I had the privilege to be saved and raised in independent Baptist churches. Having now served as the pastor of an unaffiliated Bible-based Baptist church for twenty-eight years, I’m deeply grateful for my heritage.
Why? Because even though other groups do good works, the autonomous Baptists have generally believed in and practiced the ten traits below which are clearly emphasized in Scripture and are timeless in their effectiveness in local church ministry.
1. Compassion for souls
Independent Baptists believe in a real Heaven and Hell, and they believe the Great Commission is Christ’s primary command for the local church today. Independent Baptist churches have had a fervor for soulwinning for many years. This fervor is evidenced by sustained, organized soulwinning outreach with a definitive strategy to reach their communities with the gospel.
I’m thankful for the compassion for souls many of my early mentors modeled as they regularly, faithfully, and fervently shared the gospel in personal encounters and scheduled times of soulwinning. My wife, Terrie, was reached with the gospel by a compassionate bus worker who brought her to church. Compassionate, confrontational soulwinning is all but lost in much of Christendom, but it is needed now more than ever.
But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.—Matthew 9:36–38
2. Biblical missions program
One of the defining characteristics of independent Baptists is our local church-based, rather than denomination-based, missions program. This model follows Acts 13, and it emphasizes missionary accountability to individual local churches. It also teaches that missions is primarily about soulwinning and church planting. It seems to me the definition of missions in many other groups gets more “fuzzy” with every passing year. Missions commitments are sent directly to our missionaries with no funds withheld for denominational overhead.
And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.—Acts 13:3
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.—Matthew 28:19–20
3. Scriptural preaching
I love teaching, but declarative preaching is biblical and needed. If preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, it brings us to a decision. My personal preference is expository preaching, but I love any sermon that is scripturally developed and powerfully delivered. We have all been disappointed by some messages which lacked biblical content, but strong, Bible-filled preaching that sets forth the clear teachings of God’s Word with power and passion is the need of the hour in America today.
I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.—2 Timothy 4:1–2
4. Personal holiness
I’m thankful I was taught that the Christian life is a holy life, that holiness is not only a doctrine but also a lifestyle. While most independent Baptist churches are careful to emphasize growth in grace (2 Peter 3:18) for younger Christians, they have wisely established certain baseline requirements for leaders. Without such standards, the ministry culture of a church rapidly shifts course to something less than a church focused on “standing for truth.” We believe the Holy Spirit imparts grace for modesty, tithing, serving, etc., and I wrote about this in my book Grace for Godly Living. Biblical leadership standards are vital, however, because of the tendency of Christians, including pastors, to resist the Holy Spirit and even pervert the doctrine of grace to adapt to their lifestyle.
But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.—1 Peter 1:15–16
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;—Titus 2:11–12
It has been my observation that pastors who change their ministry philosophy midcourse and become critical of leading a separated life often see the unfortunate consequences of those decisions in their children and grandchildren in the years to come.
In my book The Road Ahead, I noted that there have been times that we independent Baptists have taken pride in standards rather than glorying in the Lord, and that is wrong. The answer, however, is not to discard the doctrines of holiness and separation, but to keep our focus on Christ and pleasing Him.
No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.—2 Timothy 2:4
But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth.—2 Corinthians 10:17–18
5. Conservative music in worship
There are extremes on both sides of the music discussion, but I’m thankful to have been raised with church music that is distinctive from the world’s music. This music is developed with dominant melodies and words that teach sound doctrine. I’m thankful for worship that is God-focused rather than man-focused. I believe a hymn-based music philosophy combined with vibrant new anthems and choruses can be worshipful, exciting, and evangelistic.
God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.—John 4:24
Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;—Ephesians 5:19
6. Liberty under the Headship of Christ
Most of us understand the nature of being independent to mean that no denomination, group, or individual outside of one church has biblical grounds to set direction for another church. As independent, or autonomous, bodies, our practices vary on lesser issues, but our commitment to the fundamentals of the faith, to our Baptist heritage, and our mission for souls remains steadfast.
And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.—Colossians 1:18
For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.—Galatians 5:13
7. Separation from denominations with liberal teachings or alliances
Our early leaders came out of denominations that were denying the foundational tenants of our faith—the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the miracles of the Bible, and other solid, Bible truths. Many of my older friends and mentors personally heard their denominational teachers question the authority of various Bible passages. Most of these denominations still dialog with the World Council of Churches and have ongoing debates within their ranks about doctrinal issues that are clearly settled in Scripture.
Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.—Romans 16:17
8. Willingness to contend for the faith
I’m thankful for the declarative stand preachers have articulated from God’s Word in my life, and I would rather put up with the few contentious voices in one group than align with those who will not stand and contend for truth. We must contend for the inerrancy and preservation of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the local church, and every other fundamental belief of the faith. Furthermore, we must contend on the moral issues of our day, such as biblical marriage and the life of pre-born babies. Many pastors talk about holiness but rarely stand against the prevalent sinful trends of the day.
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.—Jude 1:3
Independent, or unaffiliated, Baptist pastors have historically been unwilling to share platforms with men who fellowship with pastors or groups whose doctrine or practice is not biblical. This practice of ecclesiastical separation is not isolationist superiority, but careful stewardship of testimony and truth. I’m glad I was taught we should love everyone who loves Jesus, and we should yoke together for work with those who have an “orderly walk” that is consistent with clear principles in Scripture (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.—1 Timothy 3:15
9. Loving spirit
I’ve had to deal with some unkind people in my years, but for the most part, I have experienced love and encouragement from independent Baptist men who are trying to reach the world with the gospel. It is a blessing to fellowship with those who share your love for God and increase your passion for souls.
Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;—Romans 12:10
10. Emphasis on Christian Service
Young people raised in independent Baptist churches with passionate preaching, zealous soulwinning, and an intense loving spirit tend to consider serving in the ministry. I believe this is indicative of the fact that many independent Baptist pastors and leaders model joy in ministry and emphasize the importance of living for the eternal.
Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.—Psalm 100:2
And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.—2 Corinthians 5:15
When fervent preaching subsides and worldly worship abounds, young people will have less interest in full time ministry. It is only what is modeled that will be followed, and I believe we must model passionate ministry and pray for laborers in the harvest.
I’ve served in the ministry now for over thirty years and in the same pastorate for almost twenty-eight. With every passing year, I’m increasingly thankful for the heritage of godly leaders who paved the way for me—mentoring and modeling biblical, New Testament church Christian leadership.
I regularly remind my church family that I am still a young pastor! But ever since I crossed my fiftieth birthday a few years ago, the consuming desire of my heart has been to finish well. I want to be faithful to my Lord to the end, and I want to leave a well-defined trail for those who come behind me.
I’m aware of many of the shortcomings in the independent Baptist church movement. But, I’m thankful for every passionate and godly pastor of an unaffiliated Baptist church, who is growing in grace, standing for truth, and humbly serving his Lord, his family, his church, and his community today.
When I come to the end of my race, I want to be able to say with Paul to leaders in a succeeding generation, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).