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The church and the cooperative Baptist fellowship.

Because Walter B. Shurden--Buddy--has emphasized so forcefully and for so long and in so many venues that freedom is intrinsic to the Baptist identity, and because nowadays the word freedom is so closely associated with individualism, it is possible to overlook how deeply Buddy has been committed to the church. But surely he has.

In a personal memoir he has described how profoundly the congregations to which he has belonged have shaped his life. During and following his seminary years he was an effective pastor, and he continues to be a gifted preacher. He wrote his doctoral dissertation about associations in Baptist life in the United States. He has written about the Baptist Joint Committee and the Baptist World Alliance. He taught in four Baptist institutions of higher education. He was a leader in the formation of a new ecclesial body, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; it was most appropriate that at the inauguration of the CBF he was the person who read the "Address to the Public" explaining why the CBF was being founded.

Buddy and his wife Kay are active members in their church, the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Kay is a deacon there, and Buddy has taught and preached there. He has remarked that one of his favorite experiences is table-hopping at Wednesday evening church suppers. Buddy has been a devout, engaged churchman for his entire adult life.

My wife Caroline and I treasure our friendship with Buddy and Kay. It is a privilege for me to contribute to this festschrift honoring him.

In this essay I will offer a biblical and theological account of the church; show that the church is called to live out a visible, public unity; and describe two sets of beliefs and practices that characterize the ecclesial body that Buddy Shurden helped to launch, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, things that are not shared by all ecclesial bodies, with a view to discerning whether they are compatible with a visible, public unity with other Christian bodies.

A Biblical Theology of the Church

The biblical authors used both narratives and metaphors in their writing about the church.

The Historical Narrative of the Bible

The Bible is filled with historical narrative. Naturally the biblical story has many sub-plots, but the central plot is that God was creating a people to be God's "treasured possession" (Exod. 19:5).

In the Old Testament era the people of God were Israel, the biological descendants of Abraham and Sarah, who sometimes were joined by other persons such as Ruth. God promised Abraham, "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:2-3). Already here at the headwaters of the historical narrative, the people of God are both an object of God's blessing and an instrument for conveying that blessing to the entire world.

God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. A covenant is a formal relationship between two or more parties. A marriage is a covenant, and so is an international treaty. The content of God's covenant with Israel is summarized in a phrase that with minor variations occurs about twenty times in the Bible: "I will be your God, and you will be my people" (Jer. 7:23).

Israel's covenant relationship with God was the principal factor in its self-understanding, so Israel was devastated when the Lord seemed to be cancelling that relationship by allowing Israel to be defeated by its enemies. In 586 BCE, as the leaders of Israel were being carried off into captivity in Babylon, Jeremiah said to them, "The days are surely coming, says the Lord ... when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jer. 31:31-33).

Jesus carried forward God's work of creating a people of God by providing that new covenant (Luke 22:20). The central image in his preaching was the kingdom of God, the gracious reign of God over the people of God. Jesus urged people to seek God's kingdom more than anything else (Matt. 6:33; see also Matt. 13:44-45) and to enter the kingdom as little children (Matt. 18:3). To those who accepted his invitation Jesus said, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). The reference to a "little flock" suggests that Jesus thought of those who accepted his invitation as a distinct community.

On the festival of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, the new community received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit then guided and empowered the community to set out on an audacious mission. Whereas in the past religions tended to be local or tribal, as Israel's was, Jesus intended his community to take the message about him "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The new community carried out God's original intention of blessing all the families of the earth through Abraham and Sarah by welcoming Samaritans (Acts 8), then God-fearing Gentiles such as Cornelius (Acts 10), and eventually Hellenistic and non-Hellenistic Gentiles (the Greek and barbarian of Col. 3:11). Soon, Christian congregations appeared in cities throughout the Mediterranean region.

The writers of the New Testament referred to each congregation as a church (ekklesia) and to two or more of them as churches (ekklesiai, Gal. 1:2). This was a natural usage, since ekklesia means an assembly. The writers also used ekklesia to refer to the people themselves, whether assembled or not. They then found it natural to use ekklesia to refer not only to the people of a single congregation but also to all the people in all the congregations, that is, to all Christians. The ekklesia, the church, is therefore an aggregate of all the people of God.

Two things are evident from the fact that the central plot of the historical narrative of the Bible is that God is creating a people to be the people of God:

First, in an important sense the church is created by God and not by humans. It is true sociologically that individuals come together to form voluntary associations called "churches." But it is also true that their associating as Christians and as church has been made possible by what God has already done through Jesus and by what God is continuing to do as the Spirit pours God's life and love into the lives of converts. The covenants that Christians make with each other in their churches are made possible by the covenant that God made with all humans in Jesus Christ. The dynamic of divine initiative and human response has been described in several ways. Theologian Claude Welch expressed it by saying that God's convocatio (calling) makes possible Christians' congregatio (voluntarily associating). In 1912 William Temple wrote: "The Church was founded by the Life, the Teaching, the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and by the consequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit; it was not made by men; its first members did not construct it, but joined it."

