At the turn of the millennium I was present when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to establish their now-infamous policy against hiring LGBTQ persons. I was there as part of the first class to graduate from the CBF’s flagship seminary, the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, located in the same building as the CBF headquarters. My studies at Mercer had taught me to hope for a future in which Baptists would be united with our fellow, mainline brothers and sisters in a commitment to social justice, progressive theology, ecumenism, and responsible biblical scholarship.
As I wrote at the time, the experiences of that CBF meeting significantly disabused me of those hopes. I listened as speaker after speaker expressed concerns that “good” churches, particularly from Texas, would refuse to join if the CBF set a precedent for inclusion. There was no discussion about the vibrant, thriving LGBTQ-inclusive congregations whose lives and work would have been validated and renewed if the policy were voted down. Instead, I watched as greyed head after greyed head nodded enthusiastically while old men who represented everything I had come to McAfee to escape played to their fears and prejudices.
When the vote was finally tallied, and I listened to the uncharitable comments directed at those of us who had argued for inclusiveness, I realized that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was not trying to make a complete break with fundamentalism. Instead, the CBF was destined to be a home for people whose far-right conservativism wasn’t quite fundamentalist enough for the fringe-right gatekeepers of the new Southern Baptist Convention, and who wanted to recreate as much as they could of their memories of the Leave-it-to-Beaver era of the old SBC.
In a concession to the common sense conclusions of the first part of the century that had already ended, they were open to the possibility of female clergy, as long as they did not become too prevalent. Nearly a generation later, the common sense of this century is also starting to intrude into CBF deliberations. Hundreds of people connected to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship signed a “Statement of Solidarity” with LGBTQ persons. (It is worth noting that this statement aligns closely with the position of the older but smaller Alliance of Baptists, which has ordained LGBTQ persons since its inception in 1987.)
In response, several CBF leaders have weighed in, with differing perspectives. Don Durham continues to preserve his prophetic voice, calling CBF to account for its sin of exclusion. He concludes, “I came to CBF over a decade ago with the unfortunate perspective that CBF was the most exclusive inclusive group I’d ever tried to be a part of. I’ve held on more or less faithfully for 25 years in hopes my tribe would prove me wrong.” Bob Setzer has written an excellent piece about why he has changed his view since his “Yes” vote of sixteen years ago. His recollection of the process that created the policy is far more charitable than mine, but I think his logic is sound that it is time to reverse this “increasingly damaging and disastrous personnel and funding policy”
Conversely, Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has written an opinion piece in which he resurrects the arguments from the meeting that closed the previous century. Subordinating the transcendent power of the gospel to the earthly priorities of denominational wealth and power, Dr. Parham asks, “Given what has happened with mainline Protestant churches, what evidence is there that such illumination will lead to church growth and expanded global mission efforts?” The answer, of course, is in Luke 12, when Jesus explains, “For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”
Even more offensive than Dr. Parham’s prioritization of earthly institutional success – over the eternal priority of offering an inclusive gospel – is his understanding of the key social justice issue of this generation. His article completely ignores the heartbreaking consequences of the Church’s historic prejudice against LGBTQ persons. Instead, Dr. Parham primly dismisses an issue of justice and civil rights as an attempt to “validate [modern] culture’s sexual mores.”
Apparently the “moderate” Baptist movement’s top ethicist needs a primer on the difference between sexual orientation (which relates to either the biological sex or gender identity of one’s sexual partner) and sexual morality (which concerns itself with conditions under which it is ethical to have sex with one’s sexual partner(s)). It saddens me that, in 2016, any theological leader would write in a way that ignores this simple concept. In his defense, however, it is a distinction that would also have been completely lost on the authors of our Scriptures, whose understandings of sexuality were linked deeply to the patriarchal and misogynistic political systems that sought to control wealth and heredity, female sexual autonomy, and the commodification of women’s bodies.
Consequently, Scripture is as useful a guide on marriage and human sexuality as it is on slavery. Which is to say that our Bible has a wealth of valuable contributions to make in helping us to develop a healthy, Christian ethos on those and many other topics; but that contribution will not be found through replicating the worldview of the people who wrote and edited the Bible. We have found a Christian ethic of human rights and dignity that rejects slavery, despite Jesus telling stories that looked favorably on masters beating their slaves, and St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters. Likewise, when it comes to human sexuality, we have to find a way to apply the principles of Christianity to our modern social setting in a way that is not compelled to carry forward the anachronistic superstitions and prejudices of the ancient world that birthed our tradition.
Failing to separate the core values of our faith from those prejudices is at the heart of the fundamentalism which “moderate” organizations like the Baptist Center for Ethics claim to oppose. This is what makes the myopia of Parham and those who share his views all-the-more dangerous. Rejecting biblical literalism about slavery and women, but preserving it on sexuality, also preserves the underlying logic that makes fundamentalism possible, even if it does not apply that logic universally.
“Moderate” opponents of an inclusive view of marriage and sexuality often argue that sex and marriage should be treated as a separate category from the other topics whose relevant passages they re-interpret or ignore. They are quick to point out that marriage is often a metaphor for the Church’s relationship with Christ, and therefore is “unique” among the ancient institutions described in Scripture. This approach, however, ignores the fact that we do not feel compelled to continue to farm using first-century methods, nor are we obliged to preserve the first-century pearl trade.
In fact, oppressing people over hyper-literal fidelity to a metaphor seems remarkably similar to the passionate conflicts of prior eras in which Protestants found themselves the minority group arguing against the literalism of transubstantiation. That argument turned out to be more about politics and regional/generational alliances than theology, something that I suspect is always the case when one group or another claims to simply be following their religion’s Scriptures.
If the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wants to remain relevant into the next century, they need to move beyond a tentative, piecemeal denunciation of fundamentalism. Instead, they must reject fundamentalism of all stripes and in all its incarnations. Christianity survived learning that the universe is not geocentric, and that women and men are equals, and that some people cannot own others. Christianity will survive the gradual and eventual elimination of all vestiges of the bigotries and superstitions of the era that produced it. The question is, will the CBF?