ATLANTA (BP)–Intense debate within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship over homosexuality has been ignited after the group’s leadership suddenly reversed its policy of not making theological pronouncements and passed a statement Oct. 13 rejecting the homosexual lifestyle.
The statement, which came to the CBF’s national Coordinating Council as a recommendation from an advisory committee, was approved following three hours of debate by a 35-23 margin. It describes faithfulness in marriage and celibacy by singles as “the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic.”
In addition, the CBF will not fund organizations that “condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practices.” The statement also prohibits the “purposeful” hiring of homosexuals as CBF staff or missionaries.
The Coordinating Council action does not need approval of the CBF General Assembly, but angry CBF supporters expressed their displeasure through letters, phone calls and e-mails to Coordinating Council members. At one CBF-friendly Internet site, a debate over the matter has raged for more than week, with more than 100 messages posted on the site’s message board.
The CBF finds itself in the position of looking and acting like the Southern Baptist Convention, the very organization it opposes. While loving homosexuals and welcoming them into their congregations, the SBC is well-known for its strong stand against the lifestyle and particularly same-sex unions and homosexual ordinations. Said one Internet writer opposing the Coordinating Council’s action: “These kinds of decisions are exactly like something the SBC would do.”
“This debate proves how mistrustful and polarized we have become,” lamented another Internet writer disagreeing with the council’s action. Another writer called the action “homophobic,” while others expressed suspicion that this is the first step by the CBF to purge more theologically radical elements from the group, driving them perhaps to the more ultra-liberal Alliance of Baptists. Yet another writer, perhaps best capturing the tenor of the debate, proclaimed: “It appears this topic has gotten completely out of control.”
Various CBF leaders have said they believe homosexuality is immoral yet, until this year, the organization had refrained from making official pronouncements concerning same-sex unions and homosexual ordinations for fear of angering supporters and violating two of its most cherished beliefs: inclusion of members despite differing theological views and local church autonomy.
“This is something that a lot of groups are adopting as a way of saying we welcome everybody, but we don’t affirm certain groups,” said Brenda Moulton, national coordinator of the 39-church Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists based in Attleboro, Mass.
AWAB, which affirms same-sex unions and homosexual ordinations, is composed primarily of American Baptist churches from around the country, though some are affiliated with the CBF, Moulton said. While she was not certain which CBF churches are AWAB members, she did say that one of the AWAB’s Council Advisory Board members is on the pastoral staff of a congregation that was a founding member of the CBF, she added.
“I’m pleased that they made a welcoming statement, but is not enough. It’s not affirming if it says, ‘[W]e really don’t welcome you. You are welcome to come if you come as we want you to be.'”
Moulton described as “ironic” the portion of the statement upholding faithfulness in marriage and celibacy by singles as “the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic.”
“That is a phrase used by many groups, yet the option of marriage is not there for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual members,” Moulton said. “On one hand, they say be faithful in marriage, yet on the other hand they are denying that option to gays and lesbians. I’m grieved that they felt it was needed to include such an exclusionary statement. I find the CBF action troubling and disappointing.”
Dissenters of the council action see the statement as a threat to local church autonomy because they perceive homosexuality as becoming a CBF-driven issue rather than a church-driven issue as it has been in the past. They say it represents a significant shift in CBF philosophy.
Stacey Simpson, pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church, Edison, Ga., and a Coordinator Council member who opposed the statement, said she was told the CBF does not make statements about beliefs, particularly in reaction to other groups, because votes on controversial issues produce “winners and losers.”
“I didn’t like that very much at the time, but I see the wisdom of it now, because I am going to be one of the losers,” she was quoted by Associated Baptist Press as saying.
CBF leaders say the statement is not exclusionary because individual churches maintain the right to handle the issue on their own; the statement itself says, “We treasure the freedom of individual conscience and the autonomy of the local church.”
CBF Coordinator Daniel Vestal said following the vote: “I have no interest whatever in excluding or demeaning or minimizing any in the Fellowship who share a different perspective than this document.”
The Coordinating Council action also comes on the eve of a historic vote by the Baptist General Convention of Texas to defund the SBC’s seminaries, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Executive Committee. About 20 BGCT leaders — including BGCT Executive Director Charles Wade — have close ties with the CBF. One of the CBF’s loudest surrogate voices, David Currie, leader of the controversial Texas Baptists Committed organization, serves on the Coordinating Council and voted for the statement. Currie declined to comment to Baptist Press about the statement Oct. 26.
The statement marks the first time since the CBF was formed in 1991 that it has made a statement about homosexuality, and it appears to be the first step toward addressing the potentially explosive issue that has ripped apart several mainline Protestant denominations like the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church.
