In 1923, E. P. Alldredge became the first secretary of the Baptist Sunday School Board’s newly developed Department of Survey, Statistics and Information. There he witnessed Southern Baptist churches awakening to the value and doctrine of cooperation. In 1925, Southern Baptists adopted a unified budget in the Cooperative Program as well as adopting the first confession of faith to include an article “On Cooperation.” Alldredge brilliantly articulated the most basic reason for convention cooperation in his book, Southern Baptists Working Together:
“The chief reason for the existence of a convention is to enable the churches co-operating through this medium to carry out the Great Commission of our Lord more effectually and more expeditiously than can be accomplished by the churches working separately and without some plan of concerted action.”
Great Commission cooperation. That’s the ticket! Cooperation is why we pool our relationships and resources together through the Southern Baptist mechanism. Each local church is autonomous under the authority of Christ. But autonomy does not require isolation. Ingrained into the collective consciousness of Great Commission Baptist churches is a voluntary togetherness—the freedom to choose inter-congregational cooperation so that the nations might come to know the one true God through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.
We cooperate because we can do more together than we can do alone. We cooperate because our message is too urgent and our time is too short for anything less.
But let’s not kid ourselves; cooperation is hard. With 47,000+ autonomous Southern Baptist churches across the United States—our denominational family is home to 47,000+ varying convictions and opinions on matters beyond the parameters of the faith statement. We have all agreed on the basics. We hold them, in our confession of faith (BF&M 2000). We agree to never compromise on those doctrinal affirmations made explicit in the faith statement. By extension we agree to always give grace in those doctrinal matters that are not clearly set forth in the BF&M 2000. The tension stretches our voluntary cooperation from season to season. When we embrace that tension with charity and grace, we emerge from it stronger. And better. And more effective.
This cooperative tension is not unique to Southern Baptists in our day. In fact, it is not unique to Southern Baptists at all. In the history of New Testament inter-congregational partnership, there has never been a moment when Great Commission cooperation did not require humility, forgiveness, charity and grace.
The Antioch believers took it upon themselves to send famine relief to the church in Jerusalem. Paul’s missionary enterprises were funded in large part by gracious benefactors in Rome and by the congregation at large in Philippi. Delivery of the Jerusalem collection from gentile churches across the four provinces was met with joy as evidence of God’s glory. The churches of Macedonia were praised for their faithful and sacrificial inter-congregational giving. Paul disagreed sharply with Peter in the gentile lunchroom but the two also openly supported one another. Paul parted with Barnabas over affiliation with John Mark only to later long for the sweet fellowship of the faithful young minister once again.
Cooperation for Great Commission advance has never been easy. But it has always been necessary. One church can reach a community. A handful can reach a city. Twenty or 30 can reach a county. A few thousand can reach a state. Tens of thousands can reach the world.
We often take for granted the joy and the force of our denominational cooperative mechanism:
- 3,700 international missionaries, 700 North American church planters and 20,000 seminary students depend every year on the investment we have committed to them.
- Millions of human beings all over the world receive humanitarian aid in times of crisis and disaster.
- Pastors and church leaders laboring in obscurity are invested in, encouraged and equipped to carry on in the good work to which God has called them.
- Silent voices of hundreds of thousands of unborn children are rescued by those who have joined forces to stand boldly for the right to life.
- A world quickly spiraling down the Romans 1 continuum of moral degradation has a picture of faithfulness to biblical truth in our collective presence.
In his day, Alldredge had a front-row seat to the formation of a new denominational consciousness that would organize and mobilize thousands of likeminded churches to take the name and fame of Jesus Christ around the corner and across the globe. He watched closely as God raised Lee Rutland Scarborough to leadership. Speaking immortal words with contagious conviction at the conclusion of his 75 Million Campaign report in 1925, Scarborough communicated his hopeful expectation for the newly formed Cooperative Program: “We must not lose the things we have already wrought through the mercies and power of God … we must do our best to bring them to a full reward.” This speech was recorded in the SBC 1925 annual report.
In 2021, 96 years later, why cooperate? Because we must not lose the things we have already wrought through the mercies and power of God. We must do our best to bring them to a full reward. The knock of opportunity is at our door again today as it was in Alldredge and Scarborough’s day and in Paul and Barnabas and Peter’s day. In every generation, Great Commission Baptists must choose whether to allow the noise of the moment to drown out the melody of cooperation.
Why cooperate? Because we should. Because we can. Because we must.