The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship: a candle in search of darkness

By Alan Bean

Leaders insist that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is not a denomination, and there is some truth to the claim.  The CBF doesn’t pass resolutions, has no statement of faith, and delegates to this week’s convention in Fort Worth weren’t delegates selected by individual churches.  If you wanted to attend, you could register for free on the CBF website, and over 1500 people did.

On the other hand, if you attend a church like Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship clearly fills the role of a denomination.  Broadway, largely due to its stance (or lack of stance) on the gay rights issue, is no longer affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or the Baptist General Convention of Texas.  For us, the CBF serves as a denomination.

I attended as much of this weeks CBF gathering in Fort Worth as time would allow, serving as a greeter, attending work shops, chatting with the folks hawking wares and services at the Gathering Place and participating in evening worship.  Still, I missed all of the business sessions and most of the workshops and my conversations were largely limited to  the scattered handful of leaders and participants I know from the distant past.  This was the first CBF event I have ever attended, so I don’t have a large fund of actual experience to draw from.

I was a graduate student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville when the CBF was founded in 1991.  I was vaguely aware that Daniel Vestal, a conservative but not fundamentalist pastor, lost a close fight for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1989.  In those days, as many as 45,000 “messengers” from across the nation would flock to the annual conventions as both moderates and fundamentalist factions tried to turn out the vote.  By contrast, this year’s SBC gathering was attended by fewer that 8,000 people.  Vestal lost that fight and it soon became obvious that the conservative faction had taken control of the denominational apparatus.

Although SBC presidents have little formal control, they do make critical nominations to the all-powerful “Committee on Committees” (a tribute to “organization man” bureaucracy if ever there was one).  Since the Committee on Committees nominates people (usually male people) to the boards of various powerful institutions throughout the denomination, including six theological seminaries, ten years of fundamentalist presidents starting in 1980 represented a complete transfer of power.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship came to existence as a protest movement within the SBC that functioned primarily at the state level.  The fundamentalists held sway at the denominational level, but most of the money on which the denomination depended flowed through powerful state conventions.  In influential states like Texas and Virginia, CBF influence was so strong at the state level that pro-SBC conventions were formed so the denomination could relate directly to the more conservative churches.

As a moderate SBC leader told me back in the day, the power struggle in Baptist land was about sociology more than anything else.  The men and women of the CBF are high culture Baptists.  That may sound like a contradiction in terms, and in a sense it is.  How high culture can you be and still call yourself a Baptist?  CBF folks like beautiful art, semi-classical music and a well-turned phrase.  Well, some CBF churches use vestments, pipe organs and are slowly falling in love with the liturgical traditions of historic Christianity.  The quasi-denomination is built on the institutional foundation of churches, Baptist universities like Mercer and Baylor, and the long list of seminaries and theological schools spawned by the exodus of moderates from the SBC.  CBF people may be the most theologically and biblically literate Christians in America.  For all that, they retain a fondness for “the old songs” like Just as I am, and I Love to Tell the Story, they talk about missions, missionaries and “the mission field” a lot, and they take the Bible very seriously.

It’s complicated.

Gradually, the CBF has surrendered the dream of retaking control of the mother ship and has developed a separate identity.  The initial generation of CBF leaders is now old enough for retirement.  Last night, Daniel Vestal was feted and celebrated in a two-and-a-half-hour worship service that, though deeply meaningful to old timers, seemed a tad excessive to first-timers like me.

Old guard CBF leaders like Vestal came of age in the old Southern Baptist Convention and it shows.  Even during the strife of the 1980s, men like Vestal presented themselves as the true defenders of Baptist “distinctives” like world missions and evangelism. “We first lost our focus on evangelism,” Vestal lamented in 1989. “Then we lost our trust for each other. Now, we’re losing our viability as a denomination for world evangelization.”

