Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #1—
Soul Competency, the Priesthood of Believers, and Religious Liberty



By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.


Calvinists, Arminians, and Baptists Together for the Evangelical Gospel

All denominations that broadly share the Reformation heritage share more beliefs in common than beliefs that differ. This is true of Baptists, Arminians, and Presbyterians/the Reformed tradition – we agree on many more points than we disagree. Like most evangelicals, we share the same affirmation of orthodox Nicean Christianity, along with other key beliefs accented in the Reformation:

Sola Scriptura – Scripture is the ultimate plumb line for all Christian truth claims.

Soli Deo Gloria – God alone deserves glory.

Sola Gratia and Sola Fide – Salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

Solus Christus — Salvation is available only through Christ because of His substitutionary atonement for our sins.

The Sovereignty of God over All His Creation – This is our Father’s world.

The Security of the Believer – God secures the salvation of the believer (not affirmed by some Arminians).

The Perfect Omniscience and Complete Foreknowledge of God – God knows all things – past, present, and future.

The Imperative of the Proclamation of the Gospel by the Church – The Great Commission must be obeyed.

Despite these many points of agreement, it is the points of disagreement that garner the most attention.[1] In an earlier post entitled “The Middle Way,” I asserted that we centrist Baptists are “the middle way” between Arminians, on the one hand, and Calvinists/Presbyterians, on the other. Since some reviewers of our book Whosoever Will (which was, after all, a critique of five-point Calvinism) associated the contributors to Whosoever Will as being nearer Arminianism than Calvinism, I listed at least twelve points of doctrinal disagreement between centrist Baptists and Arminians. In this series, however, I would like to point out nine points of difference between centrist Baptist beliefs and the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition.

Given my involvement in the John 3:16 Conference and in writing Whosoever Will, some readers might expect me to begin listing the five points of Calvinist soteriology as the main points of difference between Baptists and Presbyterians. It is true that centrist Baptists such as me may disagree on several of these points with persons who imbibe in the Reformed tradition, but it would be inaccurate to say that the five points as popularized in the “TULIP” were the main points of difference between Reformed and Baptist theology, or that these so-called “doctrines of grace” are foreign to Baptist theology. In fact, the Particular Baptist tradition plays a long and deep role in Baptist theology, a role that is seeing a revival (I use the word circumspectly with regard to this subject matter) in our day. It is possible for a five-point Calvinist to affirm most or all of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, though it is sad for me to see increasing numbers of Calvinistic-leaning churches and church plants who ignore or eschew our SBC confession of faith, apparently because of their inability to affirm it, and endorse other doctrinal statements instead which they apparently find more consonant with their beliefs, such as the Second London Confession, the similar Philadelphia Confession, or the Abstract of Principles.

At any rate, these nine Baptist doctrinal distinctives I will discuss do not include the five points about soteriology. In fact, most of the nine points that I will be addressing were explicitly held by the Particular Baptists in contradistinction from the Presbyterian or Reformed theology from which they separated themselves. These, then, are distinctively Baptist beliefs. The first Baptist distinctive I will address is actually a cluster of interrelated beliefs — soul competency, priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty.

Distinctive Baptist Belief #1 –
Soul Competency, Priesthood of all Believers, and Religious Liberty

Calvin’s original model for Presbyterianism in Geneva was as an established state religion, a theocracy. When Presbyterians and their Congregationalist successors arrived in New England, they imposed the strictest limitations on religious liberty in the New World. After fighting a long rear guard action against religious liberty, the New England states were the last to relinquish Congregationalism as the established church. Even in the last fifty years, conservative Presbyterians such as R. J. Rushdoony have headed a movement known variously as Christian Reconstructionism, Theocratic Dominionism, or Theonomy, which would put the church in charge of civil government.[2] So, to say the least, Presbyterians have not been at the forefront of the fight for religious liberty.

