ATLANTA (BP)–The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was born 15 years ago as a “renewal movement” of “free and faithful Baptists,” according to its founder Daniel Vestal. Some 3,000 moderate Baptists, upset with the conservative direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and the fact that Vestal was not elected its president, flocked to the cause.
Since the group took its ball and went home, they have garnered significant attention in the religious media. Sadly, that attention hasn’t come for their efforts to feed the hungry or clothe the poor. Most often, theological imprecision and questionable associations have turned the heads of the religious media and, as a result, the heads of a large number of conservative Baptists. The deletion of the name of Jesus and a reference to the Great Commission in the organization’s mission statement last year is but one example of a characteristic theological fumble.
This year, the CBF took steps to rectify the problems created at last year’s General Assembly, adopting a new preamble to its constitution that declares allegiance to Jesus Christ, references the “One Triune God,” and indicates their desire to see the Great Commission and Great Commandments fulfilled. For the adoption of this statement, CBF participants should be applauded — a compliment the leaders of the CBF assume conservatives are not willing to make. I submit, however, that the statement would never have seen the light of day if participants had not “thrown a flag” and strongly voiced their sentiments that it be developed to define the ill-defined body.
Now, new challenges are on the horizon, among them defining the CBF’s relationship with the troubled American Baptist Churches (USA). The two groups announced this year that they will hold a joint meeting for the first time in Washington, D.C., in 2007.
Wounded by the recent schism over the issue of homosexuality — an issue the leadership of the denomination refused to address — American Baptists have found a new partner in the CBF. The two groups should complement one another well. Both claim to be truly Baptist, or champions of “soul and Bible freedom” and the autonomy of the local church. As a result, leaders of the ABC (USA) will not withdraw fellowship from “welcoming and affirming” congregations or those that accept as members practicing and unrepentant homosexuals. And apparently, that is no hindrance to CBF leaders. When I asked CBF media personnel about next year’s joint meeting, I was told that no “doctrinal or social litmus test” was necessary for fellowship with the CBF. Excluding any one person or group of people, I was told, would start the CBF down a “slippery slope.”
And so, therein lies the problem with the CBF; that is, the failure to recognize that many teachings are firmly rooted on the plateau of orthodoxy and not subject to the whims of personal interpretation. The Holy Spirit does not breed disunity about such matters as homosexuality when they are so clearly defined in Scripture, and the Spirit is not unclear about what action should be taken when sin is present in the local church or in any relationship. Discipleship actually demands church discipline and conformity, not to the words or confessions of men, but to the Word of God. The CBF’s refusal to grasp these things casts some rather long shadows over the future of the group.
Almost 30 years ago, Dean Kelley wrote in his work on the sociology of religion, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing,” that conservative churches provide firm answers to the questions of life. They demand commitment, exercise strong discipline, exemplify missionary zeal, and avoid relativism. With the exception of missionary zeal, these characteristics are scarcely discernable in the CBF.
In fact, the CBF exhibits some of the characteristics of Mainline American denominations, such as the Presbyterian (USA) and Episcopalian churches. These mainline denominations have adopted “open door” policies to any and every teaching in the name of “freedom” in the hope of swelling the pews. They increasingly have focused on developing “interfaith” relationships. More and more these groups have become social service agencies that do good things, such as feeding the poor, ministering to the sick and “offering a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name,” but place less or little emphasis on evangelism and life-changing discipleship. And the denominations’ seminaries have fallen to more diverse views on God because radical individualism is the fountainhead of theology.
Are these characteristics universally true of the CBF? Not yet. The CBF is an interesting study in demographics. If you attended a meeting, you would notice that the majority of its participants are elderly individuals who for one reason or another are disenchanted with the SBC, but who still hold many generational values that keep the CBF leadership in check. If I were to make a prediction about the CBF based solely on the similar tracks of this demographic in the life of Mainline denominations, I would predict that the CBF will tarry near moderate Baptist life until this generation passes. When the reins are handed to its younger crowd, fewer in number, a seismic shift will take place further left.
The CBF has shown slow growth in the past fifteen years. When the movement began, roughly 150 churches and 3,000 people (many from the same churches) lent their support to the movement. Today, it is virtually impossible to evaluate the size of the CBF. Literature distributed in a media kit prior cites roughly 765 churches that participated in the most recent meeting in Atlanta. However, according to the group’s own statistics, there are today 1,854 “churches” who have declared a desire to participate with the Fellowship. Really? More than 1,800 CBF churches?
When I asked about membership, I was told that if I, as a member of a church in Texas, gave my regular tithe to my church and designated a portion of that tithe, even a single dollar, for the CBF, my church — my entire church — would from that day forward be known as a church associating with the Fellowship. So it is impossible to know which “church” listed as a participant is included as the result of a church making a decision to participate, or whether a moderate Baptist at First Baptist Church of Anywhere happens to have an affinity for the CBF.
This raises another question CBF leaders should address: How can a group which has claimed for 15 years the mantle of “champion’ for the autonomy of the local church in Baptist life use this type of membership formula? Do not the remaining members of a congregation have a say in how they are counted? Does one person have the right to see his church called a “CBF church” by transferring a single dollar into the group’s pocket while the remainder of the congregation knows nothing about the group?
Our Baptist forefathers would answer in the negative.
Having written this, I anticipate the usual objections that I have maligned the good name of the CBF. That has not been my intention. Instead, I admit that there are many fine people in the CBF who have been hurt by denominational wrangling in the past.
At the same time, I believe CBF leaders have serious issues that should be addressed, such as how the “denomination” — they reject this label — will relate to other bodies who hold divergent or even erroneous positions on key doctrines. They will have to address their misconception of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” in Scripture, often referred to by CBF participants as “the priesthood of the believer,” and judge between individualism and true, biblical discipleship in the community of the faithful. And they will have to decide whether the Gospel should accompany social action, or social action the Gospel.
I suspect that I am already aware of the answers they would propose to such questions, but time will tell. I also believe the leaders of the group will say that they should ignore these inquiries and simply stay “on message.” They have been doing so for 15 years, and few people have been willing to listen. Could it be because the CBF has been unwilling, as Kelley wrote, to provide so few definitive answers to life’s important questions?
Tomlin is a media professional in Fort Worth, Texas. He holds a Ph.D. in church history and historical theology.