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CBF church count violates church autonomy, scholars say

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, self-described as a “renewal movement of free and faithful Baptists,” has grown since its founding in 1991 to include up to 2,000 churches, according to statements from the group’s leaders.

If that figure is accurate, the group has achieved a threefold growth rate since its initial reports 15 years ago in unofficially separating from Southern Baptist life. The CBF, however, does not collect annual profiles to gauge church growth or health in such areas as baptisms, worship attendance or Sunday school enrollment. Claims of growth, then, may be based more on interpretations by the CBF than on research data.

CBF spokesman Ben McDade said the Fellowship would not respond to inquiries on the manner in which the group counts member churches.

But according to public statements by CBF officials, the 1,800-2,000 number the CBF claims appears to fluctuate year to year and includes churches which may not declare themselves to be in allegiance with the CBF.

Published figures indicate that the group counted 640 members in 1991, growing to 1,806 in 1998-99, dropping to 1,715 in 2001-02 and rising to 1,819 in 2002-03.

In June 2002, CBF Coordinator Daniel Vestal told Baptist Press that in applying for membership to the Baptist World Alliance the CBF had told the group that CBF has “150 churches that have no relationship to the SBC at all, but are related to the CBF.” He explained the high-end figure he uses of between 1,800 and 2,000 partnering churches represents a varying level of involvement. “That’s all the way from one individual who designates money to us through a church to the church that puts us in their budget. It’s the whole gamut,” he said.

“Our bylaws say that if you give a dollar to CBF or if you’re a member of a church that gives a dollar to CBF, we call you a partner. We’re not trying to be devious about that — that’s just the way we define partnership,” Vestal added.

At the 2003 CBF General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C., Vestal reported that through May 1, the CBF had 1,720 contributing churches and that over the previous 12 months 241 churches contributed to the CBF for the first time (indicating a high turnover in member churches).

Now, the CBF claims 1,854 member congregations, making the fellowship one-third the size of the American Baptist Churches (USA).

The notion of using financial support as an indicator of cooperation is not unusual in and of itself. However, scholars say, the CBF method is unusual in that the CBF bypasses the congregational body, allowing the CBF to determine who is a member rather than the local church.

Some Southern Baptist scholars question the reported advances of the denomination-like CBF and claim the group’s method of counting member churches violates a key Baptist doctrine -– local church autonomy.

Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said the CBF’s methodology is “mis-representative and disingenuous.”

“I am personally acquainted with several churches which have a single member or a small group of members who contribute personally to the CBF, and by virtue of their gifts the church is counted as a CBF church,” Lemke said. “In these churches, it distresses the larger group of members when they see their church counted as a CBF church, especially when CBF is not even a budget item in their church budget. Clearly, the individual contributions of a few members is not representative of the church as a whole, even if it is channeled through the church as a designated offering.”

Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean of the theological studies division at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said that under the traditional framework of Baptist polity, only churches that take a vote to affiliate with the CBF could be considered member congregations. With that in mind, he said the current method of counting CBF churches at best inflates numbers and at worst diverts attention away from the democratic process in Baptist church life.

“In other words, the CBF’s method is a violation of local church autonomy by virtue of its bypassing of the local church’s decision-making process. If a church wants to be affiliated with the CBF, it has the right to vote on such. However, to count the church as a CBF affiliate without that church’s permission is a violation of that church’s self-governance,” Yarnell said.

Such violations, according to Yarnell and others, also contradict the CBF’s core value of church freedom that states in part, “churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership and leadership … and to participate as they deem appropriate in the larger Body of Christ.”

The trend of counting a church where one, or two, or 10 members send contributions to the CBF has its roots in the theological liberalism of the early 20th century, according to Russell D. Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

“Liberalism has always been a parasitic movement, and the CBF is no exception,” Moore said. “Rather than planting and growing congregations of their own, Baptist moderates gravitate toward churches founded on biblical authority and confessional orthodoxy.”

What few moderates are in the church then make subtle strides toward liberalism under a redefinition of what it means to be Baptist, Moore said. Many CBF pastors, he said, use “carefully-veiled language in the pulpit” and “speak in generalities of being ‘real Baptists’ or ‘traditional Baptists,’” often adopting doctrines that have no basis in Baptist history.

One such doctrine is extreme individualism, Yarnell noted.

“The CBF both in its theological and in its ecclesial practices privileges the individual even to the point of overruling the wishes of other individuals within the congregation,” Yarnell said. “Where conservatives speak of local church autonomy, liberals such as Glenn Hinson speak of entire autonomy, which includes individual autonomy over against the pastor and the rest of the church.”

The CBF’s model of counting churches, Moore said, fits with the group’s view of “Baptist identity,” or a view “that is much more focused on individual liberty, soul freedom and individual action than on a kingdom community of the church.”

That may be one reason why the CBF has never declared itself a denomination, according to the scholars. The group remains a “fellowship,” they said, a model that ultimately places less emphasis on churches and the democratic process and more emphasis on the individual.

In contrast, membership in the Southern Baptist Convention is granted to churches, rather than individuals. Each church that wishes to be represented at the SBC annual meeting elects “messengers” to attend the meeting. The election of messengers by the entire congregation makes the local church aware of and involved in affiliating with the SBC.

At the 2000 CBF General Assembly held in Orlando, Fla., Vestal predicted 5,000 Southern Baptist churches would leave the denomination and join the CBF because of the revisions approved by a consensus of Southern Baptist messengers that resulted in making the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message the SBC’s statement of faith. However, there was no mass exodus and the windfall in member churches failed to materialize for the CBF.

Instead, since then, the SBC has grown from 41,588 to 43,699 churches. Meanwhile, about 65 percent of the 41 state/regional conventions have passed various statements of support or acknowledgement of the value of the BF&M 2000, while discussion about the doctrinal statement has not surfaced in almost a third of these autonomous SBC bodies.

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  • Gregory Tomlin