Are Baptists Protestants?

Gerald L. Priest

The answer to that question is a simple yes and no. Some Baptists have suggested that, since their spiritual fathers were not a part of the mainline branches of the Protestant Reformation and therefore did not separate from the Roman Catholic Church as these branches did, they cannot be Protestants. But that is only part of the story.

There is a sense in which Baptists are part of the Protestant effort, that is, of protesting against Roman Catholicism. It is true that Baptists did not originate in the 16th century with the Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican branches of the Reformation, but they nevertheless have identified themselves strongly with the cause of anti-Catholicism. Some of the sternest polemics against the papacy have come from Baptist leaders over the years. Indeed, we can say that Baptists are even more decisively Protestant than the mainline Protestant groups. While the latter have retained some elements of Catholic tradition, such as infant baptism by sprinkling, state involvement in church affairs, sacramentalism, and some form of hierarchialism, Baptists have repudiated these and believe they are more closely aligned to New Testament faith and practice than any of the other groups.

Not only philosophically, but historically, there is a sense in which Baptists are Protestants. Baptists, as a distinct denominational entity, originated in 17th-century England out of the Puritan movement. Both the Particular and the General Baptists opposed what all Puritans contested, that is, a Roman Catholic or episcopal state church. In that regard, Baptists, along with Congregationalists and Presbyterians, are historically part of the English Nonconformist movement (i.e., refusing to conform to Anglicanism). This is definitely in keeping with the genius of Protestantism. In fact, this is carrying Protestantism to its logical end—the complete disavowal of Romanism. In this respect, we may call Puritans (including Baptists) Protestants of the Protestants. They were protesting episcopacy in the “Protestant Church of England” because it retained the “rags of popery.” However, what distinguishes Baptists from the other Nonconformist Puritans is mainly their refusal to baptize infants and their insistence on separation of church and state. But when Baptists left the Puritan movement to venture out on their own as a distinct denomination, they retained much of Puritanism (e.g., its piety, its high moral standards, its Calvinistic theology, and its congregational polity).

There is also a sense in which Baptists are not Protestants. I have already hinted at this in the previous discussion. In the first place, Baptists did not begin with the original Reformation groups. Baptists should not be identified historically with the 16th-century Swiss Brethren Anabaptists, the so-called Radical branch of the Reformation, but they are a part of a broader movement that began simultaneously with the Swiss Brethren in 1525—Free Church Separatism. The concept of an autonomous church with a gathered regenerate membership, practicing believer’s baptism and separated from hierarchical ecclesiastical or governmental control, was at the heart of this movement. It is in stark contrast to the magisterial Reformation of the mainline Protestant groups who retained, to some degree, sponsorship of the state. Secondly, Baptists did not directly or physically come out of the Roman Catholic system unless we acknowledge an indirect departure via Puritan separatism from the episcopal Church of England.

Rather than saying that Baptists are not Protestants, it is better to say that they are not an integral part of the Protestant Reformation, in the technical sense of those terms. That is, Baptists, unlike Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli, have no wish to reform the institutional church, but to restore and retain the doctrines and practices of the primitive New Testament churches. Like the earlier Anabaptists, Baptists have contended that one cannot reform or revive a corpse (the Roman Catholic system), nor do they need some comprehensive networking denominationalism to maintain themselves. Where exists a local assembly of regenerate believer priests, under the headship of Christ and the proper leadership of pastor and deacons, practicing the New Testament ordinances, preaching and obeying the Word of God in purity and clarity, separated from worldliness and external ecclesiastical and civil control, there you have the church, emphatically protesting against the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

Gerald Priest served many years on the faculty of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. He is now retired and lives in Greenville, SC.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)