I doubt this kind of rhetoric resonates with the scores of seminary and college students who attended the CBF gathering in Fort Worth, especially if evangelism means “saving souls” and “world evangelization” means disparaging other religions.  As the CBF and the SBC have drifted apart, both groups have redefined themselves.  The SBC has embraced the old “heaven and hell” Christianity so characteristic of frontier revivalism.  The evangelistic mission of the SBC may have been interpreted in softer terms by moderate SBC leaders between 1950 and 1975,  but the kinder, gentler evangelism had been thoroughly eradicated by 1990.  Since then, preachers who believe in a literal hell, a real heaven, and a sure-’nuff Satan have had the stage to themselves.

“The light shines in the darkness,” John’s Gospel tells us, and confident Christians have always been clear about their darkness and their light.  In the SBC, sinners are lost, they are going to hell, and nothing short of faith in the saving blood of Jesus will save them.  That message has always been popular in the South, especially in Bible Belt states like Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.

I left Southern Baptist life in 1994, shortly after the formation of the CBF, and this week’s conference was my first opportunity to witness the semi-denomination up close and personal.

If the sermon on the glory of God Vestal preached last night is anything to go by, the CBF loves the light but would rather not talk about the darkness.  Using every rhetorical tool in the preacher’s tool kit, Vestal tried to get his audience fired up about the glory of God.  He was only partially successful.

The CBF has always been unsure about the darkness.  Do they believe in a real Satan and a real hell? Some may and some may not; but it hardly matters since hardly anyone affiliated with the group is comfortable with these dark concepts.  Every good story needs an antagonist, a villain, and the CBF story doesn’t have one.  The Light of the world will be swallowed by the neon glitter of secular America unless we splash some tangible darkness onto the canvas, and I didn’t see much of that.

For too long, the unacknowledged Satan of the CBF has been the Grand Inquisitor fundamentalists who sent a generation of SBC moderates into exile (not quite an auto-da-fe, but close enough).  The CBF needs to do better than that.  The glory of God will have an ersatz feel until it is juxtaposed with truly dark evils like poverty, mass incarceration, global warming, anti-immigrant bigotry and the demonization of the gay rights movement.  There’s lots of material out there, but a sort-of-denomination spawned in conflict and controversy naturally wants to keep the lid on Pandora’s box.  Until recently, issues with any potential for controversy have been studiously avoided.

The younger generation of CBF people hunger and thirst for deep theological conversation about things like sex, the ecological crisis, justice, crime and punishment, immigration and all the other broken pieces of America.  Plenty of CBF people want the light to shine into genuine darkness.  Darkness-light issues found their way into some of the workshops I attended, but were addressed in the most general of terms and seldom mentioned in worship nor, I suspect, in business meetings.

This will need to change.  The trauma of being rejected by Mother Church takes a decade or two to get past, but the CBF is divided into folks older than me (who have a hard time letting go of past indignities), and people younger than me (who have little living memory of these events and long to move on).  Who will lead the CBF now that the beloved Rev. Vestal has retired?  That is the question of the hour.  For better or worse, they don’t make preachers like Vestal any more.

During a meeting of Texas Baptists, Bill Leonard, the dean of liberal Baptist historians, took us on a whirlwind tour of the state of Christian America.  In a day in which denominationalism is losing its meaning, he said, Baptists need to be tell the world who we are and who we are not.  I asked old church history prof if a generation of seminary students with no living memory of our Baptist holocaust might open the door to new things.

The Wake Forest professor didn’t give the yes-or-no answer I had expected.  It is a great blessing, he admitted, to live without the burden of history.  But the churches these students will enter are still living with these painful memories and pastors who don’t understand the historical context of their churches don’t always anticipate the trauma they can evoke with a single misplaced sentence.

I see his point.  And yet I long for leaders who are free to apply the light of God to the all-too-real darkness of current events.  The day is coming.  The younger generation of denominational leaders longs for social justice, isn’t the least bit hung up on social evils like cussing, drinking and gambling, and takes a compassionate view of issues like gay rights, immigration rights and the criminal justice system.  In time, these young women and men will be at the helm of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the self-definition Leonard calls for will begin.

One thought on “The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship: a candle in search of darkness

  1. The Grand Inquisitor dog won’t hunt no more. The darkness of the CJ system will. That’s good narrative.

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