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New ‘Ecumenism’ Unites Conservatives

While the old leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention generally avoided the ecumenical movement associated with the World Council of Churches and mainline Protestants in the 20th century, the new fundamental/conservative guard appears more open to emergence of a newer “evangelical ecumenism” or “New Evangelical” movement.

The term first came into use to describe the popularity of Billy Graham and formation of magazines like Christianity Today and institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary and the National Association of Evangelicals, which grouped Christians by common interests rather than by denomination.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Recently the label is used to describe authors like <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Charles Stanley, Chuck Colson, Charles Swindoll and James Dobson. Other leaders include Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, whose church-growth model features “seeker” style worship services, contemporary music, casual dress and positive messages–while de-emphasizing doctrines including hell and denominational differences.
 
It’s one impetus behind formation of an International Baptist Network aimed at unifying independent fundamental Baptists, along with some Southern Baptists, including former SBC president Jerry Vines and “conservative resurgence” pioneer Paul Pressler.
 
Gene Mims, former vice president of church resources for LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC publishing house, is the group’s first executive director/president.
 
“With the changes in our culture and how they affect Baptist denominations, fellowship and associations, the IBN is the perfect vehicle to allow likeminded Baptists to cooperate fully with one another to evangelize the earth,” Mims said, quoted in Jerry Fawell’s National Liberty Journal.
 
Mims said the IBN is not a denomination or a super-denomination, and it will not send out missionaries, hire pastors or raise large amounts of money for operation.
 
“It is rather a network to help Baptists focus on carrying out the Great Commission in our generation, and, within that focus, keep Baptists in harmony with one another,” Mims said. “The IBN will help the pastor in the smallest church to be a part of something worldwide.  It will help the layman in any part of the world to contact fellow Baptists around the world.  It will give support to Baptist missionaries wherever they labor.”
 
The movement is not without its detractors, who say the New Evangelicalism means doctrinal compromise and accommodation to worldly methods. “It lacks moral courage in the face of the great conflict with apostasy,” wrote independent Baptist Ernest Pickering. “It lacks doctrinal clarity in important areas of theology. It makes unwarranted concessions to the enemies of the cross of Christ.”
 
The notion of cooperation between fundamentalist Southern Baptists and more open independents has been around for a while, however.
 
SBC president Ed Young in 1992 named former president Jerry Vines to chair a task force to seek to recruit “like‑minded local churches” into the Southern Baptist cause.
 
In 1993 Young and Vines spoke at a conference in Rockville, Md., billed as a first step toward “building bridges” between Bible-believing Southern Baptists and independent fundamentalists. Host pastor Bob Crowley credited resurgence co-founder Paige Patterson, who did not attend, with coming up with the idea for the gathering.
 
Speakers included Jerry Falwell, then an independent Baptist who downplayed talk that he might one day join the SBC. “I’m an independent Baptist,” Falwell said. “That’s my personality. I couldn’t stay in anything long. They’d throw me out if I didn’t quit. And it’s mainly because I’m a street fighter.”
 
Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention three years later, prompting a number of other independent fundamental Baptist churches to follow suit.
 
Among them is Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., the congregation that holds copyright to the classic Landmark Baptist pamphlet “The Trail of Blood.” The church’s pastor at the time, Hershael York, now teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is current president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
 
Another recent alliance reaches across denominational lines.
 
Former SBC president Jack Graham is working in a multi-church Global Day of Prayer May 15 in Dallas with the nationally famous pastor T.D. Jakes, who leads a non-denominational church and has been criticized for beliefs about the Trinity.
 
“You come away from our conversations with the old adage, more unites us than divides us,” Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, told the Dallas Morning News. “We can work together and still maintain our own denominational and doctrinal distinctives.”
 
Others draw the circle even wider, recognizing common ground not only among evangelicals but also with conservative Catholics.
 
Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson and Catholic scholar Richard John Neuhaus have convened talks since 1994 of an ad hoc group calling itself Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
 
One participant, Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, is “poised to become the leading non-Catholic voice for ecumenical unity,” Louisiana Baptist pastor Jerry Moser, a longtime critic of the ECT, wrote in his March 29 RADEN (Rome and Daughters Ecumenical News) Report.
 
George, in an interview in the April 4 issue of Christianity Today, said the next round of discussions, which begin April 21 in New York, will focus on the “cost of discipleship.” The term is title of a book by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but the group will also study Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life, he said.
 
George said some people believe the ECT group got sidetracked when it moved beyond social issues into theology, but he disagrees. “I think it was an important trajectory when we began to look at the theological issues,” he said.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
 
See previous related article:
Independent Baptists Cooperate, Reach Out to SBC