by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
We believe that all Christians should pray for and seek Christian unity across ecclesial and denominational lines and that Baptists should not reflexively reject principled, ecumenical dialogue with other Christian traditions.
According to critics both within and without the Baptist movement, Baptists seem especially ill-positioned to pursue any kind of meaningful ecumenical dialogue with other Christian communions. Some strands of the Baptist tradition have argued not only that the Baptist movement has no common religious cause with groups like Roman Catholicism but also that the Baptist movement should not be considered Protestant in any meaningful sense. The once prominent embrace of Landmarkism among Anglo-American Baptists testifies to this impulse. According to Landmark theology, Baptist-like or “baptistic” Christians have always existed from the time of John the Baptist to the present day. This notion of Baptist successionism, predicated on what might be called a “bapto-centric” interpretation of Matthew 16:18, suggests that the Baptist vision was not a splinter movement from seventeenth-century English Separatism, nor even from the sixteenth-century continental Anabaptists, but was instead an oft-persecuted minority that had expressions throughout the Patristic and Medieval eras and into the Reformation era and beyond. Simply put, Landmarkers believe there have always been baptistic Christians, and their ongoing presence is divinely promised in Scripture.
Leaving to one side the insurmountable difficulties of establishing exegetically and historically this elaborate theory (not to mention the heretical nature of many of the groups embraced under the Baptist successionist banner), it is noteworthy that as late as 1899 Landmarkism held enough sway among Southern Baptists to play a role in the resignation of William Whitsett, the third president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who called into question the succession theory. Few contemporary Baptist historians would argue for the legitimacy of the Landmark theory, but the conviction that Baptists are neither Catholic nor Protestant persists in many sectors of Baptist life today, often driven by sectarian tendencies.
But the impression that Baptists are a sectarian group ill-equipped for ecumenical dialogue is prominent in non-Baptist circles as well. Especially scandalous is the Baptist understanding of the ordinance from which we derive our name: believer-only baptism. According to the most consistent Baptist understanding, since New Testament baptism simply means the immersion of a believer in water following a credible profession of faith, then all forms of infant baptism are invalid. Therefore, any unbaptized believer requesting membership in a Baptist church, including those baptized or Christened as infants, would need to undergo what pedobaptists consider “rebaptism,” but what credobaptists consider a first biblically administered baptism. This “closed membership” view would seem, then, to forestall any attempts at genuine Christian unity across denominational lines.
The historic Southern Baptist doctrine of “close communion,” spelled out in the Baptist Faith and Message (2000), affirms that the Lord’s Supper is to be reserved for immersed believers who are members in good standing of a local church; this approach only adds to the scandal. Are Baptists saying that paedobaptist communions are not true churches? Are they even suggesting that the infant-baptized are not genuine Christians, or at least not biblically obedient Christians who may be welcomed to the Lord’s Table without censure? In practice, many Baptists churches do practice a more “open communion” position, or are at least vague enough in their official fencing of the Table to permit a diversity of practices. But is the sectarianism baked in, so to speak—into the very fabric of Baptist ecclesiology with its demand of a regenerate church membership?
But is the ecumenical situation of the Baptist really so dire? Or are there ways out of the sectarian silo? Some Baptist ecumenists have argued explicitly for open membership as a way of escape. Baptist theologians Steve Harmon and Curtis Freeman, for example, have argued that Baptists must be willing to accept the validity (even if non-normativity) of infant baptism in order to be genuinely open to the church catholic. This position, it seems to us, is biblically unjustifiable (the New Testament practice was believer baptism), theologically ill-advised (in what sense would we remain meaningfully Baptist, if we were to accept as valid the denial of our fundamental distinctive?), and pastorally unfeasible (we cannot encourage, even implicitly, baptismal practices alien to the New Testament witness). Put simply, open membership is not well-positioned to achieve anything close to a consensus among convictional Baptists. In fact, open membership is the practice of most pedobaptist traditions, which affirm both believer’s baptism and the baptism of infants. But does that mean Baptists are to remain hopelessly sectarian?
