ATLANTA (BP)–The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship comes to its tenth General Assembly fragmented over issues ranging from homosexuality to organizational polity to the very future of the moderate movement. But, speakers kicked off the General Assembly’s Tenth Anniversary dinner with a topic on which everyone present could agree — the Southern Baptist Convention.
The dinner, held in the Georgia World Congress Center, celebrated the liberal Baptist splinter group’s formation in this city in 1991, after now CBF coordinator Daniel Vestal was soundly defeated by conservative Morris Chapman at the 1990 SBC in New Orleans. The spicy and often sarcastic rhetoric tonight, however, demonstrated that, although it may be an anniversary, the CBF is still thinking about the divorce.
Former moderator Patrick Anderson compared current SBC conservative leaders to cattle rustlers who “herd” compliant Southern Baptists. The conservatives find the “stragglers” who dissent, “slaughter” them, use their skins for wallets, and leave their bones to bleach in the sun, Anderson said.
“You know, like they’re trying to do to Charles Wade in Texas.”
Anderson said his job as moderator was more like “herding cats”, as he hailed the independent spirit of CBF leaders such as feminist theologian Molly Marshall and Louisiana pastor C. Welton Gaddy. Marshall resigned from the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994, following controversy over her teaching that explicit faith in Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation. Gaddy is a well-known leader of the “religious left” and a prominent national religious advocate for homosexual rights.
“Those cats don’t herd,” Anderson said.
Clarissa Strickland, a CBF staff member provided a mock “Scripture reading” from a text she identified as “III Clarissa.” To the laughter of the attendees, Strickland announced that she would be reading from the NASB, “the New Abused Standard Version.” Speaking with King James-like language, she narrated about the “post-exilic Baptists” of the CBF who had been driven out of their homeland by “pseudo-Baptists” who “knew not Smyth and Helwys or Broadus or Truett.”
The “Scripture reading” contained a blast against SBC conservative leaders Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler for plotting the conservative resurgence “over beignets in New Orleans.” Part of the reading lamented that the doctrines of “inerrancy and infallibility hung like millstones” over the necks of Baptists. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy teaches that everything in Scripture is true.
Mocking Southern Baptist conservatives, Strickland said to the applause of the crowd that the “mouths of donkeys” were opened in the SBC as conservatives “smote the moderates with the jawbone of many an ass.”
Using biblical language about the crucifixion of Jesus, the parody further noted that moderates “said ‘It is finished’ and gave up the ghost” following Vestal’s defeat by Chapman. The first CBF meeting in Atlanta was portrayed in terms the Bible uses to describe the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The night’s biggest applause line came when Strickland read, comparing the CBF assembly goers to the apostles who were thought to be drunk at Pentecost: “These are Baptists who drinketh not one in front of the other.”
The “Scripture reading” concluded with a denunciation of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, which Strickland called the “Baptist Waste and Vestige,” especially the confession’s statement that wives should “submit graciously to their husbands.” The Baptist Faith and Message statement on the family is based in part on Ephesians 5:22.
The evening’s keynote speaker, Mercer University historian Walter Shurden, denounced SBC conservatives as “folks with an attitude” who had “carted off” the denomination. Unlike many Baptist moderates who argue that the biblical inerrancy movement was an innovation in Baptist life, however, Shurden argued that this “attitude” was part of the SBC “since not 1979, but since 1845.” The SBC was founded in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia.
“We got out with the freedom to have both an open Bible and an open mind,” Shurden said.
Shurden said that he has heard many calls for the CBF to stop “bashing the fundamentalists.” He argued, “If we forget the struggle we may forget the reasons for the struggle.”
Shurden then quoted the title of former Bill Clinton strategist James Carville’s book, “We’re Right, They’re Wrong,” chanting it repeatedly as a response line to a litany of issues related to the SBC, ranging from the SBC’s consensus statement about women in the pastorate to the SBC’s alleged elevation of evangelism over social concerns.
Shurden said that the conservative-moderate controversy in the SBC had been ultimately about the nature of truth itself, a claim made during the controversy by conservative leaders such as Patterson and Pressler.
“They were saying, ‘We have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.'” He proclaimed, “We’re right, they’re wrong!”
Shurden said that he has heard “a lot” the question of whether the CBF can survive. He replied that the central question is not whether the CBF can survive, but whether the principles it supports will endure. Again denouncing conservative leaders in the SBC, Shurden spoke of the “juggernauting forces” of “people who speak glibly and cavalierly of knowing God’s will.”
Shurden spoke of the benefits of the CBF’s break with the SBC, including the fact that most of the moderate denominational leadership, including former Southern Seminary president Roy Honeycutt and former Southwestern Seminary president Russell Dilday, affiliated with the CBF. Shurden also boasted that nearly all the former moderate seminary faculty members were with the CBF “though they really had no choice, we were doing and saying what they taught us.”
Shurden then recited a list of CBF stalwarts including Molly Marshall and current CBF moderator Donna Forrester.
“The ugly attitude of exclusivity would have never gave that list a leadership role in the new SBC, or even in the old SBC,” Shurden said.
He warned CBF members not to be surprised if in the future “a Paige Patterson or Paul Pressler will rise up even in our midst” presuming “to tell you what is biblical and what is not.”
“If we err, we will err together,” he proclaimed. “We will err on the side of freedom.”