By John Pierce
Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler recently predicted that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will split over the issue of homosexuality. He just might be right. I hope and pray that he is wrong.
Quick background: Wisely, CBF does not adopt resolutions on social issues or anything else. That is done out of respect for the time-honored Baptist principle of local church autonomy.
Unlike some other church traditions, Baptists place congregations at the apex of the denominational structure (although not all Baptist groups and leaders get this concept). But CBF does.
So when someone asks for the official position of CBF on homosexuality, or any other social issue, the correct answer is the same: “Baptists are not hierarchal; each congregation and each individual Baptist decides.” But that position is not always easy to navigate when it comes to organizational policies.
Also, over the years, fundamentalist Southern Baptist leaders (who excluded the more-moderate Baptists and then blamed them for leaving) have given a lot of energy to painting CBF as a “liberal” organization. And, understandably, there were (and are) CBF-related pastors who must negotiate their congregations' denominational relationships with lay leaders who’ve heard such tales.
So in response to warnings from some CBF pastors that support from their churches could hinge on clarification regarding homosexuality, a hiring/funding policy (not a resolution) was adopted in 2000. Approved by the CBF Coordinating Council, it states that CBF will not knowingly employ an openly gay or lesbian person or fund a group that advocates for the full acceptance of homosexual persons.
For some Fellowship members it was an immediate offense — a selective act of exclusion. For others it provided some cover for those pastors trying to keep their congregations in the Fellowship fold since they could counter the false charge that CBF has a “pro-gay agenda” (whatever that is).
From the time it was adopted, the policy has caused uneasiness — which over the years has grown, as have attitudes about homosexuality. Surveys clearly reveal that American society including active church members (except within fundamentalist circles) is moving to a greater openness to homosexuals and is more concerned about their equal treatment.
In recent years, younger CBF leaders — along with many older ones as well — have been increasingly calling for reconsideration of the policy that they find both offensive and out of line with the Fellowship’s usual way of doing things. Yet, each raised decibel sounds like a new tornado warning to those charged with keeping the Fellowship afloat and moving ahead during tough economic times.
Some pastors are quick to say that their congregations "aren't there yet" on the full acceptance of gay and lesbian persons. And no matter how it is framed, they say, vacating the policy would be seen as an endorsement of that position.
Many CBF leaders (nationally and in state and regional groups) are personally sympathetic to the concerns being raised, yet are fearful that some of the strongest contributing churches could be lost if the policy is vacated (or perhaps even debated), and once again critics are given new ammunition. After recent cuts to the CBF budget, there is growing concern that mission personnel could be called home as the result of even deeper reductions in funding. This is understandably troubling.
Likewise, some CBF pastors want to tackle the often-divisive issue of homosexuality (if their congregations must face it at all, and likely they will) on their own terms and timetables. They don’t want public action by the Fellowship to drive that debate into their congregations now. Some have warned that the potential loss of significant funding is very real. And who in church life wants one more point of contention?
So where does this situation leave the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship now?
Well, in a tough spot where the division predicted by a detractor might well occur because passion is high about this issue. But a divisive battle is not the only course; there is a narrow way out if carefully sought.
For CBF to deal with this potentially divisive issue in a constructive way will require two things: A wide acceptance of certain realities and an overwhelming attitude of respect for those who come at this issue from different places.
Without accepting certain realities, healthy discussions quickly break down into winner-takes-all debates and political maneuvering. If things go that unhealthy direction, each side will claim the mantle of nobility (which can be argued on behalf of justice or missions) and dismiss those who disagree as something less than faithful.
It would be sad and much too convenient to make this into a conflict between those who care about gay and lesbian persons and those who do not. But that would be wrong.
Or the lines might be drawn by others who portray it as a battle between those who care about the Fellowship and those who don’t. That would be wrong too.
Such unfair catagorizing ignores the realities at hand and fosters division rather than giving any chance at constructive dialogue and positive solutions. If such false designations prevail and Fellowship members put on opposing uniforms, the only scenario is that one side wins and the other side loses.
Then, ultimately, the Fellowship and those who benefit from its ministries lose. And in doing so, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will have lived up to none of its names.
Here are some of those realities that cannot be ignored:
First, the issue is not going away. The overused analogy of putting toothpaste back in the tube works well here. Delayed? Perhaps. But not ignored for long.
