Maranatha is Baptist

By David Saxon [1. Dr. Saxon is Professor of Bible at Maranatha and Adjunct Professor of Church History at Maranatha Baptist Seminary.]

Shortly after arriving to teach at Maranatha Baptist Bible College in 1999, I heard from one of my colleagues that he was “first a Baptist, and second a fundamentalist.” I found that interesting because I had always formulated my identity in the opposite fashion: “first a fundamentalist, and second a Baptist.” My reasoning was that one must believe the fundamentals of the faith before the beliefs that make one a Baptist even matter. The fundamentals relate to the gospel, after all. What could be more foundational—fundamental—than the gospel?

After serving at Maranatha for a number of years now, I am beginning to understand my colleague’s formulation of the question. He is certainly not suggesting that the Baptist distinctives are more important, essential, or foundational than the fundamentals of the faith. They are, however, more defining. Affirming that one is a fundamentalist certainly links one with a great and historic tradition of belief in and defense of the gospel. The New Testament, however, clearly proclaims that the central institution in this dispensation for promulgating the gospel is the local church. Saying that one is a fundamentalist says little about one’s understanding of the local church and its purposes. Once one affirms that he is a Baptist, understood historically, then he has said a great deal about how he believes God is working in this dispensation. For us at Maranatha, being a Baptist includes adherence to the fundamentals of the faith but adds additional clarifying information about where we stand and why we are here.

Maranatha is certainly a fundamentalist institution and has been throughout its history. Furthermore, Maranatha is committed to dispensational hermeneutics. But the designation that made its way into the very title of the institution is Baptist.

The Importance of Careful Definition

In an age characterized by ecumenical dialog, there is a prevailing tendency to identify core elements in one’s faith that other Christians share and to celebrate the unanimity that results from focusing on those doctrines. In the case of organizations like the World Council of Churches, such a process has led to the abnegation of doctrinal commitment and the relativizing of the very concept of truth. The result is a pluralistic, postmodern religion that rejects the Scriptures as the authoritative norm for theological reflection.

Among evangelicals who claim to accept the binding authority of God’s Word, the distillation process results in different types of organizations and movements, such as the Evangelical Theological Society, Together for the Gospel, and the Christian Coalition. These are three very different organizations/movements, but each represents a group of evangelicals who unite around a common thread of agreement, despite widespread disagreement in other areas.

Interestingly, fundamentalism is the same kind of movement. When conservative premillennialists began gathering at the Niagara Conference in the 1870s, they exulted in the fact that they represented a wide spectrum of Protestant denominations in North America. They were united by their allegiance to the fundamentals of the faith and the premillennial hope of Christ’s return. This limited focus has allowed fundamentalism to be a transdenominational movement ever since. When fundamentalists gather as fundamentalists and for fundamentalist purposes, they need not agree on non-fundamental issues, such as church polity or hermeneutics.

For any fundamentalist, regardless of his denomination, this allegiance to the fundamentals of the faith is, in some ways, his highest ecclesiastical allegiance. Before he settled whether or not to immerse or sprinkle, he had to settle whether or not Jesus Christ is God. The blood atonement takes precedence over whether the church answers to the congregation, the presbytery, or the bishop; i.e., the political question is of little moment if we have not been redeemed by the blood of Christ. The fact that the fundamentals are the heart of the Christian faith and determine whether or not someone is saved means that there will always be some level of unity with anyone who affirms those fundamentals alongside us and declares his or her readiness to defend them.

Nevertheless, in this process of focusing on the essential and fundamental and setting aside the nonessential or non-fundamental lies a genuine danger. Kevin Bauder, with a different purpose than that of this article, has leveled a stringent criticism of fundamentalism that addresses this danger: “Fundamen-talists have displayed a tendency to focus upon the affirmation of an ever-shrinking list of core doctrines (and, to be sure, those doctrines deserve focus) at the expense of neglecting both doctrinal detail and doctrinal breadth. Because they are cut off from the Christian past, fundamentalists have little sense of the extent to which they have truncated the whole counsel of God.” [2. In the Nick of Time, August 21, 2009.]

Once we have affirmed the gospel and the doctrines that underlie the gospel, namely, the fundamentals, we still have not said everything that is important for the work of God in this dispensation.

