We’re often reminded that Jesus’ prayer for his disciples (including us) is that we would be one (John 17:21) and that we would love one another (John 15:12). The interpretation of these commands has led some to suggest that denominations should be done away with, that creeds and confessions are contrary to the mind of Christ, that doctrine divides. Interpret Scripture by Scripture, though. This is the same Lord who a few weeks later commanded us to: make disciples (evangelism, teaching), immerse those disciples in the name of a Trinitarian God, and teach these newly baptized believers all the things he has taught us, presumably by means of an authoritative Bible.
There is a lot of doctrine and denominationalism in that little passage, isn’t there? Our unity must be in service of something and not an end in itself. A good unity story is the burgeoning relationship between the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas and our own SBTC.
For about a hundred years the Baptist Missionary Association and the Southern Baptist Convention went their own ways in the specifics of missionary support. Southern Baptists have been more centralized in their support of various denominational causes than have Missionary Baptists. In Texas, at least for the past few years, we are once again finding ways to work together. On page 2, our annual meeting wrapup describes the latest initiatives between our two state fellowships.
The point is that we are once again finding unity for specific ministries with others who substantially agree with us regarding faith and practice. Without revisiting the reasons for our initial separation, the reasons for this growing unity seem biblical and godly. For the most part, it was movement on the part of Southern Baptists that strengthened our relationship. The fact that our convention has clarified its beliefs on significant matters of faith answered a lot of questions for Baptists of other bodies.
In other words, our confessional nature told them a lot about what we are and are not. It defined the meaning of cooperation so that biblical compromise was not sacrificed for the sake of unity. Maybe you’ll argue that compromise never was part of the deal. OK, but setting the parameters in unequivocal language makes a big difference for many within and outside our fellowship.
Here’s another example. Back in the early 1990s I served the Indiana state convention. We were about to host the SBC during a year when the convention was going to clarify its stance on homosexuality with an amendment to the SBC Constitution. At the same time the American Baptist Convention was being less clear, to put it nicely. Our state office received several calls that year from conservative ABC churches who were troubled by the stand of their own denomination. They called us because they were heartened by the stand our denomination was taking. A clarifying of our stance opened the door to greater unity among Baptists in Indiana.
Likely that same thing happened in other places across the Midwest during that year. It was doctrinal clarity, not vagueness that best served the cause of Christian unity. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has more clearly defined itself than any other Southern Baptist denominational body larger than an association. Of course this means that some will choose another affiliation for doctrinal reasons but it is mistaken to think that doctrinal firmness is only divisive. If we want unity, what’s the alternative?
Usually it’s to draw the circle larger with indistinct edges. Ecumenical movements have been trying that for years and for them, the circle is never large enough. Interfaith witness becomes interfaith dialog. “The way, the truth, and the life,” becomes “many roads up the same mountain” or “God is the judge, I wouldn’t dare claim to know who will and won’t go to Heaven.” Doctrines that define denominations, believers’ baptism, eternal security, local church autonomy and the like are downplayed until a generation has no idea what their own churches believe.
Is anyone who believes the Bible to any degree happy with the way that’s turning out? How is it then that some of us toy with other strange practices and beliefs that seem only meant to convince people that we’re tolerant?