WHAT IS INDEPENDENT BAPTIST?
Updated and enlarged May 12, 2011
From time to time people write to ask, “What exactly is an independent Baptist church?”
One reason I have never written an article on this subject is the fact that the Independent Baptist movement is not homogenous. There is a great variety of doctrine and practice among Independent Baptist churches.
I have decided, though, to answer the question, plainly acknowledging that the answer will only be my own.
It is doubtless true that if you had 100 Independent Baptist preachers write an answer to this question, you would get 100 different answers!
I would say first that the Independent Baptist movement is large. There are thousands of Independent Baptist churches. There are more in North America than anywhere else, but they are located throughout the world. Yet there is no way to know exactly how many Independent Baptist churches exist, because they have no headquarters and no centralized statistics are kept. There are loose associations of Independent Baptist churches, such as the Southwide Baptist Fellowship and various regional fellowships, and there are Independent Baptist mission boards that some of the Independent Baptist missionaries are associated with, and the churches that participate in those organizations could be counted to some degree if one were to go to the great effort that would be required to collect such statistics (though they don’t all keep statistics!). A significant percentage of Independent Baptist churches, though, do not appear on the report of any association, fellowship, mission group, or other type of organization.
Regardless, the number of Independent Baptist churches is pretty large. It was estimated at 10,000 in the 1970s, and the number has increased much since then. Some American cities have 50-100 and more Independent Baptist churches.
WHAT DOES INDEPENDENT BAPTIST MEAN?
At the root, the term independent Baptist simply describes churches that are Baptist in doctrine and independent in polity. An Independent Baptist church is a Baptist church that is not affiliated with denominational structures such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Church, and the General Association of Regular Baptists.
For the most part Independent Baptists are very committed to sound Baptist doctrine. Until the last decade or so most of them were very separatistic. Typically, they are conservative in issues of dress and music. Typically they are committed to the King James Bible and its underlying Greek and Hebrew texts. Typically they are aggressively evangelistic and are missions oriented (meaning worldwide church planting).
The Independent Baptist churches doubtless make up the largest body of fundamentalist or separatist churches in the world.
The Independent Baptist churches support thousands of missionaries, and they support them directly rather than through a denominational machine. The Independent Baptist churches know their missionaries personally and each congregation chooses which ones to support, receives their missionary reports and prays for them. An article in the April 15, 1998, issue of the Baptist Bible Tribune entitled “Leading in Missions” notes that the number of Independent Baptist foreign missionaries exceeds the number of foreign missionaries of the Southern Baptist Convention. The report is based on research which appears in the 1998-2000 Mission Handbook (17th edition) combined with additional research done by the Baptist Bible Tribune. The combined research tallied the foreign missionaries that work with 16 agencies identifying themselves as Independent Baptist: Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI), Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), Baptist Mid-Missions, Baptist International Missions Incorporated (BIMI), Central Missionary Clearinghouse, Baptist World Mission, World Baptist Fellowship, Evangelical Baptist Missions, Macedonia World Baptist Missions, Maranatha Baptist Missions, Independent Baptist Fellowship International, Baptist Faith Missions, International Baptist Missions, Baptist Missions to Forgotten Peoples, Baptist Evangelistic Missions Association (BEMA), and Fairfax Baptist Temple Missions. The total number of foreign missionaries associated with these agencies is 3,640. The total number of foreign missionaries with the Southern Baptist Convention was 3,482. In fact, the number of Independent Baptist foreign missionaries is actually much higher than the 3,640. There are Independent Baptist missions agencies not counted in this tally, and there are very many independent missionaries who work directly out of their home churches and who are not associated with any other agency. I personally know many dozens of such missionaries, and there are doubtless hundreds of them. Therefore, the total number of independent Baptist missionaries is at least 4,000.
Independent Baptist churches operate many Bible schools, colleges, and seminaries. Most are small institutions, running from 25 to 200 students, but some, such as Crown College in Powell, Tennessee, and West Coast Baptist College in Lancaster, California, are fairly large.
Independent Baptist churches frequently operate their own Bible institutes. Some pastors write their own materials, while others use published curriculums such as Bible Baptist Publications, Way of Life Literature, Crown Publications, and Landmark Baptist Publications.
Independent Baptists typically avoid the public school system and train their children either through private church schools or home schools.
