In the wake of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Governing Board’s decision to adopt the report of the Illumination Project, I have read numerous articles in favor, against and qualifying the decision. While I am glad the hiring policy has been removed, I, like many others, am disappointed a new implementation process continues to create barriers for the service of LGBTQ individuals.
I am even more disturbed, however, by one of the justifications put forward by individuals regarding the need for such an implementation process that bars LGBTQ individuals from certain ministry opportunities.
Both Steve Wells, pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston, and Brian Kaylor, editor of the Missouri Word and Way, have held up the justification that the implementation process was created in order to avoid the snares of colonialism. Since many of the CBF’s partnerships include Christian and Baptist groups around the world that are not welcoming and affirming, Wells and Kaylor have suggested that for the CBF to force a welcoming and affirming agenda on these groups would perpetuate a colonialist project.
Both Kaylor and Wells are correct that colonialism poses a challenge to American Christians in this regard, yet their simplistic understanding of colonialism fails to acknowledge the more nuanced and dynamic ways in which power relationships operate within colonialist relationships.
The history of colonialism is not simply a history of conquest, where white Europeans sought to modernize and change the beliefs and practices of people groups around the world. Many times colonialism works in more covert ways. British imperialists would often utilize the beliefs and practices of indigenous individuals to their own advantage. For instance, in India the British introduced a racial component to the caste system that further divided and drove conflict between the various classes and castes of the Indian subcontinent. Colonialism is not always about changing people’s minds or actions; it is rather about keeping people in a state of unequal power. Colonialism is present wherever there exists a sustained maintenance of unequal power dynamics between groups of people.
In many ways the use of terms like “missions” and “missionary” continue to function as colonialist constructions. As Christians, we might like to think of missionaries as benevolent and altruistic, but indigenous people have a different experience of Christian missions. Missionaries are understood as people who have something that missionized people need, such as money, knowledge or skills. In this form of a relationship, power is in fact distributed unevenly.
Understanding colonialism as the maintenance of unequal power dynamics suggests that the CBF’s use of global Christians to justify their decision to prohibit LGBTQ “missionary” service advances a colonialist agenda. It might be good intentioned and might strive for partnership, but to make decisions that pit two disenfranchised groups against one another only serves to maintain a set power dynamic. The CBF is utilizing the beliefs of Christians around the world in order to maintain their relationship with those Christians. This is a form of colonialism.
Sometimes in order to fight against colonialism, partnerships need to dissolve. In the early 2000s, the Alliance of Baptists entered into ministry partnership with the Sri Lankan Baptist Sangha. When the Alliance passed a statement in 2005 supporting same-sex marriage, the Sri Lankan Baptists decided it might be best if they withdrew from their partnership with the Alliance. Both organizations made a decision based upon their conviction rather than the preservation of partnership. Certainly the ending of this partnership was difficult and perhaps not ideal, but both organizations maintained their autonomy and their dignity.
The colonialist implications of the CBF’s justification, suggesting that global Christians would not cooperate with LGBTQ Christians or welcoming and affirming Christians, is disingenuous and factually untrue. The Alliance of Baptists continues to maintain partnerships with Baptists in Brazil, Cuba, the Republic of Georgia and Zimbabwe to name a few. Since their inaugural partnership with La Fraternidad de Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba in the early 1990s, the Alliance has striven to practice an anti-colonialist approach to global ministry partners (not missions).
While many individuals have focused upon the injustice of barring LGBTQ individuals from certain ministry positions in the CBF, I find the unrecognized and unacknowledged colonialist justifications for this decision far more disturbing. Implementing this policy solely because it reflects the congregational opinions of churches within the CBF would provide a much more understandable justification. Utilizing the beliefs and practices of global Christians in order to maintain a position of power, however, perpetuates a colonialist impulse that Christians have been subject to for far too long.
Yes, the topic of sexuality poses a major challenge to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I fear, however, that the Illumination Project has revealed that the sin of colonialism continues to fester within Baptist life.