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A Decade of Promise

An Address delivered by Walter B. Shurden

Callaway Professor of Christianity

Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon, Georgia


27 June 2001

Tenth Anniversary Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Banquet

Atlanta, GA

Somewhere about the year AD 409, Alaric and his Visigoths parked themselves at the gates of Rome. In his masterful retelling of that story in How The Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill described the Romans' arrogant and contemptuous attitude toward Alaric: "He might as well have been," said Cahill, "the king of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, or any other inconsequential outlanders that civilized people have looked down their noses at throughout history." The Romans, supremely confident of handling this nuisance, dispatched a couple of diplomats to conduct the tiresome negotiations with Alaric and rid themselves of these smelly barbarians.

The Roman diplomats played poker with empty bluffs. They tried to intimidate. "The invincible strength of Rome's warriors will doom any of your misguided attacks," warned the Romans. But Alaric the Barbarian, a humorous as well as a sharp man, responded gleefully, "The thicker the grass, the more easily scythed."

Recognizing now that they had no fool on their hands, the Romans asked finally, and in desperation, what was Alaric's price of departure.

Alaric answered somewhat matter-of-factly: his men would sweep through the city of Rome, take all the gold, all the silver, and everything of value that could be moved. They would also take with them every barbarian slave in Rome's custody.

The Romans protested hysterically. But through their now anxiety-ridden laughter and feigned anger, the Romans asked Alaric, "'But what will that leave us?"

Alaric paused. "Your lives," he said.

After eleven years of hand-to-hand combat with our fundamentalist sisters and brothers (mostly brothers!), we came to the Atlanta Inforum on a very hot 23rd of August in 1990 as the "Consultation of Concerned Southern Baptists."

We came to Atlanta, but, truth be told, we came only with our lives.

The denomination was in the process of being carted off by folks with an attitude, an attitude of intolerance and narrowness that had been standing at the gates of the SBC, not simply since 1979 but, as Luther Copeland said in one of the best Baptist books ever written, since 1845 (See E. Luther Copeland, The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgement of History: The Taint of an Original Sin, University Press of America, 1995). But it is true that when American culture began to change dramatically in the late 70s, the attitude of intolerance began to strut triumphantly and somewhat haughtily over both culture and Caesar and Christ. The attitude swept in and took over the 150 year history of the Southern Baptist Convention.

And they walked off with all the gold and the silver, the six seminaries and the mission boards and Sunday School Board and the Christian Life Commission and everything that was of value at the national denominational level. We got out . . . . with our lives . . . and some good colleges and universities and some state conventions that would later go up for grabs. But mostly, we got out with our lives.

And some Baptist convictions. They forgot to take the heritage with them. Or else they did not want it. And here, my friends, is one of the two reasons I can think of for dubbing the first ten years of CBF history a decade of promise. It was a decade of promise because we got out with the broader and deeper and richer part of the Baptist tradition and the principles that had undergirded that tradition for four hundred years.

So, as my late fourth-grade educated daddy would have said, "We toted off some stuff, too." It was stuff they didn't want; it was the historic Baptist principles which cluster around freedom. And to your everlasting credit, most of you have never forgotten, over this past decade of clumsy, stumbling beginnings, that the other side of Baptist freedom is Christian responsibility and Christian discipleship.

To speak of our Baptist freedom is not to talk of some New Age navel-gazing, unaware that we live under the Lordship of Christ or that we are to live out Kingdom of God values. To speak of our freedom is not to be fixated on ourselves. Real freedom always works for a broader good. You have worn your freedom over this past decade as a badge of stewardship for others. And that stewardship raised up new seminaries, sent out new as well as seasoned missionaries, called for new publication materials, espoused a more compassionate set of ethics, and affirmed both women and men, lay and clergy in the ministry of Christ.

We got out with the freedom to have both an open bible and an open mind, a concept of the church that is both ecumenical and congregational,  a view of religious freedom that thinks both of others as well as self, a concept of ministry that included both laity as well as clergy, an understanding of the church's mission that included both justice and mercy as well as evangelism and missions.

What many have said about our struggle is true. It was a power struggle. If, however, that somewhat crass interpretation is the only spin put on the story, you miss the essence of the story. It was not only a struggle for the gold and the silver and the artifacts of imperial denominational power. It was also a struggle for principles. I have heard many calls in the last ten years admonishing us to forget the past, to stop fighting the fundamentalist-moderate war, to cease bashing the fundamentalists, and, believe me, I understand fully that call.

