The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a group of moderate Baptist churches that split off from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1991 in response to the latter's affirmation of scriptural inerrancy and male spiritual headship in the church. The founders of the CBF were not theological liberals, but moderates who merely wanted to go back to the way the SBC was before the affirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture. (The real liberals in the SBC had left even earlier, in 1987, forming the Alliance of Baptist Churches.)
Over the past quarter century, as the SBC has solidified its conservative commitments, the CBF has slowly drifted left, mainly because the moderates who founded it are aging out of active participation in denominational governance and the younger generation is more liberal. David Gushee writes:
“Over these 25 years, CBF life has produced far fewer leaders and people who could be described as evangelicals or moderate-conservative Baptists, and far more who could be described as something like mainline Protestants. Meanwhile, the original founding moderate-conservatives–-often based in Texas, interestingly enough-–are aging out. The CBF has become an uneasy coalition of moderates (who, it must be again remembered, were labeled moderate-conservatives back in the day) and real-life liberals. The latter are mainly, though not exclusively, younger, and among the clergy, most are products of the new Baptist seminaries.”
In 2000, the CBF adopted a policy that prohibited “the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.” The same policy statement also barred “the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice.”
But In 2016, the CBF announced that a committee called the “Illumination Project” would revisit LGBTQ issues. Last week, the "Illumination Project's" report was released. Entitled, “Honoring Autonomy & Reflecting the Fellowship,” it proposes a a two-tiered system in which open and active LGBT persons can be hired for about 80% positions, but not for positions of ordained leadership or assignments to the mission field.
The "Illumination Project" committee was very candid in admitting that their solution was driven by the fact their global partners--overseas affiliates of he CBF--would simply not accept practicing homosexual missionaries:
The committee report—and the implementation procedure adopted by the CBF Governing Board—notes the Fellowship works with more than 100 mission partners globally. Those global partners “have decisively rejected movement toward hiring or supporting LGBT field personnel or the inclusion of LGBT persons in ordained leadership,” the document states.
The conservative Baptists see a problem. “CBF’s new position is completely confusing,” said Howie Batson, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Amarillo. “If same-gender sexual behavior is wrong—and Scripture says that it is wrong—then it is wrong for all employees, not just certain employees.
The liberals say it doesn't go far enough. “While I understand the rationale and applaud the hard work of those who served tirelessly on the (Illumination Project) team, I can only feel sadness for those still denied opportunity to serve the Lord among us," says George Mason of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. "The celebration of progress is too often the proclamation of the privileged. I will wait to celebrate the day when our policy and practice match, when joy and justice meet.”
One openly gay woman pastor of a CBF congregation responded over the weekend by accusing the CBF of creating “a tiered caste system where the opinions and lives of wealthy straight people are worth more than anyone else.”
The married lesbian couple that pastor the Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC are outraged. "We are angry, disappointed, and deeply distressed by this decision."
Fourth, we find it both curious and deeply problematic that the language in the document seems to sit somewhere between implying if not outright claiming that “global partners” are keeping CBF from fully affirming LGBTQ+ people. As if 500 years of colonial Christian history didn’t include the exportation of violent theology all over the world in service to Empire. As if the global church isn’t as theologically complex as the American church. As if LGBTQ+ people don’t live in Uganda and Romania and Colombia. And as if white Christians in the U.S. have not been complicit, often leading the way when it comes to inscribing exclusionary policies like this one.
Albert Mohler, presdient of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, notes that we've seen this movie before, in the mainline Protestant denominations. "The moral revolutionaries push and push until the denominational middle gives way or dies out. This drama is playing out a bit later on the stage of the CBF, but its end is clear enough." He argues that this result was baked in when the CBF was born out of the rejection of biblical inerrancy. But the embrace of female leadership in the church was also a big part of it:
"This is also the logical consequence of adopting a hermeneutic that allows for the service of women as pastors — [which] for many CBF congregations, [was] the key issue of outrage at the SBC. The same negotiation and 'reinterpretation' of the biblical text that allows for the service of women pastors will logically lead to the acceptance of the LGBT revolution. How can it not? Individuals and congregations may refuse to take this next step, but they have surrendered the only binding argument that would offer an objective truth claim. Eventually, the revolutionaries will win, and they know it. Clearly, some appear unwilling to wait."