In the spring, my wife often involves the grandchildren in an interesting activity. Over the previous months, various seeds have accumulated in our home from a multitude of sources. Sometimes she knows what they are and sometimes she doesn’t. She gets the grandchildren to help her plant them and then the waiting begins to see what will grow. This produces some surprises.
I thought of this as I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly this week. As CBF celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, many speakers reflected on the beginnings of the movement. Scholar and author Diana Butler Bass praised CBF noting that “risk and courage are the antidote to fear and anger.” Moderator Matt Cook pointed out that the initial participants believe that they were “following Jesus” and asked, “When Jesus is leading, are we following?” New moderator Doug Dortch’s comment is what got me thinking about seeds. He commented on a poster he once had in his office: “Whoever plants a seed trusts God.”
Statements like these are the seeds of the Fellowship. At this year’s General Assembly, the seeds started to sprout, and the results may be surprising to many. The seeds planted 25 years ago are breaking through the soil. What will we do with the product?
One of the products of that growth we will have to address is the LGBTQ issue. Lauren McDuffie, a young Baptist from Memphis, shared this on her Facebook page in response to the statement made by the Governing Board:
“I have more of these nametags tucked away from my life in CBF than I'll ever know what to do with, but I don't think I'll ever lose this one. It may have seemed small to some, but I believe I witnessed the beginning of something amazing this week. But here's the thing.... we don't just get to witness the amazing things God does, we have to be part of doing them. After a week gathered with this Fellowship that is my family, I am exhausted, I am hopeful, and I am ready to get to work.”
The key issue she cites is justice and equality for gays and lesbians. Many assembly participants—not all young—added a rainbow banner to their name tags to show their solidarity with LGBTQ people. Although this is a divisive issue for many in the Fellowship, failure to address it will result in the loss of a generation of young adults who have made their choice and it is a decision for inclusiveness. We can look at this as a challenge or as an opportunity.
Other issues that received attention at the General Assembly were women in ministry, the death penalty, and political advocacy around economic issues. Equality for women in church and society is not an accomplished fact. I contend that too many churches are willing to settle for a mediocre male as pastor when a gifted female is available due to their own prejudice and fear of censure by their communities. This is changing but the process is painfully slow.
There are too many people on death rows across America because they are poor, non-white, and uneducated. Many have been sentenced due to accident of birth and family rather than on issues of justice. Can the Fellowship step up and address this issue?
Our culture has an unrealistic approach to debt and personal expenses. Lay people—especially young adults—and ministers are both in bondage to debt. The poor are exploited by pay day lenders and exorbitant interest rates. Simplicity in lifestyle is a losing cause. Addressing these economic issues would put the Fellowship at the forefront of a major concern of our time.
In order to engage such concerns, Executive Coordinator Suzie Paynter announced a proactive discernment process: “The Illumination Project is designed to create models of dialogue and decision-making for a cooperative body. The goal, often sacrificially enabled, to seek intentional community in spite of differences has been a strong witness of CBF.”
Will we as Fellowship Baptists find agreement on all of these issues? I do not anticipate that happening, but the Fellowship must find ways for like-minded individuals to work together to address these concerns. The way forward involves a balance of unity and diversity. Unity is needed to pursue a strong mission initiative. Diversity must be respected in dealing with social issues.
Other denominations have the same challenges and they have not been able to meet it. As moderator Doug Dortch said, “Perhaps it is time that we address the issues that others have struggled with so long.” The unique gift of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the 21st century may be a way to combine both unity and diversity in the cause of Christ.