Chicken Soup for the Baptist Soul: Theological Chaos at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Founders Journal · Summer 2000 · pp. 5-13

Chicken Soup for the Baptist Soul: Theological Chaos at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Russell D. Moore

This article was written for Perspectives: Journal of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Alabama and is reprinted here with permission.

For the past twenty years, Baptist moderates have portrayed themselves as a baptized version of Ross Perot’s Reform Party. They have insisted that they were a coalition of non-ideological dissidents pushed to the side by an evil conspiracy to “take over” the Southern Baptist Convention. The ethos at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s recent annual General Assembly in Orlando demonstrates, however, that the CBF is neither mainstream nor creedless. In the aftermath of the SBC’s adoption of a new confessional statement, the CBF asserted their own theological convictions as a bizarre mix of nineteenth-century Romantic liberalism, postwar European neo-orthodoxy, 1960s protest politics, and contemporary pop New Age mysticism.

As a conservative Southern Baptist and an outside onlooker at the CBF General Assembly, I expected to find a gathering of non-theological former denominational employees who were simply misinformed about the conservative resurgence in the convention. Instead, I found myself talking with hundreds of people who have an altogether different understanding of religious authority and the Christian gospel. It may be that few conservatives understand just how radically Cooperative Baptist spirituality has evolved from its confessional Baptist roots.

Jesus vs. the Bible?

“This is what it all comes down to,” said Southern Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr. during the SBC’s debate over the new Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement. Mohler found overwhelming agreement from the convention floor as he responded to Texas moderate Anthony Sisemore’s infamous claim that the Bible is “just a book.” Ironically, despite the twenty-year moderate insistence that the controversy is not about two different visions of biblical authority, I could not find one Cooperative Baptist at the General Assembly who would disagree with Mohler.

“Al Mohler is right,” said CBF member and head of the Alliance of Baptists Stan Hastey. “It has been a battle for the Bible and is about the inspiration and authority of the Bible.”

Calling the Bible “everything it claims to be, but nothing more,” Hastey suggested that Baptist adherence to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura has proven not to provide “an adequate basis of authority for Baptists.” The inerrantists in the SBC, he said, “cannot abide the discomfort of the discrepancies in Scripture.”

Several CBF participants were breathtakingly honest with me in their agreement with Sisemore’s assessment of the Bible. Rev. Kristina Yeatts, associate pastor of First Baptist Church, Clayton, N.C., disagreed with SBC conservatives who say the Bible “is God’s word, fully inspired, everything it says we should do.” Instead, she insisted, the Bible “is a book with the biases and traditions of biblical days.” “It is a book to guide us, but it’s just a book,” she said.

As the outrage over the new Baptist Faith and Message‘s clear affirmation of biblical inerrancy and a male pastorate swirled around the CBF convention hall, it became clear that the most reviled fundamentalist at the General Assembly was not Paige Patterson or Paul Pressler, but the apostle Paul himself. The Baptist Women in Ministry worship service held in conjunction with the General Assembly included jokingly derogatory references to Paul from the pulpit. I could find few CBF participants willing to take issue with conservative exegesis of passages such as I Timothy 2:9-14. Instead, a surprising number of them bluntly suggested that Paul was wrong.

“We are taking Jesus’ view of women over Paul’s,” said Rev. Yeatts. “Adrian Rogers and Al Mohler are focusing way too much on the apostle Paul’s letter rather than Jesus… We’re talking about the Son of God vs. a biblical writer.”

A book published by moderate publishing house Smyth and Helwys revealed a similar dismissal of the apostle Paul’s credentials. Alan Neely’s A New Call to Mission: Help for Perplexed Churches is a CBF resource for churches trying to decide between supporting the SBC International Mission Board and the CBF global missions agency. It includes an endorsement and a foreword by CBF Coordinator Dan Vestal. In establishing a biblical model for missions, Neely warns about “flaws” in the teaching of the apostle Paul. These “flaws” include the biblical mandates regarding male leadership in the home and church.

“Paul’s views on marriage expressed to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 7:1-6) are troubling to most of us today, and they were significantly less elevated than what is attributed to him in his letter to the church in Ephesus (5:21-32),” Neely writes. “Furthermore, his comments in various letters about women simply cannot be reconciled, and his views on these thorny issues should not be taken as contemporary directives.”

Neely approves of Paul’s assertion in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but he calls the biblical prohibition on the church’s women teaching men in 1 Corinthians 14:34 a “troubling mandate.” The prohibition on women pastors in 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is “even more inconsistent,” but Neely contends that this biblical passage was not written by the apostle Paul.

