The boys were hometown heroes, loved, admired, and respected by groupies who believed their favorite to be the best. In Piri Thomas’s popular short story, “Amigo Brothers,” Tony and Felix were 17-year-old, up-and-coming boxers from the lower east side of Manhattan. They were also the best of friends. They grew up together, trained together, and represented their community together. They were the pride of their Puerto Rican community. But when the regional championship round came down between the two of them, for the first time they would fight against one another instead of fighting for and with one another.
As the match drew near, “even when joking with each other, they both sensed a wall rising between them.” And when the bell rang in Tompkins Square Park on that much-anticipated day, the whole town showed up to watch the ‘toe-to-toe slugfest.’” The boys beat one another senseless right there in front of the whole community. There was so much blood. So much pain. There in the ring, to the roaring amusement of those who championed them, the best of friends became the hottest of enemies. The best became the worst, and their people loved it.
For several decades I have watched as little-known, aspiring pastors have walked with each other through theological training, celebrated each other’s wins, and became icons of Southern Baptist community. As they contended for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, they captured the attention and earned the respect of our confessional community. Others, like myself, have come up in their shadows learning and growing into men and women of God faithfully devoted to the doctrines and mechanisms of our cooperative framework. But over the past several years, I have sensed a wall rising between us. Have you felt it, too?
Instead of fighting for and with one another, there is more fighting against one another today than I remember. Perhaps that is not entirely accurate. Perhaps it is the more public, more accessible nature of our arena that has changed the nature of inner-denominational competition. Either way, today our confessional community watches and chimes in on social media, with fire in their eyes and an unquenchable appetite for blood on their pallets.
In some instances, the best of us have become the worst, and our people have loved it.
The Southern Baptist (Great Commission Baptist) community is unlike any other faith community on the face of the planet. Autonomy and voluntary cooperation are the diet and exercise of our missional camaraderie. But if we’re not careful, they can be relegated into the one-two punch of heated contest. The social stages where our community of faith has grown to love, admire, and champion the best of us can quickly become the arena of bloody slugfests between us.
Who are we kidding? This reality is no longer a matter of “one day.” It is today. And every day.
But aren’t we friends? Haven’t we agreed on the main things and, by extension, agreed to give grace on the other things? After all, “How could two walk together unless they agree?” Our community has determined and codified our shared doctrinal convictions in the Baptist Faith and Message. We voluntarily cooperate within those parameters toward our common goal, that the nations might know and worship the one true God through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ. That means we hold the line on certain things, and we look past other things. It also means that where the line is blurry, we don’t take public shots at one another. And certainly, if we do, our community of faith should shutter, not rejoice. It may not be popular to a bloodthirsty crowd, but friendship through healthy disagreement is in the very nature of cooperation.
Great Commission Baptists today are working out some blurry lines in our confessional relationship: the role, functions, and positions of women in official church ministry (other than the office of pastor, of course); the tightening of our practices to guard against sexual abuse and minister to its survivors; the extent of our Executive Committee’s authority and its role in our cooperative mechanism; contemporary philosophies, implications, and applications of our uncompromising shared conviction against racism in every form; the role of the church and the denomination in politics; and more. Because we have no ecclesial hierarchy, 47,000+ churches are working through the theological and practical ministry underpinnings of their day, as they have for 176 years.
There should be some friendly sparring. It sharpens us. It trains us. It makes us stronger, and better. But friendly sparring is not a public event to be held on an open stage. And even privately, when we feel the walls rising between us, we should take a step back. To fight with one another instead of against one another, we’ll have to redirect our energies toward cooperation instead of contention again.
In Thomas’s short story, Tony and Felix both fought hard. The damage to each was brutal. Each side of the blood-thirsty crowd roared with approval, convinced that their man had won the bout. They awaited the judges’ final decision, although the divided community had already made up their minds—half for one and half for the other. But to their surprise, when the ringmaster took center stage to announce the judges’ decision, the boys were nowhere to be found. They had walked out of the arena shoulder to shoulder, congratulating each other on a fight well fought, each better for their efforts and neither caring about the win.
They were cooperators before they were competitors. And because of their devotion to one another, they were cooperators after they were competitors, too.
I still believe the best days of Southern Baptist Great Commission cooperation are ahead of us, not behind us. For this to be reality, at some point the competition must stop, even to the crowd’s disappointment. We must return to fighting with and for one another instead of against one another. If we are to rise to the Great Commission opportunities God has placed before us in the next generation, we’ll have to walk away from the ring shoulder to shoulder, not knowing or caring who won some of these fights. We were cooperators before we were competitors. Let’s resolve today to be cooperators now, too.