It is an established fact of history that religious liberty is a doctrine most associated with Baptists. From our inception, Baptists have been separatists rather than establishmentarians; advocating religious liberty rather than the establishment of a state church. Many Baptists came to America seeking to avoid the religious persecution they had experienced in Europe, only to find it transported to America as well. Roger Williams, pastor of the first Baptist church in America, was exiled to Rhode Island from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his religious convictions. He wrote The Bloody Tenet of Persecution (1644) and The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, Made Yet More Bloody (1652) to protest the religious persecution in Massachusetts, driven by the established Congregationalist church associated with Jonathan Edwards and others. Imprisonment, taxation, whipping, and seizure of property were commonplace vehicles of persecution. John Clarke, who detailed persecution by Calvinist authorities in Ill News from New England, was imprisoned with Obadiah Holmes for the “sin” of ministering in Massachusetts. Holmes was also brutally whipped thirty times with a three-pronged whip. Governor Endicott explained that these Baptist ministers were being imprisoned because they “denied infant baptism” and that they “deserved death.”[3] Isaac Backus, originally a Congregationalist deeply influenced by Jonathan Edwards’ theology, helped restore Calvinistic soteriology to the Separate Baptists. But he was tireless in writing tracts and petitions for religious liberty in Connecticut. His mother, like many Baptists, was imprisoned for thirteen weeks for refusing to pay the tax for the established Congregationalist church.[4]

The Baptist leader John Leland, after playing a key role in winning religious freedom in Virginia and helping obtain the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, moved back to Massachusetts and experienced even more persecution. He wrote tracts such as The Rights of Conscience Inalienable; and therefore Religious Opinions not Cognizable by Law: Or, The Highflying Churchman, Stript of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo (1791), in which he called for religious liberty in Connecticut for not only Baptists but for “Jews, Turks, heathen, papists, or deists.”[5] He even brought a 1,200 pound block of cheese to the White House on January 1, 1802, to lobby President Jefferson for religious liberty.[6] The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution became law in 1791, but the Presbyterian/Congregationalist established churches in the New England states doggedly fought against disestablishment, and Massachusetts did not disestablish the Congregationalist state church until 1833.[7] So while Baptists were at the forefront of the fight for religious liberty, Presbyterians and Congregationalists fought it in a delaying action for four decades after the First Amendment granted freedom of religion.

Baptists saw the need for religious freedom not just from their own experiences, but from their convictions about soul competency (individual responsibility and accountability before God), the priesthood of all believers, believer’s baptism, and a gathered church.[8] Only in a setting of religious freedom could individuals be free to actualize these foundational Baptist beliefs.[9]


[1] The “Baptist distinctives” literature includes the classic volume edited by J. M. Frost, Baptist Why and Why Not (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1900), and is summarized in R. Stanton Norman, More Than Just a Name: Preserving Our Baptist Identity (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001) and The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005).

[2] The classic presentation of this position is in R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1973). More recently, Kenneth Stewart has built a strong case that it would be inaccurate to say that all Presbyterians are theonomists. See “Myth 7” in Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011). While this is undoubtedly the case, it is beyond dispute that as a matter of history, persons in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition have advocated state churches, and have not been strong advocates of religious liberty and separation of church and state.

[3] William R. Estep, Revolution within the Revolution: The First Amendment in Historical Context, 1612-1789 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 86-92.

[4] Ibid., 97-119.

[5] Ibid., 157-170. John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable; and therefore Religious Opinions not Cognizable by Law: Or, The High-Flying Churchman, Stript of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo, is available online at http://classicliberal.tripod.com/misc/ conscience.html.

[6] Stephen Waldman, “The Framers and the Faithful: How Modern Evangelicals Are Ignoring Their Own History,” Washington Monthly (April 2006), available online at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0604.waldman.html.

[7] An excellent survey of disestablishment of state churches is provided by Carl Esbeck, “Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic,” Brigham Young University Law Review (February 6, 2004), 1-69; available online at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3736/is_200402/ai_n9474018/pg_1. Esbeck notes that for John Adams in 1775, disestablishing the state church was about as likely as dislodging the planets from their orbits in the solar system (p. 44).

[8] BF&M, Art. 17. For more, see G. B. Eager, “Why Local Churches and Not State Church,” in Baptist Why and Why Not, 267-278.

[9] The next article in this series is “Baptist Distinctive #2 – The Age of Accountability.” If you would like to preview the entire series, you can see the larger article from which these posts are drawn, plus responses from three theological perspectives, from a paper presentation for the a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. You can see them at Steve Lemke, “What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 5, no. 2 (Fall 2008):10-39, available online at http://www.baptistcenter.com/Documents/Journals/JBTM%205-2_Baptists_in_Dialogue_Fall_08.pdf#page=11.  It is posted in this blog format in SBC Today to facilitate discussion on these issues.