Cooperative Baptist Fellowship: An alternative Christian model in a polarized era

Why a non-triumphal, ministry-focused Cooperative Baptist Fellowship matters in a polarized age. 

By David Gushee

Follow David: @dpgushee

Though I am serving this year as theologian-in-residence for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, this reflection on the annual CBF General Assembly this past week represents my independent, unvetted opinion.

I write on the day of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, culminating its 2013-14 term. This is what Twitter is spewing as I write. Report: “Religious Liberty Wins, Religious Liberty Wins," scream the fans of the 5-4 decision on Monday. White House: “Ruling Jeopardizes the Health of Women.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas): Hundreds more lawsuits will fight the White House’s “incredible assault” on religious liberty. Noah Shachtman: “With Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court just declared themselves America’s new high priests.” Planned Parenthood: “This is about justice, and we’re fighting back.” Samuel Rodriguez: “SCOTUS affirmed the God-given right of conscience and religious liberty.” My personal over-the-top favorite, from @Readersaresmart: a picture of the majority five judges today with the heading, “The faces of fascism.”

Meanwhile, CBF’s tweet of the morning: “Assembly Blog — Try This at Home — Five Ways to Help Your Church Learn.” 

Other tweets from CBF General Assembly late last week included features on new efforts at church planting/starting, a new CBF Fellows cohort, worship as narrative ritual, successfully negotiating the search process, the Together for Hope ministry and the commissioning service for chaplains, pastoral counselors and field personnel.

Suffice it to say that few such tweets were likely to go viral in the global twitterverse. Not a one of them had anything directly to do with the culture wars. Therefore by definition they were of little interest in the shrill American public square circa 2014.

But those who were at the General Assembly would know that publicly significant convictions were indeed articulated and practiced at that meeting:

• South Africa anti-apartheid leader Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak offered a morally stirring, and intellectually demanding, analysis of the connections between confession, forgiveness, justice and social reconciliation. His cry that “justice is indivisible” challenged CBF listeners to consider just how thoroughgoing our commitment to the marginalized will turn out to be.

• Civil rights leader and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young reminisced about his service in the Carter Administration, and the national humility that President Carter demanded of all who would represent the United States in international venues. He called on listeners to fight for the well-being of the world’s two billion brutally victimized women.

• New Baptist Covenant leader Hannah McMahan described the mission of NBC as building bridges between historically racially divided churches all over the country, mainly through joint service and mission work. Several case studies were offered in a video presentation.

• CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter described the Fellowship’s ramped up domestic and international advocacy work, including efforts on immigration and predatory lending as well as on behalf of religious liberty and the well-being of women and girls.

• New global missions coordinator Steven Porter offered a theologically rich reflection on “reimagining mission” in the contemporary context, using Acts 10 to communicate a humble, teachable, interactive sending-receiving, learning-teaching Christian engagement with the wider world.

• Speakers in multiple venues emphasized opening new doors for women in ministry and equipping women for success in ministry. 

What I saw at CBF General Assembly is a voluntary, amicable community of congregations, ministries, fellowships, educational institutions and individuals who are seeking to carry forward a wide variety of forms of Christian ministry and mission, mainly focused on humble congregational work carried out by both women and men and serving those the world cares least about.  

If CBF has a politics, or a social witness, as of 2014 it could be described non-triumphalist, consensus-driven, service-oriented, and gender- and race-inclusive.

CBF is not trying to be in charge of America or the world and doesn’t project itself as having all the answers. However, it is slowly edging into advocacy in areas where the fellowship is able to find consensus. 

CBF wants to make a difference through serving the least of these, as incarnationally and teachably as possible. It doesn’t seek headlines about serving in the world’s neediest places, but it is doing so.

CBF was born defending women in ministry and will continue to seek advances on that front, even while conservative American religion becomes more deeply entrenched in patriarchal leadership models. 

And, though primarily white, CBF is trying its best to overcome American and Christian racial divisions through slow, patient racial reconciliation work. 

If America and its religion is destined to continually fracture along right-left lines, and if that is the religion news story that everyone wants to talk about, then this particular religious community will be of little national interest.

But perhaps the very existence of a religious community — primarily located in the politically hot-blooded South — that doesn’t fit this narrative, but is instead doing the slow, organic work of ministry, service, advocacy, inclusion and reconciliation, is in fact a story worth telling.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.