It is estimated that over 30 million people are members of Baptist churches around the world. When we add to that the many people who attend regularly but are not in membership, the number is usually put at between 60 - 70 million. So who are these people and how did they originate?
Baptists everywhere can trace their historical roots back to 17th century England. They argued that the mainstream of the Reformation had stopped short of a full return to the practises of the New Testament church. The early Baptists attempted to take the matter further than the Reformers and in attempting to do so departed from the Protestant churches on a numbers of important points. It is these practises and beliefs that give Baptists their distinctive nature.
There are currently 115 Baptist Churches within the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland, with a total membership of around 8,500 baptised believers.
The Authority of Scripture
In most aspects of life there are rules and guidelines. The church also has a pattern from which to work. For some it is the Bible plus the tradition of the church, others believe in following some inner guiding light. Baptists reject both of these and state that the final authority is to be found in Scripture alone. How do they come to this conclusion? On the basis of the Scriptures alone.
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." 2 Timothy 3:16 - 17
Baptists teach that not only their churches, but also their lives are regulated by the Bible. It is their ultimate rule of faith and practice.
The Headship of Christ Over the Church
In keeping with other Christian denominations Irish Baptists believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. They acknowledge that no system of church government is enough, and that the whole church must bow to the supreme authority of Christ. This means that no one man, or group of people has overall authority of the churches. The church belongs to Christ alone. He is its Head and the church even with its imperfections is the body on earth.
"Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." Ephesians 4:15
The Gathered Nature of the Church
In addressing this question we come right to the heart of the dispute between the early Baptists and the Reformers. The question still continues today. Who or what is the church?
When you think of the word 'church' what springs to mind? Is it a building or is it any group of people who meet in a building for worship or to take part in "church" activities. Or is it something greater than any of these?
Baptists speak of the 'gathered church'. This means that the church does not consist of buildings, organisations or other man made structures. The church consists of people who have been called apart by God, have His Holy Spirit within them and are 'gathered together' to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Naturally it follows that a person cannot be born into or become a church member by baptism or by reason of the place where he was born.
Throughout history 'the gathered church' have met in various places such as homes, barns and on occasions, outdoors. In a word the church is people not buildings or organisations.
"For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." Matthew 18:20
"And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." Acts 2:47
The Priesthood of All Believers
Baptists do not draw a distinction between "Clergy" and "Laity". This means that there is not the division of roles that may often be seen in other denominations between the minister and the congregation. A Baptist pastor is one among equals and can best be regarded as a "teaching elder". As a result you will often find other members of Baptist congregations leading the service including preaching, praying and leading at the Lord's Table.
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." 1 Peter 2:9
"To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen." Revelation 1:5-6
The Baptised Membership of the Church
Baptists do not baptise infants. Baptism by immersion in water is only given to those who declare themselves to be born again believers in the Lord Jesus. Baptists emphasise that Baptism does not confer salvation. For them baptism is a public declaration of their inward faith in and commitment to Christ and publicly identifies them with the His death, burial and resurrection. Baptism is a condition of membership of Baptist Churches.
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matthew 28:19-20
The Lord's Supper
The Lord's Supper or Communion service is celebrated each Sunday in Baptist churches usually on Sunday morning. In many Baptist churches all believers, whether members of the church or visitors, are welcome to join in the Lord's Supper. The only condition is that they are born again believers and are seeking to live a Christian life. In taking part in this act, they remember the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross and celebrate their unity in Christ.
"While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Matthew 26:26-28
"The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, He broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." 1 Corinthians 11:23-25