James L. Evans|
A vision of diverse Baptist unity
The newly elected general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Rev. Neville Callam, is an optimist if nothing else. He is calling on Baptists worldwide to unite around the cause of missions and evangelism.
In an interview with the Christian Post Callam said, “There’s a crying need for all Christian communions to live out a life of unity, as a way of modeling to the world what it means to live in a united life despite your diversities.”
The Baptist World Alliance is a fellowship of Baptists from around the globe. There are about 37 million Baptists worldwide. There are 69,000 BWA churches in the U.S. alone. They are a diverse bunch and represent a wide array of theological and social viewpoints. As a result, seeking unity in the midst of this diversity is going to be difficult. According to Callam, the differences among Baptist groups, “sometimes challenges the unity that we want to express to the world.”
He may have in mind a particular instance of disunity. In 2003 the BWA voted to accept the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as a member group. The Fellowship was formed by disaffected moderate Baptists after fundamentalists took over all the major boards and commissions of the SBC. While not technically a denomination, the BWA felt the Fellowship was significant enough to be included as a member.
After the decision to accept the Fellowship group, leaders in the SBC began accusing the BWA of drifting toward liberalism. They began reducing financial support immediately, and completely stopped all monetary aid in 2005. Leaders in the SBC proceeded to form their own international fellowship to connect with likeminded conservative evangelicals worldwide.
What is ironic about all this is that it was global missions that held the Southern Baptist Convention together for more than a century. Baptist historian Bill Leonard describes in his book, “God’s Last and Only Hope,” how a wide range of biblical and theological positions were held in a fragile unity in the SBC by a common commitment to missions.
The idea of mission work was so broad and diverse that everyone could get their hands on a piece of it. Those who were committed to starting new churches and conducting aggressive evangelistic campaigns found a warm reception among Southern Baptists. Those with a sense of social justice who wanted to dig wells or feed the hungry or provide medical services, also found a home among SBC missions.
It was a tent that was able to house a diverse family.
In the late 1970s the focus began to shift away from missions as the defining characteristic for Southern Baptists. In its place grew a clamoring demand for theological conformity, especially as it relates to the Bible. A group of well-organized conservatives used the issue of biblical inerrancy and the boogeyman of liberals teaching in SBC colleges and seminaries as a wedge to gain control of the denomination. Moderates were denied a voice, and the denomination took a hard turn to the right that is still pretty much in place today.
So Callam may have his hands full trying to herd this bunch of Baptist cats. So long as missions remain subordinate to theological conformity, at least one group of Baptists is not going to participate. Which is sad given what Jesus seemed to think was important. His time was spent lifting the fallen and giving hope to the needy.
God knows the world could use some of that right now.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.