Baptists are a “people of the book,” bound together by our common commitment to sacred Scripture, even though Baptists are diverse and disagree on how the Bible should be interpreted.
And despite our shared commitment to the written word, Baptists are selective book readers and followers.
We emphasize certain texts while giving less attention to other passages, a preferred “canon within the canon” that has shaped our thoughts and actions.
As a simple example, some Baptist pastors preach more often from the words of Jesus, others from the writings of Paul and still others from the histories and poetry of the Old Testament.
Furthermore, in relation to the ways we read and follow Scripture, perhaps it can be said that many of us Baptists are inadvertently acting like first-century Pharisees.
Mirroring those pious, first-century spiritual leaders, we cling tenaciously to “the way we’ve always done it,” by which I mean how we have historically understood and obeyed the Great Commission.
In the Pharisees’ context, this caused Jesus to admonish them by saying, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:8).
In what manner might this supposition be true? Consider the following explanation.
Baptists are an “evangelical” people. We are “Good Newsers.” “Evangel” derives from the Greek noun meaning “good news,” a concept central to Baptist identity.
We have built our theological house on a foundation constructed from the command of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20 to go make disciples and on the response of Paul and Silas to the Philippian jailer that he had to believe in order to be saved.
Hence, we Baptists have traditionally equated making disciples of the Jesus way with giving them an evangelistic presentation that will lead them to salvation.
Consequently, we have taught evangelism in our colleges and seminaries, employed professors of evangelism on our faculties, written books about evangelism for our constituencies, announced evangelistic themes for our periodic gatherings, demonstrated evangelism techniques in our churches, launched evangelistic programs for our laypeople, planned evangelism conferences for pastors, youth and college students through our denominations, and hosted evangelistic campaigns in our cities, our campuses and as a central feature of our mission efforts.
Not surprisingly, we have lifted up the ministries of global Baptist evangelists like Juan C. Varetto (South America), Emmanual A. Agboola (Africa), Gideon Chin (Asia), Johann Gerhardt Oncken (Europe) and Billy Graham (North America).
We have measured the success of church-sponsored mission trips, youth camps and revivals by how many people were “saved” or the numbers who came forward in response to the invitations we issued.
We have praised “soul-winners” and sometimes treated those who have a gift for sharing a verbal witness like they are the ones about whom God is most proud.
Moreover, we have assumed that evangelism corresponds to proselytization, and that transformation of life requires conversion to our own religion.
We have taught our children and teenagers that the family of God is limited to those who believe certain doctrinal statements and have confessed them to others.
This way of thinking about salvation and discipleship has been taught for so long in most Baptist congregations that it is assumed to be an unassailable truth, certainly “the way things are.”
So whenever the subject of interfaith understanding, dialogue and cooperation is raised, many Baptists wonder why a Christian would build friendships with followers of other faiths for any reason other than to proselytize them, to convert them to the true faith, to save them from eternal judgment and everlasting separation from God.
It is not that interfaith relationships, on their own merit, are not good; they are just not primary; they don’t occupy the place of prominence occupied by evangelism.
Thus, a whole host of well-meaning, devoted Baptists think that getting involved with the interfaith movement is simply one of the choices a Christian might make – like choosing to be involved in the local church on projects for social justice or music ministries or working with children or youth or leading Bible studies or going on mission trips.
But doing evangelism, in their minds, is not really an option at all; rather, it is a requirement for anyone who is a genuine Christian.
Perhaps the reason why Baptists have not prioritized interfaith relations – even though we believe God loves the whole world, and we are commanded to love our neighbors and even our enemies – is that we have substituted proselytization for witness.
Maybe we think that Jesus said we will be his proselytizers in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
To assume that conversion is the task left in our hands is mistakenly to suppose that it is we who by our own power transform others into the likeness of Christ. Yet, Christ calls us to be faithful witnesses and not successful proselytizers.
Authentic witnessing is casting the seed indiscriminately – some along the rocky path, some among thorns, some in shallow soil and some other seeds of testimony on good, fertile ground, but with the awareness that the sun and rain, the growth and blossoming, come from the “Lord of the Harvest” and not from us.
For this truth, we should thank God!
Professor emeritus of theology and missions from Logsdon Seminary and former chair of trustees for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He and his wife Janie were missionary teachers in Indonesia for almost a quarter century.