Maranatha is committed not only to fundamentalism, but also to the hermeneutic of dispensationalism and Baptist ecclesiology, primarily because we believe that the church—the local church, in particular—is a doctrine of great importance to the work of God in this dispensation. As Israel was the vehicle for divine action in the world during the dispensation of law, so now God is working through the local church to call out a people for His name. How the church is constituted and how it functions are, therefore, crucial questions that we dare not set aside as unimportant matters.

Like the Catholics, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, Baptists chose their name from an aspect of their ecclesiology, namely, their commitment to believer’s baptism by immersion. I doubt that any Baptist would affirm belief in NT baptism as his highest theological commitment, but Baptists chose this appellation because it pointed to a truth that was and is constitutive for Baptist churches: the fact that NT churches are made up of regenerated and immersed believers, whose one and only true baptism is that which followed their salvation. The so-called “Baptist distinctives” are basically scriptural corollaries to this fundamental premise.

How Maranatha Got to This Point

Maranatha’s history is rooted firmly in northern Baptist fundamentalism. Her founder and first president was B. Myron Cedarholm (1915–1997). After studying at Eastern Baptist Seminary, Cedarholm served as the pastor of a small Baptist church in Philadelphia for five years before receiving a call to serve with the new Conservative Baptist Association of America in 1947. For three years Cedarholm functioned as one of the missionary-evangelists of the organization, and then in 1950 he was elected as the second national general director. He served as the general director until leaving the Association in 1965. [3. For a convenient survey of Cedarholm’s life before coming to Maranatha, see Kim Ledgerwood, Rich in Mercy: Forty Years of God’s Mercy at Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Bible College, 2008), 17–25.]

Initially, the CBA of A was committed to preserving Baptist theology, which, its members believed, was suffering erosion in the Northern—soon to be American—Baptist Convention. As CBAmerica historian Stephen LeBar puts it, “The very word ‘conservative’ gives identity to the movement, because the intent was to conserve (to keep, to retain) the basic biblical distinctives that have historically distinguished Baptists as a people of God.” [4. Stephen LeBar, “Conservative Baptist Association of America Historical Perspective,” 2006, _CBA/CBA%20Historical%20Perspective.pdf.] Liberals in the NBC had been attacking or undermining the gospel since the founding of the convention in 1907. The great fundamentalist battles of the 1920s among the Baptists had related primarily to the liberal assaults on the fundamentals of the faith. In those battles Baptists had participated in the great inter-denominational conservative efforts, such as the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, led by Minneapolis pastor W. B. Riley, in addition to distinctively Baptist organizations, such as the Fundamentalist Fellowship and the Baptist Bible Union.

While recognizing the value of interdenominational efforts in certain contexts, the Midwestern Baptists of the 1940s and 50s believed they needed to carry on the fight for the gospel within the context of

NT—i.e., Baptist—ecclesiology. This is noticeable in the first three “fundamental principles” of the CBA of A listed by Director Cedarholm, as summarized by LeBar:

  1. It was a confessional body, declaring its fundamental doctrines. However, Cedarholm went on to say, “The CBA believes that details of interpretation and application are the prerogative of the local church, under the illumination of the Holy Spirit.”
  2. It was a fellowship of independent churches. He emphasized that the Association is not a denomination. It has no power to make decisions for the churches or to impose programs upon them. It has no desire to establish centralized authority, ecclesiastical connectionalism or dependent organizations that the churches must support. “However, there rightly exists among the churches an interdependency.”
  3. It had “no organic relationship to the organizations which its churches support.” Each of the agencies was independent of the others. [5. Ibid.]

The tension that Baptists have always felt between centralization and autonomy is clearly present here. The point is this: battling liberalism is important and can probably be carried out by churches more effectively if they ally with one another. Nevertheless, doing church as the NT specifies is nonnegotiable, and these Baptists insisted that they would not sacrifice the autonomy of their local assemblies for any larger purposes.

During Cedarholm’s tenure as General Secretary of the CBA of A, the great debate over Billy Graham and his ecumenical evangelism erupted among the churches Cedarholm served. The well-documented rupture of the organization occurred in the early 1960s, with a fundamentalist minority separating from the Association by 1965 [6. For a portrayal of the events from the standpoint of the evangelical majority, see Bruce Shelley, A History of the Conservative Baptists (Chicago: Conservative Baptist Press, 1981). Accessed at]. Cedarholm clearly sided with the fundamentalists and resigned that year, accepting a call from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College to be its second president.

