There has been a lot of conversation about cooperation within the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Program. It is easy to criticize what we have, but it is equally important to understand the value and benefit of it as well. Not only is the Cooperative Program an extremely successful funding machine, it also supports the strategy and identity of the Southern Baptist Convention. As I have written elsewhere, the Cooperative Program has become the financial driving force, some might say, “the lifeline,” for much of the expanse and success of the SBC.** The development of a unified budget, and the expectations of regular contributions, allows each of our boards to plan their work and not be encumbered by the constant need to raise funds or pay solicitors. In this post, I want to briefly address some of the requirements for ongoing cooperation and health of the Cooperative Program.
First, let me address the need for common theological foundation. This is absolutely necessary; however, it is not something I believe we need to spend too much time on in this post. Southern Baptists already have a well written theological document. The Baptist Faith and Message expresses our common faith and is the standard of accountability for denominational employees and agencies. With relationship to cooperation, theology is not unimportant, but I am writing from the perspective that Southern Baptists have addressed and settled this.
Three Requirements for Long Term Cooperation
- Vision –
The Bible says: “Can two walk together without agreeing to meet?” (Amos 3:3) Though this passage refers to God and His people, it is no less true of people in general. Before Southern Baptists can cooperate, we must share a common vision and direction. Despite the diversity of our convention: size, location, ethnicity, style, methodology, Southern Baptists do in fact have a common vision. Our founding documents state that we exist, “for the purpose of eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the Baptist denomination of Christians, for the propagation of the Gospel…” You know, anyone who identifies as a Southern Baptist, or is part of our convention, has embraced this vision. Though their practices and methods may differ, cooperation requires that we trust that they are on our team and are seeking to fulfill this vision.
How can we cooperate financially and missionally? We can do so when we embrace vision that commands our attention and requires us to shoulder the burden with others. In Alice and the Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which road she should take. He responded, “It depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” As Southern Baptists, we have a clear vision “where we want to get to.” Cooperation is possible, as well as profitable, as we keep this vision in mind.
- Respect –
Southern Baptists are an odd lot. Before you agree and point to others to make fun of at the annual SBC, go look in the mirror and then thumb through your church’s pictorial director (or Facebook pages). Ha! See what I mean –
I love the title of John Ortberg’s book, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them. That is us. In fact, one of the fun parts of being a Southern Baptist is how we embrace our oddities. On the other hand, these differences can create tension and this tension requires respect.
Cooperation requires that I value fellow Southern Baptists even when I don’t agree with them, or when I am not even sure I understand how (or why) they are as they are. Respect is the quality of holding someone in esteem and treating them well – especially in public. The opposite would be to disregard someone as valueless.
Because of our differences, the future of our cooperation requires us to respect each other and to publicly value each other. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” SBC cooperation demands that we look across the aisles, and into the convention halls, and love – deeply love – our brothers and sisters who are quite different from us.
- Grace –
In my Southern Baptist kindergarten class, Ms Lauber taught us the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That became the standard for our behavior. It is why we didn’t steal cookies, it is why we didn’t tattle-tail, it is why we put the seat down in the bathroom(!). As we get older, it is so easy to forget that simply rule – BTY, I found out later that wasn’t Ms Lauber’s rule, it originated with Jesus.
I am a pretty broken dude. I say things I shouldn’t. I do things I shouldn’t. Even after deep contemplation, study, and planning, I make mistakes. The thing I want from you is grace. I don’t need you to ignore that I am imperfect; truth be told, I need you to help me be a better man. But the thing I really want, is for you to extend grace and understanding – not to beat on me when I mess up. Now, according to Ms Lauber, because this is what I want from you, it is the very thing I should “do unto you.”
The future success of our denomination rests on our willingness to extend grace to one another. Grace does not ignore sin or mistakes. However, it does seek wholeness and well-being. If we will continue to cooperate, and if this cooperation will continue to be the strength of our convention, our relationships, conversations, and our whole beings need to be grace-full.
There are other things I could have included in this list. Below are three that I intentionally left out because, even though we might like them to exist, they do not and they cannot be our requirement
Uniformity — we cannot require everyone to be just like us before we will cooperation with them. This is impossible and unhealthy.
Agreement on every issue — There are things that my wife and I disagree on, how can I expect to agree with anyone else on everything. However, complete agreement is not necessary. When we can agree on a common vision (which we do) and basic theology (which we do), we can cooperate with enthusiasm.
Perfect Partners — If we wait for the others to perfectly conform to our standards we will be unable to cooperate. But, since we are not perfect either, they will be waiting on us too. Perfection in our boards, leaders, churches, members, etc. Shouldn’t be a prerequisite for cooperation.
**“Taken from an upcoming book, Together on God’s Mission: How Southern Baptists Cooperate to Fulfill the Great Commission, tentative release date January 2018 from B&H Academic.”
Scott Hildreth is the director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies. He frequently speaks on issues of missions, spiritual formation, missiology, and theology. Scott also contributes to SEBTS faculty blog www.betweenthetimes.com