The church is local and the church is universal. These seemingly contradictory claims have given expression to the way Baptists have sought to understand being the body of Christ for 400 years. While we have recognized that the church is made of all believers, we have found that the richest expressions of church are local ones. That is certainly not to say that local congregations cannot and do not join together to accomplish amazing deeds for the kingdom of God, because they can and they do. Yet, it is in and through those local congregations that God speaks most clearly and effectively to those local congregations. Who better to hear and to recognize the voice of God for a particular time, place and situation than the people of God living through that particular time, place and situation. We, as Baptists, have always given priority to the local church, while happily joining together with likeminded believers to share Christ’s love.
Two decisions rendered by national church bodies underscore for me the wisdom of this approach. The first occurred in Louisville, Kentucky, at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Messengers there took all of thirty seconds to approve, without discussion, a recommendation to cease fellowship with Broadway Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. What made Broadway unworthy of fellowship with the Southern Baptist Convention? They refused to distance themselves from members of their own church who are homosexual. Simply put, the Southern Baptist Convention was trying to tell Broadway Baptist what kind of church it should be and how it should conduct its business. Broadway refused to be bullied, which is their prerogative. The Southern Baptist Convention gave them the boot, which is their prerogative. What Broadway held onto through it all was the notion that the local church is the final authority for what happens in a local church, not some outside body.
Several months ago, a proposal was made for a workshop focused on the topic of “Homosexuality and the Church”, to be offered at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Houston this summer. The purpose of the proposed workshop was to give those who had an interest an hour to gather, listen and ask question about how homosexuality is impacting the church, and how the church could approach the issue. No decisions, pronouncements or recommendations would have resulted from the meeting, simply conversations — maybe heated conversations — but conversations nonetheless. Someone made a decision not to offer the workshop. It was not on the schedule. Why not? Because someone recognized that the only meaningful place to have such a conversation is in the local church. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wisely chose to leave the matter there.
Those kinds of conversation do take place in our church, though I have never participated in one or known one that occurred in a large group setting. No, they happen informally between trusted friends. Such topics come up from time to time in Sunday School classes and in conversations in the parking lot. We have a way of seeking out the people we need to talk to and listen to when we face challenges in our lives.
We do have conversations about Sharing Christ’s Love. With whom do we share it? What restrictions or limitations do we put on it? Are there those with whom we will not share? What hungry person does Christ not want us to feed? What thirsty person does Christ not want us to give a cup of water to? What lonely person does Christ not want us to share coffee and conversation with? What we strive to do each day is to share the love of Christ with whomever comes our way. In short, love first, ask questions later. That is really what the Apostle Paul was saying last week to the Ephesians and to us when he wrote about living blameless lives. To be blameless is to love as Christ loved. To do less, to limit, to restrict, to exclude is to be less than blameless, less than Christ calls us to be.