We just finished a week of Vacation Bible School at The Hill Baptist Church. Each year, in addition to the children’s classes, we have an adult class that I teach. This year we talked about Baptist history. I had a good time studying our heritage again and sharing it with about forty members of our church. At the commencement last night, I told them that I would dare say they know more about Baptists than 98% of the Baptists in America do. That is probably hyperbole, but there is some truth to it. (By the way, the books that were most helpful to me were Baptist Heritage by Leon McBeth, Baptist Ways by Bill Leonard, and Not a Silent People by Walter Shurden.)
We all know the old adage that “Baptists multiply by dividing.” I’ve seen that happen myself. Two churches in my home community are there because my home church split twice. The church that I presently serve as pastor did the “one church, two locations” thing for a few years; we are now “two churches, two locations.”
Baptist history certainly bears out the adage. The Triennial Convention became the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions. The Northern Convention begat the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches and the Conservative Baptists of America. Out of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. came the National Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. There are at least five Primitive Baptist groups in the United States. Recently, the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have emerged from the SBC. And so on.
In his book God’s Last and Only Hope, Bill Leonard wrote of the way in which the SBC remained pretty much unified for decades despite many ongoing internal tensions. He said, “Denominationalists called on Southern Baptists to look beyond their considerably diverse liturgical, educational, historical, even theological differences to the united tasks of evangelization and Christianization” (p. 31). He went on to say,
Southern Baptist denominationalism prevailed…enabling the convention to avoid a major schism longer than anyone might have expected. It was a Grand Compromise, constructed by individuals who sought to bring some unity of purpose to a sometimes unruly constituency wary of any threat to local church autonomy and individual freedom (p. 31).
For a long time, then, people in the SBC were able to put their common purposes in missions and evangelism ahead of their theological and cultural differences. The Grand Compromise held as long as Southern Baptists kept the main thing the main thing. Once, though, we started valuing our differences more than our common purposes, all bets were off.
When the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant takes place in early 2008, we will be undertaking another Grand Compromise. Over twenty diverse Baptist groups will gather to talk about the possibilities that exist to bring Christ’s message of grace, love, and hope to bear on a broken and hurting nation and world. Now, we are not talking about the merging of organizations. We are, however, talking about the merging of purpose—can we value our common calling more than we value whatever issues separate us? I believe and hope that we can. I am excited by the possibility. I am looking forward to being with brothers and sisters whose agenda is to find common ground in the doing of ministry rather to find areas of disagreement over fine points of theology.
God just might do something magnificent through this effort if we show that we can keep the main thing the main thing!