BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (ABP) — The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship turned its sights outward during its general assembly June 24-26, voting to join a new national ecumenical organization and embracing the embattled Baptist World Alliance — one week after the international Baptist fellowship lost its largest member and contributor.
But the assembly also took care of internal business, adopting a $16 million budget and electing new leaders, including a female pastor as moderator-elect. The annual general assembly, with a theme of “Being the Presence of Christ,” drew an estimated 3,000 participants, including 2,397 registrants, to downtown Birmingham, Ala.
The Fellowship agreed without debate or dissent to become a founding member of Christian Churches Together in the USA, a new ecumenical organization that is expected to encompass denominations from across the spectrum of Christianity. The group will be launched when 25 denominations and organizations vote to join, which is expected to happen by May 2005.
Assembly participants greeted Denton Lotz, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, with a standing ovation June 25 when Lotz welcomed CBF into membership in the worldwide group. “We belong together because we belong to Jesus Christ,” Lotz said.
BWA's acceptance of the Fellowship as one of its 211 member bodies last year was one key reason the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention withdrew its membership and funding June 15.
Daniel Vestal, CBF coordinator, said the new alliances with CCT and BWA are examples of a much-needed “convergence” among Christian groups. “There has never been an hour when there was a greater need for Christian convergence,” Vestal said during his annual address.
“Our common experience of faith and relationship to Jesus as Lord” is what should unite Christians, Vestal said. “Is that enough? I contend that it is.”
Creeds and the authoritative structures that define other Christian groups are not necessary for believers to work together, Vestal said. Noting CBF people differ on such topics as the war in Iraq, homosexuality, abortion, Democratic and Republican politics, and embryonic stem-cell research, Vestal said the “acid test” of Christian fellowship is to be “the presence of Christ to those with whom we differ?”
“I want to suggest to you that when it comes to relationships, … we need to stop trying to control one another,” Vestal said.
Meanehile, Lotz told a CBF breakout session that BWA, while adopting traditional Baptist belief statements, does not enforce doctrinal purity among its member groups. “It is important to understand that the BWA is not a church or a denomination, so we don't write doctrinal statements,” he said.
A week earlier, Southern Baptist leaders accused BWA of tolerating liberalism, which they said justified the SBC's decision to cut ties to BWA and invest its final $300,000 of BWA funding in formation of a more conservative international group.
Vestal, who earlier told CBF's Coordinating Council that BWA “is going to find a new vision and new life” despite losing its largest member, urged assembly participants to rally to the 99-year-old organization's aid.
They did that in a tangible way, collecting $47,670 in two offerings for BWA. That total includes about $500 contributed by 10-year-old Erin Strnad of McCalla, Ala., who collected coins in a plastic bank and wheeled her contribution into the convention center in a donated red wagon. Participants also approved doubling CBF's budget allocation for BWA next year, from $20,000 to $40,000.
Georgia pastor Bob Setzer, incoming CBF moderator, praised BWA's stance in the dispute with the SBC. “False accusations and the threat of financial blackmail proved powerless to cow-tow this [group of] … freedom-loving, Christ-centered Baptists,” he said.
Lotz, in his brief speech to the assembly, said BWA will “move on and forget the past,” which has included more than a year of disputation with Southern Baptists.
Last year's decision to accept CBF as a member, though controversial, “affirmed the Baptist principle of voluntary association,” Lotz said. “We want to embrace all Baptists.”
“Welcome, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, into the Baptist family,” declared Lotz, noting the standing ovation was “not for me but for Baptists of the world.”
The Fellowship, which in the past has avoided calling itself a denomination, nonetheless took several actions at the 2004 assembly that are common to denominations and Baptist conventions. In addition to celebrating its growing BWA affiliation and voting to join the fledgling Christian Churches Together, CBF endorsed 35 new chaplains and pastoral counselors, bringing to 414 the number receiving CBF credentials.
Both BWA membership and chaplain endorsement required the Fellowship to distinguish itself as separate from the Southern Baptist Convention, the much larger convention from which most CBF members and churches emerged.
Also the Coordinating Council heard about a new partnership between CBF and Call to Renewal, an anti-poverty advocacy group comprised largely of Christian evangelical denominations and churches. Vestal said the anti-poverty partnership will allow the Fellowship “to make our voice heard in the public-policy arena.”
Christian Churches Together, which has been in planning since 1991, will involve evangelical, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, historical Protestant, and racial and ethnic Christian churches in America, said Sonja Phillips, co-pastor of Central Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., and co-chair of CBF's ecumenical task force.
Membership is open to churches that “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior” according to the Scriptures, that embrace the historic understanding of God as Trinity, and that “seek ways to work together to present a credible Christian witness” to society, Phillips said.
Already the American Baptist Churches-USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church have affirmed the new organization.
The idea of helping to start a broad ecumenical group is biblically sound, Phillips said. Christian ecumenism follows Jesus' prayer that his followers be unified, she said.
Participation in Christian Churches Together also is consistent with the CBF's identity as ecumenical Baptists who “embrace other Christians,” said fellow co-chair John Finley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga.
The CBF's 2004-05 budget of $16,008,123, which begins July 1, was approved without discussion or negative votes. The largest portion, $9,044,566, is allocated to global missions. The total is almost the same as the current budget, which was cut back last year after the CBF failed to meet its 2002-03 budget. Philip Wise, chair of the CBF finance committee and pastor of Second Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas, told assembly participants the 2003-04 budget “is on track to finish in the black.”
Outgoing CBF moderator Cynthia Holmes, an attorney and member of Overland Baptist Church in St. Louis, noted that 226 churches joined the ranks of congregations contributing to CBF in the past year and that individuals made special gifts of $2 million and $5 million to the organization.
“I'm thankful to claim the label 'Baptist,'” Holmes said, noting CBF champions endangered Baptist principles, such as soul competence, local church autonomy, religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
Holmes has been the CBF's top elected leader during the past year. She is succeeded by incoming moderator Setzer, pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga.
Assembly participants elected Joy Yee, pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church in San Francisco, as moderator-elect. She will be the first clergy woman to hold the post of moderator.
Vestal and Emmanuel McCall, pastor of a predominantly African-American church in Atlanta, were elected as CBF's representatives to the Baptist World Alliance.
— Marv Knox, Trennis Henderson and Lance Wallace contributed to this article.