In the past few days, I have had several fruitful conversations with seminarians, pastors, and prospective church planters about the nature of interchurch cooperation. One topic that has frequently arisen is that of cooperation with other churches in a given city or county. Specifically, mission-minded Southern Baptists want to know with whom their church can in good conscience cooperate, particularly in church planting. It’s a good and timely question.
Before proceeding much further, I need to make one caveat. In this post, I am speaking of cooperation at the grassroots level, not our denominational cooperation as Southern Baptists, which is a different (though related) matter. Our denominational cooperation happens primarily through our various layers of polity (associations, state conventions, the SBC) and the financial arrangements that define the relationship between those layers.
I prefer to think of local cooperation as concentric circles of affinity. Think of all the churches in your geographic area as concentric circles, with your church in the center. The closer a circle is to the center, the greater the affinity with the center, thus providing greater freedom to cooperate. The further the circles move from the center, the less affinity those circles have with the center, thus decreasing (though not necessarily eliminating) the freedom to cooperate. What follows is an explanation of how I would I would apply the concentric circles paradigm to local cooperation with other churches if I were a church planter or one of the pastors of an existing church.
There are some churches in which I can in theory cooperate on virtually all matters without hesitation. These are the closest circles to the center. For me personally, these churches are sister Southern Baptist churches with similar theological emphases, methodological convictions, and missional priorities. I would be delighted to work with such churches in countless ministry endeavors, including providing the funds, training, and personnel to plant new churches together.
Some churches are basically baptistic in their polity and very similar to my own church in doctrine, approach, and priorities, but are not Southern Baptist churches. This is the second circle from the center. This group would include churches that are Independent Baptist, non-denominational, Acts 29 (but not cooperating with the SBC), Bible Churches, or immersion-only Evangelical Free churches. I could not in good conscience plant a church with any of these churches in the fullest sense of the term, but I would not be uncomfortable providing funding for a church plant sponsored by one of these churches.
The third circle includes evangelical churches that are not baptistic but are very similar in other matters of theology, methodology, and priorities. This group would include some Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, and other churches that embrace a hierarchical or connectional polity. I cannot plant churches in any sense with these churches, but I would be comfortable establishing formal partnerships with such churches in matters like evangelistic outreach, mercy ministries, and certain types of discipleship initiatives.
The fourth circle includes evangelical churches that may be more or less baptistic, but are less similar in other matters. This group would include churches that embrace the miraculous gifts movement(s), affirm a decidedly Arminian view of salvation, affirm egalitarianism, and/or are seeker-driven (among other things). I cannot plant churches with them and would only be comfortable cooperating with them minimally and on a case-by-case basis in evangelistic outreach and discipleship initiatives, though I would have less hesitation about cooperating with them in mercy ministries.
The fifth circle includes conservative Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. I can cooperate with them in cultural engagement, mercy ministries, and certain types of apologetics. But I cannot cooperate with them in church planting, evangelism, or discipleship because I believe some of the teachings of these churches confuse the gospel, which I understand in a decidedly Protestant manner. Though I have great respect for their defense of Nicene Orthodoxy and traditional views of the sanctity of human life and marriage, the degree to which I could cooperate with Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox in matters of local church ministry is necessarily limited.
The sixth circle includes theologically liberal churches of any stripe; liberal churches reject too much of basic Christian orthodoxy. Assuming they are consistently liberal and thus also embrace spurious views of issues like abortion and marriage, I could not cooperate with them except in mercy ministries. In my opinion, mercy ministry is the one area where I can cooperate with all men of good will, though never in a way that would dull gospel proclamation.
This is admittedly a simplistic paradigm. I fully understand that some churches may be on the line between two circles or may even have a foot in two or more circles. But I still think there is value in attempting to think this way (or a similar way) as we try to ascertain the various ways we can cooperate with other churches in a given location. Even if you would draw the circles a bit different than me, I hope all of us will be prayerfully considering the many different ways we can cooperate with other churches in our communities for the sake of the gospel and the welfare of our cities.
(Note: The eighth paragraph has been edited and the ninth paragraph has been added since this post was first published. Thanks to my friend who emailed me with his helpful criticism.)