During a recent children’s sermon, my pastor was discussing a church marquee where the congregation was described as “non-denominated.” After explaining what denominations were and identifying a few (including Baptists), he asked the children what the church sign might mean. My son quickly answered, “That they’re all there.” While I observed this interaction, another minister seated next to me whispered, “Does that mean that we are not all here?” My response, though almost said to myself, was “Perhaps.”
While my son’s comment was not entirely serious, and neither was the minister’s question, they are nonetheless thought provoking. Who is “all of us”? And what does it mean for all of us to be here? Such questions gesture toward the unity of the church, a notion that is difficult to grasp, let alone work toward. For instance, is the status quo of the denominationally fragmented Christian landscape something we should take for granted? If so, how does it point toward the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” of which the Bible speaks (Eph. 4:3)?
Maybe my son was onto something important. If we are separated into isolated denominational enclaves, are we in fact “all there”? If not, how do we change this situation and move toward such unity? Ecumenical questions such as these are not easy to consider, especially as we survey the deep divisions that exist between denominations. Even so, these questions take seriously Jesus’ prayer that all of his followers, and the entire church, would be united (John 17:20-21).
In his book, Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future, Steven Harmon embraces this ecumenical impulse and encourages Baptists to live as part of the whole church across space and time. For his own part, Harmon has participated in global conversations of the Baptist World Alliance and World Council of Churches as well as in international dialogues with other Christian communions — what he calls “mutually receptive ecumenical engagement between Baptist communities and the churches from which they are separated.” To be sure, these encounters reveal differences between various groups of Christians (and even within the world Baptist family), but Harmon also describes the fruitful ecumenical potential that arises out of the commonalities that are discovered and the friendships that are developed.
Harmon notes that such work requires that the denominational layout of Christianity be re-envisioned. That is, we cannot see our distinct Christian group as the end goal: “When continued denominational existence becomes an end in itself, it perpetuates the division of the church.” This does not mean that denominational structures have no role to play. In fact, Harmon is quite committed to the form of life that has been cultivated in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches. Still, this cannot be the goal in itself. More broadly, being Baptist cannot be the goal in itself.
Instead, being Baptist must orient our vision toward the united church. To this end, Harmon sees denominational groups serving as provisional vehicles for participating in the life of the wider church. Citing historian Walter Shurden’s hope that the CBF in its early days would seek membership in the Baptist World Alliance, Harmon argues that denominations should always look for avenues for greater unity, first among Baptists, then with other Christian communities. According to Harmon, this is what denominations are for: “Only the end of the full visible unity of the church justifies the continued separate ecclesial existence of Baptist denominational identity.”
Harmon suggests a few places to begin recognizing and embracing such an ecumenical vision. These include Baptist hymnals (which contain hymns and texts from across the Christian tradition) and the joint documents of bilateral and multilateral ecumenical dialogues (especially those that involve Baptist entities). Further, he advocates for practices of spiritual ecumenism, which consists of “worshiping together and praying together for Christian unity and engaging in common work and witness wherever possible.”
Harmon’s advice is helpful and provides a service to Baptists. By embracing ecumenical resources and practices, we will see similarities and differences within the whole church. We will take seriously the unity of the body of Christ. And perhaps we will chart a path toward a future where we are truly “all there.”