Fellowship’s ecumenical task force focuses on Jewish-Baptist dialogue

By Craig Bird, CBF Communications
Thursday, June 24, 2004
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Randy Wright, pastor of Fernwood Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., right, tells about his spiritual retreat at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina while John Finley, pastor of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga., looks on the Ecumenical Task Force meeting June 23 prior to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly. Photo by Craig Bird.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Ecumenical Task Force met the day before the General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., to delve into Baptist-Jewish relations, the Fellowship’s involvement in a new national ecumenical group and receive updates on such Fellowship projects as a newly-printed brochure, "Building Bridges, Not Barriers."

The Fellowship will vote on Friday of the Assembly to ratify CBF’s involvement in Christian Churches Together (CCT), a new ecumenical group involving religious organizations from the five traditional faith families – mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Orthodox.

"I think it is a historic opportunity for CBF," said Daniel Vestal, the Fellowship’s national coordinator. "I believe God is doing a new thing. God is bringing together some new convergences. We’re not running it. We’re not in charge of it. We are participating, and it is a joy to be a part of this effort."

The task force heard from Huntsville, Ala., Rabbi Jeff Ballon as they discussed how to better understand and relate to those of the Jewish faith.

"Are you going to be a defender of the faith or a good neighbor," Ballon asked, not hesitating to employ Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan to bolster his argument. "You can’t be both at the same time."

Ballon – who has been known to introduce himself as a "Jewish priest" – was speaking to the task force but his question was aimed at all Christians, especially evangelical groups like the Fellowship.

In Ballon’s analogy, a "good neighbor" enters into intentional, interfaith relationships where spiritual differences can be explored in mutual respect. The object is to seek out the common ground of God’s revelation. A "defender of the faith" attacks and condemns as heretics any who disagree with any part of his understanding of God. The object is to maintain the purity of their faith group.

"Some groups are so powerful and so numerous that they are only interested in maintaining their own internal cohesiveness against any outside threat," Ballon said. "And I have to tell you that to most Jews ‘Baptist’ is a scary word. They think the only reason you are befriending them is to set them up to be converted. They don’t know that all Baptists are not alike. A strident Christian is as frightening to a Jew as any Islamist."

Such stereotypes won’t be altered by organizational resolutions or policy statements, he said, concluding his presentation on "Developing a Healthy and Productive Jewish-Christian dialogue." Rather it will happen one-on-one as Baptists and Jews get to know each other as individuals.

In addition to Ballon’s presentation to the Task Force, the Fellowship will host a workshop on Thursday called "Barbecue and Bagels: Engaging Baptists and Jews in Dialogue," and on Friday, the Baptist Center for Ethics will host a luncheon with Savannah, Ga., Rabbi Arnold Belzer of Temple Emanu-el and Savannah Pastor Steve Jones of Southside Baptist Church discussing ways to expand the dialogue between the two religions.

The task force also discussed Wake Forest University professor Charles Kimball’s book "When Religion Becomes Evil" and an accompanying study guide produced by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which is available for free by downloading it from the Fellowship’s Web site, www.thefellowship.info.

CBF is a fellowship of Baptist Christians and churches who share a passion for the Great Commission and a commitment to Baptist principles of faith and practice. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.

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