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« Bowl me over; I didn’t know that | Main | Taking ourselves too seriously is a serious mistake »

What are the chances of proving Al wrong?

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.

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Reader Comments (14)

Thanks for this post. It is rational and fair and wise.

Albert Mohler is not a part of the CBF and his statement is just one in a long effort by SBC leaders to harm the CBF, including the not so long ago allegations that CBF was pro-gay, all of which came from the exclusivists in the SBC. They have enough problems dealing with their anti-woman, pro-sexual abuser churches and associations, and should leave the CBF alone.

Mar 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArce

Why are so many of these issues painted as an autonomy issue? CBF churches are autonomous and can spend dollars and human resources however they wish. More and more churches are partnering with non-denominational organizations to get missions done locally and throughout the world. The need for CBF, SBC, and other denominational organizations will continue to wane, if churches really wish to be "salt and light" directly to our "neighbors".

Mar 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLee

Beyond Matter of Sex (BTW, the gathering with Gushee and others at Mercer will be woefully inadequate if half the participants aren't well versed in the last 150 pages of Diarmaid MacCulloch's recent magisterial 1,000 pages on Christianity; the segment on culture wars); Mohler is quite shallow. History will judge him among other footnotes as lightweight disciple of another lightweight, Francis Schaefer.
And to paraphrase Molly Marshall; for all his overrated prescience, Mohler is way out to lunch on Timothy George's perversion of the legacy of Bonhoeffer; and a cursory reading of Marilynne Robinson shouts as much.
Kris Kobach through the lens of Charles Marsh on Bonhoeffer. Where is Mohler on the things that matter?

Mar 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Fox

I found myself agreeing with John Pierce's reasoned thoughts on CBF's hiring policy almost in total. Only in one place did I disagree. In the next to last paragraph Mr. Pierce writes, "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." I simply don't see this as the best way forward.

Ultimately the 2012 Task Force's report on reorganization and the selection of a new coordinator deserve the Fellowship's focus at this time. A conversation by an interim coordinator regarding the hiring policy now would simply serve as not only a distraction but invite unneeded conflict at too critical juncture in CBF's trajectory. A conversation will need to take place on the matter but that conversation, in my opinion while being respectful of those I know will disagree, needs to take place at a time of a new coordinator's choosing in the future. Bottom line for me is that it is not fair to call someone to lead the Fellowship going forward while imposing a fixed agenda on him or her.

Finally, I'm thankful for Daniel Vestal stepping forward yesterday to defend the hiring policy. His decision to do so has relieved many of our anxieties who were facing potentially contentious discussions within our congregations.

Mar 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack Mercer

If John's perspective is representative of the CBF writ large, giving no legitimate place for pastors and churches with sincere adherence to the traditional interpretation that Scripture disallows homosexual behavior as an acceptable alternative lifestyle, Al will be proven right in very short order.

Just as the US Constitution deferred a decision concerning slavery for later generations, a decision which resulted in bifurcation, the CBF apparently did the same on this issue. The only question is which "side" will leave--and when.

Mar 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDC

DC- There is absolutely NOTHING in this blog to suggest that any ministers/churches would not given "a legitimate place" for their convictions on this issue. In fact, I constantly called for all sincere and engaged CBFers to be have such a place. However, misrepresentations such as yours are exactly why I DID call for not allowing those (on either side of the issue) with agendas other than the good of CBF to have influence. It's a tough enough issue to deal with on honest terms among trustworthy people.

Mar 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjpierce

On the contrary, John, there is much in your blog that makes my point precisely. And, I must say, your characteristically thin-skinned response toward those who disagree with you bolsters my opinion that you are as fundamentalist for your positions as those dastardly conservatives you love to bemoan are for theirs. Furthermore, your online yelling at my interpretation actually makes your point: we'll never get anywhere if honest brokers don't both acknowledge certain realities and respect divergent opinions. Forgive my intrusion on your sermon to the choir. I thought you wanted an open discussion regarding the very real possibility that the CBF might well split over what is, practically speaking, a divisive issue for the majority of Baptists in the world.

