This morning, I find myself staring out a window watching the sun rise over the desert valley of Phoenix. The Southern Baptist annual meeting is upon us, and I have joined my family of churches for a few days of fellowship, important decisions, and thankfulness to God for his grace. Every year, the SBC meetings are an opportunity for reflection, and this year I am struck by the importance of corporate witness.
We talk a lot about witness, or at least we should. The idea is all over the Bible. In fact, being a witness is central to the mission of God. Christ himself tells his newly established church that witness is the vital function they will serve to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The purpose of the church is perhaps more than that, but it is certainly no less. In specific, the church stands as witness, as testifier, to the good news of the gospel. We are the ones who know the story, and we have been tasked with sharing the story. We do this first by what we say. There is no such thing as a silent witness on the stand in a trial. Witnesses are called on to speak what they know. However, our actions speak loudly as well. Lives must match message. It is a familiar refrain for us. We call our congregations to walk the talk.
Often, this is construed as a charge to individual Christians in the midst of a sermon series that tells them how to live. We tell our church members that they must be witnesses, and they must. The whole concept breaks down if individual lives do not reflect the change brought by the gospel and individual lips do not tell others the good news. But witness is more than this. A whole church has a witness. The way the church lives together and in the midst of their community is as important as the call for the individuals to walk the talk. We all know “good churches” and “bad churches.” Regardless of your metric on that one, the point remains. Local churches as a whole testify to the gospel. They are good witnesses or bad witnesses. They can speak the gospel well from their pulpits, in their classrooms, in conversations over coffee or door-to-door in their community, or they can do it poorly. Churches can also live out the implications of the gospel well in front of their community by their unity with one another, their compassion for the hurting and especially the lost, or they will do so poorly. A local church has a corporate witness.
But I think most of us know that too.
There is a witness even broader, even more corporate than that, and that is what I am pondering today. A local church that is an island to herself is a poor witness to the gospel. Now, that may be an idea that makes us Baptists squirm a little in our seats, perhaps even more so the non-denominational churches that are Baptist in every way except their name. After all, we love our local church autonomy. And I think that is right. I am all for congregational government. I am a fan of the free church movement. However, there is a difference between some kind of extrabiblical hierarchy over a church dictating its ministry and mission and merely relating properly to other churches. Too often, local churches in North America today act as though they are ministering to a city by themselves, despite the presence of hundreds of other churches in that city. What kind of witness does that portray?
Being at the SBC annual meeting this year is a fresh reminder of the importance of corporate solidarity with other churches. It is refreshing to remember that my church is not the only church, not in my city, and certainly not in the world. My local church is part of something much bigger. Local churches, mine and yours, all stand in a tradition. Even churches that define themselves by what they are not came from somewhere. Every local church had a beginning, and except for Jesus’ first band of disciples, that beginning came from another local church. How easy it is to forget that our church’s existence was dependent upon another.
The SBC, for all of its warts, is a national collection of churches committed to one another based on a common confession and for a common mission. At its best, it is a family of churches. Belonging to a family is important. We know that on the personal level, and we tell our congregation to view our own local church that way. But does your church as a whole have a family that it belongs to? Let me be clear, Southern Baptists are by no means the only network of churches. There are other networks, there are other families of churches out there for which I am deeply thankful. The SBC is, however, my network of churches and the tradition to which I belong.
Of course, this idea of belonging to a family of churches gets hard when you see some of them acting in ways that embarrass you. That is probably the biggest reason I hear articulated by churches who do not desire association with other churches. There is this idea that being identified with a larger body of churches will somehow diminish impact, a fear that people will connect their church with either past experiences or a bad reputation among unchurched folk. And so some churches attempt to straddle the fence, claiming historic roots and tradition in the New Testament church while not being part of any actual tradition. There is a logical flaw somewhere, though, in saying your church is part of the ancient universal church that was but is somehow not part of the contemporary universal church that is. What if we saw it another way. Instead of shying away from other churches because we are afraid they will do something that embarrasses us, what if we embraced connection with other churches in an effort to all do it better. That says something about the character of a church. That is a corporate witness. That demonstrates the unity of the gospel. That shows how the gospel causes a whole church to love another church, even when it is messy.
It is one thing, if a group of churches has strayed from the gospel or is in the midst of doctrinal downgrade. There is a point where churches no longer hold to the same confession, and that is important. It is probably another thing, however, if the issue isn’t theological and is merely cultural, political, or personal. Fact is, we commend family members who stick with their relatives in times of trouble. That is called dedication, and it might demonstrate something about our corporate witness if we were not so quick to throw other churches under the bus.
Pastors and church leaders, my point here is not simply to cheerlead for the SBC. Instead, I ask that you consider the corporate witness of the church in your city. Does the way you associate (or don’t associate) with other churches strengthen or weaken the witness of the church in your area? Do you have a network of churches, a family if you will, to which your church belongs? Or, is your church floating along by itself, doing ministry alone?