Second, the church is of intrinsic value to God. It is not just instrumentally valuable, a means to some greater end. From the beginning God intended to create a people and to do this through Israel and then to extend it through Jesus. God's eternal purpose was "to gather up all things in [Christ]." Of course, the church also is of instrumental value to God. God has assigned the church an important mission, and the Spirit guides and empowers the church for that mission. But it is unwise, in my judgment, to say as some do that "the church is a mission." It is better to say that the church is the beloved people of God and that it has a mission.

Images of the Church

The authors of the Bible used both metaphors and narratives to write about the church. In his book Images of the Church in the New Testament, Paul Minear reviewed ninety-six biblical images. Three of the most fully developed images in the Bible are the people of God, the body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit.

First Israel and later the church are called "the people of God." This image emphasizes God's work. The people of God exist because God calls them together and makes a covenant with them. But just as in covenants such as marriage both parties make certain commitments, so it is with God's covenant. In Deuteronomy (5:1-21) the Ten Commandments are presented as Israel's side of the covenant.

The apostle Paul repeatedly referred to the church as the body of Christ (Rom. 12:4-8, 1 Cor. 12:12-30). It is a striking metaphor but in some ways a spent one. The language of "body" and "members'' has become so conventional that much of its metaphorical power has been lost.

This image, too, emphasizes God's work. Eyes and ears do not voluntarily come together to create a body; a body is an organic unity of which eyes and ears are members. But the members of Christ's body, like eyes and ears in a human body, have responsibilities. The Spirit gives the members spiritual gifts that they are to use in the service of the entire body. The gifts are diverse, which is good: "If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?" (1 Cor. 12:17). The church's diversity is important, but so is its unity. Christ has only one body. It is through that body that Christ works in the world, just as we work through our bodies. Through his body Christ is blessing the families of the earth.

Although the phrase "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" appears only once in the Bible (2 Cor. 13:14, REB), the idea of the church as a fellowship of persons whose common life has been given to them by the Spirit appears repeatedly. The most important factor in that shared life is love, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

With this image, also, it is God who has taken the initiative to create the church. "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 5:5). But as with the other images, the members of the church are called to respond to the divine initiative. Their response is to love God and to love their neighbors. God's initiative and our response are perfectly balanced in John's lovely comment, "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). The image of a fellowship emphasizes also that the church is an end in itself, not just a means to some other, more important ends.

There are several kinds of groups of people. Some groups are together just because they happen to be in the same place at the same time; this is true, for example, of people traveling on a commercial airline flight. Other groups are more united because they share a common task; this is true of a surgical team, for example. The most tightly knit groups are those who are together because their members care for each other; this is true of a healthy family, for example.

The church is all of these things. Like a healthy family, the members of a healthy congregation are together because they love one another. Like a surgical team, the members of a congregation have important work to do together. Like airplane passengers, the members of a congregation assemble in one place at one time.

I have taken a risk by beginning this essay with a biblical theology of the church rather than with a sociological or experiential or historical account of the church. The risk is that I may seem to have been talking about an ideal that does not exist in the real world. I was not. The Second Baptist Church of Greenville, Mississippi, that so influenced Buddy Shurden in his youth is the people of God, the body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit. The church in this place and all other places was created by God, who binds them together "with bands of love" (Hos. 11:4).

But what is the nature of the unity of all God's people?

The Unity of the Church

The classic biblical text about the unity of the church is the prayer Jesus offered to the Father on behalf of his disciples (John 17:1-26). He prayed that the Father would protect the disciples, their faith, and their unity. He prayed for "those also who through their words put their faith in me," a reference to Christians of all times. Four times he prayed that all Christians would be one.

Jesus did not pray for an invisible, inner unity but for a visible, public one: He said unity would make it possible that "the world may believe that you sent me." He compared the unity of all his followers to the sublime unity that he shares with his Father. Jesus asked that the love the Father had for him would also be in his followers. Here is part of his prayer:
   I have made your name known to the men whom you gave me out of the
   world.... They have believed that you sent me.... Holy Father,
   protect them by the power of your name.... that they may be one....
   It is not for these alone that I pray, but for those also who
   through their words put their faith in me. May they all be one; as
   you, Father, are in me, and 1 in you, so also may they be in us,
   that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you
   gave me I have given to them, that they may be one, as we are one;
   I in them and you in me, may they be perfectly one. Then the world
   will know that you sent me, and that you loved them as you loved me
   (John 17:6, 8, 11, 20-23, REB).

Sadly, we followers of Jesus have never been unified in the way he wanted. Jesus' first disciples quarreled, the members of the churches of the New Testament era did the same, and the church across the centuries has continued the practice.

Then, in the eleventh century, a new kind of disunity occurred. It was greater than disagreement and disharmony; it was an official separation. The Great Schism of the eleventh century that divided the church of the East and the West was followed by the many schisms arising during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Today the disunity of Christians takes the form of thousands of denominations of churches. The church for whose unity Jesus prayed so fervently is officially divided.

Across the centuries efforts have been made to institute the deep unity for which Jesus prayed. These ranged from Paul's advice to the Roman church about how its weak and strong members could live together harmoniously despite their different convictions about kosher foods and Sabbath observance (Romans 14-15), to the modern ecumenical movement that attempts to heal the official division into denominations.

