I came away from the 25th anniversary celebration of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Greensboro, N.C., renewed and invigorated. The vitality and thoughtfulness of worship, the insights and models offered in workshops, and the hard work of CBF leadership, such as crafting a new funding model for CBF Global Missions, left me moved and grateful.
But amid the hugs and hall talk between sessions, there was a lot of worried, whispered conversation about what to do about CBF’s personnel policy which does not permit hiring non-celibate gays. This same conversation was unfolding publicly in some breakout sessions and other events.
All this took me back to my first meeting as a newbie on the CBF Coordinating Council in the fall of 2000. At the time, the council was the national movement’s governing board of about 60 people. I soon realized there was a contentious issue before the body: how to best neutralize the press service of the Southern Baptist Convention and its henchmen who were pillorying the still young and fragile CBF for being biblically and morally reckless on the “gay issue.”
Not yet 10 years into CBF’s life, a number of pastors, churches and laypeople were being siphoned off from the movement because of this attack. Another challenge was that anyone and everyone even remotely connected with CBF life was often quoted by CBF’s detractors as “speaking for” the movement on gay rights. Thus, the challenge facing the Coordinating Council was how to demonstrate that CBF took biblical authority seriously, while making sure its elected governing board, not its friends or enemies, positioned the movement on the hot-button issues of the day.
Eventually, a mechanism for doing this was proposed: a personnel and funding policy change that stated CBF would not knowingly hire a staff member or fund a partner organization that advocated or condoned “homosexual practice.” This approach was deemed preferable to resorting to a resolution or other General Assembly action that might appear to speak for CBF churches; instead, this personnel and policy amendment was intended as guidance for CBF’s own internal governance, not the larger fellowship.
Remember, a decade and a half ago there were few or no CBF signature churches — those for whom CBF was their major or only “denominational brand” — that would have called an openly gay minister or staff member. (Indeed, there are still precious few today.) It seemed disingenuous for the council to pretend otherwise. The personnel policy was intended to articulate an internal, administrative practice for CBF national, while also reflecting the practice of most affiliated churches and partner organizations.
There was no gay bashing or rampant homophobia. Most of the people in the room were deeply anguished that it had come to this. But a large majority of some of CBF’s best and brightest folks believed at the time this was the best way to stop the bleeding of churches and individuals lost to SBC meddling and misrepresentation. I was one of those.
One can argue about whether that was the right tactical decision at the time. Did it help preserve CBF to live to fight another day? Maybe. I’ll let the historians sort that one out.
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This much I know: this is the wrong personnel and funding decision for CBF now. It is wrong because I have changed, CBF individuals and churches have changed, many sister communions and churches have changed, and the culture has changed. Our understanding and our attitudes have changed. Gay persons are no longer regarded as damaged goods by an increasing majority of Americans and, I would argue, CBFers. Instead, they are rightly seen as children of God and, many, as my brothers and sisters in the way of Jesus. And I now know that biblical language used to condemn LGBT persons in the past speaks to matters such as homosexual rape, pagan prostitution or pederasty, and not to covenantal relationship between people whose same-sex preference is central to their being. This is a modern understanding of human sexuality that the Bible does not speak to directly.
All this is to say that language that seemed acceptable in CBF’s personnel and funding policy at the time — again, a lifetime ago in the public perception of the LGBT movement — today sounds, and is, punitive and mean.
So, here’s a modest proposal. Have as much conversation as needed in CBF life about all the matters presumed by the “Illumination Project” proposed by our able and courageous coordinator, Suzii Paynter. Meanwhile, ask an appropriate oversight group from the Governing Board and staff to review and revise all of CBF’s personnel and funding policies. I doubt not hiring gays is the only thing that needs revising or updating. Fix whatever is wrong in those policies, including the gay exclusion clause, and issue an update. Doing so is simply due diligence and sound administration. Once more, this is CBF providing governance over its own internal life, not a manifest for its churches. This need not become a cause célèbre. And updating such policies doesn’t require a floor fight at the General Assembly.
Sure, we may lose a few churches and some donors, but a lot fewer than was true nearly 16 years ago. In fact, I believe CBF has reached the tipping point on this issue, especially in the wake of Orlando. For those who want to reduce everything to ecclesiastical bean counting, here’s the reality: we’re going to lose a lot more individuals and churches — especially among the young — by not righting this wrong than by sticking with a flawed and failed policy.
In 2000 I was wrong for a number of well-intentioned reasons in helping to pass CBF’s increasingly damaging and disastrous personnel and funding policy. Now it’s time for me and us to set this right. As we stand on the cusp of our next 25 years, we simply can’t deftly move into God’s future with this albatross around our neck.
Let’s talk and pray and canvas; let’s also make sure this effort results in real change.
Because, trust me. I know from my own painful experience and failure that sometimes more talk is just another way of staying stuck.