The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was born out of conflict and hope. The conflict was over historic Baptist doctrines but also established Baptist institutions. The hope was a desire to save the best of the old but to find a new way to express it. The motives for starting something new were complex.
About five years ago, I talked with a young pastor who was being considered as pastor of a church in our state. I explained that although the church was progressive—women deacons, ordained women as ministers, a commitment to diversity, etc.—there were still many who clung to the identification of being Southern Baptist even though most of their mission dollars were going to CBF. I suggested that he needed to be ready to answer questions about his own denominational commitment. I should not have been surprised when he said, “I was 10 years old when I came to Christ in a CBF church. I came to maturity in that church and attended a CBF-related seminary. The church I pastor now is affiliated with CBF. I don’t know anything about the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The paradigm has shifted. The choice for many young Baptists is not either/or. This young pastor had never had to make that choice. CBF was the only denominational entity he had ever known. He was a Fellowship Baptist.
In much the same way, I have no real basis on which to discuss SBC life today. By choice, I am an outsider to the Southern Baptist Convention. Although I identify myself as a Fellowship Baptist, I spend most of my time with American Baptist, Alliance, Disciples, Methodist, AME, and UCC people. I am completely out of touch with the programs, emphases, and controversies of Southern Baptists. I only know what I read on the Internet.
Despite my involvement with other denominations, I do hear enough about CBF life to make some educated guesses about the future direction of the movement.
First, from its inception, CBF realized that it would never reproduce the robust denominational structure of the SBC, so one strategy of CBF was to partner with other faith groups and take advantage of the resources they offered. For example, CBF has developed a strong relationship with the Upper Room, a ministry connected with United Methodists, for spiritual formation and direction. When it comes to Christian education, on a Sunday morning, one will find classes in moderate Baptist churches using curricula from a variety of publishers; most of those are not Baptist. Many our best students have chosen to attend seminaries that are not Baptist and, even if those schools have a Baptist affiliation, many of the students are Baptists. As a result, moderate Baptists have become extremely ecumenical, sometimes forming stronger ties with other faith communities than with brother and sister Baptists. This ecumenical trend will continue.
Second, CBF will continue to be the “denomi-network” (to use Suzii Paynter’s term) of choice for many Baptist churches in the south but few of those will become exclusively CBF churches. Although there have been efforts to encourage exclusive CBF identity, moderate churches are either too gun shy about what happened with the SBC or too afraid to challenge their members to an exclusive relationship with a denominational entity. Quite honestly, most moderate Baptist churches would rather date than get married! This is not necessarily a bad thing because we are usually on our best behavior when we are dating. This challenges CBF as an organization to pursue excellence in those things it choses as priorities. By doing so, more churches will want to work with CBF.
Third, acceptance of women in pastoral leadership is not an accomplished fact. Even though CBF has continued to highlight women in leadership roles, the calling of a woman as a pastor—especially in a larger congregation—is still news. Many of the women called to pastoral leadership find themselves in churches that are struggling to survive, so they must assume a greater leadership burden. For the immediate future, “free and faithful Baptists” must continue to equip, nurture, and equip women as clergy leaders.
Fourth, the founders of CBF are dying off. In some ways that is a good thing because many of them will not be happy with the choices that CBF as a “denomi-network” will make in the next few years. With a younger, proactive constituency, CBF must be take a stand on LGBT rights. Although there are older Baptists who are as progressive as the younger generation, many of those who were founders of the movement would just as soon leave this issue alone. If CBF is to continue to be a viable home for 21st century Baptists, ignoring LGBT rights is not an option. Ten years from now, the founders will not recognize many things about CBF, if they—we—are still around.
I believe that the CBF movement will prosper in the coming years. Although it will never be a majority expression of Baptist life, Fellowship Baptists will be a significant voice in progressive Baptist life. Being a minority is not a bad thing. Being a minority helps us to identify with the marginalized in society just as Jesus did. We could not have a better example.