Can Baptists Be Catholic? An Evangelical Baptist Perspective

Rhyne R. Putman
Tuesday, November 1st 2022
Nov/Dec 2022

We’re not Baptists yet. We still have a lot of questions.” The couple sitting across from me in the pastor’s study had been visiting our church so long that I had wrongly presumed they were already Baptists who were just new to the area. But over the course of our conversation, I discovered that these thoughtful Christians were from a different tradition. They had clear and pointed questions about what Baptists believe and why. We discussed some of the key differences our respective traditions had about baptism, church governance, and denominational service. At the end of the conversation, we accepted the fact that we had well-informed disagreements, and we closed by affirming one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and praying for one another.

Whether or not this couple will decide to seek out covenant membership with our church is a matter between them and God, but I will always rejoice in having opportunities to fellowship and worship with other committed followers of Jesus. This recognition, I think, is what catholicity looks like in practice. We may have doctrinal disagreements with other believers, but we can always be charitable and gracious in the way we interact with them.

Evangelical catholicity (with a little “c”) is about seeing God at work outside of our particular tribes. Through Scripture and the creeds and confessions of the church, we simply affirm that there is “one holy catholic and apostolic church”—the universal church for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 5:23). Baptists may prioritize local, individual churches, but we also affirm believers from other historically orthodox Christian traditions as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Catholicity, as evangelical theologians have used the term, is both similar to and distinct from ecumenicism in the past. The terms “catholic” and “ecumenical” share a related etymology: both katholikē and oikoumenē describe something universal or worldwide. Both catholic and ecumenical pursuits are about the true Christian church across time, space, and traditional or denominational lines. But ecumenists have often sought visible or institutional unity that blurs, distorts, or discards the theological distinctives of various Christian traditions.[1] Evangelicals in general, and Baptists in particular, are often reluctant about jumping into this kind of uncritical ecumenism.

Baptists disagree about a lot of things, and there is no common view on how Baptists should approach the concept of catholicity. Here I am only offering one potential perspective on what it means to be Baptist and catholic. Many Baptists outright dismiss the idea, concerned that it could lead to the kind of wishy-washy ecumenism that has ruined mainline churches in the West. Other Baptists, usually of a more progressive bent, welcome and embrace something more like mainline ecumenical efforts, even seeking reconciliation between Protestants and Roman Catholics.[2] I belong to a group of evangelical Baptists who “believe that all Christians should pray for and seek Christian unity across ecclesial and denominational lines and that Baptists should not reflexively reject principled, ecumenical dialogue with other Christian traditions.”[3] We also believe that Baptists bring a unique perspective to this conversation—that our distinctives can contribute to the renewal of the broader Christian tradition.[4]


Baptist Distinctives and Catholicity

Those engaged in conversations about catholicity must ask appropriate questions about the aims of such an exercise. If the goal of catholicity is the mutual recognition of other Christians as belonging to true churches and acting peaceably toward them, then Christians ought to aggressively pursue catholicity, seeking what Wesley called “union in affection.”[5] On occasion, this can extend into formal gospel partnerships between Christians of various theological traditions. But if catholicity means organizational unity achieved by abandoning our distinctives, then this is a hill too far.[6]

For Baptists, practices of the local church are not mere adiaphora (i.e., theological matters that make no real difference). We hold deep convictions about what it means to be a member of a church, how one enters its covenant community, and how that church operates under the lordship of King Jesus. These distinct beliefs do not necessarily keep us from cooperating with Christians from other traditions in arenas that advance God’s kingdom or promote the public good. We often practice what Timothy George has called “ecumenism in the trenches” on social and political issues like abortion or biblical marriage.[7] We can also partner with interdenominational parachurch organizations that have shared evangelical commitments. But these Baptist distinctives usually keep us from pursuing more formal associations with non-Baptistic evangelicals.

Regenerate Church Membership

Baptists herald regenerate church membership as the foundation of all church practices. Regenerate church membership means that “a local church’s membership should be comprised only of individuals who provide credible evidence they have repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”[8] Only born-again Christians who have had personal conversion experiences should be counted as members of Christ’s body and the local covenant community. Baptists believe that the pattern of church membership modeled in the book of Acts is that “you must believe before you can belong.”[9] For this reason, Baptists are reluctant to participate in close communion with churches who extend covenant membership to individuals based on familial relationships or national citizenship. However, this does not prevent us from recognizing regenerate Christians in other church traditions.

Believer’s Baptism

Baptists likewise argue that the ordinance/sacrament[10] of baptism is only for those who profess faith in Christ—what is commonly called credobaptism. Those who are Baptist out of family tradition or convenience may be willing to concede this point when asked whether this should be a requirement for covenant membership or communion. We who are Baptist by conviction are less likely to make any such concession. We remain convinced that Scripture gives us only one pattern for baptism: faith in Christ followed by its public profession through water immersion.

Baptists may disagree with other evangelical Christians about the method and proper candidates for baptism, but we have historically agreed with them about its meaning. With other evangelicals, we confess that baptism pictures “the gift of the Holy Spirit, the remission of sins, the washing of sins in the blood of Christ, union with Christ, union with one another, and entry into the visible church.”[11] With the rest of the Christian tradition, we gladly recognize “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).

Congregational Polity and Local Church Autonomy

In Baptist churches, the congregation rules. The decision-making power of a church does not reside with a bishop or a group of elders. Though it employs democratic processes, congregational polity should not be seen simply as a matter of majority rule. The people of God who have covenanted together in a local church are entrusted with seeking out God’s will in decision making for their church. Baptist churches commit their decisions about membership, ministry, discipline, and missions to God’s leadership through his word and his Spirit.


