BWA leader emphasizes ‘essential oneness’ of Christian world communion

Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam addressed the “essential oneness of Christian world communion" when he delivered the Willson-Addis Lecture at Truett Theological Seminary in Waco. (File Photo)

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WACO—The Baptist World Alliance represents a Christian world communion, not just an affinity group or organization, the international fellowship’s general secretary told an assembly at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.

BWA General Secretary Neville Callam addressed the “essential oneness of Christian world communion” when he delivered the Willson-Addis Lecture at Truett  Seminary, March 28.

BWA is “an organization of churches sharing a common heritage but also marked by bewildering diversity,” he noted.

Communion and diversity

“The global Baptist movement reflects diverse theological, cultural and other emphases drawn together from distinct geographical regions with their peculiar histories,” Callam said.

“Communion” or “fellowship”—English words that capture some aspects of the Greek New Testament term koinonia—provide the best way forward for Baptists globally to re-envision their oneness, he asserted.

“The essential oneness of Baptist churches, when conceived in terms of communion, appears to be strong enough to contain the variety of ways in which Baptist life is ordered at the local, national, regional and worldwide levels,” Callam said.

While BWA is not a church, it possesses “ecclesial density”—weighty significance as an expression of Christian unity, even in its diversity, he insisted.

Historical development of BWA

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Callam traced BWA’s development from its inaugural Baptist World Congress in 1905 with fewer than 30 nations represented to its present membership of 235 conventions and unions in 122 countries and territories.

“BWA was understood to be a body reflecting Baptist unity. BWA was ‘more fully to manifest the essential oneness’ of its constituent members,” he said, quoting from the preamble to the alliance’s constitution.

“It was conceived as a fellowship of churches and not merely a fellowship of Baptist individuals. It was to be a body made up of corporate entities reflecting the essential oneness in Christ of their constituent churches.”

Under the presidency of theologian E.Y. Mullins, who championed soul liberty and the right of the individual before God, the BWA adopted a constitutional change that made the alliance “a fellowship of Baptists, which may be interpreted as Baptist individuals, Baptist churches, Baptist unions/conventions or all three,” Callam said.

When the BWA General Council adopted the report of its 21st Century Committee in 2005, it retained that ambiguity, defining the alliance as “a global movement of Baptists sharing a common confession of faith in Jesus Christ, bonded together by God’s love to support, encourage and strengthen one another, while proclaiming and living the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit before a lost and hurting world.”

Essential oneness in covenant community

Callam called on Baptists globally to view their “essential oneness” in terms of “communion ecclesiology,” envisioning their fellowship as a covenant community.

“‘Communion ecclesiology’ refers fundamentally to an understanding of the church as koinonia—fellowship, communion—among human beings and with the triune God,” he explained.

He cited the emphasis of American Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz on “social Trinitarianism.” Grenz asserted the image of God in humanity rests in “the relationality of persons in community,” just as the three Persons of the Trinity live in eternal community.

He also pointed to the teachings of British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes—particularly his “pastoral theology of the Trinity” and renewed emphasis on a theology of covenant—as helpful building blocks for constructing a distinctively Baptist communion ecclesiology.

Benefits of communion ecclesiology

Communion ecclesiology offers Baptists at least seven benefits, Callam asserted, because it:

  • Accentuates established Trinitarian orthodoxy.
  • Responds appropriately to the high place of Christology in the Baptist understanding of the church as the Body of Christ under the headship of Christ alone.
  • Raises the idea of fellowship from togetherness to a higher-level solidarity grounded in a Trinitarian foundation and “reaching out to embrace a rich understanding of the person that transcends the individual and private sphere.”
  • Promotes a fuller understanding of the need for relationships with Baptists beyond the local church, as well as the larger Christian fellowship.
  • Provides a basis to affirm unity in diversity, without giving in to fragmentation.
  • Offers a distinctively Baptist understanding of how authority can be exercised in the church by placing “the emphasis on the lordship of Christ over the church and the mutual accountability of members and leaders within the church as a fellowship of equality, which does not need structures that are at risk of hosting a spirit of domination.”
  • Accentuates concern for the full participation of all members of the church in its life and ministry.

“The time may be ripe for BWA to ask its member churches whether they can affirm a communion ecclesiology that honors historic Baptist emphases,” Callam said.

“BWA can be understood as providing a case study of a community of believers mostly guided by a strong congregational polity and yet reaching out to form vital translocal relationships, including at the worldwide level. BWA can manifest how guardianship of congregational authority and commitment to the furtherance of Baptist oneness and wider Christian unity are not incompatible.”

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