CBF participants did not simply posit a divide between the Pauline epistles and the words of Jesus, however, but also between the words of Scripture and the believer’s experience with Jesus. CBF Baptist Principles Coordinator Gary Parker labeled as “heresy” the new BF&M‘s affirmation of the Bible as “God’s revelation.” Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler, for instance, said that the Southern Baptists and Cooperative Baptists have two different authorities since Southern Baptists claim the Bible as their authority while Cooperative Baptists claim their experience with Jesus. Crumpler said that while “the Bible may introduce us to Jesus,” we know about Jesus through our personal experience with Him.

Mrs. Crumpler may claim to know about Jesus apart from Scripture, but literature at the CBF General Assembly bookstore may give a glimpse of what kind of extra biblical “Jesus” some of her colleagues have in mind. Another Smyth and Helwys volume, The Apocalyptic Resurrection of Jesus by Ernest Lee Stoffel, argues that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are examples of symbolic “apocalyptic” literature and are not to be taken literally. Instead, Stoffel argues, the biblical accounts of a rolled-away stone and angels announcing that Jesus has risen just as He said are to be understood as symbolizing that God has exalted Jesus and will triumph over the darkness in our lives. Stoffel writes that he was prompted to write the book because of how difficult Easter sermons are both for preachers and their congregations. His book, he concludes, puts the Resurrection accounts in terms that are “believable and relevant.”[1]

The CBF General Assembly’s counter-offensive against the inerrantist Baptist Faith and Message seems to be a muddled combination of Southern-fried Schleiermacher and class notes from the 1970s-era Southern Seminary. Do they really believe most Southern Baptists believe the apostle Paul, the author of the “Roman Road,” is a confused misogynist who doesn’t understand Jesus? Do they really believe that calling for a battle between the Scriptures and the Christ is going to be persuasive to Southern Baptists who learned in the cradle roll that Jesus loves them, for the Bible tells them so?

Back to Evangelism and Missions?

For years, Baptist moderates have insisted that the “battle for the Bible” is distracting Baptists from their primary goal of evangelism and missions. The CBF General Assembly highlighted what has been increasingly obvious in recent days–the SBC and the CBF mean two very different things when they speak of evangelism and world missions. CBF participants were livid at Southern Baptist attempts to evangelize Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. One CBF participant told me that the “arrogant” evangelization of these groups is a violation of the Golden Rule since she “would take great offense” if she were told that she needed Christ to avoid hell. Non-Christians, she said, are “missing out” if they do not know Christ, but are not under the wrath of God.

Perhaps the saddest moment of the General Assembly was the awkward silence that followed my question to Alliance of Baptists director Stan Hastey as to whether unbelievers across the world who never come to Christ will go to hell. Finally, he answered–“I don’t know.” What he was sure of, however, was that Baptists, should not “be aggressive in evangelizing those in world religions.”

These responses were not atypical of the CBF gathering. I could not find one participant who would tell me that personal, explicit faith in Christ is necessary to escape eternal damnation. Not one. Indeed, the CBF Call to Missions book, prominently displayed at the meeting and warmly endorsed by the coordinator, was written by a former missions professor at Southeastern Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary infamous for his rejection of the exclusivity of Christ. Alan Neely has written that those around the world who never come to faith in Christ are not “lost” and in danger of hell. In a 1990 article, Neely said the idea that personal faith in Christ is necessary for salvation is “not my theology” because “it reflects arrogance, ignorance, and superficiality.” The idea that unbelievers need to hear of Christ or they will die and go to hell, Neely claimed, is not a “sound and wholesome reason” for responding to the Great Commission.[2]

Perhaps this is why, despite all the pomp and circumstance of missionary appointments and missions funding mechanisms, there was no “Crossover Orlando” at the CBF General Assembly. Perhaps this explains why I never saw a gospel tract at the General Assembly. Perhaps this explains why the CBF missions book defines “missions” broadly enough to encompass alcoholics anonymous meetings, sex education for teenagers, and funding for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

There might be some Baptists who give their Lottie Moon offerings so that sincere Buddhists won’t have to “miss out” on knowing just how much more saved they can be. Most Southern Baptists, however, give their Christmas offering because they know the SBC International Mission Board believes the same gospel that sent Miss Moon across the oceans: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:17).

Authentic Baptists?

The CBF leadership has tried for years to portray themselves as the “authentic Baptists” valiantly protecting the “historic Baptist” heritage from “independent fundamentalists.” This year’s General Assembly was no exception. The only attempt at a biblical exposition I heard at the meeting was an attempt to demonstrate the principles of soul competency, priesthood of the believer, and church/state separation from Jesus’ interaction with the thief on the cross.

Despite all this, however, the CBF’s logo “A New Way to Be Baptist” seems more than ever to speak of more than just funding mechanisms. The CBF worship services, for example, resembled everything from a D. C. Talk concert to a Deepak Chopra relaxation seminar. Assembly-goers could choose from seven different services including liturgical, blended-style, seeker-sensitive, contemporary, Celtic-mystical, and two kinds of traditional services.

Most interest seemed to lie with the “Celtic” service, which had a standing room only attendance and a line waiting outside the meeting room. The Celtic service, billed in the CBF resource book as “a mystical contemplative style” featuring “ancient poetry, intentional silence and music in the style of the British Isles,” was led by the Pastor Jim Baucom and musicians of Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA. Baucom was chosen by this year’s General Assembly to serve as the CBF’s moderator-elect.

The Celtic service featured a darkened room lit only with candles. The ministers wore white robes and stood beneath a Celtic cross before a large altar. Worshippers were invited to “light candles at the prayer table to signify any personal prayer concerns.” After singing Celtic songs, worshippers were asked to sit in silent contemplation. At the sound of different bells, they were asked to contemplate such specific images such as “the mysterious depths of the ocean” and “the peaceful serenity of the seashore.”

Unfortunately, the meeting room’s partition walls were unable to shield the mystical contemplation from the throbbing music of the “seeker-sensitive” service next door. The haunting gong of a bell in the Celtic service was accompanied by the sound of the enthusiastic band of youths next-door encouraging worshippers to sing lyrics such as “Ooh La La” during the lively praise choruses. The seeker service, led by the First Baptist Church of Deland, FL, also featured a comedy skit, which the CBF resource book described as designed to “lead the audience to think about their responsibility for their feelings as well as their behaviors.”

Similarly, the worship service sponsored June 29 by Baptist Women in Ministry differed remarkably from most Baptist services, even apart from the fact that a woman preached the morning’s message. The worship leaders wore vestments and served “communion” to the participants. An interpretive dance was performed during a solo rendition of Twila Paris’ “How Beautiful.” In what might be described as an invitation, participants walked forward during a closing hymn to select a swath of tapestry fabric, attaching it to a banner of the cross in order to demonstrate their unity in following God’s call. An “affirmation of faith” reading by BWIM president Raye Nell Dyer made the claim that “there is no way for God to act if we, and other created beings, are unwilling or unable to give substance to God’s yearnings, God’s energies, God’s will.”

The closing session of the General Assembly featured perhaps the most surprising worship service of the week, as the “shadow denomination” served “communion” to itself on the floor of the convention center. The CBF members were able to choose from breads from around the world as they took of the Supper. Remarkably, instead of wine or grape juice, each CBF member was given a single grape and told to “take and eat.”

Where Baptists have historically called baptism and the Lord’s Supper “ordinances” because they do not convey salvific grace, a significant number of CBF members at the General Assembly referred to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacraments.” This is perhaps part of a larger movement among moderate Baptists to embrace a more mystical, sacramental view of the ordinances.[3]

Southern Baptist conservatives have hardly achieved consensus on all matters of worship or ecclesiology. We range from Purpose-Driven church planters to Isaac Watts-singing traditionalists, and not always without controversy between us. Still, Southern Baptists have a common authority from which to examine these issues. Severed from their confessional heritage, the CBF veers recklessly from the beautiful to the bizarre. Indeed, the CBF’s worship services seemed only to serve a dual purpose–to achieve mystical communion with Jesus and to fit in with the National Council of Churches. The second seemed easier achieved than the first.

From Female Pastors to Gay Seminarians?

The moderate reaction to the BF&M article on women in the pastorate has focused largely on the argument that no one has the right to question a woman’s internal call from God, even if such a call conflicts with apparent biblical revelation. This year’s General Assembly revealed that a growing number of Cooperative Baptists are willing to take this theological conclusion to its logical next step.

In a panel session on the BF&M, CBF leader Annette Hill Briggs, pastor of University Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, suggested that the issue of female ordination is only the beginning before Baptists must address the gay and lesbian issues in which Baptists are “a few steps behind other denominations.” Becca Gurney, an official with Baptist Women in Ministry, said that the same issue of the indisputable internal call that leads her to support women pastors also leads her to support the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians.

“In terms of God’s calling gays and lesbians, when we start limiting God’s call we’re in dangerous territory,” Gurney said.

No such dangerous territory was broached at the General Assembly. The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, a pro-gay pacifist group funded by the CBF, distributed in the exhibit hall a curriculum advising churches on how to implement same-sex marriages and gay ordinations. The curriculum denies that the Bible condemns gay sex and affirms homosexuality as an unchangeable sexual orientation. CBF leaders such as Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler had written endorsements of the curriculum at the exhibit. Baptist Peace Fellowship executive director Ken Sehested and Alliance of Baptists director Stan Hastey hailed same-sex marriage and other gay issues as defining social justice issues to be embraced by Baptists.