The very tone of your piece suggests that maintaining a traditional interpretation of this biblical issue is essentially continuing a position that runs counter to full justice for gay and lesbian persons. Your only real acknowledgment that the traditional view is "legitimate" seems to be on the grounds that pastors who needed "cover" early on and whose congregations "aren't there yet" might lose funding, as would the Fellowship’s missions endeavors, which is why their response has been slower than some (like you) might have wished.

In this post, at least, you give no real sense that there might be CBF pastors and congregations who are legitimately committed to the traditional one-man-one-woman-for-life view. Anything that might sustain the current policy is painted in purely pragmatic terms like providing "new ammunition" for critics, forcing the discussion into congregations before these pastors are ready, and suggesting that active church members ("except in fundamentalist circles") are becoming as enlightened as the larger American society. That last quote is telling, as it clearly implies that, in your view, anyone holding to the traditional view is no better than a fundamentalist. Anyone familiar with your views knows there’s nothing worse for you than that.

The only sense the average objective reader could take from the way you've framed the issue is that the "justice" side will certainly prevail in time, which will merely require patience and constructive dialogue. In your words, the policy is "selective and exclusive" and "by any measure, that is not fair." Again, there's no mention that the policy's selective and exclusive nature might emanate from a legitimate interpretation of Scripture. Someone holding that position who read your post would certainly conclude, if (as I said in my last post) your perspective is representative of the CBF writ large, that division is inevitable. Why? Because the "justice" position has no intention of budging—because it’s right.

While you do caution (in one brief paragraph) against misrepresenting those who don't yet want the policy raised or changed as "homophobes who don't care about justice," it's in the context of pragmatism rather than theology. Evidence of this view is presented in the very next paragraph, where you frame the issue only in terms of "justice for gay and lesbian persons" and "stability and effectiveness of CBF." I suspect there are more CBF pastors than not who would offer at least one additional option with respect to maintaining the current policy, namely, that it’s consistent with a legitimate interpretation of God’s Word.

Your summary paragraph paints an even clearer picture, as you list the issues as exclusion of gay and lesbian persons, maintenance of the Fellowship, the role of those with a clear sense of justice, the loss of funding for missions, and turmoil that could be caused in the churches if the issue is raised prematurely. Again, no mention of the possibility that those at the table might be there for legitimate theological concerns vis-a-vis the traditional view. For you, it's all about process and timing. With all due respect, a conservative CBFer (and there are many) could have come to no other conclusion by reading your post.

Finally, the idea that the CBF doesn't adopt official positions is practically mere semantics given that the issue in question stems from an executive policy. Why is this a potentially (if not probably) divisive issue? Because the executive policy is understood to be representative of the CBF, congregational autonomy notwithstanding.

So, feel free to "go all Travis on me" if you want. But a level-headed conservative--CBF or not--could have come to no other reasonable conclusion based on the text and tone of your post.

Mar 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDC

DC- You excel in reading into this blog things that simply are not there. "Selective and exclusive" are descriptive terms that point to the obvious, simple fact that only one issue (homosexuality) is listed in the policy. Those descriptions have nothing to do with whether one considers homosexuality to be sinful or not. This issue was "selected" as the "exclusive" criterion related to employment and funding in this policy. That is a simple fact. No other issue can be found in the policy; look closely. So even those fully convinced that homosexuality is forbidden by the Bible can see that the policy relates to just one issue. And to list one "sin" at the exclusion of any or all others seems to unfair to me. To do so isolates and elevates it to the exclusion of others.
And as is evident here, one of the challenges of discussing this issue constructively is your unwillingness to simply give your opinion. Rather you prefer to misrepresent mine. I trust others will take a more honest approach.

