NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Cooperation is at the very heart of the Southern Baptist Convention’s work, enabling Southern Baptists to partner in missions and ministry throughout the world.
Chad Brand and Jim Richards addressed the Baptist distinctive during “The Mission of Today’s Church” conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Broadman & Holman Publishers of LifeWay Christian Resources.
Brand, assistant professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, shared the biblical basis for cooperation among churches during the Feb. 10-12 sessions, while Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, examined the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message statement on cooperation.
“If there is one thing Baptists have attempted to do ecclesiastically, it is to pattern church life after what they find in the New Testament,” Brand said in recounting that Baptists traditionally have patterned their churches after those in the New Testament — a concept known as the regulative church principle.
The regulative principle has led Baptists to a belief in the autonomy of the local church, Brand said, explaining that autonomous churches under the authority of Christ can carry out evangelism, missions, worship and discipleship without outside interference, as well as determine their own leadership.
“It seems to me that these conclusions flow directly from the data in the New Testament and you would be hard-pressed to prove anything else,” Brand said.
Does Scripture, then, allow for or even encourage cooperation among autonomous churches? Brand said it does.
“While it is true that New Testament churches were understood to be local autonomous bodies under the Lordship of Christ, it is also the case that New Testament churches engaged in joint efforts for both fellowship and missions,” he said.
Brand cited numerous biblical examples of this cooperation, including Acts 8, Acts 15, Acts 16:1-3, Acts 20:6, Romans 15:26, 1 Corinthians 16:1 and 2 Corinthians 8:9. These verses, he said, demonstrate cooperation among churches to carry out ministry, start new works, give financial support for needy churches and commend individuals to ministry at other churches.
“The whole premise here is that all through the New Testament … we find churches involved in cooperative or associational-type ministries,” Brand said. “They are not simply locked into one location.”
Despite the benefits of cooperation, some dangers exist, Brand said, noting the potential rise of connectionalism, which he compared to presbyterial or Episcopal structure. Connectionalism, Brand said, robs the autonomy of the local church in a desire for more efficient, hierarchical church governance.
Brand surveyed a few examples of this approach among Baptists. In the 20th century, British Baptists appointed regional supervisors to govern churches. In the United States, the American Baptist Convention has made ordination a regional, rather than local, church matter.
“These flirtations with presbyterial and Episcopal styles of association ought to be troubling to those who hold to historic Baptist principles,” Brand said.
The most harrowing danger of cooperation, Brand continued, is theological compromise. Theological minimalism, he said, is the “lowest common denominator” approach to cooperation.
“The fact is, without ideological unity … we cannot walk together as a common body of churches, since truth is at the heart of the Gospel itself,” Brand said.
“As many biblical texts make clear, cooperation is based on obedience to God and affirmation of the truth,” he continued. “We must follow Scripture and avoid unbiblical methods in pursuit of accomplishing our spiritual goals.”
While mission boards are not mentioned in Scripture, Brand said a strong case can be made for them, noting that much of the cooperation seen in the New Testament involves partnership in missions and ministry such as starting new works.
Without doubt, Brand said, the Bible offers a strong case for cooperation in the areas of fellowship, relief, ministry and missions and the training of pastors.
Richards, in discussing the way Southern Baptists cooperate with one another, said he has identified four types of cooperation in Article XIV of the Baptist Faith and Message: individual cooperation among individual believers; congregational cooperation or cooperation among members of the same church; ecclesiastical cooperation or cooperation between churches; and moral cooperation.
“There is a historical precedent for Baptist cooperation even before the modern mission movement,” Richards said, noting examples of cooperation among British Baptists as early as 1652. The development of the first association in America in 1707, he said, illustrates the value early Baptists placed on cooperation.
When the committee charged with writing Southern Baptists’ first statement of faith in 1925 began their task, they wanted to include an article on cooperation. Richards said the template for the 1925 BF&M — the 1833 New Hampshire Confession — did not include such an article, so the committee drafted its own statement.
“The framers of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message crafted a very durable [article on cooperation],” Richards said. “Only a few words were altered in 1963 during the first revision. And when the Baptist Faith and Message was revised in 2000, not one syllable was changed in the statement on cooperation.
Evidence of the practical benefits to cooperation can be seen “by looking at the accomplishment of the Southern Baptist churches over the last 80 years,” Richards said. “If the mission of today’s church is to be accomplished, the principle of cooperation must be understood and carried out by Southern Baptists.”
Individual believers have the privilege and responsibility to cooperate with other Christians, Richards said, noting that Billy Graham’s ministry has been based on this most basic level of cooperation.
Although the BF&M article uses the word “groups,” Richards said the implied understanding is that one-on-one relationships with other believers are beneficial to the church’s mission. At this level, cooperation is based on the essentials of the Gospel. When believers agree on the essentials of salvation, individual Christians may cooperate at this level.
The next level of cooperation requires more in common theologically than individual cooperation, Richard said, pointing out that cooperation within a local church involves agreement on the essentials of the Gospel and other beliefs and behaviors.
“Cooperation inside the local church is an essential foundation for any other type of cooperation,” Richards said. “Many churches have ceased to participate in joint efforts with other churches because of internal turmoil.”
Cooperation at this level includes certain beliefs about what it means to be a church, such as the New Testament church model requiring regenerate (or born-again) church membership, Richard said. Acts 2:41, he noted, gives the proper steps for entering church membership, in identifying those added to the church as being saved and baptized.
Church members should have a common understanding of salvation (by grace alone, through faith and in Christ alone), baptism (immersion of believers) and the Lord’s Supper, Richard said.
The third level of cooperation, ecclesiastical cooperation, or cooperation between churches, also requires common beliefs and behaviors for churches to enter cooperation in light of the benefits received from working together, Richards said. Baptists believe that cooperation is necessary to get the Gospel to the lost world, he said.
“There are parameters for cooperation,” Richards stated. “It is crucial for churches to decide their tolerance level for partnership. Southern Baptists have set the bar at the Baptist Faith and Message for the [entities] and ministries of the convention.”
The fourth type of cooperation — moral cooperation — is based on selective beliefs and can involve partnering with other groups for the betterment of society, Richards said.
Baptists can cooperate with groups they do not agree with on theology or church practice to battle social ills, he said, listing pro-life marches and anti-pornography campaigns as times when Baptists have partnered with Catholics, for example.
The greatest threat to Southern Baptists in the future could be a departure from cooperation, Richards said.
He offered three suggestions to ensure future cooperation among Southern Baptists: a focus on theological agreement; a missionary focus; and a proportional funding mechanism.
Baptists should develop a minimal set of doctrinal standards based on Scripture to be required for affiliation.
“Cooperation is based on agreement regarding the nature of the Word of God and doctrines that flow from it,” Richards said. “Preaching and teaching doctrine is the only way that Baptists will retain their identity.”
A renewed missionary focus, he said, might entail church-wide mission education and streamlining at state conventions and SBC entities for more money going directly to the mission field — a move mission contributors would applaud.
The Cooperative Program has helped fuel a great missionary effort, but Richards said a strengthened focus on missions is needed in light of CP giving failing to keep pace with mission needs. Both education programs about CP-supported ministries and denominational streamlining could generate more funds for the Cooperative Program, he said.
Richards applauded the efforts of the Executive Committee and the six Southern Baptist seminaries to raise up new givers. A new, mandatory course at each of the seminaries is designed educate future church leaders about the Cooperative Program and its ministries.