Well, I am finally coming to the end of this series of posts on “Historical Documents: Baptist-Evangelical Cooperation in World Missions.” I must confess that it’s turned out to be a good bit longer than what I was originally intending. Also, it has been a learning experience for me. Although I have always been moderately interested in church history, I had never actually dug into so much Baptist history as I have while researching my posts for this series. Of course, I must in all honesty admit that I started out with a pretty defined thesis. But I also honestly believe my research has confirmed this thesis.
If you have read with me from beginning, we have looked at how it has been the will of Jesus that his Church be united, and that identification with different leaders and sectors within the Church not become a motive for disunity. We have also seen how such influential and important leaders as William Carey, W. B. Johnson, and Charles H. Spurgeon have had a vision for unity and Baptist cooperation with other evangelicals. We have also seen, however, that from the beginning, there has been a tempatation as well as a tendency for Baptists to separate from one another, and from other believers over issues that were not, in my opinion, worth dividing over. At other times, we have seen the pendulum swing to the other side, when some advocated a more open stance towards even those who were not in agreement with us on the essentials of the Gospel.
As we look towards the future, I see 4 main approaches to the issue of Baptist-Evangelical Cooperation in World Missions that have vied for influence among Southern Baptists down through the years:
1. Landmarkism. Although we have left for others to give a more in-depth theological reply, I believe the point has been adequately defended that the Landmarkist vision is not in line with Jesus’s vision for the unity of His Body. It has been surprising for some to see the resurgence of Landmark thought in recent years in the SBC. While I believe we do well to point out Landmarkist tendencies among present leaders, and show from Scripture why we think they are wrong, in all fairness, we need to be careful to not label all those who strongly value “Baptist distinctives” as necessarily “Landmarkist”. There are all shades and colors, so we probably need to do our homework a bit before opening our mouths too widely.
2. Ecumenism. There are also different shades of meaning attached to this term. But, no doubt, the type of ecumenism embodied in the World Council of Churches, and which would seek to work towards closer “fraternal” relationships with groups such as the Roman Catholic Church, is not near as strong of a stream in Southern Baptist life as it was shortly before the Conservative Resurgence. In my opinion, this is a good thing.
3. Denominational Uniformity. This view is different from Landmarkism, in that it has emphasized the role of the denomination as over against that of the local church. The “unity” and “cooperation” promoted has been mostly that of Southern Baptists with other Southern Baptists. The bottom-line goal, in many cases, appears to be the success of this or that denominational program, more than the overall advance of the Kingdom of God. In my opinion, this view is more common today in Southern Baptist life than either Landmarkism or Ecumenism.
4. Balanced Baptist-Evangelical Cooperation. I strongly believe that God has brought us as Southern Baptists to a new day of unparalleled opportunities to join together with other born-again believers around the world in an all-out effort to fulfill the Great Commission. Perhaps as an IMB missionary, I am somewhat biased. But I believe that “New Directions”, under the leadership of Jerry Rankin, especially in its emphasis on working together with other “Great Commission Christians,” is at the forefront of what God is doing through Southern Baptists today.
I personally believe we as Southern Baptists are at a crossroads. It remains to be seen whether we will see where God is at work around the world, and join Him in what He is doing, or whether we will get sidetracked by any one of the first three approaches mentioned above. Having said that, I realize that these are not all “black and white” categories. There are many “shades of gray” in between. There is a real danger of going too far, and crossing over from balanced cooperation with other evangelicals to unhealthy and unbiblical ecumenism. “Pendulum swings” and extremism in any area are hardly ever a good thing. May God give us the wisdom and the grace to see and understand how He is moving, and to press forward, as closely as possible to the center of the pathway of His will, closer and closer toward “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” and toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission.