ATLANTA (BP)–The tenth anniversary General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship plunged into controversy as the June 28-30 meeting turned into a protracted battle over homosexuality. After heated debate, the body turned back an earlier business session’s recommendation to rescind the Coordinating Council’s policy statement against hiring practicing homosexual denominational employees or missionaries.
The 701-502 vote came after longtime leaders warned that such a move would mean “the demise of the CBF” because more traditionalist churches would cut off funding to the moderate Baptist group.
Before participants to debate the issue, CBF coordinator Daniel Vestal pleaded with Cooperative Baptists not to overturn the Coordinating Council’s “Organization Personnel and Administrative Funding Policy,” offering his rationale for the statement.
“This statement was not intended to force conformity or stifle debate on homosexuality,” he said. “It was not intended to offend our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Vestal said the policy statement was formulated because of complaints from pastors across the country because of the CBF’s support for partner schools that affirm practicing gays and lesbian ministerial students and because of controversy over the CBF’s funding of joint projects with the pro-gay Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
“It was the best I knew how to do at the time,” Vestal said. “At this point, I ask myself what I would do if I had to go through this process again, I honestly don’t know.”
The motion would not only have set aside the Coordinating Council’s policy statement, but also would have directed the moderator to create a task force on human sexuality to report back to the General Assembly next June in Fort Worth. It was supported by CBF leaders such as former moderator and longtime moderate leader Hardy Clemons and by a vocal contingent within the CBF’s Young Leaders Network.
Larry Dipboye spoke in favor of the motion to rescind, calling the policy statement “exclusive” since “about one out of every ten persons is homosexual.” Dipboye was backed by Nick Foster, pastor of University Baptist Church, Montevello, Ala., who called the policy “silly.”
Foster said that pressure to uphold the Coordinating Council was coming from CBF leaders who wished not to look “wishy washy” in the eyes of Southern Baptists and who were direly predicting the “death” of the moderate group if it should move toward a pro-homosexual stand. He compared the CBF’s “welcoming but not affirming” policy toward sexually active homosexuals to a “welcoming but not affirming” attitude of previous generations of Baptists toward African Americans.
Vestal was joined in his plea to defeat the motion by Keith Parks, former head of the international missions agencies of both the CBF and the SBC. Parks argued that homosexuality “is not a big enough issue to spend next year focused” on it.
“To vote for this motion would be to say that the highest priority for CBF is homosexuality,” Parks said. “If this motion passes, we will exclude many, many people who want to join us, but are fearful that we are a single-issue group.”
Because CBF parliamentary rules allow for only eight minutes of floor debate on such a proposal, lines of individuals were left at the microphones after a fifteen-minute extension had expired.
Moderator Donna Forrester called for participants to vote by standing. Forrester said the vote was too close for her to call from the platform so she called for a counted vote. Consulting with the platform party, Forrester announced, “I have just created a nightmare for my parliamentarians. They just said, ‘We don’t know how we’re going to count.'”
Forrester ultimately directed messengers to vote by standing as she called out the pro and con positions on the motions. Ushers then counted the votes and reported to the platform.
The homosexuality controversy erupted on June 29 when a special called breakout business session voted to table the policy of the Coordinating Council after a vehement debate about the morality of homosexuality and the consequences for funding of the CBF should the organization take a pro-homosexual stance.
“Let’s not say God condemns homosexuality,” motion supporter Susanne Dabney of Dunwoody Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta said. She referred to a Discover magazine article that detailed children born with traits of both sexes. “I believe Paul was right about 100 percent men and 100 percent women. I don’t believe he intended and, more importantly, I don’t think that God intended [the NT prohibition on gay sex] for those born with a mosaic of gender.”
Motion proponent Sarah Sellers, of North Carolina, similarly argued that moral opposition to homosexual orientation is dubious in light of contemporary research. “There are professional people who might lose their license if they told someone they could go home and read this verse and change who they are by morning,” she said.
Coordinating Council member Dixie Petrey contended that reversing the Coordinating Council’s policy would be a way for the CBF to share God’s love with gays and lesbians and to “be open to God’s surprises.”
Motion supporter Dorothy Murphy of the First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tenn., argued that a vote to uphold the policy statement would mean putting finances above principle. Murphy also said it “seems strange to me we would pick up one moral issue in the New Testament” without addressing other issues.
“If this passes, we will celebrate not only the tenth anniversary of the CBF, but also the beginning of the end of CBF,” countered Texan Mark Newton. “Folks, the funding will end for CBF.”
“Churches out there are not going to support a pro-gay and pro-lesbian group sending missionaries,” argued motion opponent Bill Sherman. “If this passes, it will be the demise of this organization.”
“Any organization that sends missionaries must define itself,” concurred David Currie, national leader of the Mainstream Baptist Network and a leader in the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Currie said the issue was “forced on this body last year by a group that sold materials affirming gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, and spoke to the press about it.” Currie referred to the controversy that ensued when Baptist Press reported last year that materials advocating the moral legitimacy of gay sex and same-sex civil unions were being distributed in the CBF exhibit hall, with written promotional endorsements by CBF leaders such as former moderator Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler and Central Seminary president Tom Clifton.
These materials were distributed once again in this year’s exhibit hall. Leaders of the Baptist Peace Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists indicated in press reports that they were given assurances by the CBF leadership that there would be no restrictions on the distribution of the pro-homosexual curriculum in the exhibit hall.
The homosexuality controversy at the General Assembly was preceded by a failed attempt earlier in the week to rescind the statement from within the Coordinating Council. The CBF leadership did agree to change the language from a statement of organizational “value” about homosexuality to a statement of organizational “personnel and administrative funding policy.”
The division within the CBF on the issue of homosexuality is certain to have ramifications for the group’s eleven partner divinity schools, many of whom have open admissions for gay and lesbian students. Vestal told the General Assembly that he had taken the policy statement to the deans of the partner schools.
“I did not ask for their approval,” he said. “Some of them did approve. Some of them didn’t.”