As mentioned above, many Baptist churches have found in open communion a possible lifeline to a more ecumenical posture. The requisites for membership in a Baptist church may be more narrow that the requisites for membership in the universal church, but that would not, on this position, be a bar to embracing the whole body of Christ at the Lord’s Table. Still, many Baptists will remain unconvinced of this concession, insisting that the New Testament pattern is believer’s baptism as prerequisite to receiving the Lord’s Supper. Some would argue that certainly this latter “close communion” position is the very definition of sectarian and is not capable of ecumenical dialogue in any meaningful sense.
But even here, we remain convinced that closed-membership, close-communion Baptists do not have to remain in a sectarian silo. We believe we can still enter into discussions that help clarify our agreements and disagreements with other Christian communions. Many pedobaptist churches are commited to a principled ecumenism, even though nearly all of them agree that baptism (as they define it) is prerequisite to communion. Why would the Baptist position be any different? Our quarrel with our pedobaptist brothers and sisters is not over the relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but rather over what practice constitutes biblical baptism. Our unique position on the validity of infant baptism is no doubt a challenge, but it need not be an insurmountable challenge.
So where do we go from here? Where do Baptists begin in order to engage or re-engage the broader body of Christ? Because Baptists churches can become so isolated and independent, we suggest that we must begin at home and then move out like concentric circles to broader levels of ecclesiastical concern.
So, Baptist churches should begin by re-engaging other Baptist churches, first in our local associations and then at the state, national, and global levels. It will be difficult to engage other traditions in a distinctively Baptist way, if we are unaware of the good work other Baptists churches are doing around the world and in our own neighborhoods. From there, Baptist churches should be actively engaged in a kind of spiritual ecumenism: we should be aware of, pray for, and seek avenues to support the work of other evangelical churches in our areas. Further away from the center, we can acknowledge and support the work, where theologically and practically appropriate, that other evangelicals are doing at state and national levels. We think here, for instance, of evangelical higher education, theological and ministerial publishing, and social activism (e.g. organizations like Speak for the Unborn). Finally, we can do the same regarding mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox related especially to social concerns. In the West, where even some mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics are wavering on the Bible’s teaching regarding, for instance, the sanctity of human life and the biblical understanding of marriage, it is important – ecumenically important – for Baptists to be able to partner with other Christians when and where they can to promote God’s good order for the world. Timothy George calls this appoach “an ecumenism of the trenches,” one “born out of a common moral struggle to proclaim and embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a culture of disarray.”
Outside of these local concerns, what can be done at the national and international level? While evangelicals have often had an aversion to the various ecumenical movements of the last century or so, often for honorable reasons, perhaps a few brave evangelical souls might be willing to reengage. Evangelicals and even Southern Baptists, once upon a time, were engaged in formal ecumenical dialogues with a variety of Christian traditions, including the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. This final suggestion is admittedly more precarious. Principled ecumenism should never paper over differences for the sake of some lowest common denominator “unity.” We should seek what Timothy George has called an ecumenism of conviction, rather than an ecumenism of accommodation. But we see nothing in principle that would prevent evangelical Baptists from seeking clarity on our areas of agreement, disagreement, and “differentiated consensus”—that is, those areas where we may arrive at similar conclusions by different means—with other Christian traditions. (While we do not agree with all of his positions or concessions to the ecumenical movement, we find Steve Harmon’s attempt at developing an ecumenical theology from a Baptist perspective admirable).
At the end of the day, the ecumenism we would seek begins from a posture of humility. While we believe the Baptist tradition closely aligns with the New Testament churches, we reject all over-realized eschatologies that would identify the fullness of God’s kingdom with any institutional church or denomination—including our own. It begins with the assumption that we have much to receive as well as much to give in the generous exchange of gifts within the body of Christ.
 We (Luke and Matt) hold to close communion. Here we are only being descriptive of the way many Baptists think about this issue, not describing our own view.