“It [is] time for CBF to address this issue as an organization,” Vestal told the Coordinating Council, ABP reported. “We are being identified by our enemies on the right and our friends on the left. I feel it is time for our organization … to do some self-definition and not depend on others to define us.”
His remarks were veiled references to materials published by the Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association and the Texas Baptist Laymen’s Association in which a plethora of CBF and BGCT leaders were tied to liberal organizations supportive of homosexual rights and abortion.
For example, the CBF provided funding to the operating budget of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North American (BPFNA) five years ago, but stopped the funding once it learned the organization affirmed the homosexual lifestyle. The BPFNA was also one of the exhibitors at this year’s General Assembly. It produced a curriculum titled, “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Resource for Congregations in Dialogue on Sexual Orientation.” The resource affirms same-sex partnerships, decries that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior and affirms homosexuality as an unchangeable sexual orientation. Among those endorsing the curriculum were former CBF moderator Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler and Tim Clifton, president of the CBF-partnered Central Baptist Theological Seminary. The CBF subsequently restored $9,000 to the BPFNA for projects said to be unrelated to homosexuality. The recent action by the Coordinating Council, however, apparently spells the end for such funding.
“I am disappointed in the CBF’s statement,” said Ken Sehested, executive director of the BPFNA and a member of a CBF contributing congregation, Sweet Fellowship Baptist Church in Clyde, N.C.
“Not simply because we will lose funding, and not primarily because the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s board of directors hold a different view. Rather, I’m disappointed because the statement appears to be little more than a fear-inspired response to the SBC’s attacks — shameless attacks that not only violate Scripture’s prohibition against bearing false witness but also mimic the worst forms of secular political infighting. I’m disappointed because this is a matter of dialogue and discernment over what the Bible does and does not say about human sexuality, yet the vast majority of those affiliated with the CBF have had no chance to engage in dialogue.”
The CBF budget approved in June for 2000-2001 includes $30,000 for Baptist Women in Ministry, which is another CBF partner organization. Becca Gurney, the BWM’s immediate past president, said during a CBF-related session at June’s General Assembly that just as the SBC has no right to suggest that God does not call women to the pastorate, it has no right to suggest that God does not call gays and lesbians to the pastorate.
“Who am I to say whom God can call and gift for ministry?” she said. “In terms of God calling gays and lesbians, when we start limiting God’s call we’re in dangerous territory.”
Vestal, who has said he personally opposes homosexuality, said he disagrees with Gurney’s comments and that the BWM allocation has nothing to do with homosexuality.
“The CBF has never issued any statement, taken any action or spent a single dollar that was intended in any way to condone, endorse or promote the gay-lesbian lifestyle,” Vestal told Associated Baptist Press July 26.
Council members rejected a part of the original recommendation Oct. 13 that would have ended direct financial support of theology schools that affirm homosexuality, opting first to assess what impact any defunding will have on the schools and students.
Vestal said four of the CBF’s 11 partner schools have open admission for homosexuals: Wake Forest Divinity School and Baptist “houses” of study at Duke, Emory and Texas Christian universities. Wake Forest and TCU use CBF funds only for scholarships. Emory’s Candler School of Theology and Duke receive program support.
The issue of homosexuality has been brewing for years in the CBF, but has only boiled over in recent months. Vestal told the Coordinating Council Oct. 13 he has “given an inordinate amount of time” to the issue of homosexuality in his three years on the job, noting that CBF leaders had received more than 200 e-mails, letters and phone calls on the subject since June.
The matter heated up, Vestal said, when a pastor phoned him prior to this year’s General Assembly to say he intended to make a motion to defund the new divinity school at Wake Forest University over the school’s open-admissions policy toward homosexuals. The pastor backed off his threat after meeting with CBF leaders who assured him that the matter would be dealt with soon.
Vestal said the issues of same-sex unions and homosexual ordinations are settled in all but a few CBF-friendly churches.
The new statement acknowledges “the love and grace of God for all people, both those who live by this understanding of the biblical standard and those who do not.”
Vestal described the CBF’s position on homosexuality as “welcoming, but not affirming,” adding that the statement would not be used to tell any church, individual or other organization what to believe, ABP reported.
CBF moderator-elect Jim Baucom said during the Coordinating Council meeting that the statement probably represents the views of the vast majority of Coordinating Council members, ABP reported. He noted that some of those who voted against the statement told him they agreed with its sentiment personally but “cannot make a statement that would exclude people from the pews of my church.”
Harold Phillips, coordinator of the CBF in Missouri, said the statement would be helpful in recruiting new churches in his state. He said he knew a St. Louis pastor who was interested in the CBF until the pastor learned that the CBF had taken no position on homosexuality. His perception, Phillips said, was “CBF can’t make up its mind about this.”