But my fear is that if we forget the struggle, we may forget the reasons for the struggle. The Passover and July 4 and Bastille Day are not observed annually in order to bash the Egyptians and the British and the royalty; they are days to recall the price people paid for the struggle of freedom. If it were only a struggle for buildings and offices and endowments, surely we must forget that. If all we were discussing was who was to be in charge--sure, that's petty and somewhat sinful stuff. UNLESS. . . unless who is in charge also has something to do with principles espoused. And I contend that it was a struggle for principles, and we will forget that at our peril.

One of those principles was gender equality. That was not simply a bid for power; it was then and it is now a moral issue. And in the words of James Carville, that wholly objective and nonpartisan political pundit, "We're Right and they are wrong!" Mark my words. One day the Southern Baptist Convention will apologize to women. They will apologize to women for some of the same reasons that they and all the rest of us had to apologize to African Americans. They will apologize to women for the same reasons that some of us have had to apologize to women.

Another principle for which we contended was the equality of the laity. That was not simply a bid for power; it was a serious theological issue. In terms of the Baptist vision of Christianity, we're right and they are wrong. The Priesthood is universal; it belongs to all believers. Baptists never, ever intended to be clergy-dominated people. After working with some of the gifted laity of CBF for the last ten years, one understands why.

Another of the principles underlying much of the controversy was the nature and mission of the church of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God is not solely about handing out tracts or personal witnessing, but it is certainly about some of that; but the Kingdom of God also has to do with the struggle for justice and mercy and peacemaking as part of the mission of the church. And many of you came to CBF because you understood the mission of the church to include, not exclude, acts of mercy and justice.

Yet another principle in contention was the nature of biblical truth--its breadth and depth. We were saying, "Our little systems have their day, they have their day and cease to be, they are but mere broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God, art more than they." They were saying, "We have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." And we are right and they are wrong.

These principles, for which many of you in this room contended, made it a decade of promise for us. But we have our sins, too. And our sins--real sins not feigned sins, sins we have committed and sins we omitted--our sins do not permit smugness or arrogance on our part. Repentance toward God, not contempt toward others, is our needed response tonight. I really will not allow my opening illustration to be pushed beyond my use of it. I'm not calling others barbarians. I am calling on us to confront our own inward primitivism, our own thorny self-serving aspirations to control in however so subtle ways. You and I have not yet begun to live out the radical meaning of Baptist freedom under the Lordship of Christ as it relates to our individual lives, our local churches, or CBF. We yet have work to do.

As our great grandchildren look back on us from the vantage point of the year 2101, the cardinal question will not be: did CBF live and survive? The only important question is: did the principle endure? Will we live it out? Will we push it forward? Fighting for freedom is a heady and intoxicating thing. But squandering freedom appears to be an inevitable thing. The natural evolution of freedom in Christian history is that it gets crushed by the juggernauting forces of creedalism, sacerdotalism, and centralization, by people who speak glibly and cavalierly about knowing God's will. And then the fight for freedom breaks out all over again.

So we got out with our lives. But we also got out with treasured principles. If we had kept the gold and the silver and lost our heritage, we would have lost more than the battle; we would have lost the war. Baptists cannot live by bread alone or by brick and stone alone, either. Ideas matter. Fundamentalists and moderates had different ideas. And those ideas work themselves out in church life and denominational life in vastly different ways. If there really is no difference in the SBC and the CBF except who is in charge, we ought to close this thing down and go back and accept our role as submissive losers in a war over gold and silver. But there was something more at stake than gold and silver. Convictions were involved.

So, we got out with our lives. And we got out with the principles. But we also got out with each other, with other lives, good and decent and, in some cases, fearless, lives.. And that's the second reason it has been a decade of promise. We didn't get out with the most people, and we didn't get out with all the good people, but we got out with some very good people. And that is of no small moment when you remember what lives we got out with: Duke McCall and Grady Cothen, Foy Valentine and Keith Parks, Carolyn Crumpler and James Dunn, Randall Lolley and Russell Dilday, Jimmy Allen and Roy Honeycutt. Most of our administrators came with us, though some of the best of those got tongue-tied and stumbled at places along the way.

And most of those who taught us came with us. In a sense they had no choice! We were doing and saying what they had taught us to do and say. So Frank Stagg and Glenn Hinson and Ken Chafin and Morris Ashcraft and Henlee Barnette and Alan Neely and Wayne Oates and the list could go on and on of our teachers who came with us.

