Same Difference

or The Practical Expression of Commonality in Primary Doctrinal Truth

Presbyterians and Baptists have a long history of working together. As is God’s way, any new endeavour must take the past into account but not be bound by it. This is a guest post by my friend Matt Carpenter.

The questions surrounding the origins and necessity of denominations have been discussed at great length and I don’t intend on bringing them up here. But it doesn’t mean we have a license to continue without giving it another thought. This isn’t another call for lip-quivering ecumenism. Fellow soldiers in God’s army can learn a lot from one another and the two groups I currently have in mind are Baptists and Presbyterians. Traditionally they have shared a lot in common.

In 1642, Oliver Cromwell led a group of mostly Puritans, Presbyterians, and Baptists against the army of King Charles I. Regardless of one’s opinion of this war, it’s not an exaggeration to say they banded together to gain religious freedom for many in England.

Two years later, Presbyterians drew up the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document they believed declared the doctrines of the Reformers, Church fathers, and apostles. In 1689, the Baptists of London drew up a document that declared their faith. With a few exceptions it was taken directly from the Westminster Confession. This was no accident, for they, “have no itch to clog religion with new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words which hath been, in consent with the Holy Scriptures, used by others before us; hereby declaring, before God, angels, and men, our hearty agreement with them in that wholesome Protestant doctrine which, with so clear evidence of Scriptures, they have asserted.” [1] In other words, they explicitly wanted to express their commonality with the Presbyterians (among others) in primary doctrinal truth.

A little over one-hundred years later, Presbyterians and Baptists in the North American colonies again united against the threat of King George III sending an Anglican Bishop to preside over the colonies. None other than John Adams called this the first spark in the American Revolution. [2] Most of the soldiers in the continental army were Presbyterians and Baptists. What is it that links these two groups together, and has done so for hundreds of years? [3]

The first common conviction is the sovereignty of God. As has already been noted, the London Confession reads almost exactly similar to the Westminster Confession when it speaks of God’s sovereignty in all of life, including salvation. In the 1830’s a segment of Baptists and Presbyterians stood against the forces of liberalism that wanted assert man’s free-will over the sovereignty of God.

Another link is the stance against revivalism during the Second Great Awakening. For the Presbyterians the split was among those who supported the “new measures” of Charles Finney (altar calls, anxious benches, etc.) and those who opposed the emotionalism fanned by some ministers. It resulted in the expulsion of 500 ministers and 550 churches. [4] There was also a split among the Baptists in 1832 who also registered their opposition to the “new measures” of revivalist preachers.

A third area of similarity is the belief in the regulative principle (only God’s word can declare what should go on in worship). Baptists like Charles Spurgeon and Benjamin Keach, along with Presbyterians R.L. Dabney and John Murray taught this. Although the principle is interpreted differently among many, it is still held in some form by conservatives of both denominations.

Although there are many other similarities that could be mentioned, a final common link is the emphasis of the local church. In both the Westminster and London Baptist Confessions, chapter 26, section 1 (referring to the church), says: “Saints by profession, are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; …” (emphasis mine). The authors of these statements realized that this can be done only in the context of the local church.

In addition to these areas there are many more we could observe. But suffice to say, sovereign-grace Baptists and Presbyterians have more in common doctrinally than any other groups.

After understanding the historical similarities between Baptists and Presbyterians, we should also understand that there are things we can learn from one another. This requires us to forgo our denominational arrogance. Once we admit that others might see things that we miss, here are some things we can learn from one another.

The first area we can learn is in evangelism. Calvinistic Baptists were known at one time for their evangelistic zeal. They took the message to the frontier and evangelized Indians, white settlers, and anyone else who crossed their path. The Baptist preacher Isaac McCoy was called the apostle to the Indians. Presbyterians Marcus Whitman and Samuel Kirkland were also known for taking the gospel to the Great Plains.

For the church to grow we can’t just rely on other Christians leaving their churches and joining ours; we must be willing to proclaim the word of God to dry bones and tell them to live. We must believe, just like they did, that God will call His elect and they will believe when the gospel is preached.

We can also learn the importance of applying the Word of God to everything. One of the fallacies of modern thought is that the Bible is only useful in the religious sphere, that is to say, at church and in between your ears. But Jesus is Lord over everything, not just our souls. Because His lordship extends to all things our calling is to cast down every thought and stronghold that exalts itself against the knowledge of God. This is one place we as Baptists can learn from our Presbyterian brethren.