Mar 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjpierce

If homosexual preference is a sin to exclude one from employment, why not adultery or fornication, greed, bearing false witness (OH, that would exclude commenter DC, who has done that on this blog), coveting, pride, etc. One can hold to a belief that engaging in homosexual sex is a sin without believing that this behavior should result in someone being excluded from employment in a non-pastoral or non-preaching position, such as a receptionist or accountant, any more than should adultery or fornication. In fact, I think that one should not hire someone who violates their marriage vows or prevaricates to be the accountant for an organization, but an otherwise honest person who is gay should not be excluded.

Mar 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArce

It is clear that Mr. Pierce is most concerned with the CBF and its ability to survive instead of divide. Baptist churches that really live out the great commandment will continue to do awesome ministry whether CBF is around or not. Why not just work within your local church to be Christ to the world, instead of trying to build or maintain something that most local congregants care little about.

Mar 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLee

John, the idea that I'm reading things into your blog that simply aren't there is exactly the point. Some very important acknowledgements don't seem to be there, but they should be. And unless they get there, CBF conservatives won't stay at the table for long--and Al will be proven right.

You can't expect to have an open-minded discussion about such a naturally divisive issue unless you actually give obvious, verbal credence to the other sides' views. That you could write as many words on this topic as you did without even mentioning the possible validity of the other side--theologically--signals to a conservative that you might not be interested in serious dialogue on this issue.

I clearly gave my opinion about what I saw in yours. That's not a misprepresentation. It's an honest attempt to point out how a representative conservative might read what you've written. Accusations to the contrary, such as your selective response to those portions of my contribution that ticked you off without dealing with the heart of the matter (which you did both times), are further evidence that blogging is not for the thin-skinned. With all due respect, you really should take a page from Tony's book on how to respond to those with differing opinions without taking personal offense. None was intended, and your inabilty to deal with clearly stated opinions without jumping immediately to ad hominem attack should be cause for pause if your intent is to keep dabbling in the arena of ideas.

As to the policy's selective and exclusive nature, I can't imagine a Christian organization willfully hiring a known adulterer, one whose greed is well documented (which is partially why we do credit checks), an obviously arrogant/prideful person (which would become known in most application processes and interviews), etc. I have to assume these aren't mentioned in the current employment policy because they're both biblically understood and contrary to organizational health. They aren't mentioned because they're assumed.

Let's not forget why this discussion is even occurring in the first place. From John's original post: "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." There were obviously concerns from enough dyed-in-the-wool Baptist pastors and their churches that something was so unique about the homosexuality debate that it required a selective and exclusive policy. All I'm saying is that unless those in the "justice" camp fully acknowledge those concerns today--without stacking the deck against those concerns beforehand--the CBF will not survive the debate. I didn't--and don't--see that acknowledgement in this discussion. No conservative would.

Get mad if you want, accuse me of misprepresenting your views if you want (I don't think I have), but unless you hear these concerns from a representative conservative, you're not doing the CBF any favors. Isn't the whole point to find a way forward that would keep the Fellowship in fellowship and continue its stated mission? If so, all sides must be acknowledged--and for the reasons they want to be acknowledged.

Arce, you've borne false witness about me bearing false witness, but I forgive you. To suggest that I've concocted an interpretation divorced from my reading of the original post for any reason other than advancing the discussion (see my last post), is inaccurate.

Mar 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDC

In my doctoral studies years ago, an excellent teacher and technician shared the very beneficial warning that it is impossible to conduct successful, short-term counseling with someone who cannot grasp basic behavioral concepts. Likewise, I have concluded that it is not possible to have a beneficial conversation with someone intent on telling me that I must own an opinion that I do not hold and have not expressed. So I'm done.

Mar 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjpierce

Thanks for sharing this. We have lots of point of view and I respect each opinion on what they believed in and trying to fight out.

Mar 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrobert liardon

John---your article is one of the most important you have written lately and I appreciate it's content and intent.

This issue with gays is essentially the same as with slaves and gets the same knee jerk reaction from too many who have no clue as to the wider issues involved.

I hope the Decatur First meeting is well-attended and much light will be shed on the subject. Stumbling around in darkness and hitting with a bat everything your encounter---is never wise nor nice!

Mar 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGene Scarborough

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