The Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention established the Department of Work Related to Nonevangelicals in January 1966 with the assignment of helping Baptists relate to Jews, Catholics, sectarian groups and other world religions.
Joseph R. Estes was the first director. He and his staff published materials on the beliefs of other groups with suggestions for significant relations with them. With William Mitchell as his assistant director, he recruited myself and Bill McLin as department consultants on the East and West coasts. He elevated Jase Jones and Lloyd Whyte, missionaries with Jewish assignments, to regional personnel with multi-state assignments.
Estes introduced a new technique into Southern Baptist relations with other groups, namely dialogues. Dialogue, which has a root meaning of “through talk,” offered avenues of direct encounter between Baptists and other persons of faith.
The first formal dialogue was held in 1969 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Its title was “Jewish and Baptist Scholars Conference.” Over 100 Jewish and Baptist leaders and Southern Baptist representatives were invited. Present were Jewish and Baptist seminary professors, rabbis and pastors, Baptist denominational workers and representatives of Jewish organizations.
Many believed only similarities should be discussed in dialogue events. They posited the goal of dialogues as the discovery and listing of commonalities.
Estes disagreed and set forth a full-orbed stance for HMB-sponsored dialogues that covered all items of interest between partners. Disagreements as well as agreements must be covered if dialogue was not to be artificial or partial, he maintained. A context of respect, each for the other, was to be the setting. That also allowed for the expression of irritation, anger and challenge. Not all participants agreed with these guidelines, but the HMB was firm in setting them forth.
After Estes went to a Florida pastorate in 1970, M. Thomas Starkes became department director and continued the dialogue approach. A second national dialogue was held in 1971 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform) in Cincinnati.
These first two dialogues were sponsored with the Interreligious Affairs Department of the American Jewish Committee. In 1972 other partners emerged. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, along with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, sponsored a third dialogue in North Carolina.
Dialogue sessions covered a variety of topics. They included stereotypes of each other, international human rights, Russia’s imprisonment of Jews and oppression of Baptists, the state of Israel, the Middle East, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, worship, family life, congregational organization, biblical studies, theology, views of the Scriptures, conversion, “born again” (after Jimmy Carter’s references to it), mission, racial and social issues, church/ synagogue and state separation, and religion’s role in society.
In the Metropolitan New York area two local dialogue events followed different models. Ten Jewish and 10 Baptist couples spent the weekend in a retreat setting. A different mix was seen in an evening of conversation between Baptists and Jews at Temple Emanu-El, the largest Reform synagogue in New York City, where the ratio of Jews to Baptists was about eight to one. After Rabbi Solomon Bernards and I gave Baptist and Jewish overviews, the evening was spent in questions and answers between those sitting around tables. At least one Baptist was at each table.
In 1980 Lloyd Whyte, Interfaith Witness Southeastern regional representative, received an award from the ADL Florida Regional Board for establishing annual Baptist-Jewish dialogues sponsored by ADL and the Miami Baptist Association.
Then furor erupted, when then-SBC president Bailey Smith said in a public address, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew” (meaning except in repentance and becoming a Christian believer).
As expected, Jewish leaders, and some Baptists, responded in anger. Local pastors explained that no one Baptist speaks for all Baptists. Perhaps in reaction to the furor, the SBC in its annual 1981 meeting adopted a resolution against anti-Semitism.
Other SBC resolutions on anti-Semitism had been approved in 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, and in 1972. Jase Jones, Midwest IFW representative, had a big part in the 1972 resolution and was in Israel on sabbatical study during the 1973 war.
Interestingly, dialogues continued even after the Bailey Smith event. In fact, his statement often became an agenda item.
In 1982 there were three such events: at seminaries in Fort Worth, Texas, and Mill Valley, Calif.; and a dialogue sponsored by the Arkansas Baptist Convention and leaders from 13 Reform Jewish congregations in Arkansas. A 1986 dialogue in Louisville, entitled “A Symposium on the New Testament and Judaism,” was sponsored by ADL and Southern Seminary. In September of that year the Southern Baptist Consultation on the Family and the Synagogue Council of America sponsored a dialogue in Atlanta.
In more than 20 years, Interfaith Witness Department personnel sponsored or participated in about 25 encounter events with Jewish groups. In addition, the HMB initiated dialogues with Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Greek Orthodox, Muslims and Quakers.
As dialogues with Jews declined and ended on a national level, conversations with Catholics grew, with the papers printed in various SBC seminary theological journals. This enabled the wider SBC public to see the benefits of dialogue and learn from the insights expressed. The insights gained also were incorporated in HMB informational pamphlets and conferences.
In the late 1980s, however, the HMB changed its approach in favor of direct evangelism rather than dialogue, and HMB sponsorship of dialogues ended.
A SBC resolution in 1996 affirmed Jewish evangelism. The Messianic Jewish movement was supported as a primary method of relating to Jewish people. When the North American Mission Board came into being in 1997, the name of the department was changed to Interfaith Evangelism.
Still, local and regional interest in dialogical relationships between Southern Baptists and Jews continues, and often finds expression by local and regional conferences on Christians and Jews. Many of these, however, use guidelines that are more restrictive than the full-orbed approach of the older HMB model.
Glenn Igleheart was director of interfaith witness for the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board 1975-1985. He went on to be state mission director at the Baptist Convention of New York, and is now retired and living in Syracuse.