Embrace diversity, says BWA leader

Originally led by Baptists in Europe and the United States, the Baptist World Alliance is trying to reposition itself as an organization in which all cultural groups have an equal voice.

By Bob Allen

Cultural and theological diversity among Baptists worldwide is both a challenge and a strength, Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam told European Baptist leaders gathered Sept. 25-28 in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Callam urged the Council of the European Baptist Federation to endorse a Covenant on Intra-Baptist Relations adopted by the BWA General Council in July. The covenant, available in 22 languages on the BWA website, recognizes the diversity of language, culture, opinions and perspectives among the 228 member organizations in 121 countries that comprise the worldwide Baptist organization formed in 1905.

While global in scope from the start, in the early years BWA membership was mostly composed of conventions and unions from the Western world. That changed in the last century, when explosive expansion in Africa, Asia and Latin America shifted the locus of Christianity toward the Southern Hemisphere.

Callam NevilleCallam said Baptists today should see themselves as "a family without a dominant group marked by a plethora of languages that does not lead to Babel" and in which "all cultural groups have an equal voice."

The Covenant on Intra-Baptist Relations, drafted by a special commission, provides a framework for responding to growing diversity in BWA meetings and operations,

“This diversity includes various cultures, languages, customs, histories, racial identities, ways of expressing theological conviction and personal and communal encounters with Christ in different cultural contexts,” the covenant says. “By God’s grace, the BWA reflects, in a visible way, the rich diversity of the one body of Christ.”

At the same time, that diversity brings challenges including the difficulty of achieving clear, precise and commonly understood communication across multiple languages.

“That challenge is enhanced when well-meaning individuals do not know or fully appreciate the biblical, cultural, historical or theological distinctives and sensibilities that inform the perspectives articulated by various members of the BWA family,” the document states.

The covenant begins with a commitment to offer opinions and perspectives “in a spirit of humility and with the request for the Holy Spirit to guide us in our speaking and in our listening to others.”

No matter how passionate BWA members feel about a particular issue or position, it continues, conversation and dialogue “must always be focused on principles and not on individuals, cultures, regions, nations or denominational bodies.”

“As a world community of Baptist believers, we remain incomplete until we have vigorously sought to hear, understand and respect the diverse viewpoints reflected by others, especially those persons from cultures that have been marginalized through material poverty and the legacy of colonialism and imperialism,” the covenant says. “Therefore, we strive to avoid practices or conversations that perpetuate the dominance of one cultural perspective as providing the normative experience or theological perspective for all members of the BWA.”

The BWA pledges to identify and employ tools to communicate more effectively and seek to develop “lasting and meaningful relationships through thoughtful and prayerful conversations both within and outside of formal meetings.”

“When we believe an opinion or perspective is seriously flawed, we challenge each other as beloved family members rather than as strangers and enemies,” the covenant says. “Even the correction of perceived errors must be done in love.”

Callam acknowledged the significant role Europe has played in the BWA and suggested the EBF consider ways to apply principles of the covenant in its own ongoing efforts to bring internal diversity into conversation with its commitment to unity.

Founded in 1949 to unite European Baptists emerging from the devastation of World War II, the European Baptist Federation today encompasses more than 50 Baptist unions representing 13,000 churches and 800,000 members stretching from Portugal to Russia. The EBF represents nearly every country in Europe and Euro-Asia and also five unions in the Middle East. It is one of six regions that make up the Baptist World Alliance.

In recent decades the EBF has stressed evangelism and church planting through an Indigenous Mission Partnership that provides funding for suitably gifted people to work as evangelists and church planters in their own countries in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

The organization has also taken up the cause of religious freedom in countries where Baptist and other religious minorities suffer discrimination, repressive religious laws, violence and imprisonment. It also deals with issues of human rights, like human trafficking, that affect Europe as a whole.

The EBF also owns a major resource for theological education, the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic. Last year EBF leaders approved plans to move the seminary to Amsterdam to make it more cost-effective and focus more narrowly on doctoral studies rather than duplicating master’s-level studies being offered by national and regional Baptist seminaries that have arisen since the 1990s.