Traditionally known for avoiding ecumenical entanglements and limiting formal affiliations to other Baptist groups, a Southern Baptist Convention leader says it is time for American’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics to consider uniting with the National Association of Evangelicals.
Ed Stetzer, who is in the process of stepping down as executive director of LifeWay Research to head up the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, brought a motion at the SBC annual meeting June 14-15 in St. Louis, Mo., asking the SBC Executive Committee to study “ramifications and opportunities” of joining the association representing more than 45,000 local churches from nearly 40 different denominations.
“Southern Baptists are evangelicals, so it seems pretty logical they should be a part of the National Association of those Evangelicals,” Stetzer said through a spokesperson. Stetzer could not be reached because he is busy moving his family from Nashville to Chicago.
Southern Baptists took no action to join the NAE when it formed in 1942 but declined membership in the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches over concerns about doctrinal compromise and loss of autonomy.
“I don’t think it is a good idea for Baptists to become part of an ecumenical movement, organically or spiritually,” SBC President Franklin Paschall said in 1966. He added that a “federated church” was not the answer to problems facing Christianity in the 20th century.
The SBC led in the formation of pan-Baptist bodies like the Baptist World Alliance, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and North American Baptist Fellowship but in recent decades withdrew from those groups saying they had become too liberal.
Individual Southern Baptists such as evangelist Billy Graham pitched their tent in the National Association of Evangelicals. In the Reagan era leaders of the SBC and NEA found common ground in the rise of the Religious Right and some Southern Baptist scholars took part in conservative evangelical dialogues producing documents such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1994 and Manhattan Declaration in 2009.
Stetzer, who has researched trends affecting Southern Baptist churches since 1998, has over the years expanded his interest to the broader evangelical community. He writes for Christianity Today, joined the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals and last year convened the GC2 Summit on evangelical response to the Syrian refugee crisis held on the Wheaton College campus.
“For some people having relationships with Christians who are not in your denomination is not just bad, but it is seen as a threat to the denomination itself,” Stetzer wrote in 2012.
“I obviously don’t see it that way,” he said. “I see having relationships and friendships with Christians outside of your denominational tradition to be a good thing — a Christ-honoring thing. I don’t see my denomination as a prison, but as a home. It’s a home that I stay in, I’m comfortable in, and my theological values are reflected there, but I can go out and visit others and learn from them.”
Stetzer’s motion will be referred to the SBC Executive Committee, which will report findings and recommendations back at next year’s annual meeting in Phoenix.