The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at 20

I’m sitting here watching my middle child and second daughter play on the Wii while her brother watches her every movement with great interest. I get a kick out of how they relate to each other as brother and sister. Sometimes they really play well together, like now, but then there are times when they have to go to their separate rooms to cool down a little bit. Of course it should be mentioned that she is 8 and he is 6 years old. Age does play a factor at times. Other times it doesn’t.

Brothers and sisters in the Southern Baptist Convention had a difficult time playing together as well. Funadmentalist-convservatives and Moderate-converatives were at an impasse over a number of things, the former saying the issue was the authority of the Bible, while the latter said it was more about power and control. Judge Paul Pressler’s “going for the jugular” remark made its way around Baptist life and became a vivid example of the vitriol that had developed among people who were supposed to be about the business of reaching the world for Christ. So much for Bold Mission Thrust, an initiative of the Foreign Mission Board to share Christ with every living person by the end of the millennium.

Some Baptists had had enough of being shut out of the decision making process of the SBC and came together at a meeting in Atlanta 20 years ago. That formative gathering became the foundation of another movement which eventually became the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This year, in Tampa, attendees are celebrating that historic event and even though I am not there in person this year, still offer my gratitude to those who paved a personal and professional sacrifice to tell the hard truth to their congregations and build a missions organization based on a confessional and convictional approach to the Word of God.

This is the second CBF church I’ve served as pastor. It is hard to describe the  difference that I experienced moving out of an SBC model of ministry to a Fellowship model. If I had to choose one word, it would have to be freedom. Freedom is a key word among Baptists, and of course freedom can be taken for granted and even misused at times, but the risks of having freedom are worth it.  It is a fallacy to suggest that CBF churches do not take the Bible seriously, and I for one am glad to be beyond getting into arguments about “who believes the Bible more” than someone else. I’ve come to realize that it’s really as much or more valuable to determine who lives the Bible more. There’s a wide theological spectrum in the CBF landscape, and at times this can create some uneasiness. However, it can also provide opportunities for discussion and even debate about important issues of our day.

The CBF is not a perfect organization, movement, or community. Nothing is. And there are signs across the broader Baptist spectrum that the day of denominations and denomination-like entities is drawing closer to an end (the SBC in Arizona had less than 5,000 messengers, and the CBF in Florida has about 1,000). I’m not sure what conclusions to draw about these numbers, except to say that more and more Baptists are looking to work through their own congregations for missions and ministry opportunities. Economic variables are a consideration too. I look forward to a time when the General Assembly is simulcast so that more persons can be involved who may not can afford the time or expense of a trip.

I’m thankful for the CBF. I have two primary reasons for this: Cally and Lucy. There is no substitute for having my daughters in a church where they can see men and women serving together, leading together, and teaching together. Ordination is based on gifts and calling rather than gender. It’s not a major issue to see equality played out, and to know that no one will commend them for their abilities only to tell them what they can’t do for the Kingdom of God because they are women. As Chuck Poole, pastor of Northminster Church in Jackson, MS once commented, “We ordain women because we baptize girls.”

There are  definite questions about the future of the CBF. It’s been a good 20 years and now there is a restlessness about what is next. Still, I know my life is better because of the Fellowship and I know many others feel the same way. The CBF provides an identity for many Baptists who wouldn’t be Baptist today had it not been for what happened 20 years ago. May the Lord give leadership and a renewed vision to this community of faith for another decade of service, and may CBF churches re-dedicate themselves to the Great Commission and the Great Commandments. The CBF is still around, all the while seeking to be “the presence of Christ” through words and witness.

If I could say one thing to the larger CBF family in regard to what our desire should be over the next decade, it would be to keep the focus on missions and secondarily on developing younger leaders. There are so many “good” things out there to do that it is possible to loose sight of what are the important ones, or THE important one: telling people about Jesus. Let’s put our resources there, and also invest in the students in Fellowship seminaries and colleges with the hopes of their leading CBF for decades to come.


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