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Pastors’ experiences confirm BP report on CBF church count

NASHVILLE (BP)–Southern Baptist pastors in North Carolina and Arkansas have confirmed an Aug. 11 Baptist Press story about the manner in which the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship counts its member churches, each claiming that a church he served previously or currently pastors has been named among the members of the moderate Baptist group — despite the fact that the churches never agreed to such an affiliation.

Membership in the CBF, according to the group’s spokesman Ben McDade, is based solely on financial contributions. A donation to the CBF in any amount — even as little as $1 — on the part of an individual results in his or her entire congregation being counted as a partner church. In the Baptist Press article, Southern Baptist scholars claimed that the practice violates the democratic process of the local church, allowing one member to decide an affiliation for the entire church body, and also inflates the number of churches the CBF claims as partners.

Shortly after the publication of the Baptist Press article, the CBF issued a statement calling the article on the CBF’s church count method “tragic and perplexing.” CBF leaders said in the Aug. 15 statement that the organization was “saddened and grieved” that Baptist Press had chosen to run the articles “attacking Christian brothers and sisters seeking to be the presence of Christ in the world.”

“This has been ‘the modus operandi’ of the SBC in its relationship to CBF for years,” the statement said. “It seemed that in the recent past they had ceased such activity until these latest stories. This is just sad. And it’s unfortunate that the cessation in this hurtful rhetoric appears to have been temporary.”

The statement also said that the CBF was approached by Baptist Press writer Gregory Tomlin, but that the CBF did not want to engage in “this kind of public debate with fellow Christians.”

Will Hall, vice president for news services with the Southern Baptist Convention, said the CBF response did not deal with the substance of the article about partnering churches. The statement, he said, was a “straw man argument given that Baptist Press actively sought input from the CBF.” Hall also said the articles raised legitimate concerns that should have been addressed by CBF leaders.

“Church autonomy is a cherished Baptist distinctive,” Hall said. “The CBF’s practice of imposing its will on congregations by naming churches as partners without the consent or even knowledge of the local bodies is a serious breach of this Baptist polity. It also violates the CBF’s core value of church freedom that reads in part, ‘Churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership and leadership … and to participate as they deem appropriate in the larger body of Christ.’”

Leslie Puryear, who now serves as pastor of First Baptist Church of Lewisville, N.C., said his previous church was counted by the CBF for some time before he and the members of his congregation were aware. He wrote on his weblog that the Baptist Press article “confirmed his experience with the CBF.”

Puryear served as pastor of Wallburg Baptist Church in Winston Salem, N.C., from 2002-2005. When he began his role as pastor there, he said he noticed that he was receiving the newsletter from the state CBF organization in North Carolina.

“After a few issues had passed across my desk, I decided to review the list of ‘cooperating’ CBF churches so I would know who was who. As I perused the list, I was stunned to see the church I was pastoring on the list,” Puryear wrote on his blog.

The North Carolina pastor immediately corresponded with state CBF leaders, instructing them to remove the church’s name because it “did not support the CBF financially or ideologically.” The CBF later responded that the church’s name had been included because an individual in the church had made a contribution to the group.

Puryear said he later spoke with the church treasurer and found no contribution to the CBF on record. He instructed the church treasurer that, should someone designate an offering to the CBF, he personally would return it to them.

“After I e-mailed the results of my investigation to the CBF, they replied by saying that the donation did not have to come through the church,” Puryear wrote. “If an individual sends a donation directly to the CBF and indicates what church they were a member of, then that church would be put on the list of cooperating churches. I expressed my disbelief of such a deceptive practice. The person to whom I was speaking said that she didn’t make the policy; she only enforced it.”

After six months of phone calls and e-mails, followed by a threat to “go to the press,” the church’s name was dropped from the list of “cooperating” CBF churches, Puryear said.

The CBF claims 1,854 member congregations and some 500,000 members, according to statistics provided by the group. When the CBF applied for membership in the Baptist World Alliance in June 2002, founder and national coordinator Daniel Vestal indicated that the group contained 150 churches “that have no relationship to the SBC at all, but are related to the CBF.” The figure used by the organization of 1,800-2,000 churches included “partnering churches” with varying levels of involvement, Vestal said. “That’s all the way from one individual who designates money to us through a church to the church that puts us in their budget. It’s the whole gamut,” he said.

The websites of state CBF organizations include the names of churches the Fellowship considers partners. But not all of them are, in fact, partners.

For example, the CBF of Arkansas’ website claims as a partner First Baptist Church of Fayetteville. FBCF Pastor Douglas Falknor said his church has “not agreed to partner with CBF and there is nothing in our budget for CBF.”

“My understanding is that two or three members give to their ministries,” Falknor said, “but First Baptist Church has no formal or informal relationship with them.”

“How do most churches express their affiliation with a denomination?” Falknor asked. “I suspect that most churches are considered partners in a particular denomination when that local church has voted to partner with other like-minded churches. First Baptist Church has intentionally aligned with the SBC, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and the Washington-Madison Baptist Association and should not be considered a partner church with any other denomination, convention or association.”

Central Baptist Church in Magnolia, Ark., also listed on the Arkansas CBF website, also did not agree to partner with the CBF, according to its pastor, David Wood.

“When I came here as pastor in July of 1997, I had already told this church that I was Southern Baptist and did not believe in divided loyalty and would not be in favor of supporting the CBF through our budget,” Wood said. “So when the church called me as pastor they were officially rejecting affiliation with the CBF. I know that a few members designate offerings to the CBF but that’s as far as it goes.”

Wood said the appearance of his church’s name among CBF-partner churches in the state “is a lie.”

“I do feel like it is a testimony to the deceptive process that is being used by the CBF. Most people in our church know this. Most people never give CBF a second thought,” he said.

In an Aug. 18 article posted on ethicsdaily.com, the head of a CBF-partner organization that receives a large portion of its funding from the group — Charles Deweese, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society — said the Baptist Press story about the CBF’s church count method reflected “narrow-minded understandings of Baptist theology and polity,” adding that the CBF’s method of counting churches does not “affect the autonomy of the local churches in any fashion.”

But Puryear disagrees. He said in an interview that he has encouraged other pastors to see if their churches are listed as CBF partner congregations. “I would go even further and have them call their state CBF office and ask them if they are counting their church as a supporting church,” he said. “To say that one person in a church supporting CBF is equal to the whole church supporting CBF is, to use an old term, ‘skullduggery.’”

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