In the 1990’s, Baptist representatives from the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) entered into “pre-conversations” with authorities in the Greek Orthodox Church. These conversations, regrettably, did not continue for very long. I quote here from Ken Manley’s “A Survey of Baptist World Alliance Conversations With Other Churches: Some Implications for Baptist Identity” from July of 2002, posted on the BWA website.
The Baptist World Alliance has now completed four inter-church conversations. The first was with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (1973-77); the second with Roman Catholics through the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (1984-88); the third with the Lutheran World Federation (1986-89); the fourth with the Mennonite World Conference (1989-92). Since then conversations have been held with the Orthodox Church or, more precisely, ‘pre-conversations’ have been shared with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul (1994-97) although these seem to have been discontinued by the Orthodox representatives…
Tensions between Orthodox churches and Baptists have at times been severe with Baptists enduring discrimination and persecution. For this reason the BWA welcomed the possibility of conversations in the wake of the changes in many Eastern European countries in the 1990s. Preliminary meetings were held in 1994, then a major dialogue was held in Istanbul May 10-13, 1996. These ‘Conversations between Baptists and the Ecumenical Patriarchate’, or ‘Pre-conversations’, were with a view to later full conversations between the BWA and representatives from the 15 autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox churches. The last ‘pre-conversation’ meeting took place at Oxford, May 16 to 19, 1997. The only meaningful contact since then has been a meeting between Dr Lotz and Dr Popkes with the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church in Bucharest in December 1997. Relations between Baptists and Orthodox in a number of European countries have since become quite difficult with Baptists characteristically being accused of being a foreign sect. A striking illustration of this stance is the publication in 1995 of a pamphlet, with the imprimatur of the Patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia, entitled Baptists. The Most pernicious Sect.
The BWA sent a prestigious group to Istanbul for the 1996 meetings. Denton Lotz spoke on Baptist identity and Tony Cupit gave an overview of BWA world statistics; Wiard Popkes introduced Baptists in Europe, Euro-Asia and the Middle East; James Leo Garrett outlined the authority of the Bible for Baptists; Bruce Milne gave a Baptist perspective on evangelism in the life of the church. Others to participate included Dr Gerald Borchert, Dr William Brackney, Dr John Briggs, Dr Russ Bush and Dr Paul Fiddes. It was not that the Orthodox had no awareness of Evangelicals, as a consultation between Evangelicals and Orthodox, sponsored by the WCC, was held in Alexandria, Egypt in July 1995. None the less, it was apparent that there were deep-rooted differences, especially about the place of mission in the life of the church. Dr Bruce Milne had included a thoughtful distinction between proselytism and evangelism in his paper, but this remained a problem issue. Dr Erich Geldbach of Germany linked evangelism with religious liberty in a paper to the Vancouver (1997) Study Commission on ‘Religious Liberty, Proselytism, Evangelism: Some Baptist Considerations’ and Paul Fiddes had addressed the topic, ‘Mission: Essence or Responsibility of the Church’ at the May meeting with the Orthodox in Oxford.
Baptists remain hopeful that conversations might resume. The observation of the General Secretary to the 1996 General Council in Hong Kong remains true:
Our understanding of evangelism and proselytism may differ, as well as our understanding of church and state, and authority. Nevertheless, we rejoice at the Orthodox defence throughout history of the trinity, the divinity of Christ, the cross and resurrection, and the triumph of Christ and His kingdom. We pray that conversations will take place for the edification of both communions.
The collapse of these talks was and is regrettable and the tension between Baptists and the Greek Orthodox Church remains in many quarters to this day. Even so, two of the statements that emerged from these pre-conversations are particularly helpful. I am referring to the two papers presented by retired Emeritus Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr.
I have written often of my esteem for Dr. Garrett. A consideration of the careful, scholarly, reasoned, and thorough nature of these papers will reveal why. The papers are (1) “Major Emphases in Baptist Theology” and (2) “The Authority of the Bible for Baptists.” Both were published in the Southwestern Journal of Theology and I am making pdf’s of both presentations available here. They should be read as one Baptist’s attempts to explain who Baptists are to a non-Baptist audience. As such, I consider them very pertinent and helpful today. Take a look: