Strange as it may sound, J. R. Graves was, in some ways, more committed to Christian Unity than any Baptist I know. Some time back, a discussion over at Les Puryear's blog drove me to the SWBTS archives to research Graves's views regarding Free Will Baptists. The question intrigued me because a Free Will Baptist Church meets all of Graves's published criteria for being a true church, yet I sincerely wondered whether Graves would have acknowledged the Free Will Baptist churches as valid churches, knowing how strictly he drew that line. I found the answer to my question in the 1890 revision of Graves's book The Trilemma. Here's the short answer: Graves rejected the Free Will Baptists not because of their doctrine, but because he adjudged them guilty of fracturing the unity of the church. According to Graves, when Benjamin Randall led the Free Will Baptists into exodus from affiliation with other Baptists, the wrongfulness of that schismatic action invalidated his church and all of the churches that followed him. Having pondered Graves's point, I raise four questions about Christian Unity:
- What exactly is Christian Unity if one believes in local church autonomy? Roman Catholics have no problem defining unity—those churches that know their place in the structure and stay within it are in unity. But what does unity mean among autonomous local churches? Does disagreement equal a lack of unity? If so, then we do not have unity within our local autonomous church—there are lots of opinions here. Must we adopt a quasi-Catholic approach (as it seems to me we might be tempted to do) and conjecture that partnership within our structure (the SBC) equals unity? Personally, I think this stretches the role of the convention far beyond propriety or the intention of the founders. The SBC is not (or ought not to be) a "structure" in any ecclesiological sense. It is a voluntary partnership. Christian Unity and intercongregational cooperation are not entirely unrelated subjects, but I do not beleive that they are identical subjects. Does Christian Unity amount to something akin to the "Full Faith and Credit" clause of the U. S. Constitution (the part of the Constitution requiring each state to respect the legal judgments of the other states)? In other words, does Christian Unity amount to recognizing the baptisms, ordinations, exclusions, etc., of sister churches as valid? By his actions more than his writings, Graves seems to have held this view (it seems to me). What think ye? What does Christian Unity look like among autonomous congregations?
- If the violation of Christian Unity is a sin (and I believe that it is), then what is the consequence of that sin? This will seem counter-intuitive to many, but I believe that the biblical witness is clear. Titus 3:10 commands us to "reject a factious man after a first and second warning." The verb paraiteomai (reject) is a multi-faceted word, but here it almost certainly has the meaning to "shun" such a person. Thus, the New Testament consequence for the sin of fomenting schism is…schism! The Bible commands us to separate from people who provoke separation. Inevitably, this means that it is possible to refuse to be in unity with someone, and for your refusal to be the other person's fault.
- If Second Baptist Church, Somewhere, Alabama is a split from First Baptist Church, Somewhere, Alabama, then how can we claim that those congregations are in unity? Even if both affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention, with the Alabama Baptist State Convention, and with a local association, at the local church level they are out of fellowship. It seems to me that modern forms of ecumenism want to pretend that such schismatic actions do not matter and have no consequences. Indeed, one confronts the assumption that major denominational differences, not just schism among fellow congregants, can co-exist with Christian Unity. If schism is a grievous sin, then we must address the possibility that a high percentage of our Southern Baptist churches are on-the-outs with the Lord for their sin of schism. Perhaps they are even false churches? My gut doesn't even want to consider that possibility, but my mind tells me that we must at least consider it, even if only to consider and reject it for good cause. I fault J. R. Graves for not taking seriously enough this question. On the other hand, I credit J. R. Graves with having the honesty to concede that no amount of friendly handshaking among Christians who insist upon organizational separation (by that I mean at the local church level) can realistically amount to Jesus' intentions when He prayed for the unity of the body. His approach precipitated such messy situations as his and R. B. C. Howell's competing claims as to which was the real First Baptist Church of Nashville; nevertheless, such pickiness does take seriously the matter of church schism. Perhaps this is why J. R. Graves, in spite of all of his contentiousness, never attempted to lead anyone out of the Southern Baptist Convention—he was committed to Christian Unity.
- If schism is a sin, then what is the path to recovery and restitution? The answer is repentance. Those who have fractured the body of Christ by insisting upon infant baptism need to repent of that sin. Reconciliation will then be possible. Those who have foisted popes upon the people of Christ need to repent of that sin. Reconciliation will then be possible. Those who have splintered congregations over styles of music need to repent. Those who have built denominations around pseudo-charisms and splintered the body of Christ need to repent. When schismatics repent, reconciliation is possible. If we, as Baptists, could be just as biblical in another kind of church, then we need to repent, too. We would then need to repent of being Baptists, for then our existence as Baptists would be nothing but needless division in the body of Christ. Of course, Baptist sectarian that I am, I believe that we must be Baptist to be biblical. Indeed, although it matters not very much to me whether they choose to use that word, I believe that the very repentance that is needed is for all Christians to become conservative Baptists. Then, we will have Christian Unity.