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ANALYSIS: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is busy organizing, strategizing, networking

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–No one within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship describes it as a “denomination” publicly. But if a new denomination is not in the works, plenty of organizing, strategizing and networking within the dissident Baptist moderates’ group has occurred in recent years.

Attention has been drawn to “political front groups,” for example, that are providing tactical cover for the CBF at the state Baptist convention level by opposing conservative candidates for office and encouraging Southern Baptist churches to distance themselves from the national convention.

A group called “Missouri Mainstream Baptists” recently placed a full-page advertisement in the state Baptist newspaper Word & Way promoting a series of meetings to detail “what’s going on in Missouri Baptist life.” The featured speaker: R. Keith Parks, identified in the ad as the “former president of the SBC Foreign Mission Board.” The ad, however, did not identify Parks’ most recent job — as the CBF’s missions leader.

An analysis of such groups as “Mainstream Baptists” and “Baptists Committed,” with their respective states’ name attached, appeared in the Missouri Baptists Laymen’s Association’s Viewpoint newsletter earlier this year.

The MBLA’s mission is to counter the more theologically and politically liberal influences of the CBF in the Missouri Baptist Convention. The national CBF was formed in 1991 in opposition to the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative resurgence.

In the past year the MBLA has published newsletters documenting the relationship between CBF leaders and secular liberal organizations. Its findings — along with Roger Moran, its research director who also serves on the SBC Executive Committee — have come under heavy criticism from the CBF. Moran caught the eye of CBF leader Daniel Vestal last year when the MBLA began documenting the relationship between some CBF leaders and secular liberal organizations that support abortion and tolerant views of homosexuality. Vestal and Moran exchanged well-publicized letters challenging the other’s views and actions.

While “Mainstream Baptists” or “Baptists Committed” groups have denied any affiliation with the CBF, the MBLA Viewpoint paints a different picture. The relatedness of “Mainstream Baptists” or “Baptists Committed” groups to the CBF is manifested in the election and/or appointment of state leaders to key positions in the CBF, in speaking engagements at the CBF General Assembly and by a network of Internet sites linking their groups with the CBF.

Via the Internet, for example, the website of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists offers a page called “Friends and Allies” that provides Internet links to the CBF, the CBF of Oklahoma, the CBF-funded Associated Baptist Press (ABP), Texas Baptists Committed and the CBF-aided Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

From the CBF website, connections can be made to moderate-oriented divinity schools sprouting up at various Baptist-related colleges, including Wake Forest University’s divinity school which admitted a lesbian student when it opened last fall and Mercer University whose president, Kirby Godsey, wrote a 1996 book that denies scriptural authority and Jesus’ deity and unique role in salvation. The book, “When We Talk About God … Let’s Be Honest,” was subsequently deemed heretical in 1997 by the Georgia Baptist Convention.

The MBLA newsletter, published in February, cites a number of statements by “Mainstream Baptists” and “Baptists Committed” leaders expressing their affinity for the CBF.

The Viewpoint newsletter traces the evolution of such groups in a front-page article titled, “Mainstream Missouri Baptists: A political front group for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.” Mainstream Missouri Baptists, Mainstream Tennessee Baptists, Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, Mainstream Louisiana Baptists and the first such organization — Texas Baptists Committed — are among the “political front groups” identified.

An April 25 meeting of about 100 “Mainstream” and “Baptists Committed” leaders in Atlanta, meanwhile, drew representatives from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

The Viewpoint newsletter, in its analysis, cites a May 2, 1999, address by Russell Dilday, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a CBF supporter, at Calder Baptist Church in Beaumont, Texas. Dilday said Texas Baptists Committed was formed to “avoid and oppose the fundamentalist [a term used derogatorily — and conservatives say inaccurately — by liberals and a few moderates] takeover of Texas, so it became purely an unapologetically political organization.”

Texas Baptists Committed, Dilday said, “is beginning to expend its energy toward creating similar organizations in other states where the fundamentalist threat is very real or where they’ve already been strong, and I think that’s a fitting thing to happen.”

The strong ties between Texas Baptists Committed and the CBF are well documented. For example, Vestal, a former member of the Texas Baptists Committed executive committee, once called Texas Baptists Committed coordinator David Currie a “contemporary Baptist prophet.”

Currie raised eyebrows in March 1998 with some rather inflammatory rhetoric directed at SBC leaders. It was Currie, who in a “Mainstream Baptists Gathering” in Nashville, Tenn., was quoted as saying sometimes “the best way to build the kingdom” is by supporting ministries outside the Southern Baptist Convention. Rather than sending money to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an SBC school, he said, “I would rather you drive down the street and throw your money out the window, because it is more likely to be picked up and used to build the kingdom of God.” The president of Southeastern Seminary is SBC President Paige Patterson.

It was in that same meeting that Currie explained how such “Baptists Committed” organizations could help the CBF. “Baptists Committed can say some things CBF can’t, and some people will be committed to the state convention and not to the CBF.”

Also in that 1998 meeting, Texas Baptists Committed offered moderates in other states interest-free loans of up to $25,000 to help form new groups.

