Christian Life and Growth - Historic Baptist Distinctives

Dr. Steve Viars January 1, 2000

The Historic Baptist Distinctives

A number of years ago, in the Sunday edition of one of the nation's largest newspapers, there appeared a series of articles on the various denominations.  In writing on the Baptists, the author being himself a Baptist clergyman, it was asserted that there is no body of doctrine essential to a Baptist church.  One need not ponder this statement for long without determining that there is something radically wrong.  If that were true, any church could claim to be a Baptist church.

It is our purpose in this brief article to outline the distinctive doctrines of Baptists.  The question we face is, "What distinguishes a Baptist church from others?" Some of the nine distinctives, to be sure, are a part of other churches. Consider for instance, the authority of the Scriptures.  There are many churches which adhere very tenaciously to this essential of the faith.  This is good, but many of the churches holding this point of view do not adhere to some of the other eight distinctives.

There are other denominations which hold to some of the Baptist distinctives, but not to them all.  Dr. Paul Jackson, in his very excellent book, Doctrine of the Local Church, writes:  "For practical purposes it is correct to state that none but Baptists have held ALL of these Biblical doctrines (teachings) down through the years."

To believe that the following ten distinctives place us in a circle so exclusive that only we have a corner on truth and a place in heaven is simply not reasonable.  Some have accused us of believing this. However, we have come to believe that the application of each of the distinctives is necessary to be in the line of historic Biblical Christianity.  This we believe, not because these tenets were issued by a great church council, or because a denominational discipline has imposed them upon us, but rather because the Word of God teaches them and they were evidently adhered to by the early New Testament church.

The following information is a sketch of our Baptist distinctives.  This is not a complete list of doctrines held.

The Authority and Accuracy of the Scriptures

The Bible is not only the very basis of our existence, but it is also the basis of our faith and practice.We believe the Scriptures, in their original autographs, were absolutely, without any variation, exactly as God meant them to be.To impugn in any way the authority and accuracy of the Word of God is to destroy the very foundations from under us; it is to demolish our only court of appeal in every matter of doctrine and practice.The BIBLE is ALWAYS the AUTHORITY above experience or anything else (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

The Priesthood of the Believer

Every believer has been given access to God without the aid of any other person on earth (1 Pet. 2:5).This, of course, relates directly to our approach to God in our prayer life. Jesus said, "No man cometh unto the Father but by me."Any attempt to approach God through the mediation of another being is not Biblical (1 Tim. 2:5).

Two Ordinances: Baptism and Lord's Supper

These two practices were commanded by our Lord to remind us of our constant COMMUNION with Him.Although neither of these saves, nor helps to save, we are not to neglect them.

A Regenerate Church Membership

The church is composed of BELIEVERS: people who have been born again.The example of the early church, as recorded in Acts 2:41, 47, is that "those who had received His Word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls...and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."You will note in this passage that salvation and baptism were the two striking characteristics of those who were "added to them."

Soul Liberty

Baptists have always believed every man has a right to believe what he wishes and that it is neither the duty nor the right of one person or of one group, to impose beliefs upon another.This does not mean it is all right for "every man to do what is right in his own eyes," but rather that each man is individually responsible to God.We may not FORCE our beliefs upon another no matter how wrong his doctrines may be.

Sovereignty of the Local Church

Sometimes this is called "autonomy," or self-governing, of the local church.There is no authority above that of each local congregation.Baptists know of no such thing as the appointment of pastors by a conference or hierarchy of any kind.The church elects its own pastor and officers, sets its own budget, conducts its own meetings, and maintains fellowship with other churches as it wills and for the length of time determined by itself.This is as it ought to be.No person or group has a right to impose any kind of overlordship upon the local church. Christ alone is Lord of the church.There is no Biblical basis for a hierarchy.

The Sovereignty of God

Historically, Baptists have believed that God exercises wise government over what He has made and that He is capable of exercising His will in the universe.This tenet of the faith places all the emphasis upon God, rather than upon man, in the plan and outworking of redemption (Jn. 1:13).

Two Officers in the Local Church

A careful examination of the words used to describe the officers in the New Testament church will produce evidence that there were only two offices: those of pastors and deacons.There is no evidence that "bishops" were placed over many congregations.The pastor is the "bishop" of the Pauline writings.The words "pastor," "bishop," and "elder" are used interchangeably.

Separation of Church and State

Of the four possible relationships between the church and government, it is obvious that Christ's statement regarding "rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" meant that there should be no overlapping of authority of these two institutions.Baptists have always fought for this great principle.

Salvation Freely Given

That salvation has been freely given by God to those who accept Christ as their Savior is pre-supposed and is not usually listed among the nine distinctives.  With so many churches now disclaiming salvation by grace, perhaps this should now be included as a distinctive.

Let it be said in conclusion that the church which does not hold to all of the above listed tenets is not a Baptist church in the true and historic sense.

Dr. Steve Viars


Senior Pastor - Faith Church

Director - Faith Legacy Foundation


B.S.: Pre-Seminary & Bible, Baptist Bible College (Now Clarks Summit University)
M.Div.: Grace Theological Seminary
D.Min.: Biblical Counseling, Westminster Theological Seminary

Dr. Steve Viars has served at Faith Church in Lafayette, IN since 1987. Pastor Viars leads and equips Faith Church as Senior Pastor with a focus on preaching and teaching God’s Word and using his organizational skills in guiding the implementation of the Faith Church mission and vision. He oversees the staff, deacons, and all Faith Church ministries. Dr. Viars serves on the boards of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, Biblical Counseling Coalition, Vision of Hope, and the Faith Community Development Corporation. Steve is the author, co-author, or contributor to six books and numerous booklets. He and his wife, Kris, were married in 1982 and have two married daughters, a son, and three grandchildren.

Read Steve Viars’ Journey to Faith for the full account of how the Lord led Pastor Viars to Faith Church.

View Pastor Viars' Salvation Testimony Video