Every good story needs an antagonist, a villain, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship story doesn’t have one.
I was a graduate student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was founded in 1991. I left Southern Baptist life to become an American Baptist minister in 1994, and last week’s CBF General Assembly in Fort Worth was my first opportunity to witness the semi-denomination up close and personal.
Old guard CBF leaders like Daniel Vestal came of age in the old Southern Baptist Convention and it shows. Even during the strife of the 1980s, men like Vestal presented themselves as the true defenders of Baptist “distinctives” like world missions and evangelism. “We first lost our focus on evangelism,” Vestal lamented in 1989. “Then we lost our trust for each other. Now, we’re losing our viability as a denomination for world evangelization.”
I doubt this kind of rhetoric resonates with the scores of seminary and college students who attended the CBF gathering in Fort Worth, especially if evangelism means “saving souls” and “world evangelization” means disparaging other religions.
As the CBF and the SBC have drifted apart, both groups have redefined themselves. The SBC has embraced the old “heaven and hell” Christianity so characteristic of frontier revivalism. The evangelistic mission of the SBC may have been interpreted in softer terms by moderate SBC leaders between 1950 and 1975, but the kinder, gentler evangelism had been thoroughly eradicated by 1990. Since then, preachers who believe in a literal hell, a real heaven and a sure-’nuff Satan have had the stage to themselves.
If Vestal’s final sermon on the glory of God is anything to go by, the CBF loves the light but would rather not talk about the darkness. Using every rhetorical tool in the preacher’s tool kit, Vestal tried to get his audience fired up about the glory of God. He was only partially successful.
The CBF has always been unsure about the darkness. Do they believe in a real Satan and a real hell? Some may and some may not; but it hardly matters since hardly anyone affiliated with the group is comfortable with these dark concepts.
Every good story needs an antagonist, a villain, and the CBF story doesn’t have one. The Light of the world will be swallowed by the neon glitter of secular America unless we splash some tangible darkness onto the canvas, and I didn’t see much of that.
For too long, the unacknowledged Satan of the CBF has been the Grand Inquisitor fundamentalists who sent a generation of SBC moderates into exile. The CBF needs to do better than that.
The glory of God will have an ersatz feel until it is juxtaposed with truly dark evils like poverty, mass incarceration, global warming, anti-immigrant bigotry and the demonization of the gay rights movement.
There’s lots of material out there, but a sort-of-denomination spawned in conflict and controversy naturally wants to keep the lid on Pandora’s Box. Until recently, issues with any potential for controversy have been studiously avoided.
The younger generation of CBF people hunger and thirst for deep theological conversation about things like sex, the ecological crisis, justice, crime and punishment, immigration and all the other broken pieces of America.
Plenty of CBF people want the light to shine into genuine darkness. Darkness-light issues found their way into some of the workshops I attended, but they were addressed in the most general of terms and seldom mentioned in worship.
This will need to change. The trauma of being rejected by Mother Church takes a decade or two to get past, but the CBF is divided into folks older than me (who have a hard time letting go of past indignities), and people younger than me (who have little living memory of these events and long to move on).
During a meeting of Texas Baptists, Bill Leonard, the dean of liberal Baptist historians, took us on a whirlwind tour of the state of Christian America. In a day in which denominationalism is losing its meaning, he said, Baptists need to be telling the world who we are and who we are not. I asked my old church history professor if a generation of seminary students with no living memory of our Baptist holocaust might open the door to new things.
The Wake Forest professor didn’t give the yes-or-no answer I had expected. It is a great blessing, he admitted, to live without the burden of history. But the churches these students will enter are still living with these painful memories, and pastors who don’t understand the historical context of their churches don’t always anticipate the trauma they can evoke with a single misplaced sentence.
I see his point. And yet I long for leaders who are free to apply the light of God to the all-too-real darkness of current events. The day is coming. The younger generation of denominational leaders longs for social justice, isn’t the least bit hung up on social evils like cussing, drinking and gambling, and takes a compassionate view of issues like gay rights, immigration rights and the criminal justice system.
In time, these young women and men will be at the helm of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the self-definition Leonard calls for will begin.