The essence of the Baptist movement

"The Baptists remained firm in their rejection of an alliance between church and state in which each uses the other for its own sake."

V. Norskov Olsen, Ph.D., Th.D., is president of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.


From the time of the Reformation, church historians have often presented distorted descriptions of the early Baptist movement—or no description at all. The fanatic Zwikau Prophets in Wittenberg and the millenarian enthusiasm of Thomas Munzer, as well as the Munster revolution with its anarchy, polygamy, and extreme Jewish apocalypticism—now admitted to be a caricature of the Baptist movement—have been set forth as representative of its beliefs and practices. Baptist leaders have been depicted as the diabolical opponents of the great Reformers and the angels of Satan incarnate.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the doctrine of believers' baptism has been held in some disrepute. However, during the past decade church historians have greatly rehabilitated this distorted picture, making it possible for the Biblical doctrine of adult baptism to vindicate itself.

In the past, historians spoke only about the Reformation initiated by the Protestant Reformers and the opposition to it by the Roman Catholics in the Counter Reformation. Recently there has been increasing recognition of a third and equally important movement, the Radical Reformation, along with a growing awareness that Western society and Christendom are not indebted to the classical Reformation for some of their most valuable characteristics, but to the Radical Reformation.

American democracy with its constitutional principle of a free church in a free state has its religious origin in the free church tradition, of which the Baptist movement forms a significant part.

The Protestant Reformation separated the Lutheran and the Anglican churches from Rome, only to subject them in turn to the state. In the early phase of the Lutheran Reformation, Luther drew a sharp distinction between church and state. Elaborating upon Christ's words "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21), Luther wrote: "

'God has ordained two governments among the children of Adam—the reign of God under Christ, and the reign of the world under the civil magistrate, each with its own laws and rights. The laws of the reign of the world extend no further than body and goods and the external affairs on earth. But over the soul God can and will allow no one to rule but Himself alone. Therefore, where the worldly government dares to give laws to the soul, it invades the reign of God, and only seduces and corrupts the soul. This we shall make so clear that our noble men, princes, and bishops may see what fools they are if they will force people with their laws and commandments to believe this or that.' " —Quoted by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VI, p. 543. The great church historian Philip Schaff called this statement "a prophetic anticipation of the American separation of church and state" (ibid.).

According to Luther, the power of the church is limited to the ministry of the Word. For some time his concept of the church was rather congregational in its form of organization; he saw the church as a voluntary group of committed Christians. The subsequent change in Luther's concept of church-state relationships was a tragedy for the spiritual development of the Reformation.

For political reasons, Luther placed the church under the general supervision of the state, which came to dominate the church to a very large degree. The price Luther paid for the help of the territorial princes was all too high. Even Karl Holl, a defender of Luther, writes, " 'The best energies of the Reformation were kept down through this development or they were forced to develop alongside and apart from the church.'" —Quoted by William A. Mueller in Luther and Calvin, p. 34.

As the evil of allying the church and the state became ever more apparent, it is not strange that the Baptist groups that developed outside the Lutheran and the Reformed churches felt more and more strongly the need for an inward liberation from the theology and unbiblical ecclesiasticism of the Middle Ages. They came to the conviction that by their alliance with the state the Reformers had been only halfway reformers. Thus these Baptist groups became advocates of the principle of a free church in a free state.

It should not be overlooked (as is often the case) that the great Reformers in their entanglement with the state died disillusioned men. For example, Luther was in great despondency during the last few years of his life, and Zwingli sought to be released from his responsibilities in the city of Zurich some weeks before he died.

The Baptists remained firm in their rejection of an alliance between church and state, in which each uses the other for its own sake. Their concept of the church as a voluntary congregation op posed the concept that would identify the church as the people of any given territory. Further, the Baptists, contrary to the Reformers, refused to let the problem of survival influence their commitment to remain separated from the state.

Religious voluntarism and modern democracy

It has been widely recognized that the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which taught that all Christians have equal access to God, made the Reformation the religious starting point of modern democratic ideas; not so widely recognized is the fact that the development of democratic principles is found most prominently in that branch of the Protestant movement that adheres to the voluntary church principle. Here the religious heritage of the Baptists is most significant. Their idea of the church as a fellowship of active believers in a self-governing congregation led to the experience of working as a small democratic society. Rather than using force to implement its decisions, this group was guided by a fellowship that assumed all the members had the right to share in the decision making. Their rejection of ecclesiastical and political compulsion and their principle of consensus became important in the political sphere as well as in the religious. Freedom of conscience, so basic for democracy, originated in the free-church principle.

Naturally their ideas aroused opposition. Many of the persecuted Baptists found refuge in the Netherlands, where the idea of representative government was of ancient origin. Out of this small country's system of representative government grew such high social standards that the toleration and freedom of the Dutch became the envy of the whole world. William of Orange granted religious freedom to those of the Baptist persuasion in Holland in 1572.

