Book Review: Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, by Kevin Bauder
What is a Baptist? This is not a rhetorical question. This is a test. Keep calm and carry on.
Kevin Bauder, research professor of systematic theology at Central Baptist Seminary, is concerned that Baptist church members do not actually know what Baptists believe. Thus, he has written Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, a short, “nontechnical work that would explain what a Baptist is” to “people who are not theological experts” (11).
Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order is divided into two parts. The first six chapters address six theological Baptist distinctives. The final five chapters address the application of these Baptist distinctives to five practical problems facing Baptists today.
There is much to commend in this book. In the first part, Bauder continually appeals to the supremacy and sufficiency of Scripture. Thus, it is the Bible that addresses how God wants his church to live, worship, and order itself (ch. 1). The author rightly points out that Baptists believe that the proper subjects of baptism are believers, and the proper mode of baptism is immersion (ch. 2). What is more, he contends that the proper place for observing the ordinance of baptism is in the local church. The third Baptist distinctive that Bauder addresses is regenerate church membership (ch. 3). Obviously, the idea of regenerate church membership carries with it specific implications: namely, baptizing believers alone, having a baptized church membership, admitting only believers to the Lord’s Table, and practicing church discipline.
Bauder next highlights the responsibility of the individual Christian (ch. 4). This specific Baptist distinctive encompasses both the individual Christian’s call to understand and obey the word of God, and the priesthood of all believers. The author then turns our attention to the Baptist characteristic of having a congregational church government (ch. 5). Finally, Bauder contends that Baptists believe in the separation of church and state, arguing that, as a general rule, governments must not interfere with the free exercise of religion (ch. 6).
NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH ORDER
In the second part of the book, Bauder shows how these Baptist distinctives relate to five practical issues facing Baptists today: how Baptists have sought to organize themselves in associations (ch. 7), why Baptist church councils are important and how to organize them (ch. 8), the problem of Landmarkism (ch. 9), baptismal regeneration (ch. 10), and how to organize a Baptist church (Ch. 11).
Again, there is much to commend in this section. Bauder has an excellent grasp of the history of the Northern Baptist movement and Northern Baptist fundamentalism. Thus, his history of various associations and the formation of local church councils is very accessible. In addition, his exhortation that Baptist churches “train the next generation of pastors for their churches” (156) and his commitment to church planting (243) are encouraging.
WHAT DOES BAPTISM SYMBOLIZE?
Bauder claims that this book will offer an answer to the question, “What is a Baptist?” for those unfamiliar with technical, theological language. Yet as a Baptist reading this book, at times I found myself thinking, “According to Bauder, am I really a Baptist?” Here’s an example.
In chapter 2, “Believer Baptism,” Bauder seeks to address what baptism symbolizes. He says, “we have seen that baptism functions as a picture of the gospel, public profession of faith, as a first step of obedience, and as a badge of initiation and identification” (41). He continues, “Nevertheless, Baptists have always insisted that baptism does not wash away sins. It does not even symbolize washing” (41). In another place he states, “Baptism does not wash away sins, either literally or symbolically” (43).
Yet many Baptists in history have contended that baptism does indeed symbolize the washing away of sin. For example, chapter 40 of the 1644 London Baptist Confession states:
The way and manner of the dispensing of this ordinance the Scripture holds out to be dipping or plunging the whole body under water: it being a sign, must answer the thing signified, which are these: first, the washing the whole soul in the blood of Christ [emphasis mine]; secondly, that interest the saints have in death, burial, and resurrection [of Christ]; thirdly, together with a confirmation of our faith, that as certainly as the body is buried under water, and rises again, so certainly shall the bodies of the saints be raised by the power of Christ, in the day of the resurrection, to reign with Christ.
The text that these early Baptists used to communicate that baptism symbolized the washing of sin was Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (ESV).
Furthermore, when addressing the issue of baptism, the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession and the 1742 Philadelphia Baptist Confession both use Acts 22:16 to speak of baptism symbolizing the washing away of sin: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (ESV).
Thus, in light of Baptist history, it would seem that Bauder is too narrow in regard to this specific Baptist distinctive. Contrary to his claims, one can be a Baptist and believe that baptism symbolizes the washing away of sin.
IS A SINGLE ELDER SUFFICIENT FOR A LOCAL CHURCH?
Another place where I’d differ with Bauder’s take on church order is his contention in chapter 5 that a church can have a plurality of elders, but that this form of church government is not a binding norm. He writes, “Permission does not constitute mandate” (102). He continues, “If the New Testament does give churches permission to have more than one elder, this permission does not entail a requirement for multiple elders” (102). Again, in another place he notes, “A single bishop is adequate to fulfill the requirements of 1 Timothy 3. If the text does not require plural elders, we have no right to require plural elders” (104).
However, I would argue that a plurality of elders is not merely permitted by the New Testament, but mandated, except for where providential circumstantial inhibit. Paul appointed multiple elders in each church he planted (Acts 14:23). And commanded Titus to do the same, indicating that this was part of the “order” into which churches should be set (Tit. 1:5). Therefore, this is a pattern that churches should follow today, not merely an option (again, except for those places where circumstances hinder it). Further, while plural eldership is not a Baptist distinctive per se—many Baptist churches throughout history have had just one elder—it is nevertheless true that many Baptists throughout history have embraced plural eldership as the biblical model.
If you can confidently answer the question, “What is a Baptist?” then you might not need to purchase this book, though it could provide a useful refresher. This book is designed to be a primer on six Baptist distinctives, and, in that regard, it is a welcome addition.
 See, for example, James M. Renihan’s statement that “the majority of the [seventeenth-century] Particular Baptists were committed to a plurality and parity of elders in their churches,” believing plural eldership “necessary for a completed church” (Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 [Studies in Baptist History and Thought 17; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008], 101). See also William B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who argues that churches today should have a plurality of elders (William B. Johnson, “The Gospel Developed,” in Mark Dever, ed., Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life [Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001], 190-195).