February 16, 2018
The CBF and cultural captivity
To the editor:
I opened the report from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Illumination Project with feelings of dread, and what I found in that report was heartbreaking, but not surprising. The overpowering feeling was exasperation that it took over a year to arrive at a “change” that did little but shift from one place to another language disrespecting God’s call in the lives of certain people because of who they love. That it’s taken 18 years to even have this conversation at all. That we’ve existed for over 25 years as a Fellowship, and we still fail to “live into our name” as Cooperative Baptists. This history is saddening and angering, but what comes next is what scares me.
I had the privilege of writing my undergraduate honors thesis at Wake Forest University under the guidance of Bill Leonard. In working on that project, Dr. Leonard led me to two books that have been crossing my mind a lot lately: Churches in Cultural Captivity: A History of the Social Attitudes of Southern Baptists, by John Lee Eighmy, and Southern Churches in Crisis, by Samuel S. Hill.
Eighmy’s work argues that the Southern Baptists, whose churches were mostly smaller and poorer with few prominent slaveowners as members, threw their support behind the institution of slavery, and later behind Jim Crow. They sacrificed their prophetic voice in favor of the privilege accompanying support of the status quo. They fell into what he called “cultural captivity.”
Hill’s work examined the crisis Southern churches faced over the issue of race, but his arguments could be easily overlayed on the issue of women in Southern Baptist pulpits. He saw a denomination built to thrive in a bygone era and unprepared for the challenges ahead. In an almost prophetic way, Hill saw the seeds of a schism whose aftershocks we’re still witnessing today.
I’m not John Lee Eighmy. I’m not Samuel S. Hill. I’m a third-year seminary student who has spent way too much of the past seven years with my nose in books about the Southern Baptist Convention schism.
And I’m worried.
I truly believe the CBF is in its own crisis and its own cultural captivity.
In the same way that Hill’s arguments about race could be applied to open pulpits, we can once again take the template and apply it to the current debate over the hiring policy and the full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. The reason for this is that it is the same problem it has always been. The CBF emerged from the SBC, but it not only inherited certain elements of SBC denominational structure and theology, it also inherited a state of cultural captivity. Rather than exercising its prophetic voice, or even just affirming the bare minimum of soul freedom, CBF is shaping its hiring procedures based on the “actual practices of most of our congregations.”
With the implementation procedure as it currently stands, excluding children of God from serving as they are called, the CBF is risking an exodus that is already beginning, and may in fact be irreversible. Perhaps this crisis was inevitable. Baptists have always prided ourselves on local church autonomy. In an increasingly post-denominational society, the decline in the ability of large associations such as CBF to be able to bind everyone together seems logical. Hill saw it coming with the SBC in the 20th century, and those who will listen can see it coming now. LGBTQ individuals, allies and affirming churches simply cannot be expected to stay and continually be told to wait. Perhaps they will move to other groups, such as the Alliance of Baptist or Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Perhaps they will form local or regional associations of like-minded churches, such as we saw in the early years of American Baptist life. Perhaps more and more will simply choose to walk alone.
We’re all searchers; that’s one of the few constants of Baptist life. In the tradition of John Smyth or Roger Williams, neither of whom actually died a Baptist, we’re searching for a better Way. For some, the search for that Way may take them away from the Baptist fold. It is saddening to see, but we cannot blame anyone for leaving an environment that is harmful to them. I simply wish that CBF could see that in our effort to build a big tent, what we have done is build a wall. For those of us who stay, it is up to us to carry on in that other Baptist tradition of dissent and make our voices loud and clear in opposition to this policy.
At the moment, CBF is captive to the ideology of a faction that has become the defining position of the whole “denominetwork,” in the process ignoring the cries of a group of people who are being sincerely hurt by this policy. During the coming season of Lent, I would urge CBF and its members to consider what it would mean for us to repent of the way we have treated the LGBTQ individuals in our Fellowship. If we don’t hurry, it may be too late even for that.
Adam McDuffie, Atlanta
The writer is a master of divinity student at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.