Monday, April 24, 2006

Historical Documents: Baptist-Evangelical Cooperation in World Missions, Part 1

In the days ahead, I plan to post a series of historical documents, accompanied by some brief comments of my own, related to a subject that has been on my mind and heart for a long time: the degree to which we as Southern Baptists cooperate or do not cooperate with other born-again evangelical Christians for the cause of world missions. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will know this is not the first time I have written about this subject. I have already approached it from several different angles. While it is true that recent developments related to decisions being taken by the IMB Board of Trustees perhaps have brought these issues to the forefront, for me, they are not the latest "hobby horse" I have decided to ride. They are issues about which I have felt and thought deeply for many years.

I considered the possibility of pasting all of the documents and comments together in one gigantic "mega-post". But I have decided it would be more "user-friendly" to post one document at a time, together with its corresponding comments.

On this first post, I would like to start with what, in my opinion, is the most important "document" of all related to this subject: the words of Jesus in His prayer to the Father in John 17.20-23 (NIV)…

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Now, my comments…

I believe it is important to note the vital link that exists in our Lord’s mind between the matters of world evangelization and the unity of His Body. Biblically, they are not separate issues that can be dealt with separately, but rather go hand in hand. When we think of "strategies for world evangelization", to the extent it is correct to talk in those terms, one of the most important ones of all, if I understand this passage correctly, is working towards a greater unity among all true disciples of Christ.

One of the thorny issues related to this is the many different understandings of what this unity our Lord was talking about really means. The traditional Roman Catholic position, for example, is that we as "Protestants" have been primarily responsible for breaking this unity, when we separated from the hierarchy of Rome. I would argue, however, that it was the Church of Rome that initially caused the schism when it disfellowshipped the Donatists in the time of Constantine, while at the same time opening the door for church fellowship to thousands and thousands who had never been truly born again. In more recent times, the World Council of Churches and other "ecumenical" organizations have placed an emphasis on institutional unity. I believe they, for the most part, are following the same path marked by the Church of Rome, in recognizing adherence to a certain organization, rather than a common relationship with God the Father and His Son Jesus, as the basis for unity.

As Southern Baptists, we do not, for the most part, accept either the Roman Catholic or the World Council of Churches definition of unity. I believe we are correct in taking this position. The problem, many times, however, is that, as a result, we tend to push to the side or minimize this question, which is not one of minor importance for our Lord. It would seem that, as Southern Baptists, we are more comfortable talking about unity in the local church, or even denominational unity, than we are unity in the Body of Christ at large. However, it seems clear to me that Jesus here was not referring primarily to either local church or denominational unity.

The bottom line? If we are really serious about doing the will of God and world evangelization, we will need to, at the same time, be deeply concerned about true, biblical unity of the Body of Christ around the the world, down through the centuries, in whatever denomination or organization it may be found.

More to come…


Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Brother David,

Thanks for working on this. I look forward to reading the whole thing. I agree that unity should come from agreement on the essential truths of our faith as taught in the Bible. We should aspire to unity with like-minded Christian denominations, but not with those that differ significantly from what we hold to be essential.

Love in Christ,


Joel Williams said...

Wow! I think you are on to something. You are going to really ruffle some feathers talking about biblical unity in the body of Christ. Preach on, bro! We're with you. Its been some time since someone in our denomination tied evangelical efforts with biblical unity, and actually mentioned unity in terms of the body of Christ, not just the local church or our denomination. Can't wait to read the rest of the story...

Scott said...

You place on the table an important issue. However, I am not sure that even if the SBC were ready, that the unity itself is ready at hand. As you point out, even in the fourth century, this was already an issue. Sorting out the heresy from the difference of opinion will, as you pointed out, demand of a biblical perspective that some may perceive as too rigid... even if we agree on most everything else. In this light, I think that you chose an appropriate document with which to begin!