MARCH 4, 2004
Baptist Unity in Diversity?
Richard V. Pierard
Founded in 1905, the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), like other Christian World Communions (CWC), functions as an alternative to conciliar ecumenism in the maintenance of international denominational links. Through it, Baptist church bodies from around the world can meet periodically to network and share ideas about issues of common interest. It currently has a membership of 211 Baptist unions and conventions that encompass 47 million baptized Christians -- approximately 80 percent of all the Baptists in the world. Because of the requirement of believer's baptism for church membership, the number of people actually in its sphere of influence is much larger.
However, the 16 million strong Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest BWA member, cast a shadow over the body when its Executive Committee on February 17 decided to withdraw from the BWA. This schism is a serious setback to the cause of ecumenism among Baptists and a heavy blow to the larger hope of Christian unity, especially in the face of resurgent world religions. It is also ironic because the leading Southern Baptists of the day were among its founders, E. Y. Mullins, George W. Truett, Theodore Adams, and Duke McCall, who all served as presidents. Even today, Morris Chapman, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, currently serves as vice president.
The SBC had appointed a nine-man committee comprised of fundamentalist hardliners chaired by Morris Chapman to study the situation, and it recommended "defunding" the BWA completely. The SBC annual contribution to the six-million dollar budget, over half of which goes to relief activities, was $425,000. The money saved would be channeled to set up a new world organization of like-minded conservative evangelicals. The reasons given were the advocacy of "positions contrary to the New Testament and Baptist doctrine," "continued emphasis on women as pastors," the emergence of a "decided anti-American tone," and "the funding of questionable enterprises through Baptist World Aid."
What the report did not mention was that the BWA in 2003 had accepted the breakaway Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for membership. Astute observers of the Baptist scene charge that this is the real reason for the split. The SBC leadership has done everything possible to isolate and neutralize this voice of moderation, which, by its very existence, is a threat to the power that the fundamentalist leadership exercise over rank and file Southern Baptists.
Condemnations of the move poured in from Baptist leaders all over the world, including an impassioned appeal from the SBC's Woman's Missionary Union. The Executive Committee was unmoved. Only a handful of members dared to vote against the study committee's recommendation. It now goes to the national convention in June where the messengers (delegates) from the 42,000 churches will vote on the action.
The sad truth of the matter is that, when the SBC leaders could not get their way with the BWA and shape it as they had done their own denomination, they took their ball and went home. It does not bother them in the least that they have thumbed their noses at the rest of the global Baptist community. It is a blow to the Baptist heritage of unity in diversity. By comparison, the solidarity shown by BWA members reveals that this lamentable exercise of American arrogance has found little favor elsewhere in the world.
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus, Indiana State University, and scholar in residence, Gordon College. He is the general editor of the forthcoming centennial history of the Baptist World Alliance.