ATLANTA (BP)–One theme I heard repeated many times at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta was that moderate and conservative Baptists need to cooperate in missions and evangelism and heal the rift between our two camps.
Behind this sentiment there seemed to be an underlying assumption: Baptists who refuse to cooperate with other Baptists are guilty of unkindness and a lack of love. Consider the words of two New Baptist Covenant speakers.
Argument over the interpretation of Scripture “is metastasizing in the body of Christ,” former President Jimmy Carter said, and “presents to the world a negative image of Christians that is directly opposite of the gentle and loving aspect of the One we profess to worship.”
Novelist John Grisham said, “In the Baptist church of my youth we were taught that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God — every word is divinely inspired and it is to be read literally. It just dropped out of heaven. Five thousand years ago God made the earth in six days, 144 hours. Then He rested on the Sabbath, which is really on Saturday but we’re not going to start that debate. Methuselah lived to be a [thousand], and when Paul wrote that women should be submissive, that was the literal interpretation. It was the law.”
Grisham added of his boyhood church, “The church was proudly intolerant of other people, other denominations, other religions.”
The New Baptist Covenant is certainly right to insist that professed Christians treat one another with love and kindness. However, their definition of what constitutes love and kindness reveals a fundamental flaw in their understanding of those concepts.
Some groups, by their very natures, cannot partner with certain other groups in cooperative ventures. Yet that lack of cooperation does not necessarily make those groups either unloving or unkind.
Consider, for example, a young Democrats club and a young Republicans club on the same college campus. Someone might suggest that in order to promote kindness and love the two groups should start meeting together rather than separately. Anyone who objects to combining the two clubs, the reasoning might go, is guilty of fostering unkindness and intolerance on campus.
That suggestion may sound noble at first, but it contains a fundamental flaw. The philosophies of the two clubs are so at odds that combining the groups would result in each diluting its core commitments. In other words, the Democrat club is so different from the Republican club that it would lose its identity should it choose to partner with its political counterpart. It is not unkind for the two groups to remain separate, just common sense.
Everyone realizes this, and that’s why no one accuses the Democrats of being unloving for not combining with the Republicans or the Republicans of being unloving for not combining with the Democrats.
The same is true in the Baptist world. It is not unkind of the SBC to refuse cooperation with participants in the New Baptist Covenant Celebration, just common sense. The fundamental commitments of the two groups are so different that to set aside the differences would force Southern Baptists to give up their core identity.
At the meeting in Atlanta I heard a religion espoused that is different from the religion I practice. I believe that the only way anyone will ever be saved is by explicit faith in Jesus Christ as the only mediator between a holy God and sinful men. But that was not what I heard from all speakers at the New Baptist Covenant.
In a special interest session called “Can We All Get Along? Finding Common Ground with Other Faiths,” a pastor said Baptists need to get over the desire to convert everyone to faith in Christ and appreciate the beauty of religions like Islam. He told a questioner that John 14:6 does not necessarily mean that Jesus is the only way to salvation and compared the religions of the world to a vegetable soup that is flavorful because of its diversity.
“In a vegetable soup you’ve got carrots, you’ve got potatoes, you’ve got tomatoes, you’ve got all these vegetables,” said Gerald Durley, pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. “And I’ve never seen — when they come together, I’ve never seen a carrot say, ‘Boy, I think I’ll become a potato this evening.’ No, the individuality and the freshness of each [vegetable] makes the soup really great. So you don’t have to give that up.”
I believe that while Christians must be concerned with alleviating social ills, the main focus of the church should be on celebrating the majesty of Christ and promoting the spiritual well-being of all humans. But once again, that was not what I heard from all speakers at the New Baptist Covenant.
Speakers focused almost exclusively on how the church should alleviate the physical needs of the world, and one presiding minister, Roy Medley, declared that Walter Rauschenbusch was one of the greatest Baptist prophets of the 20th century.
In 1917 Rauschenbusch wrote a book titled “A Theology for the Social Gospel” in which he argued that Christians must replace traditional Christian theology and its focus on individual salvation with a revised theology supporting the social gospel. Jesus did not die to bear God’s wrath for individual sins, Rauschenbusch said, but to inspire us to combat social ills.
I do not bear any ill will toward more moderate and liberal Baptists. In fact, I find many of them to be kind people and enjoyed talking with them in Atlanta. However, their fundamental religious commitments are so different from mine that we cannot cooperate in missions and evangelism without one of us compromising our most precious beliefs.
Either I will have to give up my primary commitment to personal evangelism and the inerrancy of Scripture, or they will have to give up their primary commitment to social ministry — we’re like the Democrat club and the Republican club. And that doesn’t necessarily make either of us unloving or unkind.
The bottom line is that Southern Baptists need not feel bad about our failure to partner with more liberal and moderate Baptists. If we ever speak unkindly about other Baptists, then we should feel bad. But let’s stop letting anyone tell us that a refusal to cooperate is equivalent to unkindness.
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Ky., and a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.