Confessions of an Ecumenical, Evangelical, Baptist Christian
The only problematic adjective in that string of labels, at least to most people, is “ecumenical.” How can a person be all four of those at once? Well, some might question whether one can be evangelical and Baptist or Baptist and Christian, but I’ll set those aside for now. I’ll take for granted that in the U.S., anyway, the problematic element in the list is ecumenical. Many evangelicals and Baptists question whether it is possible to be ecumenical and evangelical, or ecumenical and Baptist, or even ecumenical and Christian!
Lately there’s been a lot of talk among Baptist theologians about Baptist catholicity—whether and how it might be possible for Baptists to affirm their own catholicity in the sense of belonging to the church universal. By this they clearly do not mean just belonging to some invisible church of Jesus Christ composed of all true believers throughout the world and across the ages. Most Baptists believe in that (except those affected by Landmarkism). They mean belonging to the visible church of Jesus Christ together with other visible churches.
I don’t intend to wade into that debate here and now. My intention is only to explain what I mean when I identify myself as “ecumenical” together with “evangelical,” “Baptist,” and “Christian.” I’ve said enough previously here for anyone who visits my blog regularly to at least have some sense of what I mean by the latter three labels. What I haven’t discussed as much is what I mean by ecumenical—at least when I embrace that term.
Over the years I’ve participated in many interdenominational ecumenical dialogue events. And I’ve been involved in several denominations during my life. I grew up one kind of Pentecostal in a large, extended family of relatives that included passionately committed Christian Reformed, Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), other kinds of Pentecostals, Two-By-Twos (a no-name house church movement), Methodists, Evangelical Free and several other denominations. I graduated from a Pentecostal college, a Baptist seminary and a secular university. I studied in the Evangelical (primarily Lutheran) Faculty of a German state university and attended weekly seminars between the Protestant and Catholic faculty and students. (The seminars were held in the Catholic Faculty of the university and co-taught by Wolfhart Pannenberg and a Catholic theologian whose name I have forgotten.)
I taught at Oral Roberts University, a truly ecumenical institution that leaned toward the United Methodist Church then. Among the theology faculty were members of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Baptist, and other communions and traditions. Then I taught at a Baptist college with faculty colleagues from numerous different denominations. Finally, I teach at a Baptist university where I rub shoulders with colleagues from many denominations. (Although all my seminary colleagues are Baptist.)
When I taught at Bethel College in Minnesota I actively participated in ecumenical dialogue events hosted by Carl Braaten’s and Robert Jenson’s Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. One of my articles on ecumenical dialogue was published by Pro Ecclesia. These dialogue events included Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Congregational, Presbyterian, Anglican and many other representatives of diverse denominational traditions. Participants and speakers included Jose Miguez Bonino (Methodist liberation theologian from Argentina), Stephen Sykes (Anglican bishop), George Lindbeck (Lutheran), Gabriel Fackre (Congregational), Timothy George (Baptist).
Over the years I have attended and participated in many other interdenominational, ecumenical dialogue events and have enjoyed all of them. I have also invited representatives of various Christian traditions into my classes including Catholic priests, Lutheran pastors, Mennonites pastors, Reformed pastors and theologians, Eastern Orthodox priests and deacons, etc.
Somewhere along the way I served a Presbyterian congregation as minister of Christian education and youth. And organized and led summer Vacation Bible Schools at our church sponsored and taught by several congregations of various denominations.
What I want to say is that I am anything BUT a dyed-in-the-wool, separatistic, sectarian Baptist.
But I am a convinced and committed Free Church, evangelical Protestant and Baptist.
Finally, however, I identify myself MOST importantly as a Christian. And I see myself as a member of the Great Tradition of catholic and orthodox Christianity. (By “catholic and orthodox” I mean affirmation of the substance, if not the language, of the ecumenical creeds of the undivided church.)
I have to illustrate my ecumenism with a story. During the last ecumenical dialogue event of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology that I attended, held at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota in (I believe it was 1995), I heard much talk about “the visible and institutional unity of the churches.” That emerged clearly as the goal of those dialogue events. Of course, nobody thought they alone were going to accomplish it, but the events were meant to serve that purpose and goal.
As I listened I detected that one thing standing in the way of such visible and institutional unity of the churches was intercommunion including pulpit exchange. There was a felt need to move to a point where denominations could celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist together and where priests and ministers could preach in each other’s pulpits. (In some churches ministers of other denominations can only speak from the lectern and not from the pulpit!)
During that period of time when I was participating in those ecumenical events hosted by Braaten and Jenson (at St. Olaf College and the University of St. Thomas) some of the participants were greatly excited and heartened by the ELCA’s and Episcopal Church’s agreement to recognize each others’ ministries fully and to have an Episcopal bishop present at every ELCA ordination. (Many ELCA folks were not so excited by the latter!)
During one particularly energetic and passionate session a leader of the dialogue expressed hope that the pope would admit he’s not infallible so Protestants and Catholics could re-unite into one visible and institutional church. It became clear to me that HAVING BISHOPS was envisioned by the majority of those present as necessary for the ecumenical goal to be reached. The leaders could not understand why some of us demurred and said we could never accept the rule of bishops over our churches.
Finally, when it came my turn to respond, representing evangelicals and Baptists, I said that Baptists and other Free Church evangelicals would never accept bishops in the sense in which they, the organizers and leaders of the events, envisioned. I told them I was grateful to be included in their dialogues, but that IF “ecumenism” meant “visible and institutional unity” centered around an episcopacy we would not be able to participate.
But I didn’t stop there. I informed them about something they did not seem to know. We (Baptists and Free Church evangelicals—with some notable exceptions, of course) already have interdenominational fellowship, ministerial exchange, shared ministry, pulpit exchange, and intercommunion. I told them that any one of them could preach Jesus Christ and him crucified from the pulpit of my church regardless of their denominational identities. And I told them they could take communion in my church so long as they confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I called that “true ecumenism of the Spirit.”
