Building Bridges: Perspectives on Baptist Unity (Reviewed)

WARNING: If you are not a Southern Baptist, you might find the following very uninteresting.

Here from the seclusion of my secret personal retreat getaway, I was able to polish off the little book by David Dockery and Timothy George on Southern Baptist unity.  The book is entitled Building Bridges: Perspectives on Baptist Unity [link is to free e-book version!] and weighs in at a mere 64 pages.  In short, let me say that I found the book to be powerful, insightful, and the kind of thing that I hope and pray is embraced broadly throughout my denomination.

Why did I read this book?

Wordle: The Baptist Faith and Message 2008
Baptist Faith & Message
Ordinarily, many of you know that I spend my energies writing about missiology, contextualization, Hinduism, diaspora and the like.  So, you may be surprised to find me reading a book about Southern Baptist identity.  However, these days I find myself with more and more of a voice among my denominational brothers and sisters.  I train and supervise new SBC church planters; I help to lead one of the largest local Baptist associations in the country; and I pastor two Southern Baptist churches.  Very recently, I've also been invited to serve as a part of a new Southern Baptist North American Mission Board project called "Send Chicago".  Send Chicago consists of a coalition of about 18 missionaries, pastors, and other leaders who are tasked with seeking to develop strategies for church planting in Chicagoland.  I've been to a couple meetings thus far.  Actually, it was the most recent one that stirred in me a desire to read Building Bridges.

What does it mean to be Southern Baptist in Chicagoland?

During our most recent coalition gathering -- the first official one -- the question was asked, "What does it mean to be a Southern Baptist church in Chicago?"  After a bit of discussion, there was a followup question, "What makes Southern Baptists different from other Evangelicals in Chicago?"  This second question was immediately met with an answer from a member of the group that just about made me fall out of my chair, "We preach the word of God!" Astonished, I wondered if as a group we were actually suggesting that only Southern Baptists were preaching the word of God.

My contribution to the ensuing conversation was a challenge that we not make "planting Southern Baptist churches" the end for which we labor in mission.  Rather that we make our focus extending God's Kingdom, reaching people who don't know Christ -- you know, that which Christ actually calls his people to do.  We will plant SBC churches as a means to that end.  I shared with the group that it wasn't the building of our denomination that got me out of bed in the morning, but the building of Christ's Kingdom.

Well, I certainly didn't have the last word and the rest of the conversation around the room on the topic was anything but decisive.  We have much work to do -- that we must do.  Theological, missiological, racial, economic, political, historic, traditional, and ideological elephants abound, stomping around the room, begging to be talked about.  And the question that rang out in all of the discussion that day, that spontaneously emerged from the rather chaotic proceedings and then sort of lingered there was this, "Why are you Southern Baptist?"

For me, the answer comes very quickly from my heart.  It is a family thing.  Not that my biological family was Southern Baptist.  No, but I came to know Christ in the Southern Baptist context in Oklahoma.  Michelle, Jon, Becky, Boyd, Dan, Jim and many others who established, brought me up and mentored me in the faith were all Southern Baptists.  I was baptized, licensed, and ordained and sent out as a missionary by Southern Baptists. And, I should say, I love standing in the tradition of Lottie Moon.  So, it is my heritage and my family.  We live in a culture of leavers and I have been encouraged to jump ship many times over the years. But in spite of the many, many problems I see in our huge denominational family, I just don't believe that leaving is right, helpful, or godly.  I believe we must "test all things" and "hold on to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21) and try our darnedest to fix the rest!

But, still, what does it mean that I am a Southern Baptist?  Are there reasons besides loyalty to a family and heritage that keep me Baptist?  The answer is yes, but I don't want to spend any real time on that today.  Instead, I want to point especially my Baptist readers to the book Building Bridges.  I commend it to you and believe that God would have the SBC embrace the message therein.  The call that Dockery and George have made is to renewal rooted in a "retrieval" of our historic roots as Baptists, as Protestants, and as Christians.  They call for a renewed Baptist unity (in-house) as well as a "candid ecumenism" of conviction in the service of unity in the universal Church for the sake of world evangelization.  Two quick quotes are due here.  First, regarding Baptist unity:

"We must recognize that Southern Baptists have historically reflected considerable diversity.  While we do not hold out doctrinal uniformity as a goal, we do call for renewed commitments to the inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of Scripture with an accompanying commitment to a hermeneutic of acceptance over against a hermeneutic of suspicion, as well as a re-establishment and reaffirmation of the Gospel center" (p. 33).

Regarding ecumenism:

"A model of dynamic orthodoxy must be reclaimed.  The orthodox tradition must be recovered in conversation with Nicea, Chalcedon, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, the Pietists, and the revivalists. In sum, our Southern Baptist identity must be rooted in the consensus fidei of the Christian Church . . . . We must take seriously the biblical call to unity in accord with the Nicene affirmation of the oneness and universality of the Church" (p. 33).

If you are a Baptist with an identity crisis, read this book.  It will help you.  If you are being bugged by Baptist elements that think you just aren't Baptist enough, read this and memorize some of its pithier quotes.  I think it is just right on at so many points.  For the record, there is good mention of issues related to the "Conservative Resurgence" and Calvinist v. Arminian disputes.  When you finish the book, you should feel that the conversation has just begun however.  Much more needs to be discussed.  The issue of race was barely touched.  Gender isn't really mentioned.  Sticky subjects like alcohol use, church polity, and "speaking in tongues" were not specifically referenced.  Again, we have much more work to do, but I am thrilled that Dockery and George have boldly and insightfully gotten the ball rolling.

[P.S. - Actually, I noticed that this book came out in 2007.  However, free copies of it were distributed at the most recent associational meeting of Chicago Metro Baptist Association.  That was the first time I saw it.  I'm happy to do what I can to give the worthy title a little more attention.]


  1. Cody thinking food, Cody!

    Did you catch the Mission America Coalition Cities call on Diversity today?

    Have a blessed Christmas,

  2. No, Phil, I missed that. Probably was in an email but I am pretty far behind on those.