R.L. Dabney spoke of the necessity of understanding science from the perspective of Scripture. In his Systematic Theology he articulates why a literal reading of Genesis 1 is important, and he did it in the face of the growing popularity Darwinism. One quote from him should suffice. “The position to which they [Darwinists] consign God’s word is that of a handmaid, dependent for the validity of the construction to be put upon its words, on their (the scientists’) permission. Now this we boldly assert, is intrinsic rationalism… exalting the conclusions of the human understanding over the sure word of prophecy.” [5]

And who could overlook the ministries of men like Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark who used the sword of God’s Word to dispel humanistic philosophy. And when it comes to law, many are familiar with R.J. Rushdoony and the work he’s done with biblical law, but another man who believed in applying God’s law when possible might surprise you: the Baptist theologian John Gill. In his Body of Doctoral Divinity, Gill said:

“And they are, certainly, the best constituted and regulated governments that come nearest to the commonwealth of Israel, and the civil laws of it, which are of the kind last described… And whereas the commonwealth of Israel was governed by these laws for many hundreds of years, and needed no other in their civil polity, when, in such a course of time, every case that ordinarily happens, must arise, and be brought into a court of judicature; I cannot but be of opinion, that a digest of civil laws might be made out of the Bible, the law of the Lord that is perfect, either as lying in express words in it, or to be deduced by the analogy of things and cases, and by just consequence, as would be sufficient for the government of any nation.”

Suffice to say, these men believed in applying God’s word to everything. If we don’t give the church and those outside the church a vision for life under the Lordship of Christ, they will construct their own vision with whatever materials the world makes available to them.

Another lesson we can learn from our brothers in the past is the need for the church to not forsake its calling to the world. Early Baptists did a great job critiquing the world’s attempts to usurp the roles of the church. [6] But you can’t beat something with nothing. We should know what role the church should play in society, but that’s not enough.

The best way to protect the roles of the church is to step up and begin ministry. Do you visit the orphans and widows, or leave it to the government? Does the local church create tracts and literature or do we leave it to the para-church ministries? These are small steps but we must begin somewhere. Charles Spurgeon operated orphanages, shelters, and food kitchens. When Thomas Chalmers was pastoring in Scotland, the number of poor dramatically decreased because of the local ministries developed. The modern church has surrendered her calling to the state and secular groups. We can’t despair of the position we’re in; we must start wherever we are and be faithful right here.

Last but not least I hope we can learn of the importance of the unity of believers. In England, sovereign grace Baptists were known for being much more open in fellowship than the General Baptists. [7] Charles Hodge and other Presbyterians wrote articles that called for greater fellowship with the saints.

In America, this was one area in which all have struggled. We have long memories and if “your people” did something to “my people” we won’t easily forget it. No one is immune to the disease of disharmony among saints. As I said earlier, those who hold to the Westminster and London Confessions have more in common with one another than they do with some in their own denomination.

Do we really believe iron sharpens iron? Then why do we only listen to those who are shaped in a similar way to ourselves? Baptists have weaknesses; Presbyterians have weaknesses and neither will gain strength without changing our spiritual exercise. This means talking, praying, listening to, and fellowshipping with those outside our local church or denomination. You can say, “I love them.” But how do you practice it? Do we foster relationships with churches which are different from us?

There are two different beliefs Christians hold about the world. One says we should remove ourselves from others and remain as pure as possible while we wait for Jesus to come. This view naturally lends itself to divisions among brethren. The other view says that we are called to manifest the reign of Christ in the world and live as spiritual warriors. This view requires us to fight alongside those who serve the same Lord but differ with us on some matters.

God has called us to grow up into a new man. We can’t return to the “good old days”, whatever those were; we must go on to maturity and this requires us to fight next to those who proclaim the same gospel. It’s time to go to war together again, but this time not with carnal weapons. Our enemy is spiritual and we must fight him with God’s weapons in the power of the Holy Spirit. Victory will not be granted to Baptists or Presbyterians, Methodists or Pentecostals. It will only be granted to the body of Christ, the same body which He will present as a glorious kingdom to His Father on the last day.

[1] Introduction to the London Confession of Faith, 1689
[2] Religion and the American presidency: George Washington to George W. Bush, pg. 7, by Gastón Espinosa
[3] In referring to Presbyterians and Baptists, I’m speaking of Presbyterians who held to the Westminster standards and the Baptists who held to the London Confession of 1689, not just anyone who calls himself by one of those two names.
[4] Crossed Fingers, p. 119.
[5] Dangerous PseudoscienceThe Christian Observer.
[6] The Black Rock Address, 1832.
[7] A History of the Baptists, Robert Torbert.


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2 Responses to “Same Difference”

  • Simon Kennedy Says:

    Thanks for this, Mike. This is a very level-headed bit of work. I think both Baptists and Presbyterians can get a little too excited about their own conclusions (Baptists probably more so!). This sort of catholicity (in the true sense of the word) is much needed.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thank Matt! I be not so level-headed, at least online.