The Minnesota Baptist Convention, like the Conservative Baptists, emerged from the NBC, separating officially in 1946. Ten years later, R. V. Clearwaters, pastor of Fourth Baptist Church of Minneapolis, led the MBC to convert Pillsbury Academy into a Bible college. Pillsbury opened its doors in 1957 under the leadership of Clearwaters and, shortly thereafter, Monroe Parker. Both of these men were also to figure prominently in the fundamentalist fight in the CBA of A, and both were warm associates of Myron Cedarholm; therefore, Pillsbury’s reason for existence was the desire of Minnesota Baptists to have a fundamentalist context for training their young people. The school was equally committed to fundamentalist separatism and Baptist ecclesiology [7. For an interesting history of Pillsbury Baptist Bible College, see Jon Pratt, “Pillsbury Baptist Bible College, A Legacy of Serving the Lord’s Church: The Story of Pillsbury Baptist Bible College,” Vox Ecclesia 6:1 (Feb 2009), 6:2 (Apr 2009), and 6:3 (June 2009). Accessed at].

Cedarholm’s presidency of Pillsbury was numerically successful but featured unfortunate controversy between Cedarholm and Clearwaters. This controversy did not relate to theological matters; both men were staunch Baptists and fundamentalists. In 1968 Cedarholm resigned from Pillsbury and began Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Watertown, Wisconsin. Theologically, Maranatha belonged to the same tradition as Pillsbury and the militants who had left the CBA of A (who now constituted the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship). Maranatha existed because fundamentalists needed Bible colleges, but, like Pillsbury, it was oriented toward a certain community within fundamentalism, namely, those committed to Baptist polity.

This orientation was obvious to the first generation of students at Maranatha. First, Cedarholm preached on the local church so often that students’ Bibles almost literally fell open to Matthew 16:18. Second, the academic dean was Richard Weeks, whose enthusiasm for Baptist history was infectious. His collection of rare Baptist works still remains a treasure trove for Maranatha students. Third, the students discovered that Maranatha’s focus was unswervingly on local church ministry. Throughout the school’s history, the faculty, staff, and student body have actively engaged in ministry in the area churches. For his first twenty-three years in ministry, Cedarholm poured himself into local churches, and he obviously regarded his work in higher education—both at Pillsbury and at Maranatha—as an expansion of that focus rather than a re-direction or mitigation of it.

Integrally involved in this vision for the local church is the fulfillment of the Great Commission. From the beginning, the Baptist insistence that evangelism is a mandate to the local church to be carried out through the local church dominated the philosophy of Cedarholm and Maranatha. The goal of evangelism is regenerated people, immersed into a local body of believers, and experiencing discipleship through the proclamation of the Word.

Thus, while acknowledging that non-Baptist fundamentalists faithfully win souls and build churches, Cedarholm and the other early leaders of Maranatha conceived of every aspect of their ministries as integrally connected to their identity as Baptists. Therefore, to say, “I’m a Baptist first and a fundamentalist second,” is another way of saying, “I’m never just a fundamentalist; I am always a Baptist fundamentalist.” The NT church is the context in which the gospel—the fundamentals of the faith—is lived out.

It is not surprising, then, to discover that these leaders, especially Richard Weeks, devoted considerable effort to carefully elucidating exactly what constitutes a Baptist. What he achieved has become a distinctive facet of Maranatha’s ethos.

Maranatha’s Formulation of the Baptist Distinctives [8. The majority of the next section was previously published in Sunesis, an electronic publication of the Bible faculty of Maranatha. See “The Logic of Brapsis2: A More Excellent Way to Spell Baptist” (Summer/Fall 2006) at page.aspx?m=1490.]

