During the SBC's Orlando meeting, CBF ethicist Robert Parham penned a column in the local newspaper warning Floridians that two very different kinds of Baptists would be converging on their city that month. After having been at the Orange County Convention Center for the SBC meeting in early June, I returned to the same meeting hall two weeks later, not as a church-sent messenger, but a Baptist Press correspondent covering the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
I knew Parham was right when I asked directions to the registration table from an elderly woman in Walt Disney World mouse ears. But within fifteen minutes, I realized just how right Parham was. These meetings did indeed represent two very different kinds of Baptists.
The Bible. While reading Parham's editorial during the SBC meeting, I grimaced at what I believed to be an error in the column. "SBC clergy will wear suits and carry big copies of the King James Bible." Parham wrote. "Their CBF counterparts will wear golf shirts and slacks and carry sunscreen."1 He forgot the CBF Bibles, I thought. Surely, the CBF assembly-goers will have Bibles in hand. I was wrong.
The Bible was mentioned. CBF Baptist Principles Coordinator Gary Parker demonstrated Baptist distinctives from Jesus' encounter with the thief on the cross (Jesus didn't force the thief to repent – soul competency. Jesus didn't marshal the soldiers to force the thief's conversion – church/state separation). A Richmond Seminary student spoke of "abide in me." The word "abide" reminded him of the word "abode", which reminded him of how at home he felt when on a trip to Kenya.
More conspicuous, however, than the absence of Bibles was the antagonism toward the SBC position on biblical authority. In conversations with more than one hundred people, I was shocked by how many were so willing to criticize the Bible for its "anti-woman biases" and its "errors."
CBF leader Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler told me that Southern Baptists have the Bible for their authority while Cooperative Baptists have Jesus for theirs. When I asked Mrs. Crumpler about what I had learned growing up in a Southern Baptist church – Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so – she replied that the Bible "may introduce us to Jesus," but we can know about Jesus independently of Scripture. After hearing a number of jokes about the oppressive nature of the Pauline epistles and listening to the apostle derided as a "biblical scholar" who didn't understand the teachings of Jesus, I came to the scary conclusion that perhaps the most hated "fundamentalist" at the CBF General Assembly was not Paige Patterson or Albert Mohler or Richard Land, but the apostle Paul.
Evangelism. Both Baptist meetings spoke constantly of missions and evangelism. Only the SBC meeting defined the terms. The SBC messengers revised their confessional statement to make clear that verbal witness to Christ, not simply a lifestyle example, is necessary for biblical evangelism. The SBC messengers also added a sentence to the confessional document affirming that explicit personal faith in Christ is the only way of salvation.
Not only did the CBF General Assembly not speak to such issues from the platform, there was no consensus on the matter among the participants.
After dozens of conversations with individuals and in small groups, I did not find anyone who would agree that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. One female minister assured me that Christ is the "best way" to God and that sincere Jews and Buddhists are "missing out," but that it would be "arrogant" to say that those without Christ are going to hell. Others told me that there are "many ways" to God through the world religions.
The General Assembly bookstore promoted a book on missions, endorsed by the CBF's coordinator, which defined missions as including alcoholics' anonymous meetings, sex education for teenagers, and funding for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. The book, written to show churches why they should support CBF missions rather than the SBC International Mission Board, was written by a scholar who has ridiculed the typical Southern Baptist conviction that non-Christians overseas are "lost" and in danger of hell.2
Perhaps this is why there was no "Crossover Orlando" at the CBF meeting. Two weeks before, Southern Baptists flooded the host city with evangelists proclaiming the gospel. Tracts were stocked in abundance in the hallways for messengers. Southern Baptists could be seen with open Bibles, pleading with convention center custodians to receive Christ. One could get into a taxi and find that the driver had just heard the gospel from NOBTS president Chuck Kelley. At the CBF meeting, however, there was a great deal of talk from the platform about evangelism and missions, but I saw none of it in the hallways or on the streets. In contrast with the Southern Baptists distributing gospel tracts to the gay activists outside the SBC convention center, the CBF exhibit hall distributed a "resource for congregations" arguing that gay sex is biblical, sexual orientation is unchangeable, and same-sex marriage is a matter of social justice to be supported by Baptists.
The CBF did offer a "seeker-sensitive" worship service, but it was not at all clear what attendees should be seeking. Right next door, however, was the CBF's far more popular "Celtic service," led by their newly elected moderator. In a darkened candlelit room, ministers dressed in white robes led the packed-in congregants in New Age Celtic music and silent, mystical contemplation of the "mystery of the ocean depths," as a bell plaintively gonged in the background.
