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The Southern Baptist Convention and the Issue of Interdenominational Relationships

A Memorandum Prepared for the Great Commission Council of the Southern Baptist Convention

The question of Southern Baptist involvement in ecumenical organizations arose in the twentieth century with the development of church federations and parachurch organizations. Southern Baptists then faced decisions related to membership in, and participation with, movements that included other non-Catholic denominations.

The larger issue of Southern Baptist involvement with other denominations in evangelistic endeavors arose earlier. In the late nineteenth century, Southern Baptists eagerly joined with other denominations in revival prayer meetings and cooperated in the evangelistic campaigns of D. L. Moody.

Concern for the unity of the Body of Christ has characterized Southern Baptists from the organization of the SBC to the present. At the same time, the Convention has avoided entanglements that would compromise doctrine, restrict the freedom and independence of the Convention, or violate basic issues of Baptist conviction.

The first major stirrings of ecumenical interest came in the aftermath of Reconstruction as the nation healed its wounds and sought a new basis of unity. Unity among the churches was a part of this desire, and Southern Baptists did not resist the call to seek the unity of the denominations on a scriptural basis. In 1890 the Southern Baptist Convention stated: "We respectfully propose to the general bodies of our brethren of other denominations to select representative scholars, who shall seek to determine just what is the teaching of the Bible on the leading points of doctrine and polity between the denominations."1

A standing committee representing several bodies and denominations met over the next few years, and eventually produced a three-point basis of proposed union.2 The Southern Baptist Convention was not impressed. When in 1894 the group, by then known as the General Convention of Disciples, presented their report and overture to the SBC, a committee was assigned by the Convention to compose a response. The SBC committee expressed its frustration that the General Convention of Disciples had not attended to the biblical issues as the SBC had requested, but was instead satisfied with generalities. In their report, the SBC committee stated a principle that has guided Southern Baptists to this day: The only genuine basis of true Christian unity is a unity on the teachings of the Bible as commonly accepted and commonly understood. The Convention has thus resisted any compromise of its cherished doctrines, or any basis of union that would deny their importance.

The issue was of sufficient interest to the Convention that a paper was presented to the 1900 session of the SBC by I. T. Tichenor. At this point the issue ceased to interest the Convention for some time.

The issue of cooperative evangelism arose again in 1909 when the Home Mission Board asked the Convention to advise concerning the formation of a Home Missions Council, based in New York City, that was intended to produce a common home missions strategy for all Protestant denominations. The Convention responded by adopting a statement addressed to the mission board. The Convention advised its Home Mission Board that it was pleased by the courtesy and fraternity that it experienced with the other denominational boards. "We desire also that our Board shall have ample liberty for conference and for such concert of action with other Home Mission Boards, so far as it may deem proper for the maintenance of kindly relations and good understanding as to the vast and unspeakably important work of Home evangelization."3

But the Convention also expressed a warning against any doctrinal compromise. "These doctrines we hold only as we find them in the Scriptures, and they constitute, very largely, the reason for our denominational existence, and we can not [sic.] look with approval upon any alliances on the part of our Board that could possibly imperil these doctrines."4

Further, the Convention advised the HMB to avoid any agreement that would assign regional responsibility to respective denominational bodies, thus precluding the SBC from missions in those areas in which it was not assigned.

The SBC thus advised its board to avoid compromise, but it did not instruct the HMB to avoid any alliance that would not entail such compromises. As W. W. Barnes reflected, "The Convention thus declared that, on the one hand, neither itself nor any of its agencies shall be bound by agreement to any policies or methods, but that the way is left open to friendly and fraternal conference as occasion may arise; that, on the other hand, the churches cannot be bound by the Convention to cooperate or not co-operate [sic.] with any interdenominational organizations, since the churches themselves are independent bodies."5

The challenge of international missions has required inter-denominational contact and communication from the beginning of the modern missionary movement. The Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) was represented in meetings of the Foreign Missions Conference of North America from 1893 to 1919. The FMB joined the Conference in 1938 as international tensions reached a fever pitch. It withdrew from the Conference in 1950 when the National Council of Churches was formed and the Conference merged with that body.

The SBC also participated in meetings of a committee desiring a world conference of all Christian communions on issues of faith and order. From 1912 to 1918 a report on progress was made to the Convention.

