I love the following quote by Bethlehem Baptist’s Missions Pastor Tom Steller in the "Afterword" from John Piper’s Let the Nations be Glad…
Not every Christian is called to be a missionary. But every follower of Christ is called to be a world Christian. A world Christian is someone who is so gripped by the glory of God and of the glory of His global purpose that he chooses to align himself with God’s mission to fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea. Everything a world Christian does he does with a view to the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of God’s kingdom among all the peoples of the earth.The fulfillment of the Great Commission is one of my primary core values, and most certainly one of the primary core values of Southern Baptists as well. Why does the Southern Baptist Convention exist? Some would say because, at a certain point in history, Baptists from the North didn’t want to send slaveholders as missionaries, and Baptists in the South didn’t think that should be a barrier to missionary service. This is true. But, beyond that, why did the Triennial Convention, the predecessor to the SBC, before the 1845 schism, first exist?
I believe, in regard to this, the words of Ellen G. Harris, researcher from the University of Virginia, are instructive:
No denominational unity existed among Baptists in America prior to the middle of the eighteenth century. Local Baptist churches determined their own policies without any connection to other Baptist churches or to any sort of governing organization. During the eighteenth century, some Baptist churches began joining together in local associations, but by the early nineteenth century only 115 such associations existed in the United States, and their activities were primarily limited to debating theological issues.The point I am trying to make, here, is that we as Baptists churches work together with other Baptist churches, in the Southern Baptist Convention, primarily, so that we can be more effective and more efficient in our efforts to contribute towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission. We are not like some other denominations that have other theological or ecclesiological reasons for their existence. If it were not for our desire to be more effective at the task of obeying the Great Commission, we could just as well continue on as independent Baptist churches, with no organizational tie beyond the bond of Christian love that links us together with the entire Body of Christ.
The growth of denominational organization among Baptists in America during the nineteenth century was a product of the simultaneous growth of interest in foreign mission work. Both trends -- the growth of bureaucratic organizations and an emerging interest in foreign missions -- affected not only Baptists but were at work throughout the larger American culture during the nineteenth century.
It was not until the 1814 that interested Baptists in the young republic formed a national organization. This "General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions" (also known as the Triennial Convention) convened in order to pool resources for the support of Baptist foreign missionaries Luther Rice and Adoniram Judson. Given Baptists' fundamental beliefs in the individual's ability to communicate directly with God and in the independence of the local church to set its own policies, the Triennial Convention that formed in 1814 was a completely voluntary organization that exercised no control over matters of theology. Its sole purpose was the financial support of foreign missions, and supporters of its work could be found in local churches and associations throughout Southern and Northern states.
By no means, though, am I meaning to minimize orthodox biblical doctrine as a key element of our working together. If we did not have a common doctrinal foundation, we would run the risk of working together to fulfill a mission that we each understood differently. Unquestionably, what drives us in our commitment to world missions is our previous commitment to the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of His Word.
But, we could potentially be just as committed to Jesus and the authority of His Word, and yet live out that commitment in the world in which we live, as independent churches. What motivates us to work together, as Southern Baptists, is our desire to be more effective in our efforts to work towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Now, it would require empirical research beyond the scope of this post to conclusively demonstrate greater effectiveness in Great Commission work by means of cooperative efforts of Southern Baptists than by the theoretical efforts of the same churches working independently towards the same end. However, I believe such greater effectiveness to be practically self-evident, and have previously defended this point on other posts here and here.
It is interesting to note, at the same time, that a significant argument was made, at the time of the founding of the SBC in 1845, that dividing from Baptists in the North would actually help to further the cause of world missions. Walter Shurden, for example, in a Winter 2002 article in the Baptist History and Heritage Journal, observes that William Williams, one of the first four professors at Southern Seminary, while preaching the 1871 SBC annual sermon, "gladly quoted at length from a Northern Baptist newspaper of April 1845 which argued that the division would aid the cause of missions by causing both groups to double their efforts."
The truth is, there may be, at times, strategic warrant for working in separate organizations. It has been observed, albeit ironically, that one of the best methods of church growth, many times, are church splits.
What I believe we must ask ourselves as Southern Baptists, though, when faced with the possibility of narrowing parameters of cooperation in world missions, is not only does it help to further the cause of planting more Baptist churches around the world (which, in and of itself, remains highly doubtful, in my opinion), but also does it help to bring us closer to what I understand to be the "end-vision" of world missions, as expressed by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:13: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
I believe that a consistent application of each of the three "core values" I have been defending recently on this blog hinges on a proper recognition of the importance of the other two. You cannot be truly faithful to the authority of the Word of God without at the same time working towards unity of Christ’s Body, and seeking to be obedient to the Great Commission. Neither can you build an adequate foundation for Christian unity, if you don’t base it upon orthodox biblical interpretation, or carry it forward by a joint commitment to the cause of world missions. By the same token, a zeal for missionary advance that has lost its biblical moorings, or tends more towards sectarianism than the edification of Christ’s Body, the Church Universal, is, in my opinion, largely misguided, and even runs the risk of proving counterproductive.