestant Reformation.