By Alan Bean
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship came to life in the early 1990s, a traumatized gaggle of southerners disowned by Mother Church (also known as the Southern Baptist Convention). The fight for control of the SBC was over the Bible: was it a faithful guide in matters of faith and practice, or was it the inerrant Word of God.
Both sides took the Bible seriously, but the losing side couldn’t swallow the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, especially when if it meant refusing to ordain women.
At first, the CBF was led by former Southern Baptist preachers who had survived by shoring up their conservative credentials. Determined to keep the SBC hardliners from howling “I told you so”, the CBF turned thumbs down on GLBTQ inclusion.
But as the original generation of pastors was replaced by younger men (and a significant group of women) who didn’t grow up in the SBC, this policy began to feel like an embarrassment, and then like a sin.
As tension built along generational lines, the CBF launched a listening tour dubbed “the illumination project”. Since member churches were hopelessly divided on the subject of gay inclusion, the CBF settled on a compromise solution. The “denominetwork” would continue to send out missionaries who were single and celibate or in heterosexual marriages, but some non-ministry positions would be opened to GLBTQ persons.
No one was excited by this policy tweak. Some church leaders saw it as the best semi-solution the CBF could manage under the circumstances; but most church leaders who have bothered to state an opinion are very unhappy. And, as you probably guessed, the unhappiness breaks in equal and opposite directions.
Conservatives take their stand on the Bible. The Good Book might not talk a lot about homosexuality, but the handful of relevant passages appear to associate same-sex attraction with willful godlessness (Roman 1 is cited as the clearest example).
Christians have been excluding and condemning homosexuality for two thousand years, the argument goes, because the Bible gives them no option. If we must choose between the Bible and the shifting sands of secular opinion, conservatives conclude, we will stick with the Bible.
Progressive Baptists take their stand on the Christian gospel: “for all are one in Christ Jesus.” The kill-and-eat vision in Acts 10 went against the clear teaching of Peter’s Bible, but the Apostle learned that when the Bible and the gospel appear to point in different directions, you go with the gospel.
For conservatives, there can be no juxtaposition of Bible and gospel. Since we learn the gospel from the Bible, how can the two be in tension? When progressives talk about “the gospel”, conservatives say, they are really talking about radical inclusion, a concept they borrowed from the political left.
Traditionally, evangelicals view the gospel as God’s answer to human sin. We sin because Adam sinned and it’s driving us straight to hell. Furthermore, there’s nothing we can do about it. The gospel, the good news, is that Jesus died in our place, and if we accept him as Savior our death sentence will be annulled and we will one day sing with the choir celestial.
It takes a lot of cutting and pasting to come up with a gospel like that. It also requires ignoring most of what the Bible says about the gospel.
In the synoptic gospels, the good news (that’s what “gospel” means) is always closely tied to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Here’s Mark’s introduction:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
And here’s Matthew:
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.
In Luke, Jesus embraces the gospel mission laid out in the kingdom vision of Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news (gospel) to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The healing miracles of Jesus and the preaching of the gospel are tightly linked in the Gospels. The gospel is that, despite surface appearances, the kingdom of God is breaking into the world.
The gospel of the kingdom is thoroughly utopian and utterly realistic. The shadow of the cross hovers over the wedding banquet.
In the letters of Paul, the gospel is all about the fusion of Jew and Gentile into a miraculous new family of faith.
How did we get from the utopian realism of the New Testament to the Four Spiritual Laws? That’s a story for another time, but the Bible didn’t get us there.
Nobody in the CBF wants to be called a fundamentalist, and everybody in the CBF takes the Bible seriously. Real fundamentalists like R. Albert Mohler are delighted with the squabble erupting within the CBF.
Once the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible are abandoned, theological revisionism is inevitable . . . 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?
CBF conservatives are willing to reinterpret Paul’s teaching against women preachers, Mohler suggests, but they don’t want to apply the same logic to GLBTQ inclusion.
Mohler has a point. The older generation of Baptist moderates grew up in a Southern Baptist world in which, in theory, the Bible was the sole and supreme authority in all things. Moderates and fundamentalists used different proof texts, but they employed the same hermeneutic. To survive in the old SBC you were forced to argue from the plain text of Scripture; the fight was over which texts you emphasized and which you ignored.
The younger crop of Cooperative Baptist pastors has moved beyond Biblicism. They live in a world inhabited by flesh and blood members of the GLBTQ community who cannot be dismissed as theological abstractions. Maybe Paul really believed that same-sex attraction is a symptom of godless despair; but what if you know gay men and lesbians who are living in stable, committed relationships, who love Jesus, and who long to follow him, with or without the blessing of Mother Church?
Al Mohler says that we believe the Bible or we don’t. Our new crop of preachers puts the matter a bit differently: the gospel is good news for everybody, or it’s good news for nobody.
We get our gospel from the Bible, no question. But we must read our Bibles through a gospel lens. It is anti-gospel to tell women, lesbians, African Americans, or any other segment of the human family, that they cannot be fully functioning members of the boy of Christ.
Maybe Paul isn’t saying what we think he’s saying. Or maybe he was simply mistaken about women and GLBTQ folk. Either way, the gospel of Jesus Christ remains the gospel of the kingdom, a way of viewing the world that is rooted in the Hebrew vision of shalom.
“They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)
The incarnation gave us a sneak preview of what this shalom looks like.
“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)
Non-violence, enemy love, and radical forgiveness are indispensable elements of the Christian gospel because backlash is inevitable. And it is this gospel, not the Bible, that we dare not “negotiate” or “reinterpret”.
We get our gospel from the Bible, and then we read out Bibles through the gospel.
Most significantly for the present discussion, we get our gospel from Paul, and then we read Paul through the gospel.
The gospel is a wild, healing, reconciling dream planted in the real pain of a hurting world.
For christ followers, there can be no accommodation to the easy way of the world. Gospel inclusion is not for the faint of heart.
Will that kind of gospel put butts in the seats? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. The great majority of people, religious and secular, may hesitate to follow Jesus down his rocky gospel road, but where else are we supposed to go? He has the words of eternal life.