When I was young, the classic description of Baptist Distinctives was based on the acronym BAPTISTS. While it in no way sums up all of the disctinctive features of the Baptists, it is a good start. (Note: distinctives does not mean that no other group has some of these characteristics. It is a positive terms of what Baptists hold to not what other groups don’t hold to.)
B – Biblical Authority for faith and practice
A – Autonomy or self-government of each Baptist church
P – Priesthood of All Believers in Jesus Christ as a personal Saviour
T – Two Ordinances: Believer’s Baptism The Lord’s Table
I – Individual Soul Liberty of the believer
S – Saved, Baptized Church Membership
T – Two Offices of the local church: Pastor and Deacon
S – Separation of Church and State
Biblical Authority for Faith and Practice. Baptists do not focus much on church history or historical practice, or new “revelations/prophecies”, or on authority/special knowledge of religious leaders, or on philosophies or intellectualism of the moment. The Bible is the primary source of knowledge for Christian faith and practice of Baptists.
Flexibility. One might think that Baptists really shouldn’t change very much if the Bible (an unchanging revelation) is the guide. However, there have been a lot of changes over the years. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the defocus on church history and the words of historical Baptist leaders means that there is less excess baggage of rules and traditions to deal with. So, for example, Baptists can have a great deal of respect for the Charles Spurgeon (a great Baptist religious leader of the 1800s) without the feeling that one must agree with him in doctrine or in practice. Second, while Baptists have always sought to mimic the primitive New Testament church (especially 1st century Ephesus), there is the recognition that many practices of the primitive church were contextually or culturally driven. So Greek does not have to be the language of the Baptist church, and music doesn’t have to mimic the music of the ancient church.
Risk. The inattention to history of the church can lead to a certain “making it up as we go.” While various other denominations/sects/cults bring in their own revelations and interpretations, Baptists are often prone to fall prey to these because they lose the wisdom of centuries of godly wisdom. While Baptists focus (I believe correctly) on the Bible, that does not mean that Clement, Policarp, Irenaeus, Timothy of Seleucus, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and so forth are without wisdom and value. Showing more respect for church history and recognition that God has worked with the church throughout the ages should minimize the the drifting into religious fads of the moment.
Autonomy or Self-government of each local Baptist church. Baptist churches may join together into conventions, fellowships, associations, and denominations. However, each local Baptist church is independent. As such, each church can act independently from any hierarchy that it exists in. A church that drifts too far in belief or practice can be removed from the association of other Baptist churches, but they can not be closed down or forced to comply.
Flexibility. The autonomy of the local church has been a big source for innovation and ministerial flexibility. However, the interpretation has also been held flexibly. Despite autonomy, most Baptist churches have chosen to fellowship with others of like faith. Additionally, most have found it useful to join together for activities that the local church is ill-equipped to handle. Cross-cultural missions is one of these.
Risk. While hierarchical church structures can be a hindrance, they can also help at times. Getting Baptist churches to work together collaboratively is often like herding cats. The challenge is to harness the innovation and freedom inherent in autonomy while still gaining the benefit of collaboration. In some cultures this balance seems to be easier to achieve than in others. Additionally, it is often difficult to even say what a Baptist believes because any group can call themselves Baptist (no trademark on the name and no formal creed).
Priesthood of all believers in Jesus Christ as Personal Savior. Each person can go to God without going through an intermediary such as a religious professional. As such, there is no priests in Baptist churches. Likewise, the pastors or churches are not needed as an umbrella of grace.
Flexibility. The removal of the necessity of religious professionals is useful missionally especially where church multiplication is moving faster than there are professionals to lead. However, Baptist churches do not reject the value of trained religious professionals. As such, Baptists are able to move fairly easily between structures that are guided by religious professionals and those that are layleader driven. Also lessening the uniqueness of religious leaders increases the uniqueness and importance of each individual member.
Risk. Priesthood of all believers can lead to an unhealthy over-emphasis on individualism. This does not work as well where communalism is key, or where there are group conversions. Even where individualism is appreciated, problems can still occur because the value of the church as a community or family of faith is deemphasized or even ignored. Also, deemphasis on religious professionals can remove a useful stabilizing influence in the church.
Two Ordinances: Lord’s Supper and Believer’s Baptism. Baptists consider Lord’s Supper and Baptism as symbols not purveyors of grace. As such they are valued for their symbolism and as a reminder of Christ’s work in our lives and our coming together as a community. Other traditional activities may be valuable but are not considered to be essential or commanded by God. of these Ordinances are for believers. As such, for example, they are not for infants.
Flexibility. Since there are only two rites that are commanded, and the exact method of carrying them out is not absolutely dictated, there is a lot of room for flexibility of worship and rite in the church from one culture to another.
Risk. While the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are considered the only two religious rites commanded by God, there is a tendency of Baptists to interpret that as meaning that other potential religious rites are bad. Baptists tend to reject much symbolism. They also, in a related manner, tend towards open worship rather than liturgy. This can hurt in many cultures where literacy is low, or where symbols and rites are more highly valued.