Although Baptist churches have been continually fractured and divided over the centuries, there are a number of broad characteristics which are common to most if not all. These characteristics include adult baptism through full immersion, evangelism, pietism, and sectarianism. All of these are intimately related to another characteristic: radical volunatrism and the independence of local churches.
Voluntarism: Although the group is named for their position on baptism, in fact it is their position on voluntarism and the independence of local churches which may be the most important characteristic of Baptist churches. Baptist tradition holds that authority in matters of religion and faith rests first with the individual baptized believer and second with the local congregation of believers — not a religious hierarchy, religious tradition, or even religious texts.
This is commonly known as “Soul Freedom“ and is the belief that everyone is personally and individually responsible for relating to God — no one can “mediate” between humanity and God. Once a person is old enough to choose baptism, they are also old enough to take responsibility for their own relationship with God. Thus, anything that might be considered a “creed” comes from below rather than being imposed from above.
This doesn’t mean that every person is their own church; instead, it means that there can be no voluntary community of faith without free individuals acting autonomously and acting upon their ownconscience. There can be no compulsion in religion: a person comes to a relationship with God freely or not at all. Baptist leader E.Y. Mullins said, “Human personality is the only adequate medium for the self-revlation of a personal God.”
Infant Baptism: This voluntarism is closely connected to the Baptist position on baptism. Baptist churches today can, in part, trace their roots back to the Anabaptist movement of the Protest Reformation. The name anabaptist derives from Greek terms for re-baptism and was originally a epithet and insult but it was eventually accepted as a badge of honor. Baptists believe that it would be inappropriate to baptize a child when it is still too young to freely choose its own path in life.
Evangelism: Baptists believe strongly in the importance of evangelism and missionary work. Sometimes Baptist groups seems to be involved more in evangelism than anything else. This evangelism includes local revival meetings, national revival crusades, and international missionary efforts. Because Baptists believe that a person must freely and voluntarily come into a relationship with God and that without this a person’s soul will be lost, it is only natural that they would focus on spreading their message to everyone.
Pietism: The strain of pietism in the Baptist tradition is also dependent upon Baptist beliefs about voluntarism. Pietism emphasizes a person’s direct encounter with God, something which is thought to protect believers against autocratic and dictatorial powers that would subvert true religion. At the same time, pietism can lead to zealous beliefs that have led to the fracturing of Baptist churches around the world.
Sectarianism: Finally, Baptist sectarianism can be traced directly to Baptist voluntarism. Baptists have traditionally been suspicious any ecumenical movements designed to mediate theological differences between denominations, even when it comes to other Baptists. Despite the existence of many common characteristics, there are still also many differences between the various Baptist churches — differences which would be difficult to overcome even if there were an interest in compromise. Today, for example, the American Baptist Association rejects all ecumenical efforts and objects to Baptist churches that act in a “denomination” rather than “sectarian” fashion.