Baptists who “do this”

Cooperative Baptists are Baptists who “do this” when they get together. They “do this” not only in their local churches but also in their assemblies and in the institutions of theological education with which they partner.

I’m talking about the fact that when Baptists who identify with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship gather in settings beyond their local churches, they often follow the Lord’s admonition to “do this in remembrance of me” by celebrating the Eucharist. That’s what I found myself contemplating last week after receiving the Eucharist at the 2012 CBF General Assembly—and at the associated gathering of Baptist Women in Ministry two days prior.

That’s something entirely different from my experience as a Southern Baptist from the “cradle roll” through seminary. To be sure, we observed the Lord’s Supper in our local churches (though rarely more frequently than four times a year). But to share in the Lord’s Supper in a worship service at an associational meeting, a state convention, a Southern Baptist Convention meeting, or a seminary chapel service would have been unthinkable—maybe even heretical. That was something only local churches did.

Cooperative Baptists have evidently not felt bound by that aspect of their heritage. It bears reflection that when those who now identify with the CBF have had the freedom to do something other than what they did as Southern Baptists, they have chosen to celebrate the Eucharist in gatherings that, while not baptizing communities, are communities of the baptized.

That Cooperative Baptists “do this” means at the very least that, despite a post-General Assembly Fort Worth Star-Telegram article that characterized the CBF as an organization that “has no doctrine,” they have at least one first-order practice that embodies a first-order conviction. (To be sure, there are others.) Cooperative Baptists seem to be convinced that it is important enough to “do this” that they rarely gather beyond their local churches without doing it.

This calls for some second-order theological reflection. What does the celebration of the Eucharist beyond the local church imply about the ecclesiology (a doctrine!) of Cooperative Baptists that distinguishes it from the ecclesiology of its parent Baptist communion?

The late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder wrote in an essay published in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Herald Press, 1994): “The ‘high’ views of ordered churchdom can legitimate the worship of a General Assembly or a study conference only by stretching the rules, for its rules do not foresee ad hoc ‘churches’; only thoroughgoing congregationalism fulfills its hopes and definities whenever and wherever it sees ‘church’ happen” (p. 236).

Do Cooperative Baptist thoroughgoing congregationalists likewise see ‘church’ happening in their General Assemblies? Their eucharistic practice points in that direction.

Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam has insisted that global Baptists need to do serious theological reflection on the ecclesial status of the BWA. I wonder—might this be the time for us to do serious theological reflection on the ecclesial status of the CBF as well in light of our eucharistic practice?

If Cooperative Baptists believe there is sufficient ecclesiological warrant for them to “do this” when they gather, they are granting some degree of ecclesiality—characteristics of church—to their trans-local gatherings. And if that’s the case, might there be ecclesiological warrant for Cooperative Baptists to do as a gathered community of the baptized other things that reflect this ecclesiality? What might those other things be?

If we are enough of a eucharistic community that we believe we ought to “do this” when we gather beyond our local churches, we need to do make sure that there is a corresponding practiced conviction in the local churches from which we gather. There’s something not quite right locally when in a typical year I receive the Eucharist more times at the national and state General Assemblies of the CBF, the national and state gatherings of Baptist Women in Ministry, and occasional divinity school chapel services combined than I do in local Baptist congregations.

Celebration of the Eucharist beyond the local church is already a distinguishing practice of Cooperative Baptists that sets them apart from some other sorts of Baptists. Let’s give this fact, its implications for the ecclesial status of the CBF, and its relation to the practices of our local congregations the theological reflection these matters deserve.

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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  • Will McDonald

    This is actually an issue I have with the CBF. I believe it is inappropriate for the CBF to celebrate the Eucharist in their meetings. In the days when I attended the CBF annual meetings, I always had a crisis of conscience at the time of the Eucharist, but reluctantly participated as a sign of accepting those who were joined with me in Christ… It also would have been disruptive if I had refused, and I was not there to disrupt.

    However, that issue is one of several issues that has discouraged me from getting more involved in the CBF. As a Baptist, I do not recognize the CBF as a church. But if it is a church, it needs to proclaim a bold doctrinal confession. But I believe that such a move would sever the delicate structure that the CBF has cultivated for the furtherance of the mission effort, and drive most of those with strong Baptist convictions from its ranks.

