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What Does the Term Baptist Mean?

Written By Timothy Fish

Published 9/4/2007

And Answers to Other Questions.

Have you ever thought about the meanings of the names on church signs? Believe it or not, they are more than just a bunch of letters that are strung together. Take the name Catholic, for example. Catholic is another term for universal. Catholics believe that there is only one church and the Pope leads that church. The Lutherans were started by Martin Luther, so they are call Lutherans. The Pentecosts believe that the church started on the day of Pentecost, so they are called Pentecosts. Every name has an origin and a meaning. The term Baptist also has an origin, but Baptist churches often have more than one term that is used to describe them. Letís take a closer look at some of these names.


The term Baptist comes from the bible. It is used to refer to John the Baptist who was one who baptized. Dip a person or something else into water or something else. While John was called a Baptist, we cannot assume that the early Christians were also called Baptists. The term Baptist probably comes from the term anabaptist which came from the term ana baptist. Both of these terms were used to refer to those churches who refused to accept the baptism of some of the churches they disagreed with and rebaptized believers. There are various reasons why some churches did this, but many of them did it because they were unwilling to accept infant baptism or did not believe that the person was saved at the time of baptism. Baptist church still have this practice today.


This is a term that I have heard misused. I have heard it used to distinguish between the Southern Baptists and the BMA and perhaps the ABA. I will cover these terms in a moment. Churches in any of these three organizations, as well as other, can correctly be called Missionary Baptists and many of their churches still have this term on their church sign. The term missionary Baptist began to be used over a hundred years ago as a way to distinguish between those churches that believed that we are to be doing missions work and those who believed that we should not. Anyone who knows anything about these three organizations knows that their heart is in missions. They may disagree on other things, but not on that. You will find missionary Baptist churches in all three organizations and among some independent Baptists.

The terms primitive and hardshell are terms that have been used to describe those churches that are doctrinally opposed to doing mission work. Often, those who hold to these beliefs are Calvinists that believe that those God will save will be saved and those that God has not chosen to save will be lost, independent of the actions of the churches.

ABA, BMA, Southern Baptist Convention

American Baptist Association (ABA), Baptist Missionary Association (BMA) and Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are terms that are also commonly misused. Some people treat this as the term by which they refer to their denomination. These three terms refer to associations. These associations have a very similar purpose and structure and some churches may be members of more than one of these association. The purpose of a Baptist association is to provide a means for churches with similar beliefs and goals to cooperate in the support of missions, to provide resources for the growth of the churches and to provide a structure for fellowship among the churches. Some people think that the SBC is unique because it is a convention rather than an association. The convention is the annual meeting in which the churches meet to conduct business. The ABA and the BMA have a convention as well, but they are careful not to call it that. The difference between the groups is primarily size and some differences of opinion. The ABA and the BMA are a result of the Landmark split that occurred about one hundred years ago. The group that split from the Southern Baptist back then later split and the BMA was formed. My understanding is that the later split was an issue of how the votes were counted at the annual meeting rather than an issue of doctrine.


All Baptist churches are independent, but some are more independent than others. There are a couple of reasons why a church might have the word independent on the church sign. If a church is not a member of a Baptist association then it might choose to put the term on the sign. The church may have no issue with joining an association, but for some reason it has not. Some churches are independent because they believe that a church should not be a member of an association or some other organization. Even the churches that believe this way may be involved in some kind of organization. Unlike the ABA, BMA and SBC, which are associations of churches, independent Baptist churches may have pastors who are involved in an association of pastors. In some cases, the pastor can choose to send a church member to attend the convention in his place.

General and Freewill

General Baptists and Freewill Baptists differ from most Baptists because they do not believe in the security of the believer, though I have heard that some General Baptist preachers have begun to teach security. The term general comes from the term general atonement. The basic belief is that the death of Jesus on the Cross paid for all of the sins of the world rather than just those that accept him. Carried to its full extent, this belief results in the belief that it is possible to loss oneís salvation through sinning because it requires that a person born after Jesus died be born without sin, then that person losses his salvation when the first sin is committed. A person is saved when he repents, but if he does not live a good life then he risks losing his salvation.

The Freewill Baptists also believe that it is possible to lose oneís salvation, but they believe that a person has the freewill to accept Christ and is able by freewill to once again reject Christ. A person who later rejects Christ by some means is once again lost.


The term reformed is a relatively new term that is used in reference to Baptists with Calvinist beliefs. In some ways, the term is similar in meaning to hardshell or primitive, but reformed baptists may be less Calvinistic in their beliefs and may even be in support of missions.

Linking Them Together

Often, these terms are linked together on a church sign, so a person might find something like Bethel Landmark Missionary Baptist Church on a sign. Some of the terms do not mix very well, so you would not find something like Bethel Reformed Freewill Missionary Baptist Church unless the church is thoroughly confused, which is definitely a possibility.

There has been more of a trend to shorten the names of Baptist churches in recent years. You may find churches that hold to the doctrines that these terms imply that have removed most of the words from the sign, so the Bethel Landmark Missionary Baptist Church that was mentioned before may now be called Bethel Church and still hold to the same doctrines as before. In such a case, it is necessary to read the churchís doctrinal statement to determine what it believes.