ATLANTA (BP) — A committee charged with recommending how the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship can “strengthen [its] unity” despite “differing beliefs and practices in matters of human sexuality” has said it hopes to propose in the next six months “a more faithful path forward” in the CBF’s discussion of homosexuality.
The six-member Illumination Project Committee was appointed in June 2016 by then-CBF moderator Doug Dortch to, among other tasks, recommend whether the CBF Governing Board should amend the Fellowship’s hiring policy. The policy currently “does not allow … for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.”
The CBF was founded in 1991 as a fellowship of churches that objected to the ideology and methods of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Conservative Resurgence.
The committee’s interim report, delivered June 29 during a session of the CBF General Assembly in Atlanta, did not include any specific policy recommendations but noted the committee’s general thoughts as it prepares a final report to be delivered in September 2017 or January 2018.
The Governing Board, which has full authority over the hiring policy, must then decide whether to amend that policy.
The Illumination Project — an emphasis broader than the committee — was launched in June 2016 by the Governing Board “to create a framework to seek out unity on issues where we may not all be of one mind,” according to a video shown as part of the report.
The committee said its work thus far has consisted largely of listening to the stories of Baptists involved in CBF life through a series of 31 two-hour “extensive interviews.” The report noted five personality profiles representing some types of people who participate in the fellowship:
— Those who hold traditional views of human sexuality but want the CBF to emphasize other matters.
— Those who believe “God defined marriage very clearly in Genesis” and the CBF should not allow practicing homosexuals as employees or missionaries.
— Those who self-identify as homosexual and want “peace through affirmation” in the CBF.
— Those who sense tension between the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and its command to love our neighbors. Fellowship Baptists with this personality profile are not comfortable with advocacy by either side in the homosexuality debate and want churches of differing views to cooperate.
— Those who believe the homosexual lifestyle is morally legitimate and think changing CBF policies to permit that lifestyle among employees and missionaries “will be hard, but it has to happen.”
Illumination Project Committee member Rebecca Wiggs, a Jackson, Miss., attorney, said the personality profiles “serve as witnesses to the profound diversity among us on these matters.”
“Every word” and “every experience” depicted in the profiles was drawn from a Baptist active in the CBF, Wiggs said.
Committee member Paul Baxley, senior minister at First Baptist Church in Athens, Ga., said the early church’s discussion in Acts 10-15 of whether Gentile believers must be circumcised is a model for the CBF to follow in navigating the issue of homosexuality.
“The early church did not rush to a resolution,” Baxley said. When a resolution was proposed, “James [Jesus’ half-brother and a leader in the Jerusalem church] does not ultimately offer an either/or solution. Instead, a way forward emerges that allows the early church to experience a unity strong enough that the mission can continue.”
Applying Acts to the CBF, Baxley stated, “Our committee lives each day in the hopeful waiting for the emergence of a more faithful path forward. We stand before you today not in fear, but rather in the hopeful conviction that together we will see a still more excellent way when the Holy Spirit reveals it to us.”
The CBF must learn from the early church as the fellowship considers human sexuality, Baxley said, because “many believe these matters will be divisive for us and threaten our global mission efforts.”
The committee said it will continue listening to the stories of fellowship Baptists in anticipation of a final report.
Committee chair Charlie Fuller, executive pastor of First Baptist Church in Washington D.C., said the group is “seeking to hear Holy Spirit speak from all of us and to all of us.” The Illumination Project, he added, “will not be telling any church what they are to do regarding this matter or any other.”
Fuller said “the overall objective of the Illumination Project is to develop a toolbox of possible methods that churches and organizations can use to deal with contentious issues. While we develop these approaches, we are also exploring a specific question: How can Cooperative Baptists strengthen our unity in the face of differing beliefs and practices in matters of human sexuality?”
The committee’s written report states, “The Illumination Project is not convened to make affirming statements or take other actions that would disrupt the balance of cooperation among CBF churches and global missions partners.”
Both a video of the committee’s report at the General Assembly and a copy of its printed report are available through the CBF website.