Two decades of openness to things ecumenical were launched in 1889 by T. T. Eaton, editor of the Kentucky Baptist state paper, The Western Recorder, and pastor of the Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville. Although Episcopal Bishop Charles H. Brent is usually named as the one who first proposed a Faith and Order Conference at the close of the 1910 International Missions Conference, Eaton had made the same proposal eleven years earlier. In an editorial discussing the broadening interest in Christian unity, he stressed that the only path to Christian unity was on the basis of scripture. Therefore, he proposed that “representative men and competent scholars” from the various Christian denominations come together to “consider the differences of belief from the Bible standpoint.” The next summer at the 1890 annual meeting of the S.B.C., the Convention adopted a resolution presented by Eaton suggesting that such a meeting of representative scholars be held, and that the results “be widely published in all denominational papers, so that the Christian public may be thoroughly informed” and that “progress may be made toward true Christian union.” (p. 50)I think it is important to point out that when I (and I believe many others like me) talk about Baptist cooperation with other Evangelicals in World Missions, I am not talking about ecumenism in the same way Iglehart (and others like him) talk about it. I am talking about cooperation (not ecclesiastical union) with other evangelical groups (not Roman Catholics or liberal Protestants). I certainly do not believe we need to cooperate in evangelism with groups whose official teachings would not lead you on the path to salvation (by grace through faith alone).
In 1904, the Convention declined to become involved in the preliminary efforts that led to the formation of the Federal Council of Churches. (p. 51)
The Foreign Mission Board had been a member of the interdenominational Foreign Mission Conference of North America since 1893, but statements adopted in the 1910’s revealed their rising doubts of the value of this ecumenical linkage. After the S.B.C. action in 1919, they stopped sending representatives to the conference that same year. (p. 53)
In 1932, and again in 1937, the Convention declined to send “delegates” to the upcoming World Conference on Faith and Order, citing that the S.B.C. had no ecclesiastical function.
The Foreign Mission Board in 1938 began sending representatives again to the Foreign Mission Conference of North America and continued to do so until dropping out when the Conference went into the N.C.C.C. in 1950.
Having established a precedent in both position and rationale in declining to join conciliar forms of ecumenism, the Southern Baptist Convention used the same pattern in 1938, 1940, and 1948 statements. The 1938 statement was almost a copy of the 1914 Pronouncement. The 1940 and 1948 statements declined invitations to consider membership in the World Council of Churches. (p. 54)
A third event in 1965 that would have a great effect on the future of S.B.C. relationships with other Christians was the creation within the Home Mission Board of a Department of Work Related to Nonevangelicals. This department had an initial focus on four groups: Catholicism, Judaism, world religions, and sectarian movements. Its intent was primarily apologetics, but the writings of its first director, Joseph R. Estes, showed a concern for accuracy and irenicism, especially with Catholics. Baptist publications sought to interpret the new initiatives of Roman Catholics after Vatican II, and to address ecumenical subjects. The interest in ecumenism was further illustrated by the founding of an Ecumenical Institute in 1968 by Wake Forest University, a Baptist school. Brooks Hays, former Arkansas member of Congress, was named its first director. In 1969, the Ecumenical Institute conducted the first Roman Catholic-Southern Baptist dialogue. In their summer meeting of that year, the Baptist World Alliance executive committee established a new standing Commission on Cooperation with Other Christians. Thus in the denomination and within the wider Baptist family, Southern Baptists came to look more carefully at the ecumenical challenge. (p. 56)
Since 1975, the Department of Interfaith Witness of the Home Mission Board has promoted two-church dialogue between SBC and Roman Catholic local congregations. A growing number of churches each year have engaged in these two-session meetings, which include a typical worship service in each congregation followed by a fellowship hour and presentations on the distinctive beliefs of each communion. A follow-up committee representing the two congregations plans for other joint ministries and meetings. In 1979 more than four thousand persons took part in these ecumenical events. (p. 57)
However, the lack of official membership has not meant the total lack of contact between the S.B.C. and the W.C.C. and N.C.C.C. Almost all Convention program agencies engage in professional ecumenical contacts with their counterparts in the conciliar as well as other modes of ecumenical organizations. The W.C.C. Commission on Faith and Order has had S.B.C. members since at least 1961, and there have been S.B.C. observers at all of the recent W.C.C. General Assemblies. There have been occasional S.B.C. observers at meetings of the N.C.C.C. Governing Board. Other examples of agency relations to the N.C.C.C. include: the Home Mission Board’s Language Missions Division has worked with Church World Service in Vietnamese refugee resettlement; the Sunday School Board has been related to the International Sunday School Lessons unit; the Home Mission Board’s Department of Interfaith Witness works with the N.C.C.C. Task Force on Christian-Muslim Relations, and the Advisory Committee on Christian-Jewish Relations; and there are three Southern Baptists on the N.C.C.C. Faith and Order Commission. In all of these relationships, the S.B.C. programs and persons fit into the N.C.C.C.’s provisions for non-member bodies to participate in their interests and programs. (pp. 58-59)
A major catalyst for ecumenical vision and activity among Southern Baptists has been the Department of Interfaith Witness. It has the largest fulltime staff (eight) of any Protestant denomination for trans-denominational and trans-faith relations. Its goals are to share the claims of Christ with the non-Christian, to advocate the importance of personal faith among Christian groups, and to challenge deviations from biblical teaching in Christian sectarian movements. But this activity also promotes genuine ecumenical contacts with Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and Protestants. The aim of this program is not to make all persons Baptist but to express concern that all might be believing and active Christians. This program is decidedly denominational in orientation but is also openly ecumenical. (p. 59)
As Southern Baptists stand at the threshold of the 1980’s, their diversity is seen in their attitudes and actions related to other Christians. The vast majority are very denominationally oriented, and their energies are totally consumed in channels of mission and ministry solely related to their own denomination at local church, association, state, and national levels. Others, and their number increases slowly, have a broader view of the Christian task and the Christian family with whom they relate, and they are open to relating with other Christians, especially in local communities. Even on the national level, Southern Baptist agencies are gaining more experience and thus more confidence in relating ecumenically to other Christian bodies, which will have long-term effect.
The prospects of membership of the S.B.C. in the N.C.C.C. and W.C.C. are still slim, given the stereotyped image these bodies have in S.B.C. life of being theologically and socially liberal in nature. This will not, however, prevent more contacts and relationships that are felt to be mutually beneficial.
The SBC is built upon a sense of mission, of sharing God’s good news with all persons in the world. That this mission shall be perceived as including the sharing of the Baptist witness with other Christians in other denominations and searching with them for truth beyond any present denominational structure is a hope for which Southern Baptist ecumenists pray. (p. 60)
I believe it is important to not forget that, at least from certain sectors, up until quite recently, we as Southern Baptists have been dangerously open to ecumenism a la the N.C.C.C. and W.C.C. I, frankly, have been concerned with attitudes on the part of some former co-workers regarding possibilities of working together with Roman Catholics in Spain. I am happy that Dr. Rankin has strongly affirmed the IMB’s commitment towards continuing to view Roman Catholics, as well as any who do not embrace a biblical plan of salvation, as worthy “targets” of our evangelistic efforts.
That is why when someone like Malcom Yarnell suggests that I have embraced “ecumenical ecclesiology” (see previous post) I feel a need to clearly explain what I am talking about.
SBC Resolution on Missions, May 1912
SBC Resolution on Cooperation with Other Christians, May 1961
SBC Resolution on Southern Baptists and Ecumenism, June 1996