Dr. Richard Weeks, Maranatha’s first academic dean, was an avid bibliophile and Baptist historian. Well educated, he had pastored for several years in Chicago before he went to Pillsbury and then finally to Maranatha to teach Baptist Polity and Baptist History, among other classes. Not content with the usual BAPTIST acrostic for the Baptist distinctives, he began a study of the various lists of distinctives identified by a wide variety of Baptist writers—old and new, northern and southern, American and European, and especially fundamental Baptists of the early 20th century. Out of this study he created a list of what he viewed to be the key Baptist distinctives, without trying to force them into an acrostic grid. He also established an order to these distinctives, considering not so much that some distinctives are more important than others, but rather that some distinctives tend to flow out of other distinctives. The result was BRAPSIS2. The following paragraphs will not seek to prove each distinctive scripturally, since such reasoning is readily available in other Maranatha publications and, indeed, in any faithful analysis of Baptist polity. Instead, this discussion will focus on the logic that drove Dr. Weeks to organize the Baptist distinctives as he did.

The first distinctive, of course, is “B—Bible, the sole authority of faith and practice” in the local church. Other Protestant denominations might object that they also hold this principle, which, indeed, is generally regarded by historians as the formal principle of the Reformation (justification by faith being the material principle [9. The authority of Scripture is the “formal” principle in the sense that it establishes the framework within which all the other advances occurred. Justification by faith is the “material” principle in that it was the main theological issue to be hammered out.]). What is distinctive about Baptist theology is that Baptists regard the New Testament as the source of their polity and the ruling authority in their churches. Because the distinctives are, by definition, ecclesiological and show how Baptists differ from Protestant denominations, this first distinctive has the role of establishing that the rest of the points will find their authority in the NT alone. This claim instantly sets Baptists apart from Reformed models of the church that look to the Old Testament and episcopal models that depend on tradition for their principal authority. Incidentally, this Baptist claim that the NT is the sole authority for ecclesiological faith and practice is implicitly dispensational, since dispensationalists insist that the church is solely a NT phenomenon. The first and most important point that Baptists derive from the Scriptures regarding the local church is the makeup of its constituency: “R—a regenerated and immersed church membership.” At a stroke, this thoroughly biblical assertion rules out pedobaptism, the parish church structure, and the state churches that constituted Christendom from the fourth century until modern times. If the church is made up only of believers—those who have consciously chosen Jesus Christ as their Savior—then the local church is obligated to reflect as accurately as humanly possible the body of Christ. Thus Baptist churches accept into their membership only those who have professed both by word and by scriptural baptism that they belong to Christ. If “B” is the formal principle of the Baptist distinctives, consider that “R” is the material principle; that is, each of the remaining distinctives flows logically out of the concept of the church as reflected in the NT: a body of visible, baptized believers.

Can such a body answer to any authority outside itself other than Christ? Can the local assembly guard its purity if it answers to a human authority such as a bishop or a presbytery? Baptists say no, affirming “A—the autonomy of the local church.” Baptists do not deny the kinds of fellowship, cooperation, and fraternity between local churches that are demonstrable from the NT, but they recognize in each local assembly the right and responsibility to carefully guard its own purity. The purity of the church is the corollary of the immediate headship of Christ over the assembly. In other words, the stubborn Baptist insistence on autonomous churches is just another way of saying the “submission of the local church is to Christ alone as its Head.” Viewed in this way, it is easy to see that “P—the priesthood of the believer” is the personal application of the principle implicit in the autonomy of the church. Just as local churches cannot be made to answer to manmade institutions, such as the papacy, other episcopal overlords, or extra-church presbyteries, so the individual believer within the context of the local assembly answers to Christ alone. We do not need the church to give us authorized interpretations of Scripture or a priest to hear our confession or dispense grace to us, and we ourselves exercise the ministry of reconciliation. In short, we do not need a priest because we are priests.

Can such a principle have even wider application? Is there a sense in which every man answers directly to Christ rather than to some ecclesiastical authority? If, in fact, every man will stand individually before God and give an account, then it necessarily follows that each man is personally responsible for his own beliefs. Baptists have historically defended the “S—soul liberty” right of every man to enjoy the freedom to determine his own religious beliefs. No room exists in such a view for coercion of religious persuasions or ecclesiastical activities or for persecution of any sort. The Baptist struggle for religious liberty is a glorious theme in church history. It is remarkable that a great many Baptists have paid the ultimate price for their convictions while at the same time staunchly defending the soul liberty of the very ones that were persecuting them.

