By Robert Dilday and Marv Knox
Virginia Baptists will continue their century of ministry with the Baptist World Alliance but in a new way-as full-fledged members of the world organization.
At its meeting July 27, the BWA's General Council added the Baptist General Association of Virginia to the more than 200 other member conventions and unions around the world.
The General Council, which handles much of the business of BWA, also elected as members the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Baptist Union of Churches in the Central African Republic.
Both the Virginia and Texas conventions had been seeking BWA membership since the Southern Baptist Convention withdrew from the organization last year, charging it with liberal theological and anti-American leanings. Because most churches in the Virginia and Texas conventions also affiliate with the SBC at some level, its withdrawal left those congregations without a “channel of fellowship with Baptists around the world,” said Alistair Brown, who chairs the BWA's membership committee.
Brown, a Briton who is head of the British-based Baptist Missionary Society, said the membership committee recommended the state conventions' election only after close scrutiny of their structure and the BWA's constitution, which stipulates that member bodies be fully autonomous and not an integral part of another convention or union.
Both the BGCT and the BGAV are legally independent of the SBC, said Brown. “Through the years, there has been a strong fellowship [between the SBC and the two state conventions] and a real sense of belonging to the SBC,” he added. “However, that is not the same as being structurally or legally a part of the SBC.”
“The [membership] committee is fully satisfied that each is an organized Baptist body of the kind described by the constitution, that each is fully autonomous, that each is seeking to live in peace and harmony with others and that each fully intends to be supportive of the work of the BWA,” said Brown in presenting his committee's unanimous recommendation.
The General Council approved the election without debate and followed it by sustained applause.
Both conventions' executive directors-John Upton of Virginia and Charles Wade of Texas-thanked the council following the vote.
Upton said he's often asked how many churches are affiliated with the BGAV. “I've learned to say there is only one church-the church of Jesus Christ,” he said. “We are so excited to be a part of this movement of Baptists around the world.”
“I urged Texas Baptists to come to this meeting so that the world would know we are proud to be part of the world Baptist family … and because I wanted Texas Baptists to know how big the Baptist family is,” said Wade.
In withdrawing, the SBC also ended its $425,000 annual contribution to the BWA-overwhelmingly the largest contribution of any member union. But BWA general secretary Denton Lotz said North American churches-most of them SBC affiliates-had given $500,000 this year, more than enough to replace the loss.
Virginia's annual contribution of about $150,000 now makes it the largest member giver to the BWA. Texas is a close second with about a $129,000 annual contribution.
Upton and Wade later told ABP that their conventions already feel the force of history and the power of relationships.
“It's a historical moment,” Upton said of the BWA vote.
“Not only was it exciting, but the extended applause [of council members after the vote] was enormously affirming,” he added. “I'll remember that as long as I live.”
Although the vote made membership official, Virginia and Texas Baptists aren't really newcomers to the alliance, Upton said. “This is for both of us maintaining a historical relationship. We've been participating in the BWA for 100 years.”
But the vote altered the nature of the relationship, in the wake of broad changes in the BWA as well as the state conventions, noted Wade.
“We haven't had a chance to be involved directly, because we came in under the umbrella of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said.
“This is an opportunity to be directly active” in the BWA, Wade said.
The Virginians' and Texans' decision to join the BWA doesn't diminish their other denominational relationships, Upton said. Instead, they're simply expanding a longstanding relationship.
And the decision to join the BWA provided tangible proof of that relationship, Wade said, noting, “The world Baptist family knows Texas Baptists have believed in, admired and supported the BWA.”
The more formal nature of the Texas and Virginia conventions' relationships with the BWA will benefit the state groups, their leaders predicted.
“Texas Baptists are discovering how big our Baptist family is-how faithful to Christ the people are,” Wade observed.
He contrasted U.S. Baptists' complaints of persecution and poverty to the physical and systematic persecution and crushing poverty endured by Baptists from other parts of the world, whom they get to know through the BWA.
“And yet they refuse to be overwhelmed by the powers of darkness,” he said, marveling at the faith and endurance of Baptist sisters and brothers who actually endure persecution and poverty as well as expressing thanks for how those other Baptists set an example of perseverance and faithfulness for U.S. Baptists.
Wade predicted the Virginia and Texas conventions will be advanced by their affiliation with the BWA.
“Our Baptist witness will grow stronger because Baptists' faith is a faith of the people,” he explained. “It's not a faith of hierarchy or control, but of Spirit-filled men and women in churches who can respond to changes in culture” and meet the spiritual and physical needs of a world that's enduring churning change.
The Baptist World Alliance, with its 214 member conventions and unions, will flourish because it moves forward through encouragement, not control, and emphasizes partnerships, Wade said, predicting “an explosion of Christian witness.”
“Our churches need this [the BWA] as much as any of these [worldwide] churches need us,” Upton stressed.
Noting he had talked with many of the 250 Virginia Baptists who attended the meeting in Birmingham, Upton predicted their involvement in and new relationships with Baptist brothers and sisters from around the world will stimulate them to be even more evangelistic and mission-minded.
“For them to have been here and seen this, they will go back home more dynamic than ever,” he said. “It's transforming our folk already.”
To illustrate, Upton recounted how he had prayed during a worship service with a group of Africans. Midway through the prayer, he realized the Africans had not eaten in three days.
“Yet they did not complain,” he said. “They offered praise for how God has provided.”
After the service, he was overwhelmed by joy when he had the opportunity to invite them to get something to eat-to share a meal.
Associated Baptist Press
Robert Dilday is associate editor of the Religious Herald. Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard.