In days following the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s 2017 General Assembly, I wrote a reflection about how I didn’t feel welcomed at the CBF table. I wrote that with all of their emphasis on welcoming everyone to the table, that I (and other LGBT Christians within CBF) didn’t feel welcome. Conversations about LGBT inclusion had to be unofficial and offsite from the actual General Assembly.
Historically, LGBT individuals have been excluded by the hiring policy of CBF. With rising numbers calling for the removal of the hiring policy because of its discrimination toward LGBT individuals, CBF established the ad hoc Illumination Project Committee in 2016 to come up with a new policy. The Governing Board voted on the recommendation from the Illumination Project last Friday. And for those hoping for an end to discrimination in CBF’s hiring policy, there is much disappointment.
As a woman pastor, I am a minority. As a gay woman pastor, I am even more of a minority. After growing up in the Southern Baptist Convention — being told that women couldn’t be in ministry more times than I can count and that women are supposed to be submissive to men — I thought I had found a home in CBF because of their inclusion of women in ministry.
My discovery of CBF is why I remained a Baptist after years of discrimination and exclusion in SBC churches. Then I found out about the hiring policy adopted by CBF in 2000 — a policy that discriminated against openly LGBT individuals. The 2000 hiring policy stipulated that CBF “does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.” After learning of the anti-LGBT hiring policy, I have struggled to continue a relationship with CBF.
Discrimination and microaggressions toward LGBT individuals occur far too often in the world — especially in churches that claim to love and welcome everyone. Personally, I have faced discrimination in CBF life, the most poignant being denied ordination at the historic CBF church I was a member of while in Atlanta after coming out as gay in 2016. And I have heard countless stories of discrimination at the hands of religious leaders and the institutional church. Hate has no place within the Church and any policy that openly discriminates is one of hate.
This past week, my social media feed was filled with comments and concern about the upcoming recommendation of the Illumination Project to the CBF Governing Board. The volume of concern was sparked when it was discovered that the Illumination Project had shared their recommendation early to those they termed “stakeholders” in the conversation.
It didn’t take long for the document to leak.
While the Illumination Project’s recommendation included changing the hiring policy to be more “Christ-centered” and gives no direct mention to the hiring of LGBT peoples, the Implementation Plan included in their recommendation to the Governing Board is another story. The Implementation Plan excludes LGBT individuals from specific positions within CBF. According to the Implementation Plan — in words that echo the original hiring policy — employment will be for those who “practice a traditional Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage between a woman and man.” (In the packet sent out to “stakeholders,” the Illumination Project’s language was even more explicit in its prohibition toward LGBT peoples: “CBF will not send married LGBT field personnel or employ married LGBT persons as supervisors of field personnel or in ministry/missions leadership positions”). It is disingenuous for CBF not to include the restriction toward married LGBT peoples in the hiring policy. At the vote on Friday, CBF provided copies of the 2018 hiring policy to those in attendance at the meeting but they didn’t provide a copy of the Implementation Plan to those in attendance, which is even more disingenuous and secretive.
While the recommendation to the Governing Board is a small step forward, it is not justice. We’ve gone from persona non grata to being second-class citizens.
They claim that the reasoning for not sending LGBT people as field personnel is because CBF’s global partners “have decisively rejected movement toward such action.” While it is true that some ministry locations would be unsafe for LGBT individuals, it is also true that CBF sends field personnel to locations where it is not safe to be Christian and they continue do so.
The Illumination Project claims that their aim was to hear from members of the Fellowship about the diversity surrounding LGBT inclusion. To do that they identified “stakeholder” churches to have these conversations with — as well as hearing from people at General Assembly in two sessions and hearing from people via email, letter and phone conversation. But the people that the Illumination Project reached out to were these “stakeholders” and they were selected based on monetary contribution to CBF.
The fact that the Illumination Project selected churches which are among the highest monetary contributors to the Fellowship shows where their main concern is: money. They chose to listen to the “stakeholders” who give the most money in order to please them — out of fear that if what they recommended to the Governing Board didn’t please them, that CBF would lose their money.
The recommendation was written by straight people for straight people. It was written by people who are not affected by the hiring policy for people who are not affected by it either. The Illumination Project and the Governing Board can argue that they are trying to take the middle ground — to be moderate — but by including any language of exclusion (i.e., married LGBT Christians) in the hiring and implementation policies, they have chosen discrimination. It is a policy written from a place of privilege.
In many conversations, I have heard CBF referred to as “SBC-lite” and that rings even more true with this hiring and implementation policy. What is happening surrounding LGBT inclusion in CBF is reminiscent of the events leading up to the conservative takeover of the SBC.
In his book, The Baptist Identity: The Four Fragile Freedoms, Walter Shurden describes four distinctives of what it means to be Baptist: Soul Freedom, Bible Freedom, Church Freedom and Religious Freedom. CBF has identified these four distinctives as core values of the Fellowship. But the hiring policy — both the original 2000 policy and the new policy — breaks the four fragile freedoms into shards.
It is not Soul Freedom when CBF is not honoring individuals’ freedom to commune directly with God without imposing the control of the denomi-network.
It is not Bible Freedom when CBF would use the Bible to bar qualified married LGBT people from any area of CBF life.
It is not Church Freedom when the CBF is limiting local churches the ability to send qualified individuals for positions as field personnel because of their sexual orientation.
It is not Religious Freedom when CBF is using their employment and funding policies to suppress a theological difference.
As Christians, we are called to work to end injustice, to not be silent while our fellow brothers and sisters face discrimination because of who they are. The original hiring policy was one of injustice and this new policy is injustice too. And we will not be silent.
By adopting the recommendation from the Illumination Project, the Governing Board has made it plain what they most value: money. They have thrown aside those churches which are doing meaningful justice work in areas and to people where monetary contribution is minimal. They have chosen to create a class system where LGBT people are considered less than those who are straight. They have thrown aside LGBT Christians who strive for equality and with this vote, have said that they’re not good enough. Instead of being a place of refuge for everyone — especially LGBT Christians — CBF has created a tiered caste system where the opinions and lives of wealthy straight people are worth more than anyone else.