The political theories of the Baptists in the Netherlands crossed the channel to become the heritage of the Baptists in England, where the first Baptist church was established in London in 1611 or 1612. Many of the dissenters fled persecution in England and found a haven in the Netherlands. These refugees, whether Independents or Calvinists, were strongly affected by the democratic principles of the Baptists and the Dutch people. For some time Cromwell considered uniting his own Puritan commonwealth with that of the Dutch. It is therefore not surprising that the inner religious struggles in England, lasting some 150 years from Henry VIII to James II, ended in the Act of Toleration (1689) issued by William of Orange after he became king of England. The influence of the Independents and Baptists extended to men such as John Locke and Milton, who were energetic defenders of freedom of conscience.

The Pilgrim Fathers, who in 1620 crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower and laid the foundation of the Plymouth Colony, planted Congregationalism in New England. In Rhode Island Roger Williams introduced full religious freedom in 1636. The first Germans who chose America as a new home were thirty Mennonite families, who came to America in 1683. History testifies to the religious origin of American democracy and to the fact that its basic principles have their roots in the various groups of the Radical Reformation. In the United States at the present time we find among professing Christians approximately 40 million who have received believers' baptism by immersion. The churches that practice this form of baptism are numerous, and some are among the largest, fastest-growing, and most influential churches in America.

Religious toleration

The concept of religious toleration was revived during the sixteenth century by the Protestant Reformers, who in the early period of the Reformation advocated freedom of conscience, as well as obedience to God, as man's primary duty. Belief in the Bible as the sole authority in matters of faith, the truth of justification by faith, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the participation of Christian laity in church government, as well as the Protestant concept of Christ as the sole head of the church, created a platform on which the cause of religious toleration could be built. On the other hand, the Reformers' alliance with the state, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and the spirit of Protestant orthodoxy and scholasticism led to intolerance. The Reformers required freedom of conscience and religious liberty for themselves, but history shows that generally they were not ready to grant this to others. (Unfortunately, neither were those who brought Congregationalism to America always as eager to grant toleration to those who differed from them as they were to have religious freedom for themselves.)

Yet, the Baptists—not the classical Protestant Reformers—were the people who advanced the cause of religious toleration by adhering to the positive Protestant beliefs mentioned above and at the same time rejecting those principles that curtailed the cause of toleration. The Baptists did not advocate toleration merely because they themselves were persecuted. For them, religious liberty resulted from the gospel teaching of loving one's neighbor and from the example of Christ and His apostles of not compelling people to believe.

Both the Magisterial Reformers and the Baptists believed that an apostasy had taken place in the church. However, the former aimed at a reformation of the church, while the latter spoke about the restitution of the primitive apostolic church. The Reformers' attitude stemmed from the idea of the corpus Christianum, in which church and state form one Christian body. Therefore, they considered the golden age of the church to have begun in the time of Constantine. In contrast, the Baptists, who adhered to the concept of a believers' church, fixed the date of the fall of the church from the same period. Consequently the Baptists and other "radical" groups saw the beginning of the antichrist's rule in the Bishop of Rome from the days of Constantine, while the Reformers recognized the power of antichrist in the medieval Pa pacy. The Anabaptists noticed that the church before Constantine was a church of martyrs, and believed that the true church was generally a suffering church and that the primitivism of the apostolic church was to be normative in every age of the church. As man fell in the beginning, likewise the church fell; as a full restitution was needed for man, so also the church needed a complete restitution. For the individual and the church, which is the voluntary body of believers, believers' baptism became a realistic symbol of the restitution to the Baptists.

Some major points of the emphasis

Any evaluation of the impact of the Baptists upon Christian society must take notice of a few aspects central to their teaching.

The first and most essential viewpoint is expressed by the phrase "the discipleship of Christ." The obedience of Christ and His perfect life not only were prerequisites for His vicarious atonement for mankind, but also became the criteria for Christian ethics. The whole life of the believer should be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Second, out of the Baptist concept that the church is a voluntary congregation of converted and dedicated Christians grew the concept of a Christian brotherhood. The Baptists addressed one another as brothers and sisters. Their common faith eliminated class distinction and also affected their economic ethic, which was characterized by sharing and bearing one another's bur dens.

Third, in the Christian attempt to influence or even transform society. Roman Catholics and the Reformed churches have generally been optimistic. Luther was rather pessimistic about re deeming society and therefore tended to compromise. The Baptists held the same pessimistic view, but under no circumstance were they ready to sacrifice any of the principles of the kingdom of God in their relationship with society. Since society at large was under the power of Satan, a true Christian social order could be established only within the brother hood. Because of the great conflict be tween God and Satan, good and evil, there would always be tension and very often conflict between the true church and the world. For the Baptists the ideals of the kingdom of God could not be realized in a corpus Christianum, but only in a brotherhood that adhered to the primitivism of the apostolic church. However, even here they felt a tension between the present and the eschatological fulfillment of the eternal kingdom. The fulfillment of the great commandment to love God and one's neighbor was taken most literally, as illustrated in their firm belief in pacifism, which made them abandon all participation in war and violence. While they did not believe that society at large would be transformed, they still maintained that the kingdom of God, as realized within the brotherhood, would be a light and a leaven in the world.

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V. Norskov Olsen, Ph.D., Th.D., is president of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

November 1978

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