DIFFERENCES AMONG INDEPENDENT BAPTISTS
There are debates and differences among Independent Baptists in such matters as music, dress standards, the Bible version-text issue, Calvinism, Baptist briderism, the practice of communion, alien immersion, repentance and evangelistic practices, church growth practices, and ecclesiastical separation; but there are no debates to speak of so far on theological liberalism (except that we believe the acceptance of modern textual criticism is a deep capitulation to modernism), the infallibility of the Bible (except there is a question as to whether we have an infallible Bible anywhere today), female preachers, homosexuality, charismaticism, evolution, or abortion.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to the definition of Baptist itself, with a minority being Landmarkers or Baptist Briders and the majority rejecting that position. There are quite a few churches that are basically Independent Baptist in doctrine and practice but don’t have “Baptist” in their name.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to the definition of the church, with some holding to a “universal church” position and others holding to a “local church only” position.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to election and “sovereign grace,” with a minority being various types of Calvinists while probably the vast majority rejects Calvinism entirely.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to the practice of communion; some are open (anyone can partake), some close (church members and invited friends can partake), some closed (only church members can partake).
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to evangelism, some practicing what I call Quick Prayerism, being very quick to lead people in a sinner’s prayer, typically neglecting the issue of repentance, and counting people as converts and giving them assurance who have “prayed the prayer” regardless of whether or not there is any real evidence of salvation. Others are much more careful in evangelism, taking more time to present the gospel and requiring and looking for a life-changing repentance.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to the definition of alien baptism, with some holding that only a “Baptist baptism” by their particular definition is authentic while others hold that any baptistic baptism is acceptable.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to pastoral authority, with some holding to a lordly dictatorial style, requiring “unquestioning loyalty” of the people, while others hold to a much more humble and scriptural approach. There are even Ind. Baptists, though in the extreme minority, who practice a plurality of pastors.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to “standards” of living for church members and workers. This variety has occurred largely only within the last 15 years, with some holding a very strict and “old fashioned” doctrine of separation from the world--modest apparel, warnings against unwholesome television, movies and pop music, no drinking, smoking, gambling--and with others today holding a very contemporary position with little concern for such things, and with every degree of position in between these two poles.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to the Bible version-text issue, with some holding a Peter Ruckman position that the KJV itself is infallible and unchangeable and even “advanced revelation” over the Greek and Hebrew, and with many others holding to the King James Bible as an accurate and lovely translation of the preserved Greek and Hebrew texts, and with others using the New King James Bible or the New American Standard Version or other modern versions and believing that the version-text issue is unimportant.
There is variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to ecclesiastical separation, with most being purposefully separated from Roman Catholics, New Evangelicals, Charismatics, Contemporary Christian Music, and such, but with many others today moving toward a more tolerant New Evangelical outlook and an affinity toward “conservative evangelicals.”
There is a variety among Independent Baptists pertaining to the Church Growth movement (e.g., Rick Warren, Bill Hybels), with some being strictly opposed to it and others moving in that direction, using their books, sending staff members to their conferences, etc.
A GREAT CHANGE OCCURRING AMONG INDEPENDENT BAPTISTS
I need to emphasize that a great change is occurring among Independent Baptist churches. I was converted in 1973 and joined an Independent Baptist church a couple of months later, so I have observed the movement for 38 years. I have preached in about 500 churches in 16 countries and I get continual feedback from Independent Baptists by e-mail, and it is not the same movement today by any stretch of the imagination. From my perspective, the movement overall is losing its heart and soul, which is separation and a real zeal for truth and holiness. That is what once set the Independent Baptist movement apart from the Southern Baptists. I have often pointed out that it is one thing to believe the truth and it is entirely another thing to have a zeal for it and to be willing to fight for it and to separate from that which is contrary to it. That is the spirit described in Psalm 119:128: “Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.” Not only did David esteem ALL of God’s Word to be right, he hated EVERY false way. That is the Acts 20:27/Jude 3 edition of Christianity! Having grown up in Southern Baptist churches that were worldly and lackadaisical about the truth, I was excited in the 1970s to find churches that had at least a semblance of biblical zeal. I am very sad to say that this is rapidly fading away from Independent Baptists as a whole, though I thank God that there are still many Independent Baptist churches that maintain it.
I sent this article to several preacher friends, and one replied with the following comment:
“As you well know, many Independent Baptist churches, are buckling to the carnal attitudes that are so prevalent in the world around us. One of our local Independent Baptist churches turned away from the King James Bible years ago, adopted CCM more recently, and now I understand they have changed their name. Another church, as I shared with you, has been propagating Lordship salvation and has become a recycling center where the same people are saved over and over again.
“In my younger years, most times you could associate the name Independent Baptist with a solid Bible believing church with good standards. Now, this is not the case in many locations.
