The evangelization of the world in this generation was the cry of the world's first international and interdenominational gathering to promote and strategize missions. Leaders of all the "great" evangelical denominations were present at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910 to discuss how they could work together to win the world to Christ. They were convinced that the task was too large and the need too great to allow divisions of doctrine and polity to keep them from reaching the world.
Today, the need is great — perhaps greater. We must not let minor doctrinal divisions keep us from reaching the world with the gospel. We can and must work with others — but we must not make the same mistakes evidenced through that initial attempt at cooperation. We should learn from their mistakes. We must maintain our doctrinal integrity even as we journey with other evangelicals with convictions that may differ slightly from our own. We must not make the mistake that Edinburgh did: failing to define what we believe and why we believe it.
Can't We All Work Together?
Edinburgh assumed what it logically could — everyone who loves missions must also love the Bible and be committed to it. To be fair, the attendees at Edinburgh, with few exceptions, were accurately described as Bible-believing, evangelical Christians. Differences in doctrine, structure, and polity were intentionally set aside for the purpose of world missions. It made sense to do so — but in the end it failed.
Today, Southern Baptists have adopted a statement of belief called The Baptist Faith and Message. Can one love Jesus and not endorse The Baptist Faith and Message? Certainly. Few would think otherwise. Can we cooperate with other evangelicals who do not affirm the faith statement? No question-as long as we can hold to it as our doctrinal statement and are not asked to compromise. We can work with other evangelicals who respect our doctrinal beliefs even though they may not hold to all of our distinctives.
Today, we hear voices calling for a "rally around missions." We are told that missions is what unifies us — missions is the glue that holds us together. They are only partially right. At Edinburgh, they made the same pronouncements ... and soon the follow-up conferences (the International Missionary Council) questioned the need for personal witness and instead focused on service (IMC, Jerusalem, 1928), questioned the need for conversion among devout followers of other faiths (IMC, Madras, 1938), and eventually the IMC was incorporated into a universalist World Council of Churches (New Dehli, 1963).
Rallying around missions while ignoring doctrine does not work. Now, do not misunderstand me, I have spent my life doing missions in North America. Furthermore, I have worked hard to serve our IMB partners overseas. I love missions. However, missions without doctrine leads to compromise. Compromise leads to a lack of commitment to biblical truth. Soon, we no longer see the need for evangelism because we have flawed and weak doctrine.
Some would say, "But look at our commitment to missions — and yet we do not emphasize doctrine! We emphasize cooperation!" I point to history and remind them that no organization has maintained a missions focus without a strong doctrinal foundation. Not one.
A better approach is to remember that while the larger Body of Christ may include Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals, other Baptists, etc. (hardly an exhaustive list), God has entrusted us with the Southern Baptist Convention — its reputation, its agencies, and its missionaries. Thus, it is our job to maintain our doctrinal distinctives — not because we want to be different, but because we believe our faith statements to be accurate representations to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
My job is to recruit and help deploy North American Mission Board missionaries through "The Nehemiah Project." Recently, a well-meaning brother rebuked me for being too worried about the doctrinal commitments of a potential Nehemiah Church Planter. However, without sound doctrine, missions is eventually doomed.
Can We Still Work With Others?
Of course, we can and we must. We can fellowship for mutual encouragement. We can plan together to maximize our effectiveness. We can even share resources when appropriate. Ours is a pragmatic unity to maximize our effectiveness — not a dumbing down of doctrine to do missions.
One prominent missions leader recently explained that Southern Baptists "came together around missions. So, many have lost their enthusiasm because of the focus on doctrine rather than a focus on winning the world to Christ." However, this is a false dichotomy. We need to have a missions focus, but without exception, denominations or groups that have not maintained their commitment to sound doctrine have eventually lost their focus on missions. I for one think that missions is too important to de-emphasize doctrine ... and I am glad that the Southern Baptist Convention agrees.
Ed Stetzer is the NAMB Director of the Nehemiah Project, a cooperative church planting project with the SBC seminaries. He has planted churches in the Northeast United States and has trained church planters in the United States, Canada, and around the world.