EDITORS’ NOTE: This is the first column in a two-part series.
JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–For the past few years I have been encouraging many friends to join me in a new consensus-building project in Southern Baptist life.
Two visible aspects of this effort have been the Baptist Identity Conferences at Union University in 2004 and 2007. It has become clear to me and to the several hundred people who participated in those conferences that there is a hunger for finding ways to help Southern Baptists move forward together. The prospects for consensus and renewal evidenced at these conferences provided a sense of hope for the future.
I urge Southern Baptists to commit to consensus building and avoid public attacks on Southern Baptist leaders. In this two-part series, I want to suggest ways to frame such a conversation that will help us find ways to move forward together to advance the Gospel and our shared mission as Southern Baptists.
I would suggest that John 17 is a good place to begin. In this chapter we see Jesus Christ pouring out His heart to the Father for His followers on the night before He died for our sins. This prayer is not only for Jesus’ immediate followers, but for the church through the ages, which means this prayer has application for Southern Baptists in the 21st century. This prayer is a prayer for unity and a prayer for truth, which brings about a holy uniqueness and a unique holiness for Christ’s followers.
In verses 20-26 of John 17, we read that Jesus prayed that His followers will experience a spiritual unity that exemplifies the oneness of the Father and the Son. Southern Baptists are different and diverse — young, old, educated, uneducated, Southerners, non-Southerners, red, yellow, black, brown and white. But in spite of our many differences, we belong to the same Lord, and thus to each other. Yet, far too often Southern Baptists have been characterized by controversy, competition and disunity. If we take seriously the words of John 17, then these kinds of actions and attitudes, especially personal and public attacks of others, must break our Savior’s heart.
The Nicene Creed, an important confession from the early years of Christianity, describes the church as “one, holy, universal, and apostolic.” It is universal in that it crosses all geographic, social, racial and ethnic lines. The church is one because it is founded on the person and work of Jesus Christ and the common salvation we share in Him (John 17:2-5).
One of the things that impresses the world and authenticates the message of the Gospel and our evangelistic and missionary efforts is the way Christians love each other and live and serve together in harmony. It is the witness that our Lord wants and expects from us in the world so that the world may believe that the Father has sent the Son (John 17:21). The lost world cannot see God, but they can see Christians. Let us pray that we will represent Christ to them in a faithful and winsome way.
John 17 also includes a prayer for truth. Certainly we are to promote Christian unity at every opportunity. True believers belong to the same Father and are called to the same service. Believers trust the same Savior and have received the same gift of grace, thus sharing a common salvation. But ultimately true unity is based on true truth. Any other kind of unity is earthly, worldly and temporal, which falls short of the John 17 ideal.
A call to unity, an invitation toward a new consensus-building project or efforts toward renewal that are not grounded in a commitment to biblical truth are mushy, misguided and meaningless. Yet, truth without a concern for love and unity is hardly consistent with scriptural truth.
Jesus’ prayer is not only for spiritual unity, but also for sanctified truth. Jesus prayed that the Father would sanctify His followers in truth; for His Word is truth (John 17:17). So, as affirmed in the Nicene Creed, the church is not only one and universal, but is also characterized as holy and apostolic.
True holiness is based on truth taught by the apostles and made known to us in Holy Scripture (see John 14:6; 16:3; 17:17). Just as it saddens the Father and the Son and harms the witness of the church when we fail to love one another and demonstrate biblical unity, so likewise, the witness of the church is harmed when we look to the world to be our guide rather than to the truthfulness of God’s Word.
Let us together join hands to work toward unity and consensus in Southern Baptist life, a unity and consensus that is characterized by love for one another and that is grounded in the truth of God’s holy Word.
David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.