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"Six Words for the First Ten Years of CBF"


by Walter B. Shurden

Callaway Professor of Christianity,

Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon Georgia

Delivered at The Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society

June 28, 2001

At the closing session of the 1990 "Consultation of Concerned Southern Baptists," Jimmy Allen, who had presided over the meeting, was speaking. Some of you will remember that he began to weep as he said, "This will be a day we will look back to and long remember." Most of us knew at the time that he was telling the truth. Those were electric days. Ten years after Jimmy Allen spoke those words the Baptist editors in 2000 chose the formation of CBF as the most important Baptist new story of the 90s.

What follows are personal reflections, not historically researched conclusions, on the past ten years of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. So that I will not get confused with Moses, I have only six, not ten reflections. So here are "Six Words for the First Ten Years of CBF Life."

1. BEGINNINGS: The first word is beginnings. Let me begin by tweaking our ten year celebration. CBF began in 1990, not 1991. Daniel Vestal was the first leader of CBF. That's not a minor matter for historians, it seems to me. I am aware, of course, that moderates did not organize CBF until 1991. But the specific CBF strand of history is a clear continuation from what began in 1990, not simply what happened in 1991. Historically, in terms of our continuous history, we are eleven years old, not ten.

The 1990 beginning meeting of what was to be CBF may have been the most exhilirating Baptist meeting I've ever attended. If not, the 1991 meeting in Atlanta certainly was. Nancy Ammerman brought us to our feet when she said, "This is one free Baptist who had rather be in the desert with you than be back in Egypt making bricks." Her allusion to the desert indicated that we all knew we were going somewhere, but we did not yet know where or how. Some did not want to go. Leaving the SBC was too much for them. Some of us had already left. It was a genuine grief experience.

Shortly after the 1990 moderate meeting in Atlanta, I wrote a brief article for Baptists Today entitled "Reflections On The Baptist Consultation Of Moderates In Atlanta." In the closing sentences of that article, I said: "I am genuinely excited about this infant we call `The Fellowship.' Even though it was steaming hot in Atlanta August 23-25, 1990, it felt strangely similar to the season of Advent. Hope was being birthed." While certainly not a perfect place, CBF has been a very hopeful place for many ever since. For others, it has been the ONLY place.

An honest reflection, however, is that some of that early excitement has dissipated. I'm not sure why I say this. Maybe it is an autobiographical confession of good ole fashion Baptist backsliding. Maybe it is simply the inevitability of a movement becoming an organization. Maybe it is that the heady wine of volunteerism got professionalized, something we all knew had to happen. Whatever it is, one of the things CBF would do well to ask itself constantly is: "How do we feed the fire of beginnings?" What causes the fire to die down in any religious movement, even go out? Is it too much to hope that the fire can be kept alive? I am grateful that so many are working so hard in CBF circles to try and make that happen.

2. DIVERSITY: The second word is diversity. The Interim Steering Committee of 1990/91 consisted of some amazingly committed and talented people with big egos and different ideas. Daniel Vestal had a full-time job keeping us focused and on the same playing field. As a group, we would not be repressed or muzzled. I have been told that the same was true of the coordinating councils for subsequent years, and I assume it is still true today. I hope so. It is little more than an expression of our diversity as moderate Baptists.

If we thought we had escaped controversy by leaving the SBC, we were wrong. Moderate Baptists have always had a left and a right and a middle or, to say it another way, a "high" church, a "low" church, and a "broad" church. At a retreat of East Tennessee moderates at Gatlinburg back in 1987, I spoke on the subject "Some Myths of Moderates." One of the myths, I suggested, with which moderates amused themselves was the one which said, "You watch what I am telling you, The fundamentalists will turn on each other and start fighting among themselves; they've got too many egotists among them." I noted at that time, and correctly I think, that fundamentalist Christians have no monopoly on egotism! A few of our differences in CBF have doubtless been a matter of swollen egos, but many of our differences were and are an honest contention for priorities.

What we had in common when we came together in 1990 was a bruising defeat. We also had a common concern to be free from fundamentalist domination. But from the very beginning we brought different agendas into the tent we call CBF. One agenda was missions. I am well aware that surveys have told us that this is the first priority of most CBFers. But the creation of a new missionary society was not the sole, even primary, reason why some of the most passionate among us became excited about the formation of CBF. Theological education done in a vigorous and non-indoctrinating manner was a priority for some. Baptist convictions regarding the autonomy of the local church, the priesthood of all believers, separation of church and state, and soul liberty were a draw for others. Still others came to CBF for freedom to engage in justice issues: gender equality, racial equality, peacemaking, hunger issues, and religious liberty for all. Doubtless, a few tall souls came for all those reasons.

