The Logic Of BRAPSIS

Dr. Richard Weeks, Maranatha’s first academic dean, was also an avid bibliophile and Baptist historian. Well educated, he pastored for several years in Chicago before going to Pillsbury and then 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. From this study he created a list of what he thought the key Baptist distinctives were, 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 first distinctive, of course, is “B—Bible, the sole authority of faith and practice” in the local church. Other Protestant denominations might object, claiming 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). What is distinctive about Baptist theology is that Baptists regard the New Testament (NT) 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 other 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 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 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 guard carefully 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 man-made 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; 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 person answers directly to Christ rather than to some ecclesiastical authority? If, in fact, every one will stand individually before God and give an account, then it necessarily follows that each one is personally responsible for his or her own beliefs. Baptists have historically defended the “S—soul liberty” right of individuals to enjoy the freedom to determine their 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. Remarkably, 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 who 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.” 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 non-Baptist 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 (such as the Greek Orthodox) have immersed, few have insisted on immersion because the sacramental churches regard the action itself, not the symbolism of the act, as crucial. 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 (which hopefully takes place for most Baptists when they celebrate the Supper) 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 returning to this Reformed model; others urge 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 inaccurate to say that Baptists were historically 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. While Fundamentalism is defined by the doctrines essential to gospel proclamation and thus necessarily spans conservative denominations, the separation that has defined the Fundamentalist movement perhaps 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 into our identity as Baptist Fundamentalists.

Originally published Summer/Fall 2006