A story is told of an Amish farmer who had a difficult time with a cow. She would step in the bucket or slap the farmer with her tail when he tried to milk her. After several attempts to remedy the situation the farmer decided to speak to the cow. He said, “Thou knowest I am a non-violent man. Thou knowest I will not hit thee. What thou doest not know is that I will sell thee to a Baptist.”
Baptists have a reputation for pugnaciousness, which tends to promote disunity. There are 650 denominations in the U.S., with 40 kinds of Baptists: Missionary Baptists, Southern Baptists, Hard-shell Baptists and a few Hardheaded Baptists.
We can do better.
Scripture gives us instructions and examples of healthy cooperation. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, is a passage about cooperation that promotes rewards, restoration, rest and reinforcement. Acts 15 records the Jerusalem Conference where church representatives came together to settle doctrinal and practical disputes. The most in-depth account of churches cooperating financially is found in 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15. There are also numerous biblical examples of the principle of cooperation: Exodus 17:12; Judges 7:21; Nehemiah 4; Matthew 10:5-15; Mark 2:3; Luke 10:1f; Ephesians 4:1-16; and Philippians 1:15-18.
Throughout history, Baptists have discovered the practical benefits of cooperation.
Historical precedent for cooperation among Baptists is found as early as 1654. Likewise, Welsh Baptists agreed to protect doctrinal purity and to promote missionary endeavors. The 1689 London Confession said that the association of churches was to, “raise feeble churches, also for the purpose of ministerial education,” and the first association of churches in America was formed in 1707 in an attempt to combine the efforts of the churches. Subsequently, conventions were formed to further the advance of the gospel. Throughout history, Baptists have discovered the practical benefits of cooperation.
Sadly, American individualism is taking a toll on cooperative work among Southern Baptists. Baptists have long cherished local church autonomy, but they equally valued working with those of like faith and practice. Today, new networks have sprung up, challenging a proven method of cooperation. Affinity groupings around church planting, a certain theological bent, or even ministry styles are pulling at the fabric of Southern Baptist life. International mission efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention are suffering financially due to the allurement of a failed system of the past—societal missions.
We may be witnessing the downgrading of one of the most effective strategies ever employed: the Cooperative Program. While the nomenclature is somewhat antiquated, the strategy is still the best to accomplish a combining of the churches’ efforts to train and send proclaimers of the gospel. Can we recapture the passion of cooperative ministry?
If we are to forge our way ahead in cooperative efforts, there are three basic areas of agreement necessary for churches to be able to work together:
Without question the first must be found in theological agreement. What we believe about the nature of Scripture and certain doctrines that flow from that foundational belief will enable us to find common ground.
The Southern Baptist Convention approved a statement of faith in the year 2000. This document is not an exhaustive statement. It is a minimalist statement that sets down certain parameters for SBC ministries. All of the agencies of the SBC have adopted the BF&M (2000) as their operating standard. This provides assurances that seminaries, missionaries and other ministries will do their work within the boundaries of the doctrinal statement.
On one hand, it has enough latitude to include Calvinists and Traditionalists. You can believe in Historic Pre-Millennialism, Dispensational Pre-Millennialism, A-Millennialism and everything in between, yet still affirm the BF&M (2000). On the other hand, what we believe about the nature of the Word of God is unequivocally stated. Salvation, security, baptism by immersion and other doctrinal areas are defined with precision. Current social issues, such as the sanctity of life and marriage, are set forth with compassion and clarity. Churches are autonomous; a church may decide to have a different statement of faith. But when working together as a body of churches, there is agreement on the lines of fellowship.
The second area on which churches must agree is the Kingdom focus. Why have denominations? Because no church is too small that it cannot contribute or so large it can do it alone. A local church needs other churches to accomplish the Kingdom work. Missions and evangelism is the major functional aspect of cooperation. Strengthening churches is important as well. Many small and medium-size churches depend on the larger Baptist family for training, fellowship and assistance. We are stronger together. Collaborating on a mission strategy for a city or people group is enhanced by cooperative efforts.
The third area on which churches must agree is financial investment. Often we hear “methods change but the message never changes.” I agree, but some successful methods need to be retained too. An undesignated giving channel with percentage giving by the church is an appropriate plan for Kingdom missions and ministry. The Apostle Paul made mention of the churches that supported his missionary enterprise in 2 Corinthians 11:8. He also pointed out the collection of the churches by the ministers chosen from the churches in 2 Corinthians 8. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. SBC churches in the 19th century tried societal missions. It did not work. Let’s not fall back into that pattern.
God intends for believers to interact with one another as a community of faith. We need others. Local churches are no different. It is vital for the cause of the gospel that we join together to accomplish Kingdom work. Confessional cooperative missions and ministries are a testimony to other believers. We also show a watching world that we really do love one another.