Fences and Fellowship
I've tried not to be, but I can't help it...I'm a Baptist. I've read all I could about pedobaptism, I've talked to many friends, I've prayed for wisdom and clarity, and in the end, I've been all the more convinced of Baptist principles (of the 1689 London Baptist Confession variety). The truth is, Reformed Baptists (or Particular Baptists, if you prefer) have far more in common with confessional pedobaptists than we often do with others who identify as Baptist. We share a very similar confessional heritage and an overwhelming percentage of our doctrine is identical. There is no good reason why confessional Baptist and confessional pedobaptist brothers and sisters cannot enjoy intimate ecumenical fellowship with one another.
I have several friends with whom I cannot fellowship. Some of my friends aren't Christians, and others are acquaintances whom I have not had the opportunity to invest much time. Fellowship is only fellowship when friends are committed to a common cause or goal, and it flourishes through our common pursuit of that cause or goal. For the Christian, the shared goal ought to be the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. Without a conscious effort to utilize our God-given relationships to achieve such an end, we may have friends, but we don't have fellowship. However, I don't believe true fellowship exists only among those with whom we share complete agreement on every issue. Baptists and Presbyterians can, and should have true fellowship with one another (in addition to other relationships with Christians in other faithful circles).
A lot of reformed believers seem reluctant to use the word ecumenical, and often for good reason. We are confessional for a reason: we don't abide by the namby-pamby spirit of everyone just getting along for the sake of getting along. Our distinctions really do matter. What we believe to be true from Scripture is worth maintaining and standing on. Every Christian's conscience and every church needs to be conformed to the truth as we understand it. It would be wrong to assume that fellowship requires a Baptist to baptize their infants, or a pedobaptist to withhold what they believe to be a sign of the covenant for their children. Our authority is the Bible and we must submit to it lest our actions not proceed from faith (Romans 14:23).
Fences Make Good Neighbors
Anyone living in a neighborhood understands the blessing of a fence. We can have the best neighbors the world has to offer, but without a fence, we can sometimes run into difficulties. Where does one person's property end and the others begin? Who's responsible for the patch of grass between the two, and what happens when one neighbor wants to plant a new tree but we don't know where the property line is? Boundary markers are useful and important, but the distinction between what's mine and what's yours doesn't mean we can't love each other, don't care about what's going on in each other's homes, or won't lend a hand to our neighbor just because their yard isn't ours! It is because we have boundaries that we can be better, more loving neighbors without reason for discrepancy or upset.
Reaching Over Fences
The desire for ecumenical fellowship sometimes exists, but working through it practically may be difficult. How do we foster healthy, ecumenical relationships between churches? In most instances, the most probable avenue is through healthy ecumenical pastoral fellowship. Some of my best pastor friends do not share the same confession of faith with me, but our hearts beat together on most matters. As a result, we've been able to engage in various endeavors together: Preaching at each other's conferences or special events, pulpit swaps, or even joint vacation Bible schools or youth camps. We've even had others join us in some evangelistic efforts in the city. I've benefitted greatly from being able to talk to other pastors face-to-face about members who have left our church to go to theirs or visa-versa. It has been a blessing to be able to share resources and ideas with men who aren't entrenched in my context. Every Lord's Day, I am sure to pray publicly for a church in our network (Reformed Baptist Network) from other states and nations, but I'm also sure to pray for other faithful local churches and their pastors. When God's people can follow a pastor's leadership and shed territorial spirits, there is greater opportunity for unity and less church swapping and accountability avoiding in the entire community.
We should work toward fellowship when we share the common goal of God's glory, even though doctrinal disagreements exist. We know where the line is, so instead of spending our time determining who needs to rake the leaves, we can focus on the things that unite us. With all sincerity and love, we should be able to say to other brothers and sisters in different, yet very similar churches and denominations, "We thank God in all our remembrance of you, always in every prayer for you all making our prayer with joy, because of our fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:3-5). No doubt, there are churches that are only churches in name, but there are others who are deeply committed to the things that matter. We don't need to change what we believe to join together in meaningful ways to bring the gospel to our communities.
Can you and do you give thanks to God for your brothers and sisters in Christ, not just in your local church, but around the world? Throughout your community? Fellowship is not easier outside the local church than it is inside, but it's worth the effort for the sake of God's name, for the health of His church, and for the growth of His people.