Why would a church in New Jersey want to cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention?

articles / Missiology / New York City

Published originally on NACPF.

By Wesley Handy

The Southern Baptist Convention and its mission faces serious cultural challenges. On one hand, being Southern brings charges of regionalism and sectarianism. Being Southern Baptist reeks to some of racism, bigotry, and closed-mindedness. On the other hand, just being Christian elicits perceptions of hypocrisy, insensitivity, and judgementalism.[1] Given these challenges, why would Christ Our Hope Church in Clifton, NJ, choose to cooperate with the SBC?

Ultimately, as a church, we affirm and exist for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where we find agreement in the gospel, we wholeheartedly cooperate. We believe that because of this agreement in the gospel, we can cooperate with the SBC, just as we can cooperate with other gospel-centered churches.

You should be asking right now why I keep saying “cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention” rather than “being a Southern Baptist church.” This relates to the polity of the SBC. According to this polity, there really is no such thing as a Southern Baptist church. There are only local churches, presumably baptistic churches—those that adhere to believer’s baptism, a believer’s church, church discipline, congregationalism (local church autonomy), etc. The SBC is an annual convention (think conference but with government) of these baptistic churches who have agreed to cooperate with one another financially, ministerially, educationally, theologically, etc., for the sake of the mission of God. One way we cooperate is by giving towards the Cooperative Program, this money being split between our state convention (BCNY) and the national convention (SBC). Of that which is sent to the SBC, 50.41% goes to the International Mission Board, 22.79% to the North American Mission Board, 22.16% to theological education, 1.65% to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and 2.99% to operating expenses.[2] Since we are in what is considered a non-traditional area for the SBC, a larger percentage of CP giving goes towards the ministry of the BCNY in our state/region.

Emil Brunner said, “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning,” and many a Baptist preacher has quipped, “We can do more together than we can apart.” Cooperating with the SBC is one way to fuel the fire of the church’s mission in North America and across the globe. In fact, while the circumstances surrounding the charter of the SBC in 1845 are associated with a very dark part of our national history, still we can affirm the Convention’s stated mission. According to the original constitution, the convention was formed, “for the purpose of . . . organizing a plan for eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.” The first thing they intended to do was to “promote Foreign and Domestic Missions, and other important objects connected with the Redeemer’s kingdom.”

Warts and all, the SBC was chartered for the very purpose of the Christian mission, what they termed “one sacred effort.” In other words, while there may be thousands of “autonomous local churches,” SBC-churches willingly submit their independence under Christ for the sake of the advance of God’s kingdom. This mutual partnership expresses in at least one way the real unity of the church in Christ, keeping the advance of the gospel at the center. Thus, while not perfect by any means, the SBC has sought to keep the gospel central. This centrality has helped the SBC overcome its past and to preserve its future.

The centrality of the gospel within the SBC has served a similar historical function as the phraseology of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” While it was not true that all men had equal rights in 1776, and while the same issue of slavery clouded the formation of the SBC in 1845, the truths being affirmed continue to undermine the former realities. Missions, not slavery, defines the SBC. Slavery, racism, and ethnocentrism have had to die ugly deaths, but the missional focus has persisted and has aided to overcome these ugly realities. While overcoming has been slow and hard, we are currently seeing a change within the SBC reflecting its missionary roots. Within the past two decades, there has been a greater desire for more racial diversity in the leadership of SBC institutions and a greater desire for more ethnic and multiethnic churches cooperating with the Convention.

The centrality of the gospel has been so important also because Scripture has been important to the SBC. While many traditions and denominations have been derailed by liberalism and broad-sweeping cultural accommodation,[3] the SBC has benefited from a difficult but important battle over the sufficiency, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture, a battle referred to as “The Conservative Resurgence.” As a result, the SBC claims a strong consensus around passages like 2 Tim. 3:16–7—“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

In our present context in NYC/NJ, we have the opportunity to work alongside several dozens of SBC cooperating churches. This doesn’t mean we won’t work together with non-SBC churches because we gladly embrace other gospel-centered churches in our mutual mission. That being said, we feel a special obligation to our sister SBC churches especially since we have a mutual agreement to cooperate with one another financially, ministerially, educationally, theologically and missionally. For instance, we have been blessed by many like-minded friends in the MNYBA, the NJNet, with NAMB, and IMB, laboring in close geographic proximity. Moreover, we have several like-minded churches in other states with whom we are mutually committed. Let us not forget nor make it an afterthought, our sending church cooperates with the SBC.

Also, we have benefited individually from SBC cooperation. Zhanara Handy came to Christ because, alongside missionaries from other countries and denominations, the SBC was faithful in sending missionaries to her country. Two of her sisters have since served as missionaries with the IMB. American Baptists and the SBC sent missionaries to Cuba in the late nineteenth century, and several decades later, Madai Soca’s father served faithfully as a pastor in Cuba before migrating to NJ. Carlos and Madai Soca, Wesley and Zhanara Handy, William Futrell, and Alan Skiles have each benefited from high-quality, theologically-sound, gospel-centered education at half-price tuition from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In regards to the church plant, NAMB, alongside local Baptist associations, are providing generous support and encouragement to the church plant.

Nevertheless, we don’t desire to cooperate with the SBC in order that we will receive more blessings; rather, we do so because we have already received blessings, and those without strings attached. More importantly, we desire to cooperate in order to give back so that others may receive likewise.

In conclusion, let me reiterate some things we affirm and some we do not. We affirm the real unity of the church in Christ (John 17:11; Rom. 15:5–6; Eph. 4:4–6, 12; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:4–10). We also affirm the centrality of the gospel and the sufficiency of Scripture. Thus, we embrace the rich, gospel-centered theological tradition of the SBC. We also embrace the global mission of the SBC in obedience to the Great Commission. We also affirm the grand racial and ethnic diversity of God’s chosen people, something growing within the SBC. Nonetheless, we are not cooperating with the SBC for the sake of a denominational affiliation. Furthermore, by cooperating with the SBC, we are not saying we won’t cooperate with other gospel-centered churches with differing affiliations. Jesus Christ and His gospel is center, not the SBC. If the SBC moves away from that center, we will move away from the SBC. We also are not embracing either a regional, cultural or sectarian identity. Additionally, in humbly admitting our own cultural and moral blindspots, we reject the sinful past of slavery, racism, and ethnocentrism. We believe we can cooperate with the SBC with a clear conscience, with Christ and His gospel at the center so that we can fulfill our stated mission, namely, that Christ Our Hope Church exists to joyfully glorify our treasure and hope Jesus Christ among all peoples.

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Wesley Handy, PhD, is a church planter in Clifton, NJ in North Jersey / Metro-NYC. Contact Wes at Christ Our Hope Church here

Notes

[1] See unChristian by David Kinnaman  and Gabe Lyons for a helpful treatment regarding the perception of younger people towards Christianity in general.

[2] These stats were derived from the projected allocations for the Cooperative Program in the 2013–14 fiscal year. http://www.cpmissions.net/2003/pdf/2013-2014CPAllocationBudget.pdf ; accessed 8/23/2013.

[3] Certainly the gospel is always culturally embedded, as Lesslie Newbigin so aptly warns us inFoolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. By broad-sweeping cultural accommodation I mean capitulating to cultural pressures to conform to the prevailing worldview rather than allowing Scripture to be the subversive worldview transforming power that it is when accepted as true and authoritative.


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