Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part interview with David Coffey, who agreed to a lengthy interview about his tenure (2005-10) as the president of the Baptist World Alliance during a turbulent time. The 20th Baptist World Congress begins this Wednesday in Honolulu and ends on Sunday.
Question: You were the first Baptist to speak publicly and gratefully about the proactive peacemaking letter released by Muslim religious leaders, A Common Word Between Us and You. You wrote that it was a “groundbreaking initiative.” From the perspective of history, do you think your many efforts at advancing interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be remembered as your most important accomplishment?
Answer: It has certainly been one of the features of my presidency. I would not term it as my most important accomplishment as I hope my emphasis on the newly formed BWA Emerging Leaders Network will also be recognized.
But the reason I joined many other evangelicals in welcoming the Common Word letter is the recognition that since 9/11 we face a different world. It’s a world of over 2 billion Christians and over 1 billion Muslims. This comprises over 50 percent of the world’s population. Unless there are some peaceful initiatives which produce respect, tolerance and deeper understanding between Christians and Muslims – then the prospects for world peace are bleak and we encourage the growth of extremism.
What made the Common Word take on a greater significance for the Baptists of the Middle East was that the publication of the letter coincided (although there are no such things as coincidences with God!) with an audience with the King of Jordan [Coffey and other Baptist leaders met with King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein.]
The delegation was pleading for greater liberty for Baptists and evangelicals in Jordan and out of this emerged the gift of the Baptism center [on the banks of the Jordan River] …which was dedicated…in March 2009.
The conversations with the Royal Court of Jordan…widened to include broader theological conversations on Baptist convictions.
Question: You wrote in a column about talking with Muslims that Baptist Christians needed “a bold humility” in sharing their faith and should “be unafraid to confess our sins. Christian history includes bloody crusades and inquisitions, social intolerance and intellectual bigotry.” What have you experienced when you have pursued bold humility with Muslims?
Answer: My reference to a bold humility concerned sharing what our Christian faith means to us, and I have discovered this is appreciated by those of other faith traditions. When there is a meeting of different faiths, it requires every party to be faithful to their own convictions and respectful of others.
In this context, I have no hesitation in confessing the blatant sins of the church past and present.
But I am also convinced we need to give greater attention to mentioning the Bible in our conversations. Other faith traditions have a place of honor for their sacred Scriptures and frequently quote from a relevant passage. When Christians fail to do this, it appears we do not honor our own holy Scriptures. In all the faith traditions there is a lack of clarity about what Christians believe, and we need to be prepared to give sound reasons for the hope within us.
Bold humility also requires us to be truthful about the woeful lack of religious liberty for Christians in many Muslim states.
Question: How would you characterize what Baptists have accomplished on this front in the past three years?
Answer: History will certainly judge Common Word to be a groundbreaking initiative by Muslims. A careful examination of the list of Muslim signatories reveals a breadth of representation of scholars drawn from all the streams and traditions of Islam which is noteworthy.
The respect accorded the letter from across a wide spectrum of Christian affiliations is also significant.
The Baptist written response did not appear immediately, and I commend Neville Callam, BWA’s general secretary, for insisting on the widest possible consultation before any formal response was sent. The patient work of Paul Fiddes and the drafting committee also deserves special mention both for the theological depth of our response and for its faithfulness to our Baptist understanding of evangelism and missionary commitment. The final document has been commended by Muslims for its theological clarity and integrity.
Question: In addition to addressing worldwide poverty and to supporting peacemaking efforts through Christian-Muslim engagement, what do you think are the pressing moral or social issues?
Answer: The answer to this question depends on where you live in the world!
If you live in a country where you are deprived of religious liberty and the state is hostile to the church, then this is the pressing issue.
If material poverty and child mortality are preventable but corrupt government officials and an unjust system of bribery is all pervasive, then this is the moral issue to be addressed.
In the country where I live and work, confident secularism and militant atheism have to be boldly encountered and challenged. European legislation is bringing greater pressures on the Christian church, and many of us are concerned at the erosion of religious liberty. This has happened because legislators see religious liberty as a lower set of rights compared to other human rights…
As we face all the moral challenges of our time, then we need a good dose of encouragement from church history. The presenting social issues may change through the centuries, but history reveals that God is always willing to equip his people to be boldly prophetic. The only cautionary word about being prophetic is to note that the major advances of the church have always been opposed by the majority of the church and pioneered by a minority of courageous men and women!
Question: As your tenure as BWA president draws to a close, what still surprises you the most about global Baptists?
Answer: Wow! How many words do you grant me to say all I could about our gifted global family?
I am constantly surprised by their creative ability to do more mission with fewer resources. I also love the tenacity of Baptists to “keep on keeping on” with some demanding mission ministry. Anyone can start a movement, but Baptists are excellent as marathon people and persevere in some unglamorous but extremely effective mission ministries and this is something I admire deeply.
Question: If you were to identify one thing that represents the best of the Baptist tradition, what would that be?
Answer: Discipleship and mission is the indivisible one thing. Our commitment to make missionary disciples who are grounded in what it means to be a biblically faithful and culturally relevant follower of Jesus Christ.
Then there is the “thickness” of our mission theology. We have an abiding missionary passion to become “all things to all people” so that through creative evangelism men and women are won to Christ. We follow in the steps of Jesus in our commitment to serve a broken world with mercy ministries in a broken world. Finally the “thickness” of our mission includes the prophetic.
Question: What is the most urgent need today for BWA members?
Answer: Be passionate about worship – stay close to Jesus and his Word. Be passionate about community – love and serve your local church. Be passionate for God’s mission – be locally based but globally aware. Above all, do everything in the power of the Spirit.
Question: If you were to hand the next BWA president an envelope with one word of advice about his leadership, what would you say?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Editor’s Note: Here’s a link to part one of the interview with David Coffey.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.