This Sunday, January 20, marks the beginning of the centennial anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. I received some information from the ABC-USA and also came across an article in the recent issue of Baptists Today that referred to the subject. Until recently, I had never heard of such a recognition. This isn’t really all that surprising when you consider my denominational upbringing. I’ve been in Southern Baptist churches most of my life and can’t recall ever hearing about the need to be unified with followers of other denominations. There were, however, warnings to avoid too much association with them because there were significant issues that were “non-negotiatable” which prevented our fellowship. We had to be careful not to compromise our beliefs by being around them. Southern Baptists, in particular, have had this mindset and this influence had an affect on me early on. This view has been reinforced time and agains, and most significantly with the SBC’s withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance. Fortunately, I came to realize that they (we) were not “God’s last and only hope” as the Bill Leonard book title indicated.
Although there won’t be an elaborate celebration, our church will be told about such a recognition and I’ll be preaching on unity from John 17. Jesus prayed for all persons who would come to faith through the message of those early followers. That includes us of course, and his desire was that we would be “one” so that the world would know that he came from the Father. Unity is so important for God’s people that Jesus prayed for it to occur among his disciples.
One lesson that I’ve had reinforced in my preparation this week is that Baptists haven’t set a very good example in the spiritual unity category. We’re much better at being legalistic, judgmental, and occasionally self-righteous in our belief that we have a corner on the truth. Our reputation has tended to be one of “what we’re against” than “what we’re for.” It is possible to have our doctrinal ducks in a row and be unkind and condescending to those who disagree with us. Oftentimes it has seemed that Baptists didn’t need anyone else to get the work of Christ done. I recall a Southern Baptist mindset that was subtle yet real during conventions and pastor’s conferences. Humility hasn’t been in abundant supply.
Fortunately, I now travel in different Baptist circles and among people in a church who embrace ecumenism rather than fear it. Yes, we have our Baptist distinctives and these are precious to us. We believe in cooperative missions without controlling institutions and the spirit of volunteerism is encouraged. But, it is refreshing and liberating to be part of a Baptist presence that appreciates the diversity of denominations. I am grateful to be Baptist, but much more so to be a Christian. I’ve realized that some of the beliefs I’ve held through the years were rooted more in Baptist tradition than Bible. Time, study, and meeting believers from other theological rooms have caused me to rethink some of these previously “non-negotiable” positions.
We may not experience the unity Christ mentioned in this life. There is too much denominational turf to be protected and yes, there are significant theological truths that should not be compromised. Christians may agree on biblical authority but interpretation remains a sticking point. But it doesn’t mean there can’t be love and partnership among all of God’s followers. I remember the words of my theology professor when challenged by his students on particular theological views: “I think I’m right about this position. But, when I get to heaven, and if Jesus tells me I was wrong, I’m not going to argue with him at that point.”
The familiar refrain is worth repeating: “In Essentials, unity. In Non-Essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” Happy 100th anniverary, and let’s keep on praying.