There is little reason to think that this contention for priorities will cease. I doubt you can talk so freely about freedom the way we have in CBF and not have remarkable diversity. Thus far, we have been able to move on together even after the debates produced winners and losers. One hopes that we can move together into the future without too much uniformity.

I'm still fond of that line from Daniel Vestal after the 1991 meeting when some reporters asked him about the lengthy discussions surrounding the formation of CBF. Vestal said, "This is the first time in 12 years these people have been to a Baptist meeting where they can talk." Then he said, "Viva la chaos." Maybe we ought to be slow to tame the contention for priorities in CBF. Chaos, itself, has energy in it.

3. BIBLE: A third word is Bible. In the "Address to the Public" which the Interim Steering Committee delivered to the General Assembly in 1991 we tried to express some of the basic differences between the leadership of the SBC and CBF. Intentionally and deliberately, we listed the "Bible" as the first point of difference, a difference that was almost impossible to debate in a serious way during the conflict. Here is what we said in that "Address" in 1990,

"Many of our differences come from a different understanding and interpretation of Holy Scripture. But the difference is not at the point of the inspiration or authority of the Bible. We interpret the Bible differently, as will be seen below in our treatment of the biblical understanding of women and pastors. We also, however, have a different understanding of the nature of the Bible. We want to be biblical--especially in our view of the Bible. That means that we dare not claim less for the Bible than the Bible claims for itself. The Bible neither claims nor reveals inerrancy as a Christian teaching. Bible claims must be based on the Bible, not on human interpretation of the Bible."

Given that the Bible played such a central role in the controversy, should we not have given more attention over the last ten years to the issues surrounding the Bible? If we could somehow parlay the old "study course" approach, on which many of us cut our teeth, into a far more serious investigation of biblical issues--how we got the Bible, how culture impacted biblical writers, how culture impacts our own reading of the Bible--we will find, I believe, willing and devoted listeners in most of our churches.

Any college professor of first year Bible courses anywhere in Baptist life can testify to the fact that kids coming from our churches simply do not know the Bible. We need in CBF a renewed emphasis on being a seriously biblical people. This is not a call to outdo the fundamentalists in bragging on the Bible. It is a call for a serious confrontation with those aspects of the Bible that challenge and correct our own commitments in life. It is a call to make our slogans about the Bible and the Lordship of Christ more than mere rhetoric.

4. ECUMENICAL: A fourth word is ecumenical. In the "Address to the Public" we said the following about the Church.

"An ecumenical and inclusive attitude is basic to our fellowship. The great ideas of theology are the common property of all the Church. Baptists are only a part of that great and inclusive Church. So, we are eager to have fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the faith and to recognize their work for our Savior. We do not try to make them conform to us; we try to include them in our design for mission. Mending the torn fabric of both Baptist and Christian fellowship is important to us. God willing, we will bind together the broken parts unto a new company in preview of the great fellowship we shall have with each other in heaven."

Candidly, I wish we had been much more deliberate over the last ten years in our ecumenical commitments, both with other Baptists and with other Christians. We had some good relations with European Baptists in the early years. We have done some few things with American Baptists. Significant inter-Baptist contacts, both personal and denominational, have been made, but we could have done so much more.

I wish that some of us had pushed harder for conversations with American Baptists and African American Baptist groups and Canadian Baptists who share something of our vision of what it means to be Baptist Christians. And it is not too late for this. Indeed the new Strategic Plan calls for some ecumenical commitments. But personally, I would like to see CBF go beyond Baptist ecumenism and engage in serious conversations with other Christians. Most of the CBF people I know are genuinely open Christians, essentially ecumenical in their attitude toward the broader Christian church. If that assessment is correct, we should find ways to act on it. It could be a point of spiritual renewal for us to link arms with other Christians.

From what I can see the National Council of Churches, among others, could do with some of our personal piety and passion for missions, and we could do with a whole lot of their commitment to social justice and understanding of the Kingdom of God. We can engage in ecumenical activities without making ecumenism the saving grace of all Christian virtues. I, for one, do not think ecumenism is THE cardinal virtue of Christians. I do think, however, that we would be stretched in our Christian discipleship by such interaction. Beyond that, we need to assist our other Baptist friends who have carried the Baptist emphasis on voluntarism to the ecumenical table. We have sat on this bench far too long; it is time for us to act. We should not live in isolation from our other Christian brothers and sisters anymore than we should live in isolation from each other.

