On the Friday before Christmas I learned that the Southern Baptist Convention planned to drop its membership in and support for the Baptist World Alliance.
An SBC committee to study the relationship between the two groups met in October, but waited until Dec. 18 to tell Denton Lotz, general secretary of the BWA, of its recommendation. The decision will take effect in October 2004 if it is approved by the SBC Executive Committee in February and the SBC in June.
One cannot help but note the timing of the announcement. The committee held its counsel until Baptists were chin deep in wrapping paper, cantatas and family reunions, and until Baptist state papers were in their Christmas non-publishing week. This Karl Rove-like move guaranteed there would be no “November surprise” that would affect Lottie Moon giving this year.
The decision, of course, was not a surprise. Already the SBC had trimmed $125,000 from its BWA funding in 2004, and for two years had voiced its disapproval over the BWA’s consideration of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s bid for BWA membership. The SBC’s nine-man, no woman, committee was composed of the aces and kings of the SBC’s leadership deck, all of whom had expressed concern about the relationship.
The appropriate reaction to the inevitable severing of the SBC’s ties with the BWA is, however, sadness. Christian witness is diminished when Baptist unity loses.
The BWA needs the SBC. The Virginia-based entity benefits from being able to say the world’s largest non-Catholic denomination is part of the worldwide Baptist family. From the SBC’s members the BWA draws some excellent teachers, pastors and laity. And the BWA could use the SBC’s money, which in 2003 amounted to about one-fourth of its operating budget.
The SBC also needs the BWA. Southern Baptists need an expanded vision of God’s activity that comes from rubbing elbows with the Christians, customs and beliefs of over 200 Baptist unions. It could profit from a humility that accompanies the realization that God is active in places and through programs that do not have their epicenter in Nashville. The balloon of hubris is inflated by provincialism; it is exploded by a global perspective.
Apparently the SBC leaders who participate in the BWA believe that the international organization is embracing liberal theological positions. The SBC cannot find fellowship with Baptists from the CBF. Nor do they believe the BWA projects an image the SBC wants to give the world. The SBC says there is an anti-American bias among non-Americans who attend BWA sessions. Finally, the SBC is willing to sacrifice Christian unity in an effort to achieve doctrinal conformity.
My experience with the BWA, on more than one occasion at meetings or conferences outside the United States, leads me to view these accusations against the BWA as false or paranoid.
Through the BWA I have discovered how much I learn about the Christian life when I keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open in the presence of Christians from other cultures.
Through the BWA it is clear to me that denominational strategies we take for granted in Middle America may get us arrested in the Middle East.
Through the BWA it has become obvious to me that God’s presence accompanies worship that is loud, spontaneous and active as well as worship that is quiet, orderly and sedate.
Through the BWA I sense that truths essential to a wholesome relationship with God are less numerous than those in the Baptist Faith and Message, and that Christian unity is easier to achieve than doctrinal agreement.
Through the BWA I see how insipid and shallow my discipleship is compared to Baptist sisters living in North Africa and Baptist brothers in Croatia.
Through the BWA I have calculated the value of religious liberty in America, embodied in the First Amendment and church/state separation, when I hear other Baptists describe the effects of its absence in their homeland.
Through the BWA I get a glimpse into just how much my faith reflects the practices of American culture instead of the principles taught in the Bible.
Now is the time to support the BWA with your money and your prayers. Contact the BWA and learn how your church, and you personally, can join this 99-year-old entity. Put them in your church budget and your family budget. Get a flavor of this Baptist fellowship by attending the centennial anniversary of the BWA July 27-31 in Birmingham, England.
The BWA is still a home for all Baptists who take seriously the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21.
Michael Clingenpeel is editor and business manager of the Religious Herald in Richmond, Va.