Toward Gospel-Centered Catholicity

Catholicity defined as organizational unity is impossible on this side of eternity for a tradition whose most distinctive ideas are built around the practice of the local church. But catholicity centered around the proclamation of the gospel and the advancement of God’s kingdom is a feasible and desirable goal. This type of catholicity can only strengthen and renew every tradition involved. I want to offer three facets of gospel-centered catholicity that Baptists share with Christians in other reformational traditions. Like a good Baptist preacher, I made sure that they all begin with the same letter!

We Share the Same Gospel

Evangelical Christians of every stripe may disagree about “the hows and the whys of the gospel,” but we all agree about “the who of the gospel” and “the what.”[12] We all agree that sinful people cannot make themselves right before God by their own good works. God has acted to redeem sinful humanity through the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. We may disagree about how the atonement works, but we all affirm that Jesus died for our sins. We may differ on what it means for God to elect us unto salvation or the order of his decrees, but none of us would deny that we have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29 ESV). Furthermore, all reformational churches acknowledge that we are saved by Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, for God’s glory alone.

We Share the Same Great Tradition

Not all Baptists have expressed appreciation for the wider theological tradition of the church. Many have been anti-creedal, in no small part because of a flawed understanding of what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura.[13] But contemporary advocates of Baptist catholicity have argued for a recovery of the broader Christian tradition and the Baptist tradition as part of a two-pronged strategy to renew Baptist life and evangelical Protestantism.[14] We have much to learn from one another.

The Great Tradition is the transmission and reception of biblical truth in the Christian church across time and space. This tradition includes creeds, confessions, liturgy, hymnody, sermons, theological writings, and much more. While Baptists provide only one tributary of this Great Tradition, we all flow from the same stream. All orthodox Christians can celebrate and affirm the ecumenical creeds and the theological consensus of the first five centuries of Christianity (consensus quinquesaecularis).[15] The common object of our worship is the Triune God. We all assert the union of divine and human natures in the person of Jesus Christ, who “for us and for our salvation . . . came down from heaven [and] became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary.” We all believe in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. We all celebrate the Supper (even if we differ about its meaning). We all long for the glorious second coming of Jesus and the bodily resurrection from the dead.

Baptists also share the theological legacy of the Reformation with other evangelical Protestants (Baptist thought has been shaped by both Magisterial and Radical Reformers). Alongside all other reformational churches, we adhere to the supreme authority of divinely inspired and inerrant Scripture (sola scriptura). We also affirm the total depravity of humanity and the need for God’s enabling grace. These elements of consensus illustrate that we are doctrinally united by more than we are divided.

We Share the Same Great Commission

Evangelicals are bound together by the same mission: to reach a world desperately in need of Christ. Our missionary strategies may be different, but we all have the same divinely mandated task (Matt. 28:19–20). It requires urgency and a willingness to work through our secondary differences. The framers of the Lausanne Covenant (1974) clearly stated the connection between evangelical catholicity and the Great Commission:

We affirm that the Church’s visible unity in truth is God’s purpose. Evangelism also summons us to unity, because our oneness strengthens our witness, just as our disunity undermines our gospel of reconciliation. . . . We who share the same biblical faith should be closely united in fellowship, work and witness. We confess that our testimony has sometimes been marred by a sinful individualism and needless duplication. We pledge ourselves to seek a deeper unity in truth, worship, holiness and mission. We urge the development of regional and functional cooperation for the furtherance of the Church’s mission, for strategic planning, for mutual encouragement, and for the sharing of resources and experience.[16]

Jesus himself highlighted the importance of visible unity in mission when he prayed for us to “be one even as we are one . . . so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22–23 ESV).

None of our tribes hold the monopoly on the good news of Jesus, the interpretation of Scripture, or the missionary task. May God grant Baptists and other Christians the kind of gospel-centered catholicity we need to carry out the mission of the kingdom.

Rhyne R. Putman is associate vice president of academic affairs at Williams Baptist University and the author of WhenDoctrine Divides the People of God (Crossway, 2020) and The Method of Christian Theology (B&H Academic, 2021).

1. Rhyne R. Putman, When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 24–27.
2. See Steven R. Harmon, Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2006); Harmon, Baptists, Catholics, and the Whole Church: Partners in the Pilgrimage to Unity (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2021).
3. Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps, “Conclusion: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity,” in Baptists and the Christian Tradition: Towards an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity, ed. Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019), 355.
4. This is related to the mission statement of the Center for Baptist Renewal, where I serve as a fellow. See for a wealth of resources on the topic of Baptist catholicity.
5. John Wesley, “The Catholic Spirit,” J 5:493, proem 4.
6. The helpful categories mutual recognition, conciliar unity, and organic unity appear in Harding Meyer, All May Be One: Perceptions and Models of Ecumenicity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
7. Timothy George, “Catholics and Evangelicals in the Trenches,” Christianity Today 38, no. 6 (May 1994): 16.
8. Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn, and Michael G. Haykin, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 330.
9. Chute, Finn, and Haykin, The Baptist Story, 331.
10. Baptists have historically used both of these terms, though there are theological reasons for the preference of one over the other.
11. Matthew Y. Emerson, “Baptists, Baptism, and the Christian Tradition,” in Baptists and the Christian Tradition, 204.
12. Putman, When Doctrine Divides, 240.
13. For a summary of these views and a critical evaluation of them, see my article, “Baptists, Sola Scriptura, and the Place of Christian Tradition,” in Baptists and the Christian Tradition, 27–54.
14. This is part of the stated purpose of the Center for Baptist Renewal. See “Baptist Catholicity and Renewal,”
15. This term was coined by the Lutheran theologian Georg Calixt (1586–1656).
16. The Lausanne Covenant (1974), art. 7.
Tuesday, November 1st 2022

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