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BWA Gathering Has High Points and a Belly Flop

The annual gathering of goodwill, global Baptists ended last week in Ocho Rios, Jamaica with a number of high points – and one major blooper.
Founded in 1905, the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) is the largest network of worldwide Baptists with 228 member conventions and unions located in 120 countries. BWA has 42 million members in some 177,000 churches.

The BWA meets each year in different locations. The 2014 meeting will be in Izmir, Turkey. The 2015 meeting will be in Durban, South Africa.

One of this year’s high points came from Jamaican climate scientist Michael Taylor, who gave a concise presentation about global warming. He said climate has changed; climate will change; and climate demands change.

Taylor, a physicist, said that the effects of climate change were not equally distributed. Developing countries, the poor and island nations were among the “climate-vulnerable” who are most harmed by the changes, a reality that ought to concern the church.

Regrettably, only a handful of those who attended the Social and Environmental Justice Commission session heard Taylor.

Would that BWA gatherings gave less time to academic papers and more time to mobilizing people of faith on issues that matter in real time.

Splitting doctrinal hairs does little to show God’s love to the world’s most vulnerable who suffer the most from global warming and will suffer greater hardships in the years to come if we – churches, governments and corporations – do not act to mitigate the change in climate.

Another high point appeared in a sermon by Jamaican pastor Karen Kirlew, who spoke on self-centeredness with an illustration of a man who ignored earth care.

She told a story about a poor man who damaged the water table on his land and destroyed the river, which provided sustenance. As he gained wealth from growing coffee, he built a larger house only to have it destroyed by the ecological harm he had created out of his self-centeredness.

“As human beings, we must go beyond survival instincts which lead us to unsustainable and untenable activities,” she said. “Let us envision our participation in a community where we put the interests of others and the life of the creation first and not our own.”

She said, “Let us dedicate our hearts and our lives to the causes beyond self and be moved to humbly depend upon the Creator.”

During a Christian Ethics Commission session, Rod Benson, ethicist and public theologian at Morling College in Australia, presented a paper that developed the theme of “growth in grace,” calling Christians to be imitators of Christ.

“Christian ethics must take seriously the two imperatives of being good and doing right (character formation and the pursuit of duty or obligation), as well as the communitarian dimension of ethical claims, if it is to be true to the fullness of the Christian vision of the good life and the common good as attested by Scripture and expounded by public theology,” said Benson.

In another ethics session, Bill Tillman, director of theological education for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, won the “award” for the most interesting paper title – “Bob Marley, Freedom and the Bible.”

One of the breakthrough presentations was the high-profile introduction of George Liele. Liele became the first freed slave to be ordained in America and the first Baptist missionary, moving after the Revolutionary War to Jamaica.

He went there in 1783, well before Baptist minister William Carey, known as the “father of modern missions,” went a decade later to India.

While attendees were far from unanimous on how to respond to the Christian-Muslim situation, the BWA placed the issue at the forefront of the agenda with a number of sessions.

David Kerrigan, general secretary of BMS World Mission, spoke to Britain’s deceptive promises to Arabs, which led to the formation of Israel, during the Baptist-Muslim Relations Commission session. He observed that some say that Palestinians are paying for “Christian” Europe’s inaction during the Holocaust.

That session also had a report from Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Baptist Society, on the church and the Arab Spring. He noted that Baptists are a minority among Christians, who are a minority among Muslims. As such, Baptists face challenges from Muslims and Catholics.

The BWA received a report on Baptist-Catholic dialogue. Brazilian and Ghanaian representatives voiced opposition to it. One said that Catholics in his country did not accept Baptists as Christians.

However, Argentinean professor Tomas Mackey spoke positively about Pope Francis in a video interview with EthicsDaily.com.

An organizational high point was the addition of five new member groups. One was the Baptist Church of Congo with 2,850 members and 26 churches located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Another was the Convention of Independent Baptist Churches in Brazil with 67,908 members and 437 churches.

The meeting’s low point came when resolutions were presented. Rather than afford voting members an opportunity to read the resolutions, the resolutions were flashed on a screen with a quick word about the topic and the point of each resolution. Members were then asked to vote on resolutions.

Craig Sherouse, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., objected to the process, noting that if the BWA didn’t take resolutions seriously enough to afford members a chance even to read the resolutions, then why should others take them seriously.

The 2013 resolutions should rightly be set aside or identified only as the resolutions of the resolutions committee, which did work diligently on a number of moral statements.

A disappointing word came in a breakfast conversation. An Asian general secretary shared that Southern Baptist Convention missionaries don’t work with his union. He said that they were “individualistic.”

I’ve now heard that message through the years from many global Baptist leaders.

As for the BWA, friendships are deeper, collaboration is more resilient and the network is stronger among goodwill, global Baptists.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.