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Baptist Altar-ations

In his post “Fads and Fixtures: The Seven Deadly Trappings of Evangelicalism [1],” Joe Carter writes that one of the fixtures he finds troubling is the “altar call.” While I too find the altar call methodology troubling, this brings up a larger question in my mind for my own denomination:

Why do so many Baptist churches refer to the front of the church as the altar?

I’ve heard this terminology used in countless Baptist churches, even from pastors who should know better. The last time I checked, transubstantiation [2] was not on any Baptist confessions of faith [3] that I know of. Baptists believe that Christ was sacrificed once for all [4]. In the Lord’s Supper Christ is not continually sacrificed, as Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and others believe. We don’t burn offerings [5], and I haven’t really ever seen any kind of elevated structure [6] other than a pulpit.

It’s clear that in Baptist practice, the term “altar” has become synonymous with the front of the church sanctuary, but why do we retain the term? We’re Baptists, after all. We don’t do altars. Can any of you more studious church historians enlighten me?