Hallway conversation. At both Baptist Orlando meetings, the halls were abuzz with conversation. At the SBC, I sat at a restaurant table with friends making predictions about the next president of Midwestern Seminary. I sat up until 2 in the morning talking with my friend about Paul's rapture passages in I Thessalonians. All around us were conversations about new members' orientation classes, baptism stories, and reminiscences of first pastorates.
At the CBF, however, from the elevator conversations to the formal breakout sessions to the business sessions of the coordinating council, the focal point of conversation was "that other Baptist body." The SBC-directed anger (over the Baptist Faith and Message, the fact that Jerry Falwell is now a Southern Baptist, Albert Mohler's appearances on Larry King Live) was the only surefire way to excite the crowd.
During one breakout session, a participant from Mississippi lamented, to groans from the audience, that his church had just called a pastor from Southeastern Seminary. He reassured the crowd, however, that they had "one deacon who does Disney, another that's divorced, and another that sells liquor in his store, so I think we're going to see some fireworks!" It was then that I realized that the CBF is not a denomination and never will be. There was not a common confession of faith uniting the CBF participants – they don't have one. There was, however, a constantly identified common foe – "that other Baptist body."
Even the closing worship service seemed less a demonstration of "fellowship" than a finger in the eye of their shared Baptist heritage. The General Assembly served itself what many participants called the "sacrament of communion" as they were given their choice of breads from around the world. Instead of wine or grape juice, participants were each given a single grape, which they were told to "take and eat."
After returning to my hotel room, I retrieved Jerry Sutton's new book, The Baptist Reformation, from my suitcase. Sutton claims in the book that Southern Baptists should not simply look at the 1978 SBC, abstracted and frozen in time, to see what the denomination would look like had the moderates won. Instead, he suggests, we should look at the current landscape of "moderate" Baptist life.3
In short, there would not have been two Orlando gatherings, but one. The phrase the "Bible is just a book" might not have come from a convention floor microphone, but from the platform of the Pastor's Conference. The lesbian activists would be enrolled not at Wake Forest Divinity School, but Southern Seminary. The new Baptist Faith and Message might not have condemned the abortion of unborn infants, but ignored it as a matter of "soul freedom."4 The President's address might not have featured President Paige Patterson pleading with messengers to seek a burden to see hell-bound sinners reconciled to God, but someone leading the messengers in the sacrament of the single grape. One look at the Baptist Counter-Reformation should convince us of just how necessary the Reformation really was.
As I returned from Orlando and stopped in at my favorite Louisville coffee shop a block from Southern Seminary, I was greeted by the sight of a zealous young Boyce College student flipping through the pages of his Bible as he witnessed to the goateed employee behind the counter. Two kinds of Baptists? Indeed there are.
1 Robert Parham, "Two Groups: Both Baptist But Different," Orlando Sentinel, June 11 , 2000, G1.
2 Alan Neely, A New Call to Missions: Help for Perplexed Churches, foreword by Dan Vestal, (Macon, Ga.: Smyth and Helwys, 2000). See Neely's article, "Baptists and Other Faiths," Perspectives in Religious Studies 17.3 (Fall 1990): pp. 221-35 in which he dismisses as "unwholesome" and "not my theology" the motivation to obey the Great Commission because those without Christ are going to hell.
3 Jerry Sutton, The Baptist Reformation (Nashville: Broadman and Holman 2000), p. 3.
4 See, for instance, James M. Dunn and Grady Cothen, Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry (Macon, Ga.: Smyth and Helwys), pp. 53; 105-6.
Mullins on the Bible
E.Y. Mullins, early champion of "soul competency," operated and taught within the framework of a high view of Scripture. In his pamphlet, Baptists and the Bible, published by Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, he makes the following emphasis three times in the last three pages of the eleven-page booklet.
"It follows … that the Bible is final for us on all questions of doctrine and polity and Christian living. The doctrines of salvation, of the church, of the ordinances, of polity, and of the Christian life we derive from the Bible. In its teachings alone do we find our sufficient, certain and authoritative source of knowledge concerning all these matters. …
"In conclusion, it may be said that the one sure and certain road to agreement among all Christians is obedience to the New Testament teachings in all matters of doctrine, polity, worship, and life. …
"For all Christians there should be one authoritative source of religious truth and knowledge. To that source they should look in all matters relating to doctrine, to polity, to the ordinances, to worship, and to Christian living – That source is the Bible." (emphasis added)