One helpful way to think about Baptist identity is the “Four Freedoms.” Ever since its beginnings in the early 17th century, the Baptist denomination has been committed to a non-coersive, liberty-affirming way of practicing and preaching the Christian faith. The Four Freedoms are:
1) Soul Freedom. This is an affirmation that God created every person with free will, and that every individual has the right and responsibility to respond to God as their own conscience dictates. Because of this belief that a person chooses faith in God on their own time and in their own way, we baptize people only after they have made a personal, conscious decision to follow Jesus Christ and accept his forgiveness for their sins. Soul freedom also refers to our conviction that a person can approach, respond to, and know God without a need for any intermediary (such as a priest). Although Baptists still believe that spiritual guides and the support of a community of faith are essential, we affirm that anyone can talk directly to God.
2) Church Freedom. Baptists believe and practice autonomy in the local churches. Whereas many other denominations have an administrative and leadership hierarchy, Baptist churches are always governed from within at the local church level. We believe that each church has the right and responsibility to make its own decisions regarding what to believe, what to teach, how to practice faith, etc. This is in part because we recognize that communities and cultures differ from each other, and that which is effective and useful in one setting may not be so in another setting. So, organizations like “American Baptist Churches USA” are not authoritative bodies over the local churches, but are free associations of Baptist leaders for the purpose of mutual support and mission.
3) Religious Freedom. Baptists have a proud history of being forerunners in the fight for (and maintenance of) religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Baptists believe that God wants to be the ruler of human hearts, not a ruler of nation-states. We affirm that “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In fact, the earliest Baptists knew what it was like to be a persecuted religious minority because of the religious doctrines ingrained in governments and monarchies. They were persecuted because of their faith, and they wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else. Roger Williams, who established the first Baptist church in America (Providence, RI) was originally banished from Massachutes for his beliefs and later wrote several works in the fight for religious freedom in America. John Leland, a Baptist minister in Virginia in the late 18th century, once met with James Madison and pleaded with him that the new Bill of Rights begin by establishing religious liberty for everyone.
4) Bible Freedom. This last of the four freedoms refers to at least two things in relation to the Bible. First, Baptists believe that the Bible by itself is sufficient for knowing God, Jesus Christ, and what the church and its people should do. The historic Latin term for this is sola scriptura and actually traces all the way back to the Reformation period in Europe. Baptists do not view creeds, catechisms, or any other supporting documents as authoritative for Christian faith and practice. Secondly, Bible freedom refers to the Baptist belief that each person has the right and responsibility to read and interpret the Bible for themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and with the support and teachings of the local church.