In 1611, the earliest Baptists declared “that the church of Christ is a company of faithful people separated from the world by the word & spirit of God, being knit unto the Lord, & one another, by Baptism upon their own confession of the faith and sins.”
In 1776, Anglican minister Charles Woodmason described Baptists in the “Carolina backcountry:” “They don’t all agree on one Tune. For one sings this Doctrine, and the next something different — So that people’s brains are turn’d and bewildered. And then again to see them Divide and Sub divide, split into parties.”
In 2018, those age-old Baptist attributes remain undiminished; a communion struggling to be “knit unto the Lord, & one another”; yet dividing and subdividing every step of the way. Brokenness seems inherent in our collective identity, illustrated perhaps in this vocational memoir.
In 1975, when I began teaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Baptists were divided over divorce. Divorced persons were not admitted to the school, and students involved in a divorce had their admission reevaluated. Explanation: “Southern Baptists will never hire a divorced pastor.” Baptist pastors refused to perform marriages for previously divorced couples lest they facilitate “adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32). Divorce and remarriage: Brokenness.
Next came gender. At SBTS I met courageous women like Lynda Weaver-Williams, Carole Jackson Cochran and Cindy Harp Johnson who were pursuing master of divinity degrees and ordination. Most were nurtured in churches that encouraged youth to “follow God’s call wherever it takes you.” But when women got the “call,” they discovered it was a rhetorical bait and switch. God called only male pastors. Gender and ministry: Brokenness.
Then, dogma. To teach at SBTS, I signed the school’s confessional Abstract of Principles, pledging to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the document. Then came the letters, demanding my response to additional doctrinal questions: Was the Bible inerrant in the original manuscripts? Were Adam and Eve “real people?” Did the “named authors” write the biblical books attributed to them? Was Satan an actual-spiritual “person?” (No argument there.) Faith and ideology: Brokenness
Next, students secretly taped our lectures to be reviewed by right-wing trustees determined to create a “course correction” for the seminary and the entire Southern Baptist Convention. Ultimately I, and most of my colleagues, quitted both school and denomination, even as we participated in forming the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as a “shelter for persons distressed of conscience,” to quote Roger Williams — a coalition born of hope and brokenness.
Then came CBF Hiring Policy #1. New theological schools took shape, many partnering with CBF toward continued formation of future ministers for and beyond Baptists. The School of Divinity at Wake Forest University opened in 1999 with a mission “to cultivate a community of learners that celebrates diverse religious, racial, ethnic, cultural, gender and sexual identities and that fosters accessibility for all its members.”
After publication of a newspaper article (1999) highlighting that policy, we found ourselves in considerable trouble with innumerable Baptists, SBC and CBF alike. One prominent SBC pastor accused me of being “exhibit A” for why the denominational “course correction” was necessary. I replied that while grateful for the honor, I was no more than exhibit M or N, since SBTS colleagues like Glenn Hinson, Kenneth Chafin, and Anne Davis were far more courageous line-leaders. CBF-related pastors wrote similar epistles, kinder but no less perturbed. Some urged canceling our CBF scholarships; others rescinded speaking engagements previously scheduled with some of us. Still others warned that “Baptists will never call Wake Forest-educated ministers.”
Thus the infamous CBF hiring policy of 2000 C.E., limiting employment to heterosexuals, was in part the result of turmoil over WFU’s open admission policy and our conviction that LGBTQ persons are free to explore the “art of ministry” wherever it might take them. At WFU Divinity School, Baptist brokenness was present from the start.
The brokenness engendered by CBF’s hiring policy brought the Illumination Project into being 18 months ago. The Illumination Committee presented its recommendation, acknowledged continuing friction, and offered what they believed to be a realistic attempt to retain cooperation among persons and churches divided over sexuality and gospel. Amid opinions that ran from “sinful depravity,” to “welcoming and affirming,” to “shh, don’t ask,” they proposed a revised organizational policy for this moment in Baptist times. They hope that the proposal will allow CBF to hold together as “a community where there is robust diversity of conviction and practice.”
For myself, there’s no assessment of the Illumination Project apart from the history I’ve just recounted; a personal reminder that from my first classes at SBTS in August 1975 to my forthcoming retirement at WFU in July 2018, Baptist brokenness is as forceful now as when I started out. And, Jesus aside, I am sick to death of decades of our ceaseless inability to avoid personal, spiritual and communal schism in our churches and ourselves. Truth to tell, however, 2,000 years of Christian history illustrate that the same Jesus Story that unites all Christ’s church often drives it apart. I’ve often teased that “Baptists multiply by dividing.” It’s not funny anymore. Never was.
While the new hiring policy drops previous sexuality-related restrictions, the “implementation plan” reestablishes them as a singular limitation for “field personnel, supervisors of field personnel, and staff to ministry/mission leadership positions.” My friends on the committee testified that after months studying and listening, this was the best they could offer to hold CBF together amid great division, an almost-but-not-yet corrective to an 18-year albatross, a half-way covenant of brokenness.
A member of the Governing Board, I offered my own strenuous objections to the “implementation plan,” viewing it as an incongruous reintroduction of sexuality as the sole stated employment constraint for CBF staff. When it became clear that the plan with its single boundary was non-negotiable, I voted to release the document and throw open the doors, hoping the larger CBF community will encourage reconsideration, indeed removal, of the plan’s one-sided legalism. Report released, time for dissent.
Some churches are already packing up their consciences for departure from CBF. Right-of-center Baptists can’t abide loss of the original hiring policy, convinced it’s a sellout from scripture to culture, encouraged in their evacuation by certain SBC efforts to compel member churches to jettison dual alignment with CBF. Go, if your consciences demands, but beware! The SBC can throw you out as quickly as it lets you in.
Many left-of-center CBF-related congregations are contemplating the exits, perhaps toward greater connections with the Alliance of Baptists, long a welcoming and affirming Baptist coalition. Others are considering formation of new ministry networks, perhaps even their own mission-educational-regional partnerships.
Others might admit that being “knit unto one another” is so elusive in the divisive cultural, political and theological ethos of contemporary Baptist life that we’re unable “to agree on one tune,” at all. Best to nurture a “new monasticism,” local siloes of faith that sustain us with like-gospeled people.
Right now, mine is not judgment about the Illumination Committee; it’s judgment about myself. Time for me to stop confusing division with dissent, reengaging with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (and beyond) in a gospel of “reconciliation and revolution,” as my pastor Paul Robeson Ford describes it. Working for reconciliation across the Baptist spectrum amid the brokenness of racism, sexism, materialism, homophobia, poverty, sexual abuse, white supremacy, etc., etc. Dissenting when necessary, in a gospel revolution that frees every one of us from the closets that impede recognition of our true, God-given selves. Reverend Ford’s sermon on this is entitled, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” Even so come, Lord Jesus.