Theological disaster almost never strikes out of the blue. Trouble builds and disaster is somehow averted again and again, but anyone with eyes to see knows the time is running out. Time has run out for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The CBF emerged in the early 1990s as churches aligned with the more liberal wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, self-identified as "moderates," forged a new organization to replace the SBC, in which they no longer felt at home. From the beginning, the CBF was largely funded by congregations that were not necessarily theologically liberal, at least self-consciously so, but nonetheless disagreed with the SBC's determination to affirm and enforce the inerrancy of Scripture. Other issues were catalysts, including the SBC's confessional principle against women serving as pastors. The CBF had a more explicitly liberal wing, but the most leftward of the former Southern Baptists had left earlier, forming what was then known as the Alliance of Baptists.
There was a time when the SBC and the CBF were locked in competition for the loyalty and financial support of major churches. In turn, those congregations were often divided internally by the same conflict. Over twenty years later, that competition is long over. The SBC and the CBF have each moved through history according to their chosen trajectories. They have grown steadily apart. The SBC solidified its conservative convictions and commitments, while a younger generation of leaders emerged in the CBF -- a generation that did not long for a return to the SBC of the past, but identified with a far more liberal vision of theology and moral issues. The identity crisis of the CBF was evident from the beginning. So was the fact that the the LGBTQ revolution would be the fuse that would detonate the CBF and its identity.
In June of 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a revision of its confessional statement, the Baptist Faith & Message. The confessional revision was a first in modern church history -- the first time that a major denomination had adopted a more conservative confession than it had previously held. The statement explicitly defined the office of pastor as limited to men, affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture, and a host of other conservative convictions. Daniel Vestal, then coordinator of the CBF, predicted that 5,000 churches were ready to leave the SBC and join the CBF in reaction to the confession. In October of 2000, the CBF was under pressure to answer criticism that it was leaning leftward on the question of homosexuality and its Coordinating Council adopted a "statement of organizational value" that precluded the hiring of non-celibate homosexuals for CBF staff or missionary field appointments. The move was immediately criticized by many within the CBF, and especially those identified with its theological schools.
No such exodus from the SBC to the CBF occurred.
Within a decade, momentum was clearly building for a change in CBF policy. It was well understood that the main factor holding the leadership from such a change was financial. The loss of support from churches outraged by any policy condoning homosexuality would have been devastating. The conflict was largely generational. By 2012, an elected moderator of the CBF would openly call for a removal of the policy forbidding the hiring of non-celibate LGBT personnel. Again and again, calls for such a change were answered with delay.
Then came the wider LGBTQ revolution, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and open floodgates of moral revolution. More conservative forces in the CBF may still refuse to join the revolution, but others, mostly younger, see the current CBF policy as morally wrong and oppressive. Most of the seminaries and divinity schools serving the CBF joined the LGBTQ revolution long ago, and their graduates have been demanding that the CBF join as well.
David Gushee, perhaps best equipped to observe the CBF over the course of a generation, noted: "Over these 25 years, CBF life has produced far fewer leaders and people who could be described as evangelicals or moderate-conservative Baptists, and far more who could be described as something like mainline Protestants. Meanwhile, the original founding moderate-conservatives--often based in Texas, interestingly enough--are aging out. The CBF has become an uneasy coalition of moderates (who, it must be again remembered, were labeled moderate-conservatives back in the day) and real-life liberals. The latter are mainly, though not exclusively, younger, and among the clergy, most are products of the new Baptist seminaries."
Some CBF churches have become fully LGBTQ affirming, some perform same-sex ceremonies, and some have called openly-LGBTQ ministers and pastors. Push came to shove as the CBF announced in 2016 that it would move forward through an "Illumination Project" that would allow for a new direction for the CBF on LGBTQ issues. Last week, that project's report was released. The fuse was detonated.
The report, "Honoring Autonomy & Reflecting the Fellowship," has infuriated LGBTQ proponents and alienated more conservative churches. Its recommendations offer a ridiculous and unstable policy. The report and related news reports reveal that the proposed policy will allow for the hiring of openly-LGBT CBF personnel in some positions, but not in positions of leadership or missionary field assignment. The new policy, if adopted, would create a dual morality -- one for an estimated 80% of CBF staff and the other for supervisory staff and field personnel. The two moralities, contradictory by definition, would supposedly co-exist within one structure.
With amazing candor, the report states that "global partners (within and without Baptist life) have decisively rejected movement toward hiring or supporting LGBT field personnel or the inclusion of LGBT persons in ordained leadership." In other words, international churches, with rare exceptions, will not cooperate with the CBF if it sends LGBT personnel to field assignments. The report also acknowledges that "less than a handful of our congregations have called pastors who identify as LGBT."
Nevertheless, it is hard to see how the CBF can survive with such a house divided and such an incoherent policy. One openly gay woman pastor of a CBF congregation responded over the weekend by accusing the CBF of creating "a tiered caste system where the opinions and lives of wealthy straight people are worth more than anyone else."
We have seen this same pattern throughout mainline liberal Protestantism. The moral revolutionaries push and push until the denominational middle gives way or dies out. This drama is playing out a bit later on the stage of the CBF, but its end is clear enough. In the meantime, the "Illumination Project" has been truly illuminating.
This is the inevitable result of the abandonment of the full truthfulness and authority of Scripture. The CBF was born of controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention over the inerrancy of the Bible. On July 9, 1991, the CBF (which would adopt that name the following day) approved an "Address to the Public" that included one and only one clear theological statement, and that statement rejected the inerrancy of Scripture. "The Bible," said the statement, "neither claims or reveals inerrancy as a Christian teaching." Once the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible are abandoned, theological revisionism is inevitable. The CBF report does not even attempt the exegesis of Scripture.
This is also the logical consequence of adopting a hermeneutic that allows for the service of women as pastors -- for many CBF congregations, the key issue of outrage at the SBC. The same negotiation and "reinterpretation" of the biblical text that allows for the service of women pastors will logically lead to the acceptance of the LGBT revolution. How can it not? Individuals and congregations may refuse to take this next step, but they have surrendered the only binding argument that would offer an objective truth claim. Eventually, the revolutionaries will win, and they know it. Clearly, some appear unwilling to wait.
Finally, this is what happens when autonomy trumps biblical authority. The moral revolution was only possible because of a great and unsustainable shift to personal autonomy in the culture. The CBF was birthed in a rejection of stricter doctrinal requirements within the SBC, and one of their cherished principles was congregational autonomy at the expense of confessional unity. Well, in response to the "Illumination Project" report, the married lesbian pastors of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC expressed their moral outrage that more conservative CBF churches and international partners were holding back the full acceptance of LGBT personnel. In a pastoral letter they released, the pastors stated: "Autonomy of the local church is not some mucky individualism that means every church can think and oppress however it wants." Interestingly, the limits of autonomy as a central doctrine are becoming clear even to some in the CBF, and revealingly so.
The CBF assembly in Dallas this coming June will be an historic meeting, one way or the other. For Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians, the "Illumination Project" should serve as yet another reminder of what becomes inevitable once the full authority and truthfulness of the Bible are abandoned. There is nothing to celebrate here . . . only sadness. This is an "Illumination Project" that truly illuminates, but in ways its authors surely never intended.
"Honoring Autonomy and Reflecting the Fellowship: The Report of the Illumination Project Committee," Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, February 9, 2018.
David Gushee, Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2017), pp. 112-113.