    Ultimately, I think local Baptist churches should celebrate the Eucharist more frequently, and the CBF should stop doing it and explain why they have ceased the practice.

  • GeorgeMason

    Steve, Thanks for raising this. Interesting point. A nice distinction made between baptizing communities and communities of the baptized. I believe the source of apprehension some have over this is evidence of latent Landmarkism among us. Landkmarkism was a reaction to the Campbellites, an attempt to inoculate Baptists against further losses to the Church of Christ. Their biblical hermeneutic and consequent ecclesiology made its way into the water supply of Baptists. One could only participate in the Lord’s Supper with rightful members of one’s local church, and even then only when all members and only members were invited to gather for it. Most churches still receive new members “by letter,” which originally meant more than bookkeeping: it meant that only then could we be confident that someone had been a member of church with right doctrine and would not have to be rebaptized to be accepted. In short, I am happy for us to celebrate Communion with one another at CBF and other functions of like kind. The more we emphasize our unity in the one body of Christ, the more we may come to believe it and live it out.

  • Tripp Hudgins

    The degree/intensity of congregationalism expressed here is rather astonishing. The distinction between Baptizing communities and communities of the Baptized seems…misplaced (?) to me. Is there really such a distinction? I’m not sure there is. Good food for thought. Thank you. 

  • cfreeman

    Thanks for this excellent observation Steve. As I mentioned to you earlier, it illustrates a conviction and practice without a theology (or ecclesiology) to sustain it. This is not a problem, but offers an occasion for CBF to engage in theological reflection about its convictions and practices.
    Now, I want to complicate matters somewhat. When Daniel Vestal said in his excellent sermon Friday night that “We exist as a fellowship to serve and extend the life of churches – not to ask churches to extend our life,” I wondered why the emphasis only on local congregations. That is not the emphasis in his biblical text from Ephesians, which stresses the universal (catholic) church.

    I would suggest it is indicative of the Baptist emphasis on visible church that often leaves little to no room for expressions of the universal church. If invoked the church universal is a vague notion with no concrete appearance in history.

    So, to get to the point: Can CBF conceive of these trans-local gatherings as expressions of the church? As you point out, our conviction and practice says, “Yes!” but our theology (and ecclesiology) says, “We’re not sure.” What else do we call a community of the baptized gathered around Word and sacrament?

    Where two or three are gathered, Christ is, and where Christ is, there is the church.

  • Steven Harmon

    I’m glad to see folks engaging thoughtfully the questions I’ve posed. By the way, I should point out that Ross Grove Baptist Church in Shelby, NC, the congregation of which I’ve been a member less than a year, is a happy exception to my generalization. It’s one of a few Baptist congregations in western NC (there are others) in which one can expect to share the Supper more often than four times a year.

  • Steven Harmon

    One year early in my teaching career I was doing frequent itinerant guest preaching and, despite being present for worship in my own congregation on the dozen or so Sundays I wasn’t somewhere else, I literally went for over a year without communing because the churches where I preached didn’t happen to observe the supper those Sundays and my own church didn’t happen to do so, either, on the Sundays I was there. And so I’ve frequently told that story to my students to underscore how the relative infrequency of our celebrations of communion, be it quarterly or monthly, can for many people make communion a very rare experience.

    • Tripp Hudgins

      I attended seminary in two places…BTSR and then Seabury-Western. The former for my first year of seminary training and then the latter to finish my M.Div. several years later. I would joke with the pastors of the Baptist church that sponsored me that we celebrated Communion daily at Seabury-Western. Daily. I took Communion five days a week for three years. It is possible that I have celebrated Communion more times than any other Baptist living. It was meant to be funny, but it highlighted the difference in focus between the traditions. 

      If the Episcopalians have a eucharistic piety, we Baptists have a homiletical piety. Since I graduated (in 2004), I have missed the regular celebration of Communion…and I have greatly appreciated the ABC and other Baptist gatherings where we did celebrate. As has been stated, wherever two or three are gathered…We Baptists need to find a way back to a more generous understanding of Communion as something to be celebrated more frequently and freely. It needs to be a Baptist articulation and reason, but find our way back we must. 

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