In 1914 the SBC adopted a "Pronouncement on Christian Union and Denominational Efficiency" that set forth Southern Baptist conditions for any Christian union. The Convention again avoided any doctrinal compromise, and resisted calls for the denominations to overlook doctrinal differences. The SBC rejected the call for organic union but did not deny vast areas of doctrinal agreement: "We have declared ourselves on those matters which enter into the question of outward or organic Christian union. We have not dwelt upon the truths and doctrines in which there is substantial agreement among evangelical Christians. We rejoice that the measure of agreement is already so great. We regret that it is not great enough to remove our separateness from brethren in Christ who bear other names."6

President J. B. Gambrell addressed the 1919 Southern Baptist Convention with his concerns in the aftermath of World War I. The War Department had forced all non-Catholic chaplains to work without denominational identification, while allowing Roman Catholics freedom to their own convictions. President Gambrell expressed the outrage of the Convention: "The result [of the war policy] was, that in the most critical hour in the world’s history, the hour of the greatest evangelistic opportunity, the hour when the men in the camps most needed the strength of God in their hearts, the great evangelical denominations of America, which had made the moral fiber of the Nation, were forbidden as such to minister to their people."7

In 1925 the Southern Baptist Convention adopted both the Cooperative Program and the Baptist Faith & Message. In this historic Baptist confession, the SBC included an article on "Co-operation" that included this statement: "Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary co-operation for common ends by various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such co-operation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and his Word as revealed in the New Testament."8

By the onset of World War II, new urgencies called for a restatement of the Convention’s stance on union. The World Conference on Faith and Order was held at Oxford in England in 1937. Dr. John R. Sampey attended as the Convention’s official representative. Sampey addressed the Conference in a plenary session, and stated that "I have the distinct impression that in the findings of the Conference, though we affirm more than once our belief in the Saviourhood of the Lord Jesus, and his sole mediatorship, yet time and time again the church and the sacraments are thrust between the individual soul and the Saviour, as in some sense necessary to his salvation."9

In 1938 the SBC adopted a "Report on Interdenominational Relations" that included a bold and clear statement on Southern Baptist understandings of other evangelical denominations: " . . . [W]e profoundly rejoice in our spiritual union with all who love the Lord Jesus in sincerity and truth. We hold them as brothers in the saving grace of Christ, and heirs with us of life and immortality. We love their fellowship, and maintain that the spiritual union of all believers is now and ever will be a blessed reality. This spiritual union does not depend on organizations, or forms, or ritual. It is deeper, higher, broader, and more stable than any and all organizations. We believe that all people who believe in Christ as their personal Savior are our brothers in the common salvation, whether they be in the Catholic communion, or in a Protestant communion, or in any other communion, or in no communion." 10

At the same time, the Convention again expressed its opposition to organic union, claiming that Baptist distinctives were non-negotiable: "Any union founded on compromise and spurious appeals is a sham union, and will debilitate and retard the progress of Christianity the world over. Any such union must inevitably end in a wide apostasy, followed by inertia, indefiniteness, confusion, and waste of spiritual force." 11

The SBC would strictly avoid union with other denominations, but it was not opposed to cooperation. On the contrary: "Pending the working out of the problem of union we are glad to say that we stand ready at all times to co-operate with all our fellow Christians and our fellow citizens, whether Protestant or Catholic, whether Jew or Gentile, in every worthy effort for the moral and social uplift of humanity, as well as for the equal civil and religious rights of all men in all lands." 12

The principle was thus reset: Ecclesiastical separation would be combined with openness to cooperation in areas of common concern—but without compromise. The 1938 report is a clear statement of Baptist principles, and it is fundamental to all successive statements.

The timing was very important, for the very next year the Convention received an invitation to join the World Council of Churches. The SBC responded to the invitation in 1940 by adopting a report prepared by a committee led by George W. Truett. The Convention thanked the Council for its invitation, but declined based upon two considerations. First, the Convention lacked any ecclesiastical authority. Second, the Convention resisted "totalitarian trends" that threatened the autonomy of the churches.

Later, the SBC would also decline to join the National Council of Churches (and the Federal Council, its predecessor). Despite the urgings of significant SBC leaders, the Convention also declined to join the National Association of Evangelicals. In so doing the Convention sought to be consistent in the application of its polity.

In 1963 the Convention adopted a revised version of the Baptist Faith & Message, affirming and expanding upon its earlier statement. The 1963 version included important sections under articles XIV and XV. The article on "Co-operation" was expanded, retaining the basis wording of the 1925 statement. The closing sentence of the article reads: "Co-operation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is in itself justified, and when such co-operation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and his Word as revealed in the New Testament." 13

The 1963 statement added an article on "The Christian and the Social Order" that included the following important sentence: "In order to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all persons of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and his truth." 14

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Courtesy of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fidelitas