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ANALYSIS: Viva La Chaos? The CBF homosexuality controversy and the question of definition

ATLANTA (BP)–At the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, old guard Boston congressman Tip O’Neill was alarmed to see the convention overrun, not with cigar-chomping backroom politicians like himself, but by marijuana-smoking activist hippies. The Democratic Party, he noted, had been taken over “by the cast of Hair.”

Similarly, a very nervous founding-generation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaves their tenth anniversary General Assembly here with the realization that the homosexuality controversy at this year’s meeting may just be the beginning of the turmoil for the moderate Baptist group.

“In terms of identity, I say viva la chaos!” Baptist historian Walter Shurden told a gathering at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly. The phrase, which translates “long live the chaos,” was borrowed, Shurden said, from a comment by now CBF coordinator Dan Vestal shortly after the birth of the group here in 1991. It is hard to believe that the Vestal of 1991 would have celebrated the “chaos” faced by the Vestal of 2001.

Last year, a triumphant Vestal blasted Southern Baptists for passing the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement. He called on 5000 churches to leave the SBC and join the CBF in response. This year, a somber Vestal pleaded with Cooperative Baptists not to splinter apart over homosexuality.

Last year, CBF leaders insisted that the pro-homosexual activists who spoke with Baptist Press at the General Assembly were scattered and unrepresentative members of what one CBF leader called the “lunatic fringe.” This year, this “lunatic fringe” had enough votes to throw the entire General Assembly into a protracted controversy over the Coordinating Council’s mildly worded policy that CBF would not hire a practicing homosexual as a staff member or missionary and would not fund explicitly pro-homosexual groups.

Last year, CBF leaders crowed about Southern Baptists taking a confessional stance on issues such as biblical authority and the officers of the church as well as those dealing with homosexuality and abortion. This year, David Currie, a vehement critic of BF&M 2000, sparred against gay-friendly forces in the CBF by asserting, “Any organization that sends out missionaries must define itself.”

The chaos ensuing from the CBF homosexuality controversy shows no sign of abating. It is part of a crisis of organizational identity that Shurden and others describe as between an older generation of former SBC bureaucrats and a younger generation of rising Baptist activists. Throw into the mix a cagey contingent of leaders from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, who have just gambled the future of their state convention on a plan to defund SBC agencies, a plan that has ballooned the ranks of the conservative Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

The older CBF generation, represented by leaders such as former coordinator Cecil Sherman, desperately wants to avoid “hot button” issues such as homosexuality because, as Sherman says, CBF “is a continuation of the old SBC.” As such, Sherman and others in the founding generation only recently have begun to admit that, as Sherman writes, “fundamentalists of the left” are gaining ground to “try to co-opt the CBF.”

“The Alliance of Baptists can take on any issue they want; they don’t have to go to Baptist churches and meet a missionary payroll,” Sherman writes in the current issue of the Whitsitt Journal. “CBF has to stay close to ordinary Baptist churches, because ordinary Baptists give the money that sustains missionaries.”

The chaos is inevitable, however, as long as the CBF celebrates its lack of doctrinal definition by noting, as Sherman did at the outset of CBF, that Baptists “believe too much.” Even as far back as the midst of the SBC controversy, evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry predicted that the moderates would be unable to sustain the movement long-term because their only consensus was what they did not believe, starting with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The anti-confessional bent of the CBF is so ingrained that the General Assembly would not even accept the Coordinating Council’s designation of the statement as a “value.” Now it is only a “policy.”

Just as they did in the SBC inerrancy controversy, the older generation appealed to institutional concerns. A pro-homosexual stance “will mean the demise of this organization,” as Bill Sherman and countless others put it.

What else is there to say? This year’s homosexuality controversy demonstrated that the younger generation do not see themselves as “hijacking” the CBF, but instead see themselves as consistently applying the principles they learned from the older generation of moderate Baptists. How can the older generation awkwardly point to biblical authority as opposing homosexual activity, when the very first point addressed in the CBF’s first “Address to the Public” was a denial of biblical inerrancy? How can the older generation point to the immorality of gay sex when their opposition is based more on a residual revulsion toward homosexuality than to a coherent theological understanding of revealed truth?

After all, the CBF has spent a year insisting that, as former moderator Carolyn Crumpler notes, “Jesus is our authority,” while Southern Baptists have the Bible as their authority. CBF leaders have defended women in the pulpit by noting that only a culturally conditioned Paul, not Jesus, set forth the qualifications for a male-only pastorate. What is the younger generation to say of gay sex when they notice that it is Paul, not Jesus, who speaks of homosexuals not inheriting the Kingdom of God? CBF leaders applaud when Baptist Women in Ministry announces that we should listen to “God, not Paul” on the question of women pastors. The younger generation seems to have a reason to ask why they should not listen to “God, not Paul” on the question of gay relationships.

Without a confessional identity, the theological undercurrents in the CBF are in chaos, even apart from the homosexuality controversy. While the old guard tries to appeal to “mainstream” Baptist churches to join them, the activist generation worships “Mother God” at the General Assembly. While the old guard tries to keep the coalition together for the sake of “missions,” the question remains as to exactly how the CBF defines “missions” when a CBF-funded Smyth and Helwys resource at the General Assembly bookstore calls on Christians “to encourage Jews and Muslims to become better Jews and Muslims, to encourage Hindus and Buddhists to become better Hindus and Buddhists.”

While the CBF leadership appeals to the priority of “evangelism” over theology, the definition of “evangelism” is up for grabs when a breakout session at the General Assembly calls for joint worship services with our non-Christian Jewish neighbors instead of attempting to “proselytize” them by sharing the gospel of Christ. One CBF participant rose from the audience to say that such services could be facilitated by congregations referring to “God,” without “‘Jesus saves’ and all of that.” Another said that Jews and Baptists should “focus on the issues that unite us rather than the issues that divide us.” I could not help but wonder if the “issue” dividing the two groups is something other than Jesus Christ, “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted.”

Last year, Annette Hill Briggs, an Indiana Baptist pastor, was chosen by the CBF to participate in a panel responding to the SBC’s BF&M statement. She told Cooperative Baptists that the issue of women in the pastorate is only “the very top of the mountain” before “we have to talk about other things that other churches are talking about.” When asked by Baptist Press, Briggs affirmed that she was speaking of gay and lesbian issues in which Baptists are “a few steps behind other denominations.” This year, Rev. Briggs stood to her feet to vote to rescind the Coordinating Council’s statement on homosexuality, a motion that passed the business session to be turned back later by a 701 to 502 vote.

There must have been a collective gulp as the CBF platform party saw a wave of gray hair standing to oppose the motion to remove the homosexuality statement. Try as they might, the CBF cannot dismiss the pro-homosexual activists as “fundamentalists of the left” or the “lunatic fringe.” They are the children the CBF has raised. They have been listening, and they aren’t going away. In fact, they’ll soon be in charge. It appears the chaos will be long-lived indeed.

    About the Author

  • Russell D. Moore