The final three distinctives in Dr. Weeks’ list do not connect as obviously to the previous four, but they are important components of the Baptist witness. Having already affirmed that only immersed believers belong in the church, BRAPSIS2 now argues that Baptists are not sacramentalists: they believe in only the two ordinances commanded by Christ in the NT: hence, “I—Immersion and the Lord’s Supper, the only two ordinances.” Of course, one must flesh out this distinctive quite a bit to make it truly descriptive of the Baptist position. By insisting that baptism is immersion and only immersion, Baptists are tacitly arguing that baptism is symbolic only, not sacramental. How one performs baptism conveys the symbolism the NT intends by the rite. Baptists believe that the crucial fact about baptism is its ability to picture the believer’s death, burial, and resurrection with Christ. When churches alter the mode of baptism, they not only disobey the express command of Christ (who, after all, said to “baptize,” a Greek word that clearly means to immerse) but also destroy the symbolism of what the NT intends to be simply a symbol. While some sacramentalists have immersed (such as the Greek Orthodox), few have insisted on immersion because the sacramental churches regard the rite itself, not the symbolism of the rite, as the crucial thing. Baptists react strongly against any attempt to associate spiritual transactions with physical or ecclesiastical activities. Here, perhaps, is the connection with the previous distinctive. Each soul is answerable directly to God; that is a fundamentally spiritual assertion. External acts, such as the ordinances and ecclesiastical affiliations, reflect or perhaps symbolize spiritual realities, but they do not create or sustain those realities.

Such reasoning naturally also leads Baptists to understand the Lord’s Supper symbolically as well. Communion with Christ is not conveyed in some special way by the physical activity. Dr. Weeks closed his list with the two varieties of separation that should result if one takes the previous six distinctives seriously. Before this article addresses them, however, note that the acrostic does not assert that Baptists have only two offices. Dr. Weeks certainly believed in only two offices, and the Baptist Heritage class at Maranatha incorporates the belief in the two offices of pastor and deacon in the lecture on the autonomy of the local assembly. Historically, however, some Baptists adopted the Reformed belief in ruling elders who are distinct from the pastoral office. Today, some Baptist churches are employing this Reformed model; others are urging a plurality of elders but insist that the pastor and elders have the same office though sometimes varying levels of practical authority. In any event, Dr. Weeks believed it historically inaccurate to say that Baptists were distinguished by a belief in two offices, and therefore he did not include this point in BRAPSIS2. This is yet another indication that Dr. Weeks’ acrostic was carefully designed with both historical and theological factors in mind.

It is interesting that Dr. Weeks believed that both “S1—Separation of Church and State” and “S2—Separation: Ethically and Ecclesiastically” are Baptist distinctives. The first of these points, which flows logically out of the Baptist belief in soul liberty, is undisputed and remains a magnificent contribution of the Baptist churches to modern Western civilization. Dr. Weeks also taught that Baptists are intrinsically separationists. Given the substantial number of Baptists in church history who have failed to maintain either ecclesiastical or personal separation, one can imagine this point in BRAPSIS2 facing significant challenge. Nevertheless, ecclesiastical separation is the necessary corollary of belief in autonomous churches, and ethical separation is the biblical outworking of the priesthood of the believer. It is interesting that since 1930, the large majority of fundamentalists have been Baptist. As noted earlier, fundamentalism is defined by the doctrines essential to gospel proclamation and thus necessarily spans conservative denominations; perhaps, though, the separation that has defined the fundamentalist movement finds its most natural affinity to Baptist ecclesiology. In short, Dr. Weeks’ inclusion of separation, while controversial, may itself provide an interesting insight not only into our distinctiveness as Baptists but also our identity as Baptist fundamentalists.


Maranatha views its historic commitment to being Baptist as a commitment to the NT model of the church. We value our non-Baptist brethren, particularly those committed to fundamentalism, and appreciate their contributions to the work of Christ. Nevertheless, we are convinced that to the degree that we successfully inculcate NT teachings into our students, to that same degree those students will choose to be Baptists.

This is a day in which many eschew labels and regard them as unnecessarily divisive. We, however, do not know of any other effective way of proclaiming our adherence to the polity of the NT as it has been understood historically by Baptists than by proclaiming ourselves Baptists; and we do not hesitate to align ourselves with the glorious history of men and women who ministered, suffered, and sometimes died, not for the label, but for the biblical truths the label communicates.