It is natural to assume that the objective of the ecumenical movement is the merger of all denominations into one great church, and it is true that some denominations have merged. Following are examples of some successful mergers, the first two outside the United States and the last two in the U.S.:

* The United Church of Canada (1925) brought together Brethren, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

* The Church of South India (1947) brought together Anglicans, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

* The United Church of Christ (1957) brought together a group of Lutheran and Reformed churches of German origin (The Evangelical and Reformed Church) with a group of Congregational and Christian churches of English origin (The Congregational Christian Churches).

* The United Methodist Church (1968) brought together the Methodist Church USA and the Evangelical United Brethren.

But the ecumenical movement has a vision of Christian unity for denominations that probably never will enter into mergers. It is a vision in which the denominations continue to exist and to retain their particular beliefs and practices but nevertheless enter into visible, public unity with other denominations. This understanding of unity originates in the conviction that each denomination should hold in trust for others the things it values that are not yet possessed by the others. The classic description of this unity appears in a report adopted by the World Council of Churches when it met in New Delhi in 1961:
   We believe that the unity which is both God's will and his gift to
   his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are
   baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are
   brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship,
   holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking
   the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate
   life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same
   time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places
   and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by
   all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires
   for the tasks to which God calls his people.

This kind of unity is consonant with Jesus' prayer. It a visible, public unity that the world can see. It allows the denominations to retain their particular beliefs and practices. We will illustrate this with reference to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with which Buddy Shurden has been so closely associated.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is committed to Baptist beliefs and practices and to moderate beliefs and practices.


The first and most obvious Baptist belief/practice that is not shared with all other Christian bodies is that only believers should be baptized. Since baptism is a rite of initiation into the church, a consequence of baptizing only believers is a believers' church as distinct from a church comprised of believers and their infant children. A related belief is that baptism should be practiced only by immersion.

Each Baptist congregation is self-governing, and within each congregation all members share in decision-making. These practices set Baptist churches apart from connectional churches in which the denominational judicatory has the authority to direct a congregation's life. From these beginnings, Baptists understood that it was important for the independent congregations to work together cooperatively in order to strengthen each other and to carry out missions and ministries effectively.

The Baptist understanding of congregational life is one in which the concerns of the individual and her freedom are balanced with the concerns of the congregation, with a tilt toward the freedom of the individual. The Baptist understanding of denominational life is one in which the concerns of the congregation and its freedom are balanced with the concerns of the denomination, with a tilt toward the freedom of the congregation.

Baptists were some of the first people to recognize that the way to provide maximal religious freedom for all citizens in a religiously diverse society is to effect a separation of church and state. This vision of the relationship of church and society was implemented politically first in the constitution of Rhode Island and later in that of the United States. The American experiment in religious liberty is a success. Our religiously diverse nation remains united without the glue of an official religion to hold us together, and religion flourishes here without official support from the government.

Thanks in part to the work of Buddy Shurden, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has been faithful to these beliefs and practices that Baptists have treasured for four centuries. The CBF would almost certainly resist any version of Christian unity that required it to surrender them.


In some circles today moderation is considered a vice. It is associated with a lack of conviction or a compromise of convictions. These are regrettable associations. Moderation is a virtue, the antidote to the vice of extremism.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship walks between two extremes, secularism on its left and fundamentalism on its right. Unlike secularism, the CBF is committed to belief in the transcendent, personal, Creator God whom Jesus loved and served. Unlike fundamentalism, the CBF is committed to ideals such as women serving as ministers in churches, the historical-critical and other methods of studying the Bible, and higher education as exploration rather than indoctrination. Also unlike fundamentalism, the CBF is committed to traditional Baptist beliefs and practices such as congregational decision-making and a rigorous separation of church and state.

Because of its origins, the CBF tends to emphasize the commitments that distinguish it from fundamentalism rather than those that distinguish it from secularism. In fact, both sets of commitments are secure enough in the CBF that they do not need much defense-only affirmation.


The "Address to the Public" that Buddy Shurden read aloud when the CBF was officially launched in 1991 includes the following words:
   An ecumenical and inclusive attitude is basic to our fellowship.
   The great ideas of theology are the common property of all the
   church. Baptists are only a part of that great and inclusive
   church. So, we are eager to have fellowship with our brothers and
   sisters in the faith and to recognize their work for our Savior. We
   do not try to make them conform to us; we try to include them in
   our design for mission. Mending the torn fabric of both Baptist and
   Christian fellowship is important to us.

I wonder whether ever before in history any new ecclesial body has been launched with such a vigorous affirmation of the unity of that body with all other Christians. Here is the justification for the word "cooperative" in the name of the CBF. And here we also see a commitment to unity with all other Christians. Given this commitment to cooperation, can the CBF enter into the kind of visible, public unity with other Christian groups that was affirmed by the World Council of Churches in 1961 and also remain faithful to the beliefs and convictions that it treasures as a moderate, Baptist fellowship? I can't think of any reason why it can't.

Fisher Humphreys is professor of divinity, emeritus, of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
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Author:Humphreys, Fisher
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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