Will LGBTQ Inclusion be the death of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship?

Suzii Paynter
Suzii Paynter introduces the Illumination Project

In a recent reflection piece stimulated by America’s birthday, David Gushee shared this snapshot of a divided America:

“We are at least two different countries — a conservative, largely white, somewhat older, largely Christian country with a center of gravity in the South and Midwest and a progressive, multiracial, younger, increasingly secular and multifaith country with a center of gravity on the coasts and in our big cities. These countries do not understand each other. Or like each other. At all.”

As deep divisions over LGBTQ inclusion surfaced at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C., I found myself asking if Gushee’s portrait of division might apply to the CBF as well.

The CBF, if you’re wondering, was created in 1991 when a highly organized group of fundamentalists imposed its will on the Southern Baptist Convention. Like Israel in Babylonian captivity, the CBF has been defining and re-defining itself ever since.

The flash point at the Greensboro meeting was the CBF’s 2000 decision to prohibit the intentional hiring of non-celibate gays and lesbians by the “denominetwork.” Here’s the most offensive portion of that statement:

“The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does the CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.

“As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness.”

Then, in case that sounded a bit too much like the fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention, a proviso was appended:

“We also believe in the love and grace of God for all people, both of those who live by this understanding of the biblical standard and those who do not.”

When the CBF formed in 1991, 44 percent of Americans believed that homosexuality should be illegal while 48 percent were in favor of legalization. We aren’t talking about same-sex marriage here; the issue was whether gays should be outlaws. Nine years later, when the CBF’s hiring guidelines were adopted, the numbers had shifted slightly, 54 percent being in favor of legalization while 44 percent still wanted to outlaw consensual same-sex activity.

In 2001, 57 percent of Americans opposed the idea of same-sex marriage while 35 percent approved; fifteen years later those numbers have flipped with 35 percent in opposition and 57 percent in favor.

In short, a statement that sounded “safe” in 2000 now sounds harsh, antiquated, out of touch and, well, hateful.

What caused the sudden explosion in support for gay marriage? Three things come to mind. First, a portion of the gay rights movement concluded that the old “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” rhetoric, however therapeutic it might be for those within the LGBTQ community, wasn’t working for straight America. Instead, we have been treated to portraits of “normal” looking, middle-aged men and women who have been living in committed same-sex relationships for decades and are longing to get married. Who would want to rain on a parade like that? Not me. In an age when lifelong commitment can be hard to find, these people were committed.

Secondly, as the LGBTQ community gradually emerged from the closet, straight Americans suddenly realized that brothers, sisters, great aunts and Janet in accounting were gay. This personalized the issue. We liked these people and wanted to see them happy.

Finally, we are gradually realizing that sexual orientation is not a choice. When I graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1978, only 13 percent of Americans believed that some people were born with a same-sex orientation. I was part of that 13 percent largely because I had the privilege of studying Christian ethics under Paul Simmons. By the time the CBF released its ban on hiring gays and lesbians, a full 40 percent of Americans understood that orientation was not a choice. Among college educated people the figure was closer to 60 percent.

Leading voices within the Southern Baptist Convention continue to inveigh against the gay rights movement, but we have witnessed a significant shift in tone. Even Al Mohler, who once reveled in vivid depictions of gay debauchery in wicked San Francisco, is no longer talking about homosexuality as a self-selected “lifestyle.”

“We have said to people that homosexuality is just a choice. It’s clear that it’s more than a choice. That doesn’t mean it’s any less sinful, but it does mean it’s not something people can just turn on and turn off. We are not a gospel people unless we understand that only the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ gives a homosexual person any hope of release from homosexuality.”

Russell Moore isn’t convinced that even the gospel can affect a “release from homosexuality.” “The utopian idea if you come to Christ and if you go through our program, you’re going to be immediately set free from attraction or anything you’re struggling with, I don’t think that’s a Christian idea,” Moore told reporters when Exodus Ministries gave up on gay reparative therapy in 2014. “Faithfulness to Christ means obedience to Christ. It does not necessarily mean that someone’s attractions are going to change.”

Mohler and Moore argue that persons “suffering” from same-sex attraction can be incorporated into the church of Jesus Christ so long as they remain celibate. That kite won’t fly, and the leadership of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship knows it. If same sex attraction is a fact of birth it must reflect the creative intention of God. The Creator doesn’t make mistakes.

Has the CBF devolved into mutually suspicious camps? I don’t think so. But we are divided on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion and, to the extent we find ourselves at cross purposes, we fit the definition of enemies — at least on this one burning issue.

And what do Christian enemies do? We love one another. It’s easy to love people who agree with you, Jesus tells us, but you must love those who disagree with you. Even when they call you names and question your motivation. Forgiveness isn’t enough; we must love our enemies the same way we love ourselves. And if we can’t pull it off the first time, we keep trying until we get it right.

And that’s what the Illumination Project proposed at the Greensboro gathering is trying to achieve — loving conversations that shed more light and produce less heat than when less deliberative religious groups take votes on LGBTQ inclusion.

But for dialogue to have a chance certain conditions must be met.

First, we must suspend our anti-gay hiring policy immediately even if we don’t have a replacement handy. There is currently no clear consensus among us and our policies should be consistent with this deep uncertainty. But can we all agree that the 2000 statement no longer speaks for us?

Secondly, in obedience to Jesus, we must stop accusing our opponents of bad faith, cultural conformity or homophobia. All participants in this dialogue are seeking the mind of Christ and we must proceed accordingly.

More than anything else, we need to hear from members of the CBF who belong to the LGBTQ community. We need to hear their stories and listen to their dreams. We’ve got to let these people testify.

Much is said in the Illumination Project document about the CBF’s global and interracial identity. North Americans and Western Europeans may be rapidly evolving on LGBTQ inclusion, but Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Muslim world are not.

The most recent Pew study reveals that, by 10 percentage points, women are more likely to favor gay marriage than men, that white non-Hispanic Americans have “evolved” on the issue far more than African Americans and that college educated Americans are three times as likely to accept same-sex marriage as those with a high school education.

Pew also reports that, although gay marriage may be a settled matter in New England and the Pacific states, a slight majority of Southerners remains opposed. While 60 percent of urban Americans favor same-sex unions, the number drops to 40 percent in rural areas and there are many small towns in the South where supporters of same-sex marriage keep their opinions to themselves.

If the CBF wishes to become a truly international, inter-ethnic, inter-regional and interracial community of faith we must listen to a multiplicity of voices and that multiplicity of voices must listen to one another. For as long as it takes. And it may take a long time.

Finally, we can’t talk about LGBTQ inclusion without talking about the Bible.The religious leaders of the day found a principle of radical exclusion in their Bibles. Jesus read the same Bible and discovered a gospel of radical inclusion. Who are we listening to?

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