Baptists at our best are a pilgrim people.
The Baptist ecclesial journey is a pilgrim quest to bring the faith and practice of Baptist communities fully under the rule of Christ. At our best, this means that we are deeply suspicious of any claim to have done so fully already. We consider even Baptist determinations of what constitutes faithful faith and practice revisable, for we remain open to “fresh light that may yet break forth from the Word.”
These words, attributed to English Separatist John Robinson in a farewell address delivered to the Mayflower Pilgrims at their departure from the Netherlands in 1620, express well the Baptist expectation that the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures may lead us to fresh and fuller understandings of what it means to for the church to perform them.
Theologians have long called this work of the Spirit “illumination” — hence the name selected for the “Illumination Project” charged by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship “to seek ways to model unity through cooperation in the midst of cultural change” in relation to differing Christian perspectives on human sexuality.
As a CBF-identified theologian serving at a CBF partner institution of theological education, I earnestly hope that the work taken up by the Illumination Project will yet exemplify Baptists at our pilgrim church best. So far it seems that most people in my circles of CBF life are not happy with the report of the Illumination Project Committee received by the CBF Governing Board on Feb. 9.
The particular focus of dissatisfaction is its recommended “implementation procedure.” For now, this would restrict hiring for “field personnel, supervisors of field personnel, and staff to ministry/mission leadership positions” to candidates who “practice a traditional Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage between a woman and a man,” while in principle opening up the remaining CBF staff positions (about 80 percent of employees in the Atlanta CBF office, but 30 percent of total CBF employees including field personnel) to “Christians who identify as LGBT.” It would also enable LGBTQ-identifying chaplains to be endorsed and LGBTQ-identifying seminary and divinity school students to receive CBF-funded scholarships.
Some of my friends in CBF life regard the restrictions on the specified positions as a discriminatory refusal of the Spirit’s fresh light. Others of my friends see the openness to hiring LGBTQ-identifying persons for other positions as a rejection of what they understand to be the clear teaching of the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. Some churches currently affiliated with the CBF, representing both “progressive” and “traditional” stances, are having discussions about revisiting their CBF affiliations in light of these developments, and a state convention has taken steps to remove CBF as a giving option for contributions received from churches.
For my part, I too am troubled by aspects of the report — for example, its argument that the hiring restriction for certain positions is justified by the need to reflect a Fellowship in which a very tiny percentage of its churches affirm same-sex unions or have ministers who are LGBTQ-identifying. By this logic, a Fellowship in which no more than 6.5 percent of its congregations are led by female pastors should not have a woman serving as its executive coordinator. But heretofore we have been a fellowship in which congregations’ perspectives on and practices of calling women to serve as pastors have not served as litmus tests for communion and cooperation, and I am glad that the report likewise affirms the freedom of congregations to find differing ways forward in negotiating these contested matters of human sexuality.
What I most want to affirm about the Illumination Project Committee’s report is its implicit commendation of theology as a practice of both the local church and trans-local expressions of church such as the CBF. I confess that when I heard the presentation reporting the work of the Illumination Project Committee at the 2017 CBF General Assembly in Atlanta, I had grave reservations about the adoption of “integrative thinking” as a working paradigm. It initially struck me as yet another non-theological model borrowed from the business world and uncritically embraced by the church.
But I have come to see it as another way of naming an ideal practice of theology by the church: one that depends on the illumination provided by various sources of light through which the Spirit helps us see and diverse voices through which the Spirit helps us hear what the mind of Christ is regarding our faith and practice for our time and place and that seeks to incorporate the contributions of these diverse sources of light from various contexts of the church into a proposed way forward — which, in good Baptist fashion, is regarded as a provisional, revisable determination.
The Illumination Project report does represent a significant recognition on the part of the CBF that LGBTQ voices belong to the Fellowship and are among the sources of light through which the Spirit may help us see how to be the church more fully under the rule of Christ. Yet it also recognizes that within the Fellowship and throughout the global church with which we jointly participate in God’s mission are contextualized voices whose reading of Scripture does not presently allow them to envision covenanted same-sex relationships as participating in the relationships of the Triune God and living into God’s intentions for marriage and family relationships.
The reactions to the Illumination Project report show that our Fellowship is most certainly not ideologically monolithic — and that’s a good thing for our practice of theology, which depends on the contestation of our differences in relation to our commitment to common goods.
The constructive contestation of our differences over human sexuality requires an ecclesiological space that the polarized “progressive” and “traditional” factions in the CBF and other Christian denominations have not always been willing to grant. The question of whether same-gender relationships may be regarded as participating in God’s intentions for covenanted marital relationships properly belongs to the division of systematic theology known as “theological anthropology” — what it means to be human, created in the image of God. The polarized factions in the current debates have tended to insist that we must first decide the anthropological question, better sooner than later, and then let our answer to the anthropological question determine the ecclesiological question of whether we can be in communion with churches that affirm same-sex unions or ordain ministers who enter such unions.
But definitive theological judgments about these matters of human sexuality are better reached later than sooner. Theological anthropology is the rubric of systematic theology that has historically been more shaped by the dialogue between the church and its cultural context than any other doctrinal rubric, over long periods of time, and I’m not sure that we have yet had the time it will take for this dialogue to yield fresh expressions of ecclesial consensus. I myself as an individual theologian am not yet ready to render a definitive theological judgment about the anthropological question of whether same-gender relationships may be regarded as participating fully in God’s intentions for covenanted marital relationships, except to say that I think that it is indeed possible to make a convincing exegetical and theological argument for such a position within the doctrinal framework of Trinitarian faith. The Illumination Project report, it should be said clearly, likewise refrains from rendering a definitive theological judgment about this anthropological question for the time being.
In the meantime, it should be possible for us to live fully into our ecclesiological convictions about the nature of trans-local fellowship. I hope these include the conviction that our diversity of positions on this matter of theological anthropology should not threaten our fellowship with one another, which is conditioned by our common fellowship with Christ rather than by our stances on this matter of controversy among us.
Baptist News Global contributor Cody Sanders helpfully gestures toward a range of faithful ways of relating to the ecclesiological space of the CBF in the wake of the Illumination Project report. I grant that in encouraging a practice of theological generosity in remaining within a communion in which there provisionally remain inequities of inclusion, I am doing so from a position of privilege as a cisgendered heterosexual man married to a woman. I am not existentially threatened by the implementation procedure proposed by the Illumination Project Committee. But I pledge to do what I can as a theological educator to see to it that those who are threatened by it are deeply listened to as voices through which the Spirit may speak to us in bringing us the illumination we need on this pilgrim pathway.
I regard the work of the Illumination Project Committee as a good-faith effort to grant CBF Baptists the ecclesiological space we need to keep working on the contestation of our theological anthropology, illumined by the sources of light through which the Spirit may help us see beyond our current impasses. If the Illumination Project and debate over its report help Cooperative Baptists to learn to listen to each other more deeply, we’ll be well on our way toward being Baptists at our best, seeking “fresh light that may yet break forth from the Word” when the Spirit helps us hear the voice of Jesus in the voices of one another in our practice of theology.