By Bill Webb, Word&Way Editor
Unity has most often been an elusive commodity for Baptist groups in the United States.
The recent announcement that the leaders of 30 Baptist bodies from across the United States and Canada are planning to enter into a covenant of unity with each other is an encouraging sign.
In Missouri, one need not look far to discover church members who long for any semblance of unity among Baptists. They have grown weary of harsh rhetoric, distrust, private and public criticism, power moves, control strategies, exclusivism and the like. They have seen Baptist disunity play out on television and in newspapers, in Baptist meetings, in courtrooms and — in some cases — from pulpits.
For generations, Baptist churches across the country have opted to split for a thousand different reasons instead of unifying around the faith and Great Commandment that should link us passionately from now through eternity.
A recent confab in Atlanta involving 80 diverse Baptist leaders has resulted in a call for an historic convocation to be held a year from now with hopes of drawing 20,000 Baptists from the United States and Canada.
The brainchild of one of the best-known Baptists in the land — President Jimmy Carter — the Jan. 9 “summit” was planned with the help of Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University.
Carter, Underwood and others said they hope to unite the majority of Baptists in North America into a loose-knit network to address social ills.
Carter, a former Southern Baptist, has said he feels the need to create a unified voice because of the schism the SBC experienced in the 1980s. “The most common opinion about Baptists is we cannot get along.... I have been grieved by the divisions of my own convention.”
The effort has faced criticism from some quarters, including SBC leadership. Because former President Bill Clinton attended the meeting announcing next year’s convocation, some have suggested the group is a front to get out a vote for Democrats in the upcoming presidential election.
Underwood and others say otherwise. Observers would do well to give the effort a chance. Broad-based unity among the nation’s Baptists obviously is not everyone’s cup of tea. But it does represent a desire on the part of many Baptists to set aside distrust to work in unity in areas where that is not only possible but highly desirable.
Unity is a good thing. Jesus prayed for it for all who would ever be His followers. Perhaps the time has come for His prayer to be answered among Baptists. (2-8-07)