My point, which I had to abbreviate but I think they understood, was that real Christian unity was not broken by denominational labels or even traditions. It is broken by anathemas and refusal of shared communion and rejection of real Christians’ ministries just because of differences of doctrine and practice.
Some people think that’s poor ecclesiology, as if by saying this I’m demoting being Baptist to unimportance. Nobody who knows me thinks that about me! I’m passionately Baptist. But by no means does that hinder my enthusiasm for cooperation with and full acceptance of other true Christians to fellowship. (I would draw the line at Unitarians or truly liberal Protestants or Catholics.)
The true Church of Jesus Christ can be variegated without being divided. That’s what I’m saying. Differences of doctrine and practice do not have to be walls of separation.
As an evangelical Baptist Christian I regard myself as one in Spirit with all who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and affirm the orthodox faith in the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity (even some who seriously misunderstand and therefore reject the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity).
John Wesley said “If your heart is as mine, give me your hand.” Yes, yes, I know. The complaint is that reduces Christianity to a warm, fuzzy feeling. Anyone who knows Wesley knows that’s not what he meant. He would not have Christian fellowship with Unitarians no matter how warm they said their hearts were. He did not empty true Christianity of all cognitive content. His saying was simply a way of expressing his acceptance as equally Christian persons of different denominational identities.
There is one true church of Jesus Christ throughout the world and across the ages. And it is visible. It’s not always easy to tell exactly who belongs to it. Mormons have asked me if I think they belong to it. So far, I do not. They keep working on me. I think some may belong to it in spite of their church’s unorthodox teachings and practices. But that would not lead me to worship in one of their churches. I could attend and observe, but I could not worship there with them in Spirit and in truth. I can in many Catholic churches, Eastern Orthodox churches, Protestant churches of all denominations. And in “sectarian” churches that don’t identify as any of that for whatever their particular historical reasons may be (e.g., Friends/Quakers).
Having said all of that, I must also say there are Baptist churches where I could not worship or take communion. And I’m not just talking about certain Primitive Baptist churches that wouldn’t ALLOW me to take communion with them! There are Baptist churches that care nothing about catholic or orthodox Christianity; they have turned their backs on the Great Tradition of Christianity and gone another way—led by their own individual thoughts and desires without regard to Scripture or orthodox Christianity. I once briefly belonged to one. I had to leave it when I discerned that orthodox Christianity meant nothing to them. Their only unity was agreement that diversity is a good thing.
I fully realize that Baptists may not be regarded as catholic or orthodox by some other Christians. To some Catholics, perhaps to the present pope, our churches are nothing more than religious clubs, parachurch organizations. Well, that’s sad. But that doesn’t give me license to reject Catholic churches as false churches. I believe they are defective in certain ways, but so are most Baptist churches! We are all but unworthy servants of the one Master who alone is perfect!
I believe we, catholic and orthodox Christians, can all learn from each other. We are all on a journey toward that eschatological church when we will be visibly and institutionally one in the great Kingdom of God. We can approximate that here, but it is unlikely, probably impossible that we will ever achieve visible or institutional unity within history before our Lord returns.
But that doesn’t really matter to me. I do not tremble when I enter a Methodist church. A very dear, young friend told me that God called him from his Pentecostal background, through a Baptist church experience, to become a United Methodist elder. I know him to be a dedicated, passionate follower of the Lord Jesus Christ and have every reason to believe that God will use him to help renew and revive that church out of its mainline doldrums. That doesn’t mean I now agree with infant baptism; I don’t. But neither do I think it is evil or the mark of the Antichrist or even nothing more than “infant dedication with water.” It’s not my place to say such things. I simply think believer baptism is more appropriate to the nature of baptism as an act of commitment. I am just as opposed to “kiddy baptism” in some Baptist churches as to infant baptism and maybe more so because it is so inauthentic and unfaithful to our understanding of conversion and the ordinances.
Do I think it would be good if all Christians became Baptists? I don’t even think about it. I think more about what I, as a Baptist, can learn from other Christians—without any intention of converting to their denominations. If someone asks me why I’m a Baptist and expresses interest and openness to becoming one, I’ll do my best to convince them the rightness of Baptist distinctives.
What I do think is that it would be a good thing if all Baptists became Christians! And I mean true Christians including orthodox Christians—believers in the incarnation and Trinity beyond lip service. Most that I know are, but not all are.
I feel absolutely no interest in becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Lutheran or Episcopalian or…. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think I can learn from them.
For the most part I do think the Baptist tradition is closest to authentic New Testament Christianity and that’s why I’m a Baptist. But that doesn’t mean I think Baptists have “arrived” and can now become complacent about our tradition or even chauvinistic about it. Complacency is one of the surest signs of spiritual malaise.
My ecumenism is messier than the “visible and institutional unity” of the churches sought by many in the ecumenical movement. Frankly, I don’t even care about that. I celebrate the diversity of Christians, not as something ideal but also not as something tragic—unless they divide us from each other spiritually. I even want Methodists to be GOOD Methodists. I want Presbyterians to be GOOD Presbyterians. Above all I want Baptists to be GOOD Baptists—by which I mean first and foremost true Christians and secondly strong witnesses for historic Baptist distinctive such as separation of church and state, religious freedom, believers churches and baptism, the necessity of personal repentance and faith, etc. Deep in my heart I suspect that IF Baptists become and remain GOOD Baptists, others will be attracted to us. But, if they aren’t, I won’t question their spirituality or the quality of their Christianity, so long as they are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ first and foremost and also adherents of orthodox Christianity broadly defined Christologically.