By Jeff Brumley
Nowadays, Baptists and Methodists seem the least likely to become entangled in theological disputes or battles over turf and members. Pulpit swaps and shared downtown ministries are increasingly common between them.
But that was not always the case. Historically, the two traditions were often bitter rivals in cities and rural communities across the nation, said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
“Their theological differences have been very pronounced,” Leonard said, adding the divisions go back to the nation’s founding. “They used to have debates on the frontier over infant baptism, falling from grace and, in the case of Calvinistic Baptists, whether Christ’s death on the cross was only for the elect.”
But a group of modern-day Baptist and Methodist clergy and theologians has been hard at work to heal the wounds of the past in order to forge friendships in the present. Their motivation is Scripture’s demand for Christian unity.
“Jesus prayed that his disciple community — the church — would be one so the world would know that the Father had sent the Son into the world,” said Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.
So the mission of the church is contingent on the unity of the church, Freeman said.
“Our divisions actually become impediments to the mission of the church,” he said. “That is why we need this.”
“This” is the bilateral dialogue between the Baptist World Alliance and the World Methodist Council. Freeman is co-chair of the 14-member group that includes seven Baptists.
It was the group’s second meeting with three more to go in as many years. They’ve met in locations around the world. The goal is to finalize a document of agreements and differences in the fifth year.
The theme of the February meeting in Singapore was “faith confessed and remembered.” Freeman said it served as a starting point for conversations aimed at discovering commonalities between the two traditions.
“We talked a lot about how we understand the faith — what is the faith to you, what do you mean when you say ‘Christian faith,’” he said.
It was interesting for the Baptist contingent to hear how important it is to the Methodists that John Wesley founded their movement. Their language describing Christianity also was very different from that used by Baptists.
“For them it was much more of an experiential religion,” Freeman said.
In addition to the need for greater understanding between Baptists and Methodists, participants explored the mutual exchange of gifts possible between the two traditions.
Often the values are shared but expressed in different ways.
“Methodists have put a lot of influence historically on … the call to holiness in life,” Freeman said. “In Baptist life that’s been there, but we have more of an emphasis on missions.”
Participants also discussed increased participation on a common witness, and how they might find more ways to work together in regions around the world.
‘We softened our rhetoric’
Doing that means identifying obstacles, and one of the major ones remains the baptizing of infants by Methodists. Some Baptists through the ages have equated the practice with witchcraft, idolatry and prostitution, Freeman said.
Such extreme views, even if softened, are a bar to cooperation between Baptists and Methodists, he said.
“If Baptists don’t look at Methodists as able to make disciples and baptize and teach them, they really can’t do missions,” he said.
But there wasn’t any of that kind of talk — in either direction — in Singapore, Freeman said.
“We just softened our rhetoric with each other.”
And they must because the importance of coming together is vital for Baptists committed to the mission of God in the world, Freeman said.
His prayer is that Baptists and Methodists will no longer see each other as competitors in a shrinking market but as partners in a common mission.
“Unless we somehow tend to that question of unity, we are not going to be successful in that mission,” he said.
It would be a remarkable achievement given where the two traditions started out.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, Baptists and Methodists were two of the smallest Protestant groups in the United States. By 1830, however, they were the two biggest.
“Largely because of their parallel-but-distinct approach to revivals and religious awakenings,” Leonard said.
That put them on a collision course for converts, he said, with both groups known for interrupting each others’ revival events.
The divisions continued into the 20th century as Methodists became identified with the Mainline movement.
“There was a period when Baptists would often criticize Methodists because they had given up on evangelism and had gone liberal,” Leonard said. “That was not an infrequent criticism of Methodists in the South when I was growing up in the ’60s.”
And while that is all but gone from the discussion, Leonard said baptism is an ongoing sticking point.
Where it is played out is in the membership policies of many Baptist churches which require Methodists and others baptized as infants to be re-baptized.
“That may be in many contexts the most continuing divisive issue,” he said.
But many progressive Baptists have addressed the issue by adopting open baptism policies.
There are other positive signs, including an ecumenical movement centered around common ministries in at-risk communities.
“Baptists and Methodists are working together consistently now in most towns and cities,” Leonard said.