5. LEADERSHIP: A fifth word is leadership. Certainly a major development for CBF over the first decade was the selection of early CBF leadership, especially Cecil Sherman and Keith Parks. The Coordinating Council elected Sherman on 9 January 1992. By year's end, 19 November, Keith Parks was on board. Sherman brought passion for the issues in the SBC struggle, passion for the Baptist vision, and for Christian missions. Parks brought enormous credibility from SBC circles after years of missionary statesmanship. One does not have to agree with either Sherman or Parks on every issue of CBF life to affirm their crucial, even indispensable role in the formative stages of CBF.

With Sherman's retirement, CBF called Daniel Vestal to the front of CBF. An authentically conservative Baptist, Daniel Vestal has proven himself to be a sincere listener to CBF people. Like Sherman before him, he understands the diversity of the movement which he leads.

As one privileged to serve on both search committees to recommend the first two Coordinators of CBF, I can tell you that both choices appeared obvious after a period of time. Both were honest and serious searches. Early in the process of each search, Sherman and then Vestal were widely rumored to be the shoo-in candidates. Certainly not one of the committee members on either search was unaware of the rumors. Those rumors, however, did not impede, distract, or disrupt an honest search.

Eventually other capable ministers were added to the Atlanta staff. In addition, we have had some unusually gifted moderators, women and men, lay and clergy. Moreover, hundreds of talented people have given their time in volunteer work on the coordinating council. Leadership has been extremely important to CBF in its first ten years.

6. IDENTITY: The sixth word is identity. Many have mumbled throughout the decade that CBF is a Baptist group in search of identity. CBF has struggled, however, to define that elusive identity by the adoption of official documents, such as the constitution, mission statements, the Strategic Plan, and other such paper profiles. But we all know that paper rarely really defines a group.

As much as some have resisted it, CBF surely has been identified by its relationship to the SBC. Early on, we were identified by where we sent our money, partially to the SBC. The SBC turned around and defined CBF in 1994 when it refused our financial contributions in order "to maintain fidelity to the Convention" and "to avoid compromising the integrity of the Cooperative Program." The SBC did us a favor. They sharpened our identity by doing for us what some among us were reluctant to do: delineate SBC from CBF. The SBC also sharpened that differentiation in 2000 when it adopted the revised edition of the Baptist Faith and Message.

We have self-identified ourselves as a "missions delivery system" and again as "a religious endorsing body." But we are more than either of those or both put together. We have been identified as a convention which will not call itself a denomination. There is more truth to that than some have wanted to admit. We have been identified as a "missions society." But we are not a full-fledged convention and we are not merely a missions society. In terms of Baptist polity we are a hybrid, a "conciety." In truth, such polity nomenclature does very little to identify CBF in a meaningful way.

While certainly not the only way, a good way to discover another's identity is simply to look at their check stubs. Where does their money go? How much do they give and to what?

Also, if you want to know who someone is, you ask them to tell you themselves. But if you are clever, you will not pay heed to all their press releases or take for granted all that they say about themselves.

Moreover, if you want to know who someone is, listen to their enemies. BUT you also have to know the identity of the enemies, as well. It is a necessity that CBF not let their adversaries fully define them. If CBF does not speak up, its adversaries will have a field day with negative definition. That is why it remains crucial for CBFers to articulate how they differ from SBCers. We are still too close to the turbulence of birth to let distorted descriptions of CBF go unchallenged. That is why it was good for Daniel Vestal to contrast CBF with SBC in Orlando last year.

With all the huffing and puffing about CBF's ailing identity, with all the hall talk and all the effort expended in defining who we are, we do have some identifying marks, don't we?

We are Baptists.

We are not Southern Baptists.

We are Baptists with a rather vigorous missionary program. The vast proportion of our money goes to missions.

We are Baptists who have partnered in theological education with some eleven new programs and schools which are markedly different from the six seminaries of the SBC.

We are Baptists who have partnered with the Baptist Joint Committee, Smyth & Helwys, the Baptist Center for Ethics, Women in Ministry, Associated Baptist Press, Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society, and Baptists Today, among others.

We are Baptists who have not only allowed but encouraged shared leadership, male and female, lay and clergy.

We are Baptists who have resisted thus far a tightly drawn doctrinal or ethical statement.

We are Baptists who want to honor the self-government of congregations by carrying lightly whatever denominational "authority" we may have.

With all the frustration surrounding CBF identity, we have nonetheless chiseled a rather discernible profile over the last decade. We would do well to resist the temptation of sharpening that profile excessively. A sharp and unmistakably delineated profile is precisely where the trouble began in 1979. In terms of identity, I say, "Viva la chaos." If the chaos becomes too disorderly, we'll find an anchor somewhere.

These six words could easily be sixteen. Other words are important. So let us see what words this gifted panel has for us.