The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship seems to see their organization as a kind of modern-day Noah's Ark of disgruntled Baptists. The creatures on the boat come in all doctrinal stripes and shapes. The CBF General Assembly in Atlanta this summer reveals just what a challenge it must be to keep this boat afloat.
In some rooms of this ark, you'll find Baptists who differ little from grassroots Southern Baptists. By the time you've turned the corner, however, you see a theological menagerie bearing almost no resemblance to anything you have ever seen in a Baptist church.
In one room, you'll find radical feminists worshipping "Mother God" and talking about how hard it is to call God "Father" or "Lord."1 In another room, the dean of a CBF partner school joins with a Jewish rabbi to argue that Jews do not need to have faith in Christ in order to be saved.2 Walk to the next room and you'll find the head of yet another CBF partner school arguing that Baptists shouldn't try to "convert" Jews, Muslims and Hindus since non-Christians can "experience the divine" even without Jesus. And, he notes, don't pray in "Jesus name" in mixed company.3
There's yet another room on the CBF ark. That's where David Currie, a leader in the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the "Mainstream Baptist Network" charges the troops to take control of the Baptist state conventions.4 Currie says Texas Baptists ought to divert their support for the Lottie Moon Offering for SBC missionaries giving money instead to the BGCT or CBF. Who needs Lottie Moon, Currie reasons, when the CBF and BGCT could spend the $14 million Texas Baptists gave to the offering last year to fund 100 missionary couples of their own? If the BGCT adopts Currie's mindset, is there any question about their target in the days ahead?
The belligerents for the homosexual lifestyle can be found in many rooms, including the main hall where the CBF managed in a close vote to keep its "welcoming but not affirming" statement on hiring practicing homosexuals.
Crying "creedalism," CBFers take great offense at the notion that the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message should be used as an "instrument of doctrinal accountability" at SBC agencies, especially our seminaries. But less than a year later, the CBF adopted its controversial "Organization Personnel and Administrative Funding Policy" on homosexuality. Why? Because Baptist Press exposed pro-homosexual literature in the exhibit hall at their 2000 General Assembly and the leadership feared a loss of financial support from churches. This year's CBF meeting (including the same literature, this time with the explicit approval of the CBF leadership) was consumed in a battle to keep the policy, while attempting to mollify a growing radical faction.
It took three votes to sustain the policy. Only a swing of 100 votes and the CBF would now be in the midst of a yearlong study on homosexuality. Although the CBF kept the policy, coordinator Daniel Vestal was careful to note, "This statement was not intended to force conformity or stifle debate on homosexuality. It was not intended to offend our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ."
The debate was filled with cries of "creedalism" from the homosexual-friendly contingent. I can see why they are confused. Currie argued that, "Any organization that sends out missionaries must define itself." That's what the churches of the SBC decided a long time ago — over the objection of those who now inhabit the CBF.
Note the contradiction: It's "creedalism" for the SBC to have a confession of faith our denominational servants are expected to embrace, but it's not "creedalism," CBF seems to argue, to "define" oneself.
The pragmatism and near absence of an appeal to Scripture is most remarkable about the debate on homosexuality. The anti-policy side argued from modern medical and psychological claims about homosexual "orientation," with civil rights rhetoric thrown in for good measure. The pro-policy side contended that failure to uphold the policy would mean CBF's financial ruin. The pro side carried the (last) day, but must fear what the future holds for the group.
This result is not surprising when the passengers on the CBF boat have in common only their distaste for the SBC and an appeal to Baptist "freedoms." All Southern Baptists cherish our biblical freedoms of believers' priesthood, soul competency, local church autonomy, and religious liberty; but most Southern Baptists reject their libertine distortions. And that's the gaping hole in the side of the CBF boat — confusing proper ends with necessary means. Freedom is a necessary means by which we pursue the proper end: worshipping God in Spirit and truth. Freedom is not, however, the ultimate goal of the Christian life. The glory of Christ and His truth are.
All the pragmatic arguments in the world cannot save the CBF from disintegration. Apart from a sturdy doctrinal structure, the CBF boat just can't float.
1 Baptist Women in Ministry annual meeting, Atlanta, Ga., June 28, 2001 (Baptist Press, June 29, 2001).
2 "Jewish/Christian Dialogue and Cooperation," 2001 CBF General Assembly (tape #190, Chesapeake Audio/Video Communications, (410) 796-0040).
3 "Being Baptist in an Ecumenical/Interfaith Setting," 2001 CBF General Assembly (tape #180, Chesapeake Audio/Video Communications).
4 "Why Protect Our Baptist Identity?" 2001 CBF General Assembly (tape # 110, Chesapeake Audio/Video Communications).
James Smith is editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.