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When Baptists Meet: A Feast of Diversity

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Some people say that part of the genius of being Baptist is the admissibility of a wide diversity of viewpoints contending with each other, sometimes within a single congregation. Sometimes, each purveyor of these divergent expressions insists that theirs is the truly responsible position. They posit interesting arguments to support their conclusion. In his recently published book, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014) Baptist scholar Curtis Freeman has provided a fresh and illuminating portrayal of one way of being Baptist.

In my opinion, the vast diversity that marks Baptist life is not always to be celebrated. If this diversity characterizes how we give expression to the faith, that is, how we appropriate different cultural tools in communicating the faith, then that is one thing. If the diversity goes to the core of our fundamental beliefs, then that is quite another thing. There is a diversity that is divisive and a diversity that is enriching. The latter will be on full display at the upcoming 21st Baptist World Congress (#BaptistCongress15)  that will take place in Durban, South Africa, in July this year.

One feature of the congress will be a daily Hlanganani (corporate worship service) in which participants will focus on one aspect of the theme, Jesus Christ, the Door. Because the preachers will come from around the world, we are likely to witness different ways of apprehending, interpreting, and announcing the one Gospel. Our rich, cultural diversity, nurtured by different historical experiences of God’s self-revelation, will not disturb the remarkable inner consistency of our understanding of the faith. Arriving with our conventional understandings, we will be introduced to perspectives that are differently and creatively nuanced. The likelihood is great that, if we listen carefully, the sermons will provide us with an enthralling and enriching experience.

In each Imbizo (Bible Study session), presenters are likely to offer different perspectives on the texts under consideration. This is because of the diverse ways in which the God revealed in sacred Scripture has been made known to us in our historical experience. The Bible expositions will reflect the distinct ways in which different people have been formed in the one faith. The 20 presenters, drawn from a wide cross section of the worldwide Baptist family, will provide evidence for the claim that, in the providence of God, the study of God’s word will continue to yield more light and truth for our edification.

From each Izingxoxo (Focus Group) we should gain personal enrichment. Those who assemble in the 37 separate sessions that are available will reflect together on matters of importance in various contexts around the world. They should expect to hear a range of opinions. This is partly because context, culture and history have a far greater impact on our ways of understanding and communicating the Gospel than we sometimes suppose or are willing to admit. We will need to be open to learn from others. It may just be that we come to discern more clearly something God has been saying to us.

The spirit of ubuntu will be rife throughout the congress. We will have many opportunities to meet, fellowship with, and learn from, diverse people from most of the 121 countries and territories where BWA member organizations exist. We will celebrate our solidarity, our oneness, and the common destiny that Christ offers us. The congress will be an invaluable networking festival.

Among those whom we are likely to meet in Durban are persons Freeman refers to as Other Baptists. There will undoubtedly be some who reside in the Global South who will suddenly discover that, in some places, they are called Other Baptists. Some of them may wish to indicate that this is a label they attach, not to themselves, but to others who, in their communities, are in the minority.

Armed with the principles we have affirmed in the Covenant on Intra-Baptist Relations, which will be available to all who attend the congress, participants should expect to harvest, from the veritable feast the Durban Congress will offer, a rich fare that is potentially life-transforming.

And wherever these participating Baptists and their Christian friends come from, they will do well to read and ponder the main point that Curtis Freeman elucidates in his magnificent book. It is not difficult to delineate a particular form of Baptist self-understanding, but rare talent is required if one attempts to identify the continuities and discontinuities between a form of Baptist identity and other forms that have appeared over the last 406 years.

Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana in 2007.


  • Guest
    Owen Crooks Friday, 10 April 2015

    I feel compelled to secure a copy of Curtis Freeman's book to share with my Pastor, having read your comments
    Here is praying for God's presence in preparing Congress attendees. We thank God for your faithful leading and the promptings of Rev Henry

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