In its Viewpoint newsletter, the MBLA gives particular focus to the Mainstream Missouri Baptists group.

“We are not affiliated with CBF,” Mainstream Missouri Baptists stated in a Sept. 10, 1998, advertisement in the Missouri Word & Way state newspaper. Missouri Mainstream Baptists noted in the ad that it was formed to oppose Project 1000, a campaign launched in April 1998 by the Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association to get conservative, pro-SBC candidates elected as officers of the state convention.

Yet in the MBLA newsletter, five Mainstream Missouri Baptist board members are noted as closely identified with the CBF:

— John Hughes, a former president of the Missouri Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Independence, who is a member of the CBF national Coordinating Council.

— Pete Hill, pastor of Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, a former member of the CBF national Coordinating Council.

— Bob Webb, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Columbia, a member of the CBF national Coordinating Council.

— Larry Jones, a layman at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, who has served on the Missouri CBF Coordinating Council.

— Doyle Sager, former president of the Missouri Baptist Convention and president of Mainstream Missouri Baptists, who served as host pastor of the 1998 Missouri CBF General Assembly. He is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, which is listed as one of nine pro-CBF Missouri Baptist churches on the Missouri CBF Internet site.

“Our goal is to win the presidency of the Missouri Baptist Convention,” Rob Marus, a former reporter for the Missouri Word & Way and executive director of Mainstream Missouri Baptists, said at the April 25 Atlanta “Mainstream” meeting, according to a report in Associated Baptist Press. “The fundamentalists have accomplished that feat two consecutive years out of their five-year plan,” he told the gathering.

The Atlanta meeting further confirmed the political nature of such groups as had been noted by the Viewpoint newsletter.

Mainstream Baptists should ignore people who say politics is bad, Currie was reported as saying at the Atlanta meeting. “They’re either ignorant or not telling the truth … . All church work is political. It’s about connections and networks. Show me a pastor who’s not political, and I’ll show you a pastor who got fired.”

Attendees at the Atlanta meeting said they were not interested in recapturing control of the SBC. “We could never clean up the SBC, so why waste our time and effort?” said John Baugh, a Houston businessman and leader in the “Mainstream” operation.

Baugh told ABP that “Mainstream” groups plan to “educate others regarding Baptist issues, get out votes at state conventions, preserve Baptist principles (priesthood of all believers, the autonomy of the local church, separation of church and state, and ethical decision-making), provide leadership” and “sidestep the aims and purposes of others” such as the “political machinations” of SBC leadership. (It should be noted the SBC holds to the same principles Baugh mentioned, but the differences between the SBC and CBF come in such areas as scriptural interpretation and key cultural issues facing the nation.)

Another aspect to the “Mainstream” operation is its targeting of Southern Baptist college campuses.

Presently 48 colleges and universities affiliated with Southern Baptist state conventions enroll 112,000 students. Baptist Student Union organizations, meanwhile, work with thousands of other students at secular campuses.

“We must boldly and unapologetically enlist our universities to partner with us to expose students to Baptist principles and vision” and to promote “not our Baptist system, but our Baptist way,” Texas attendee Keith Bruce told those gathered in Atlanta.

Also among those speaking at the Atlanta meeting was the CBF’s Daniel Vestal, who recently renounced his Southern Baptist membership.

While CBF leaders have said their goal is to “network” with churches and have steered away from the term “denomination” in public statements, Herbert Reynolds, chancellor of Baylor University and a CBF supporter, has played a leading role in securing articles of incorporation for a Baptist Convention of the Americas. In reporting Reynolds’ concept for a new convention, an Internet newsletter, Mainstream Messenger, a publication of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, declared that, “Mainstream Baptists may be forced to explore new configurations and alignments such as a Baptist Convention of the Americas.”

The CBF now has paid coordinators for at least 16 state and regional CBF groups. It funds its own mission work as opposed to that of the SBC’s International Mission Board and North American Mission Board, with more than 125 CBF missionaries in the field. The CBF also provides financial support to ABP instead of the SBC’s Baptist Press and the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs as opposed to the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC.

Many CBF-affiliated churches have long since stopped using Sunday school material published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the SBC, a move that has disappointed many in the SBC because a portion of LifeWay profits are channeled through the Cooperative Program in support of SBC missions and ministry.

In addition, moderate trustees have wrested control of several universities — founded and supported by Southern Baptists — by establishing self-perpetuating trustee boards. Such boards are among developments that have caused an estrangement between Southern Baptists and schools like Baylor, Wake Forest, Stetson and Furman. Conservatives and even a number of moderates in the SBC feel such schools have become too secularized. Some think their divinity schools could provide CBF churches with a whole new generation of liberal and moderate ministers.

While conservative leadership is firmly in control of the SBC’s six seminaries, the laments of SBC loyalists at the state level resonates not only because of their loss of theological input at many Baptist-affiliated universities, but because they also perceive such losses as financial disasters for Southern Baptists who have poured millions of dollars into the schools over the decades.

    About the Author

  • Don Hinkle