The issue was not controversial at the General Assembly. Even after Baptist Press published my article on the pro-gay nature of the Peace Fellowship’s literature, the CBF voted the next day to give the Fellowship a $5,500 grant to produce even more congregational resources. There was not a single dissent from the floor.

In the CBF book exhibit, a volume written by CBF leaders James Dunn and Grady Cothen decried opposition to same-sex marriage as an attack on soul competency. Cothen, former president of the Baptist Sunday School Board and New Orleans Seminary, criticizes the SBC for refusing to cooperate with churches that perform same-sex marriages or ordain practicing gays to ministry. He then condemns as too conservative the liberal mainline American Baptist Churches in the USA for their recent decisions to expel “welcoming and affirming” churches that perform same-sex unions or ordain practicing gays and lesbians. The ABC’s action, he writes, is proof that “deBaptistification is alive beyond the Southern clan.”

Some CBF leaders such as Carolyn Crumpler and Annette Briggs were uncomfortable addressing the issue publicly. Even after having made their affirmations of gay rights public in smaller settings, both Crumpler and Briggs refused to speak to the press about the issue of homosexuality. CBF leaders have called SBC concerns about the pro-gay curriculum “yellow journalism,” but they have not denied that the curriculum exists and is promoted by the CBF. Why not? If same-sex marriage and adult gay sex are causes of social justice to which the Holy Spirit is calling the church, as Sehested and others maintain, then shouldn’t the CBF forthrightly say so?

The theological and political commitments of the CBF leadership will not allow them to stand against the contemporary gay liberation movement. The mystical spirituality to which they appeal for ammunition on the women’s ordination issue is carrying them to the left of the mainline denominations on the homosexual ordination issue. The CBF is hurtling toward a difficult quandary, however, because CBF leaders know they cannot afford to lose their “mainstream Baptist” image. It is one thing to scare church members with rhetoric about soul competency in danger from SBC conservatives. It is quite another to tell grassroots Baptists honestly that you believe soul competency means they must cooperate with churches that ordain practicing homosexuals to the gospel ministry.

Grounds for Divorce?

Over and over again at this year’s meeting, Cooperative Baptists called for a “divorce” from the SBC. Their plight, however, is less like an innocent party trapped in a loveless marriage than like the angry ex-husband who peers in the windows despite the court restraining order. The CBF is not simply another denomination that Southern Baptists can ignore, however. At this year’s meeting, CBF leaders led a seminar to train activists to use “mainstream Baptist” and “Baptists Committed” organizations to launch stealth campaigns to recapture their state conventions. They could then siphon money from the SBC to the CBF. Activists were warned not to identify themselves as related to the CBF. They were given tips of winning church members to the CBF cause by subscribing individuals to the Texas newspaper, the Baptist Standard, and by spreading rumors of low Cooperative Program giving by SBC leaders.

The theological agenda brewing beneath the political machinations of the CBF leadership should awaken Baptist conservatives from any temptation to complacency. I realized at this year’s CBF General Assembly what Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen cautioned regarding the liberals in his denomination earlier this century. “The religious teacher, in his heart of hearts is well aware of the radicalism of his views,” Machen warned. “But he is unwilling to relinquish his place in the hallowed atmosphere of the Church by speaking his whole mind.”[4] Cooperative Baptist leaders are only very carefully beginning to speak their “whole mind,” while vast numbers of Baptist churches are still oblivious to the real issues involved.

Jesus died for Cooperative Baptists too. There are perhaps many Bible-believing individuals and churches sending checks to the CBF simply because they are confused by the issues involved. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the theological agenda of the CBF leadership is not simply “a new way to be Baptist.” After all, being Baptist is more than just knowing the definition of “Acteen.”

The Baptist left, it would seem, is making the same errors that led Southern Baptists to toss them out of leadership twenty years ago. The conservative churches of the Southern Baptist Convention have made clear their convictions on biblical authority, the exclusivity of Christ, and the sexual libertarianism of contemporary culture. The Cooperative Baptist leadership is offended when Baptists ask the same of them. Do CBF leaders believe grassroots Baptists are too unsophisticated to understand their enlightened positions on biblical errors, same-sex marriage, or heaven-bound Buddhists? The Baptists in the pews do not exist to feed money to anyone’s bureaucracy. They have the right to know the worldview they are paying to send around the globe. They have a right to decide whether it fits with what they believe the Bible teaches. That may not be what they call a “new way of being Baptist,” but I think someone once called it “soul competency.”