I will always remember the tension in the room at the 2016 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly breakout session in Greensboro, N.C., where the concept of the Illumination Project was first explained. The confluence of the tragedy of the recent Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., and the release of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage put this matter on the front burner for every believer serious about the intersection of faith and everyday life.
As the session was breaking up, a friend spoke to me in passing, wishing me luck, since “no other denomination has been able to resolve this issue in the last 25 years.” I was then the incoming CBF moderator and my response likely sounded trite: “Well, maybe we’ll be the first!” But I meant it with all my heart.
Religious sociologists may call me a dinosaur, but I still serve Christ with the conviction that we are able to accomplish so much more together than by ourselves, which is why I haven’t given up on cooperation in a post-denominational day. One disciple cannot possibly fulfill the Great Commission alone. We need the assistance of fellow believers to make the reign of God a reality on earth.
I have tried to keep this end in mind as I’ve participated in the Illumination Project process. While we Cooperative Baptists disagree on so many important matters, we hold together around our desire to advance the Good News in ways that “cultivate beloved community, bear witness to Jesus Christ, and seek transformational development alongside congregations within the contexts of global poverty, global migration and the Global Church,” to quote CBF’s global mission distinctives.
Nothing else holds the possibility of building our cause more than this invigorating missional vision.
So, how does the response of the CBF Governing Board regarding the findings and recommendation of the Illumination Project Committee move us in this direction? I see several ways.
First, the Governing Board’s response elevates the autonomy of the local church, a signal Baptist distinctive. Baptist congregations will ultimately make decisions on this matter appropriate to their context without the larger Fellowship imposing a direction on them. Moreover, the Governing Board’s response reflects the process that the vast majority of CBF congregations have used in making such determinations at their local level. This emphasis on taking our cues from congregations offers a good example of how a “denomi-network” functions in a day when denominational institutions are in serious decline.
Such an example, in turn, leads to a second implication that positions CBF to be an even stronger force for Christ: We have a unique opportunity to present a positive witness to a polarized culture that yearns to see somebody find a way to overcome their differences for a larger cause. People are frankly weary of “either-or” thinking and conversations that devolve into shouting matches. They want to see an instance where people of good intentions on all sides of a given topic come together to speak their hearts humbly, charitably and respectfully. If we as people of faith can’t offer such a witness, then who can? I don’t think CBF has wasted this opportunity.
Lastly, I firmly believe that the Governing Board’s response offers CBF the best hope of moving forward into the good future God has for us to know. Did any of us get everything we wanted out of the end result? I sure didn’t, and I doubt anyone else did either. But I learned long ago in my faith journey that a major part of being serious about a cruciform life means self-denial and sacrifice, and being willing to have my mind transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I know where I am on most matters today, including the one that is before us in this present hour. I also know that I could be wrong about where I am today, and so I must be prepared to have the Spirit renew my mind so that I may be better able to “test and approve the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:1-2). I would hope we all could hold our convictions on this and other important matters a little less tightly and therefore more hopefully.
Some would contend that we never should have entered into such a conversation, but looking back, I’m glad we did. I’m even gladder for how we went about it. Besides, I would imagine we’ll have a few more tough conversations along the way. Perhaps the lessons we’ve learned in these recent days will enable us to do an even better job of strengthening our Fellowship in the days ahead, and help local churches do the same, which was one of the original objectives of the Illumination Project.
Whatever time and energy such conversations require will be more than worth it, as has been the case with this one. We may not end up as the first group to have successfully negotiated such a potentially divisive matter, but too much is at stake for us not to have tried, and to continue to do so.