But there were also pastor-types who rode the lead horses and performed valiantly in the trenches: Jim Slatton and Don Harbuck and Lavonn Brown and Bill Sherman and Bill Bruster and John Jeffers and Daniel Vestal and especially, especially Cecil Sherman. Maligned by some even on our side of the aisle as "too abrasive," Cecil Sherman was right more times on more issues in SBC life in the 1980s and 1990s than any other single person I know.

He was right to call the Gatlinburg Gang together to resist the attitude of control.

And he was right to quit the Peace Committee when others would not resist the attitude of control.

And he was right to accept the role as the first Coordinator of the CBF to help create a future for freedom among moderate Baptists.

And he was right to say after he was installed: "In these days Baptist ideas are at risk. I go to the Fellowship to fly our flag. . . . Somewhere there needs to be something that is free. At the Fellowship I will try not to use freedom as an excuse to be irresponsible. But we will be free" (As cited in Fellowship: Newsletter of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, September, 2000, pp. 10, 11.).

Cecil Sherman and all the others whose names I have called lost the battle. They did not lose nearly as big as some would pretend, but they lost. Most of us in this room tonight would rather lose a battle with those Baptist people than win triumphantly with any group of conquerors anywhere.

We got out with our lives, but we lost our titles, our professorships, our desk overhang, our fancy letterheads, and tons of brick and mortar. What we lost, as one said after his antique-laden home burned down, was "stuff." But we got out with some real good lives.

And then, lo and behold, good, new lives emerged. From that horrendous pain came wonderful and creative new life among us. Some of them we had hardly known. Others we had not heard of: Patsy Ayers, Oeita Bottorff, Ann Neil, Suzi Paynter, Reba Cobb, Nancy Ammerman, Cindy Johnson, Joy Steincross, Martha Smith, Molly Marshall, Sarah Frances Anders, and Donna Forrester, to name a few. The ugly attitude of exclusivity would have never given that list a leadership role in the new SBC or even the old SBC. The struggle freed us up to do things we could have never done before.

And then look at who else showed up for us: John Hewitt and John Tyler and Bill Owen and Jim Lacy and John Cothran and Steve Tondera and Patrick Anderson and Tommy Boland and Hardy Clemons. Here is a mixture of both laity and clergy whose astounding gifts would never have been accepted on the altar of the fundamentalist regime.

It will go down as a decade of promise because of the lives we got out with and the principles they stood for and struggled for. And now the trick for the future: how to hold on to the principles which gave us our life. How to hold on to the dangerous, ephemeral, somewhat clumsy and often nasty thing we call Baptist freedom? How do we balance the inebriating power of freedom with the sobriety of faithful discipleship? How do we remain free and faithful Baptists? How do we fortify ourselves so that freedom cannot be snatched from us in the future?. And how do we inform ourselves so that we don't give freedom away? My reading of Baptist history convinces me that more freedom has been given away than has ever been taken away in Baptist life. Our own blissful passivity rather than the angry invasion of aggressors has done as much harm as anything.

Do not be surprised if, at some point in our future, another Paul Pressler or Paige Patterson will emerge even in our midst who will want to control and restrain and exercise authority over conscience and churches and tell you want to believe and how to believe and what is biblical and what is not. Let's promise each other here tonight that if we err, we will err together, and we will err together on the side of freedom so that we will at least have a chance to be faithful.

When Larry and Carolyn Dipboye asked me to speak tonight and I consented, I wrote them back and asked them to tell me what to say. Larry suggested, wanting brevity I think, that I give a Baptist Gettysburg Address. So with sincere apologies to President Lincoln, let me close:

"One decade ago our sisters and brothers brought forth in this city a new Baptist group, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the radical proposition that all Baptist Christians are equal. Now we shall be for the foreseeable future engaged in an effort to keep that proposition alive, testing whether any group of Baptists anywhere can long endure with freedom as their watchword. We have come here tonight to dedicate a few minutes and a few memories to those who for the past decade risked their careers and literally offered up their lives, their time, and their money that freedom, rather than control, might live among Baptists. We have come here to remember a "decade of promise." It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate--we cannot hallow this past decade with our words or even our memories. The brave women and men, mostly still living but a few now dead, who struggled here for the last ten years, consecrated the history of CBF far above our poor power to add or detract. The Baptist world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us to dedicate ourselves here in Atlanta, ten years later, to the unfinished work which they so nobly advanced. Let us resolve that they did not act in vain and that CBF shall have a new birth of freedom and that soul freedom, bible freedom, church freedom and civil freedom shall not perish from CBF or from the larger Baptist tradition."