The Danger of Baptist Isolationism on the Mission Field

Posted by in Baptist Life

For the past couple of years, one of the main issues that has driven the “Baptist blogosphere” has been the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) IMB guidelines on baptism and “private prayer language.” As most who read this will already be aware, I have taken a public stand opposing both guidelines. I still believe it is important that the guidelines be reversed, and encourage anyone who has not yet done so to sign the Time to Change document (read an important update here).

However, for me, the guidelines, in and of themselves, are not the main issue. They are, rather, symptomatic and symbolic of an underlying issue that I think is of much greater import for us as Southern Baptists as we set our sights for the future on a Great Commission Resurgence. That issue is the danger of Baptist isolationism on the mission field.

Around 10 years ago when “New Directions” at the IMB (now called “Strategic Directions for the 21st Century”) was launched, a number of missiological principles were systematically communicated to leadership and field workers by means of various conferences, training events, and in-house documents. One of the main ideas was that, if we are going to complete the task of reaching all the people groups of the world with the gospel, it is going to take something bigger than our personal ministry efforts alone. It is also going to take something bigger than the combined resources of the IMB and the SBC. It is a God-sized task. And the accomplishment of a God-sized task, in addition to the sovereign, wonder-working power of God, implies the combined efforts of all of the Body of Christ, whether back home in the United States, on the “mission field” itself, or around the world. The Lausanne Movement has captured well the idea behind this sentiment with the watch-phrase “The Whole Church taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.”

The Bible itself bears witness to this idea in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12, where it talks about the hand needing the foot, the eye needing the ear, etc. in the Body of Christ. I don’t know what part of the Body corresponds to us as Southern Baptists. But, when you look at the data, I believe it is clear we are only a part, and not the whole.

Statistically, Southern Baptists, whether 6 million or 16 million, make up less than 1% of professed Christians in the world. If you only count those who among the sub-group “Evangelicals-Pentecostals-Charismatics” have been termed “Great Commission Christians” (e.g. those, who, according to our understanding of the gospel, we could likely assume to be truly “born again”), we still make up less than 3% of the total. If you add in members of other Baptist unions and conventions around the world (estimated at 50 million), the total is still less than 8% of all “Great Commission Christians.” Throw in the approximately 30 million Independent Baptists, and the number comes up to a little more than 12%. The point is, no matter how you slice it, we, as Baptists, are still just a small piece of the pie.

In spite of this, there is a movement afoot that would have us narrow our cooperation with other Great Commission Christians, in favor of working strictly with other Baptist groups who dot their “i’s” and cross their “t’s” just like we do. I think it is a good thing that we, as Southern Baptists, have biblical parameters to guide the way we frame our own cooperation at a denominational level. Theological liberalism, in particular, is a spiritual cancer that eats at the heart of the world missions enterprise. However, at the same time, I believe we must remain cognizant of the fact that we are still just a small minority in the Body of Christ, and respond accordingly in the way we relate to other believers around the world

Although I publicly endorsed Bill Wagner for president of the SBC, I am convinced that Johnny Hunt will do an excellent job. I am pleased to see that in the international missions ministry of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Georgia, where Hunt is pastor, they strategically and intentionally cooperate with several different “Great Commission” groups (see here). It appears they have a balanced emphasis of supporting both specifically Southern Baptist missions as well as cooperating with the broader Body of Christ. I am also hopeful that Hunt will pay attention to the voices of people like Wagner and Avery Willis, who have both spoken out in favor of doing more to cooperate in world missions with other like-minded believers (see here and here).

I am also hopeful that SBC Global Evangelical Relations Strategist Bobby Welch will continue to give an appropriate emphasis in Southern Baptist life to expanding our Great Commission partnerships around the world. I am encouraged by what Welch said in his recent report to the convention. Here are few choice snippets…

We have said it over and over as a convention, that in no way, no form, no fashion is the Southern Baptist Convention entertaining any idea of being isolationist. We intend to stay on the cutting edge, as long as God gives us breath, to reach more people in this world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ…It will take more of the entire body of Christ who are connected and cooperating to share the Gospel around the world. The Great Commission for the lost requires what I call the ‘Great Connection’ of the saved. The Great Commission will not happen without this Great Connection. When the Great Commission is accomplished — and I believe before any of us in this room die — it will be done through what will clearly be seen by history and eternity as the Great Connection of likeminded men and women who carry the Gospel to all the world.

Since being named to his post by the SBC’s Executive Committee in 2007, Welch said he has had over 1,000 meetings with people all around the world “on this subject of our broadening our commitment to global evangelical relationships.”

Personally, I think this is a great start. I commend the work of Welch, and the enthusiasm and commitment with which he appears to have embraced his new position. But the truth is, the task of relating to and cooperating with Great Commission partners will always be primarily the responsibility of IMB field workers spread out across the globe, who have the opportunity to interact on a daily basis, and form deeper and more significant relationships, with those who live and work in their particular area of the world.

I think it is crucial that IMB workers continue to sense the “green light” from Southern Baptists at large to move forward in this task. It is for this reason that, when I hear reports of Landmarkism making a comeback within the SBC, I get concerned. It is not that I hold a personal grudge, or anything like that, against those who, for whatever reason, hold to this particular interpretation of biblical ecclesiology. It is because I am concerned about how Southern Baptist efforts to join with the Body of Christ around the world may be affected. Though some in the so-called “Baptist Identity” or “Baptist Renaissance” movement have insisted they are not truly Landmarkist in their views, I am still concerned that the particular emphases they are defending may indeed tend to move us towards an increasingly isolationist approach on the mission field.

I realize I am just one voice among many. But this is a major part of what has motivated me in the past several years to get actively involved in denominational issues, and to express my ideas on the blogosphere. I believe God still wants to use us as Southern Baptists to make a major contribution to the evangelization of the world. And, I am hopeful we do not get sidetracked on our way to a true Great Commission Resurgence.