Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cooperative Baptists and trans-local Eucharists

CBF General Assembly 2008
A version of this post previously appeared on the ABPnews Blog.

Cooperative Baptists are Baptists who “do this” when they get together. They “do this” not only in their local churches but also in their assemblies and in the institutions of theological education with which they partner.

I’m talking about the fact that when Baptists who identify with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship gather in settings beyond their local churches, they often follow the Lord’s admonition to “do this in remembrance of me” by celebrating the Eucharist. That’s what I found myself contemplating last week after receiving the Eucharist at the 2012 CBF General Assembly—and at the associated gathering of Baptist Women in Ministry two days prior.

That’s something entirely different from my experience as a Southern Baptist from the “cradle roll” through seminary. To be sure, we observed the Lord’s Supper in our local churches (though rarely more frequently than four times a year). But to share in the Lord’s Supper in a worship service at an associational meeting, a state convention, a Southern Baptist Convention meeting, or a seminary chapel service would have been unthinkable—maybe even heretical. That was something only local churches did.

Cooperative Baptists have evidently not felt bound by that aspect of their heritage. It bears reflection that when those who now identify with the CBF have had the freedom to do something other than what they did as Southern Baptists, they have chosen to celebrate the Eucharist in gatherings that, while not baptizing communities, are communities of the baptized.

That Cooperative Baptists “do this” means at the very least that, despite a post-General Assembly Fort Worth Star-Telegram article that characterized the CBF as an organization that “has no doctrine,” they have at least one first-order practice that embodies a first-order conviction. (To be sure, there are others.) Cooperative Baptists seem to be convinced that it is important enough to “do this” that they rarely gather beyond their local churches without doing it.

This calls for some second-order theological reflection. What does the celebration of the Eucharist beyond the local church imply about the ecclesiology (a doctrine!) of Cooperative Baptists that distinguishes it from the ecclesiology of its parent Baptist communion?

The late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder wrote in an essay published in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Herald Press, 1994): “The ‘high’ views of ordered churchdom can legitimate the worship of a General Assembly or a study conference only by stretching the rules, for its rules do not foresee ad hoc ‘churches’; only thoroughgoing congregationalism fulfills its hopes and definities whenever and wherever it sees ‘church’ happen” (p. 236).

Do Cooperative Baptist thoroughgoing congregationalists likewise see ‘church’ happening in their General Assemblies? Their eucharistic practice points in that direction.

Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam has insisted that global Baptists need to do serious theological reflection on the ecclesial status of the BWA. I wonder—might this be the time for us to do serious theological reflection on the ecclesial status of the CBF as well in light of our eucharistic practice?

If Cooperative Baptists believe there is sufficient ecclesiological warrant for them to “do this” when they gather, they are granting some degree of ecclesiality—characteristics of church—to their trans-local gatherings. And if that’s the case, might there be ecclesiological warrant for Cooperative Baptists to do as a gathered community of the baptized other things that reflect this ecclesiality? What might those other things be?

If we are enough of a eucharistic community that we believe we ought to “do this” when we gather beyond our local churches, we need to make sure that there is a corresponding practiced conviction in the local churches from which we gather. There’s something not quite right locally when, if I belonged to a congregation that celebrated communion only four times a year, I would receive the Eucharist more times at the national and state General Assemblies of the CBF, the national and state gatherings of Baptist Women in Ministry, and occasional divinity school chapel services combined than I would in such a local Baptist congregation.

Celebration of the Eucharist beyond the local church is already a distinguishing practice of Cooperative Baptists that sets them apart from some other sorts of Baptists. Let’s give this fact, its implications for the ecclesial status of the CBF, and its relation to the practices of our local congregations the theological reflection these matters deserve.

A version of this post previously appeared on the ABPnews Blog.

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