So the question is not if, but when and how CBF will deal with this policy. As stated above, attitudes are changing and many are restless about an issue they consider to be about justice and basic human rights. And, historically, taking steps toward justice for all persons is not done without cost.
Second, those without an investment in the Fellowship should not have undue influence on this matter nor be overly blamed. This is the Fellowship’s issue to own and resolve.
It has not been brought upon the Fellowship by outside forces. A call from the current CBF moderator to reconsider this policy in the near future and publicity surrounding an upcoming conference on human sexuality (being planned and promoted in significant part by CBF staff) have brought this to the forefront. After the April conference, it will have even more visibility and energy.
Third, the policy’s origin should be understood and not misrepresented. Whether one considers it a helpful policy or a really bad one, it was created as a preventative measure to avoid what the CBF Coordinating Council then saw as a major conflict in the making.
Yet, while the policy was formed as an effort to keep the divisive issue from hitting the CBF General Assembly and likely causing great damage to the Fellowship, it is nonetheless selective and exclusive. One and only one group — gay and lesbian persons — is named. By any measure, that is not fair.
In reality, to simply vacate the policy would be a move to a position of neutrality regarding homosexuality. (And CBF is wisely neutral on a lot of things.) That fits well with CBF’s respect for congregational autonomy. Yet such a decision would make its public appearance as something else — fueled by those who are quick to condemn gay and lesbian persons and those who find pleasure in any harm coming to CBF.
Ignoring these realities would greatly reduce the possibility of a constructive approach toward resolution.
How can the Fellowship faithful discuss this dilemma and seek possible solutions without hurting each other and damaging the mission and ministries that are valued and shared?
Perhaps the first step would be to look at how the U.S. Congress does its business and promise to do nothing in this process that resembles that approach to dealing with tough issues.
The surest way to bring carnage to CBF over this issue is for those who desire a policy change to be painted as uncaring about the Fellowship’s health and, on the other hand, for those who do not want this issue raised or the policy changed (at least, not at this time) to be labeled as homophobes who don’t care about justice.
Such misrepresentations are wrong — and would be destructive to any helpful approach to resolving the issue at hand. It is very possible, even most likely according to the good people I know, for Fellowship Baptists to care deeply about both justice for gay and lesbian persons and about the stability and effectiveness of CBF. These are not mutually exclusive.
If there is any chance of proving Al wrong, it will be rooted in the willingness of those in CBF leadership roles (elected, employed and otherwise invested) to listen closely to one another about these concerns rather than choosing sides and arming for a quick skirmish.
Those with differing ideas about when, how and if this issue should be addressed would do well to listen attentively to all of those who have something to lose: Gay and lesbians persons who feel excluded, CBF staff who work hard to create and maintain fellowship within the Fellowship, persons for whom justice compels them to action now, mission personnel whose good work might suffer and ministers whose churches might be brought into turmoil.
Listen, listen, listen to one another.
Timing is always the toughest part of facing such issues. But this one has surfaced and cannot be simply ignored. Yet it does not bubble up all at once in every CBF-related congregation or organization. So, one should not assume all others are on his or her schedule.
Asking about the “right time” is a fair and challenging question. It can be rightly argued that the policy was for an earlier time but does not reflect the spirit of CBF today. Therefore, justice can wait no longer; it is past due.
Yet others can make a solid case that this current period of great transition (the retirement of CBF’s top executive leader, the search for his replacement, the recent slump in funding that resulted in staff cuts, the extensive efforts of a task force just revealing its findings and recommendations designed to overhaul the organization) is not the best time to tackle a controversial and potentially divisive issue.
Acknowledging this timing issue, the moderator suggested that it might be addressed when a new executive coordinator is in place. My guess is that would be asking a lot of someone who has yet to build up capital to spend. And there could be some very good candidates who are unwilling to accept a new job with that item already inked in at the top of a fresh to-do list.
However, if the toothpaste is indeed out of the tube and additional energies for tackling this topic emerge from the April conference (as is likely), it might be better for an interim coordinator (without a long-term career at stake) to guide the process of airing this out.
Timing is debatable, tricky, and rarely perfect. But this is for sure: WHEN this issue is addressed is an important consideration, but even more important is HOW it is done.