“When in Kentucky a few years ago, we had difficulty finding any Independent Baptist churches in the area where we were staying. We went searching on Saturday and finally found a Southern Baptist Church that was having a work day. I asked if they knew where we could find an Independent Baptist church. They were very kind and gave us directions to the only one in the area. When we arrived at the church on Sunday, almost everyone was dressed like the world. I was shocked when the mixed adult Sunday School teacher was a woman. I was curious to see what we had gotten into, so we stayed. She had the Enoch of Genesis 4 and the Enoch of Genesis 5 being the same person. I sat there squirming as long as I could take it before I corrected her. I must say she was very gracious. By now, I was almost wishing we had gone to the Southern Baptist Church. During the Morning Worship Service, the Pastor was swaying to the praise and worship music. There was no praise team, only canned music. After a less than enlightening message, we finally snuck out during the final prayer.
“I believe your article is well done as you tackled a very difficult topic. If there is a Biblically solid Independent Baptist church in the area a believer lives in, he should pray for it daily and praise God for it.”
The bottom line is that Independent Baptists are independent! Each gives account to its one head Jesus Christ. We have no desire to be independent of Him! Independent Baptists fellowship with other likeminded churches but they are not yoked together in any organizational sense with other Independent Baptists who might hold a different doctrine or practice.
WHAT ABOUT ME: WHAT KIND OF INDEPENDENT BAPTIST AM I?
Some might wonder where I personally fit in with the Independent Baptist churches. The answer is that I have been a member of Independent Baptist churches since I was saved in 1973. The first church I joined was Bartow Bible Baptist Church, a storefront IB church in Bartow, Florida (now defunct). Ever since then I have been a member of an IB church.
At the same time, I am very much on the periphery of the IB church movement today. I could not support probably 90% of the Independent Baptist churches, and they probably would not support me. Most of them do not stand where I stand on a variety of issues I consider important. I have made these clear in my books and articles. I fear that Independent Baptist churches in general, as a movement, are biblically shallow, frightfully uneducated on serious issues; idolatrously man-centered, carnal, and hypocritical. Some are near cult-like in granting unquestioning loyalty to a man. Many practice a Quick Prayerism type of “soul winning” that inoculates more people to genuine salvation and thus damns more people to hell than the number of those that are truly “won.” Many hold to a goofy Ruckmanite belief that the KJV itself was given by inspiration, is advanced revelation, and is itself the unchangeable Word of God, confusing dots over i’s and crosses over t’s in English with the jots and tittles of Hebrew, though they refuse to tell us which edition of the KJV is absolutely infallible. Many Independent Baptist churches are no different in character today than the nearly lifeless Southern Baptist church I grew up in: they don’t believe in separation; in fact they hate and ridicule separation; they love the world and its pop culture and would hate any preacher that tried to reprove them; most of the young people appear by all biblical signs to be lost and the leaders and people are unconcerned because “they’ve prayed the prayer”; the preaching is powerless; the vision and passion for Christ’s Great Commission is almost non-existent.
But I thank the Lord that there are many exceptions to this when it comes to the individual assemblies. I know some truly godly Independent Baptist churches that are not biblically shallow; that are careful about presenting the gospel to the unsaved, seeking genuine conversions and not mere professions; that are not near-cultic or idolatrous in regard to pastoral authority, honoring the pastor after a scriptural fashion but not putting him on an untouchable pedestal; that are striving for true godliness and not mere conformity to a list of external standards; that establish and test standards by biblical principles rather than by mere tradition; that are trying to produce real disciples for Christ rather than religious clones; that don’t have their heads in the sand but are striving to educate the people properly about major issues affecting us today; that are not blushing in their stand for separation but are bold and unapologetic.
Candidly, many times I have wanted to “leave” the IB movement (and there are many IBaptists that wish I would), but there is nowhere else to go today, as far as I know. I am a Baptist by conviction. I’m definitely not a Protestant of any sort. I believe in the absolutely autonomy of the assembly. I am a separatist by deep biblical conviction, and there are many Independent Baptists that share my separatist convictions, which is almost unheard of anymore within “evangelicalism” or any other “group.” There are many Independent Baptist churches in which I can preach everything I stand for (and it is a long list!) and get a hearty amen rather than get shouted down and kicked out!
So there is no other “place” to go. There is no other “movement” to join. I don’t need a movement, anyway, and don’t want a movement. The Lord’s apostles didn’t start a movement. They started New Testament churches. All I need is fellowship with likeminded brethren and individual churches, and I find plenty of that among the small percentage of Independent Baptists that I support.
As I have said, if I were someone who lives in a place where there is not a truly sound, spiritually-healthy, godly, non-cult-like independent Baptist church, I would try to find a way by all means to pull up roots and move. The church is that important, and the right church is that important. (If you are willing to make such a move and would like some counsel on where to go, we would be glad to try to help you. Just give write us an e-mail.)
The bottom line is that I don’t have to agree with most Independent Baptists. As an Independent Baptist I have the liberty to fellowship with the 10% or whatever that I do agree with and ignore the rest! Independent Baptist is not a denomination.