Baptists did away with various traditional distinctions of Christian life in their beginnings.
Although practicing ordination, we denied it established any set-apart hierarchy within the life of the church.
We also rejected the traditional Roman Catholic practice of recognizing a particular consecration of certain people, clerical or lay, to “religious life” characterized by poverty, chastity and obedience.
This was all narrated as a rejection of priesthood and of the religious life, and, historically, we generally accepted those characterizations as adequately clear accounts of our particular belief and practice.
In recent decades, however, a number of us have habitually resisted the first: we do not reject or abolish the ordained priesthood, as Baptists; Christ has made us together a royal priesthood (see 1 Peter 2:9).
So a fine contemporary Baptist slogan insists that our ecclesiology is about “abolishing the laity,” which catches something vital of my understanding of Baptist ecclesiology.
The priestly office, of holding God up to the world and holding the world up to God, is one we believe all Christians corporately share.
Baptism is an act of ordination and, other than (arguably) the catechumenate, there is no order of laity in Baptist ecclesiology.
Now, of course, this conclusion is not a claim that baptism and membership of a Baptist church makes someone a priest in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church would understand the word.
Essentially, in common with other churches of the Protestant Reformation, we reject that understanding of priesthood as unhelpful.
Rather, Baptist conceptions are based on the thought of “if your ecclesiology is based on a clerical-lay distinction, then you will better understand the inner logic of our tradition if you think of us as abolishing the laity, than if you think of us as abolishing the clergy.”
The arguments of Robert Song’s recent book, “Covenant and Calling,” have led me to reflection on the tradition of the religious life.
Although Song does not mention the religious life, he is attempting to imagine a form of covenanted and fruitful faithfulness that is not marriage, which, to me, necessitates reflection on the religious life.
One result of my reflections is a further recharacterization of Baptist ecclesiology. I do not think our vision abolishes the religious life.
Rather, if we have to work with the religious-secular distinction, I think a Baptist vision of the church abolishes the secular life.
Developed Catholic understanding has, as its first distinction, the existence of the “consecrated life” rooted in baptism and dedicated totally to God through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Within this basic practice, many different forms of consecrated life are acknowledged: hermits, consecrated virgins and widows, secular institutes, apostolic societies and religious life.
The first two are by nature solitary, and so fairly antithetical to Baptist visions of life and holiness.
Secular institutes are a bit of a historical anomaly, essentially being a way of recreating religious life in post-revolutionary France, where religious orders were for a while banned.
The latter two are more interesting. Apostolic societies “whose members without religious vows pursue the particular apostolic purpose of their society, and lead a life as brothers or sisters in common according to a particular manner of life, strive for the perfection of charity through the observance of the constitutions” (Catechism 930).
The religious life is “distinguished from other forms of consecrated life by its liturgical character, public profession of the evangelical counsels, fraternal life led in common, and witness given to the union of Christ with the Church” (Catechism 925).
These are not native Baptist definitions or distinctions, as Baptists would not understand the core evangelical counsels to be poverty, chastity (defined as celibacy) and obedience although in each case we might point to a close analogue.
That said, if the distinction between the “consecrated life” and another sort of life is a commitment to total dedication to God and a pursuit of perfection intended to demonstrate the glory of the world to come, then there is little question that the standard vision of Baptist life, “a congregation of saints, walking together in visible holiness” is more closely aligned with this vision of consecration than with its opposite.
Further, Baptist life is irreducibly communal: We watch over each other within the congregation; challenge, call and spur one another on to holiness; confess to each other; and pray God’s forgiveness for each other.
Baptist life is also irreducibly missional, and so “apostolic,” in the terms of the catechism. Our baptism is (among other things) a solemn and irrevocable vow to serve Christ in this way, within the community of the church.
Therefore, a Baptist church is much more nearly a form of religious life, or perhaps an apostolic society, than it is a form of secular life.
In refusing to have set-apart religious orders, we do not abolish the consecrated life. Rather, we abolish the secular life.
Stephen Holmes is senior lecturer in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Shored Fragments, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveRHolmes.