Baptists tend to be the “problem children” of the ecumenical movement but have gifts both to give and receive from the broader Christian community, a Baptist theologian who teaches in the school of divinity at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C., says in a new book.
Steven Harmon, who previously served on the faculties of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C., argues in Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future, released March 1 by Baylor University Press, that Baptist communities and the churches from which they are separated need each other to be faithful to Jesus’ vision of a visibly united church in his high priestly prayer in John 17.
Harmon, author of previous books including Ecumenism Means You, Too and Towards Baptist Catholicity, says he takes seriously Christ’s desire that his followers “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
“In my opinion, only the end of the full visible unity of the church justifies the continued separate ecclesial existence of Baptist denominational identity,” says Harmon, who was educated at a Southern Baptist seminary but now identifies the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as his denominational home. “When continued denominational existence becomes an end in itself, it perpetuates the division of the church.”
Harmon, who has been active in ecumenical conversations through the Baptist World Alliance, says Baptists, and especially Southern Baptists, were initially resistant to the ecumenical movement as represented in groups such as the World Council of Churches, fearing the price of visible unity would be the surrender of doctrines held most dear.
But he says a newer model of “receptive ecumenism” — where each communion in conversation seeks to identify the distinctive gifts each tradition has to offer and discern which gifts each member of the conversation could receive with integrity — is in many ways friendlier to Baptists than earlier models.
“It assumes that because Baptists have been entrusted with a unique journey as the people of God, they possess distinctive gifts to be offered to the rest of the body of Christ,” Harmon writes. “It also suggests the possibility that Baptists can incorporate the gifts of others into their own faith and practice without abandoning or distorting the gifts that already define the Baptist identity.”
Harmon says Baptists are more ecumenically minded than most people believe. The way they read the Bible, he said, was inherited from English Separatists that came to be known as the Free Church tradition. Most of their theology, including the biblical canon, is from the pre-Reformation church. Patterns of worship are not dissimilar from the Catholic mass.
Harmon says Baptist hymnals “are arguably the most significant ecumenical documents produced by Baptists,” because they recognize hymn writers from a wide variety of traditions throughout the history of the church as brothers and sisters in Christ by including their hymns alongside those of Baptist authors.
Harmon says Baptists “have a history of declaring other traditions to be false churches” that goes all the way back to the earliest identifiable Baptist congregation in Amsterdam in 1609.
Baptist triumphalism marched on with the 19th century Restorationist Movement concept of the “Constantinian fall of the church” and Landmarkism, a view popular among Baptists on America’s frontier which sought to trace a lineage of direct succession of true churches though pre-Reformation sectarian movements all the way back to Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.
Harmon says not only do Baptists need the gifts that Catholics and other Christians have to offer, but the Baptist tradition has been entrusted with gifts that the rest of the church needs to be “fully catholic,” pertaining to the whole Christian body.
Chief among those gifts, Harmon says, is the Baptist understanding of “a pilgrim community seeking to become a community living fully under the rule of Christ.” Baptists, he says, bring to the table a “pilgrim aversion to overly realized eschatologies of the church and their radical commitment to discerning the rule of Christ by means of the Scriptures.”
Harmon says the Baptist vision of a pilgrim community is “thoroughly eschatological,” not rooted in any particular past or present but a future goal that embodies more fully gifts available in the here and now.
Such a church, he says, is ever “renewing itself by fresh reappropriations of the normative biblical and catholic roots of Christian faith and faithfulness.”
“While there have been many Baptist failures to embody the ideals of this vision, a pilgrim church orientation is one of the gifts this tradition has to offer the whole church,” Harmon says. He says that recognition “may even be a necessary precondition” for engaging in receptive ecumenism.
“Unless all churches are willing to acknowledge the possibility that they currently lack something they need to be more fully catholic, more fully under the rule of Christ, they will not be receptive to the gifts found elsewhere in the body of Christ,” Harmon writes. “Without pilgrim openness to receiving what they need for renewal from one another, the divided churches cannot make further progress in their shared pilgrimage toward the ecumenical future.”
“Baptist churches at their best are relentlessly pilgrim communities that resist all overly realized eschatologies of the church,” Harmon contends. “Their ecclesial ideal is the church that is fully under the rule of Christ, which they locate somewhere ahead of them rather than in any past or present instantiation of the church. Baptists are relentlessly dissatisfied with the present state of the church in their pilgrim journey toward the community that will be fully under the reign of Christ.”
Harmon says the pilgrim church vision is by no means limited to Baptists. The early monastic communities grew out of a desire to follow Christ more faithfully, and Augustine described a “society of pilgrims” in the fifth-century classic City of God. The pilgrim church identity, he says, is also a part of the modern ecumenical movement as reflected in documents issued in connection with assemblies of the World Council of Churches.
Harmon says those involved in ecumenical dialogue today know “painfully well” there can be no “realized eschatology of the ecumenical movement” any time soon.
“Only a pilgrim church vision can sustain the quest for the visible unity of the church,” he says. “It recognizes that each church lacks something it needs to receive to be visibly united with the other churches and perhaps retains something it must relinquish for visible unity to be realized.”
“It refuses to be content with the status quo of the ecumenical movement, though it has achieved much, and it regards the nonetheless significant expressions of spiritual ecumenism as only partial embodiments of what ought to be,” he concludes. “Until there is a unity within the church that the world without the church can see, the church’s pilgrim journey must continue.”