Commentary: Illuminating a theological and ethical line in the sand

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The Illumination Project of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship served a useful purpose for me, as it encouraged a reconsideration of both theology and stances regarding sexual ethics. It also fostered some helpful conversations with both fellow pastors and committee members at First Baptist Church in San Angelo about church autonomy and cooperative missions giving.

The CBF Governing Board recently approved the report and recommendations of the Illumination Project Committee. The recommendations the board approved included a revised hiring policy and implementation procedure that allows LGBT individuals to be considered for some staff posts, while maintaining certain limits on missions and ministry leadership personnel.

Accordingly, our church has taken action to remove the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship from our Cooperative Program funding based primarily upon the CBF’s new hiring policy. We have increased CP giving to the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Why? The new CBF hiring policy has crossed both a theological and ethical threshold which makes further cooperation impossible for us. The theological threshold was crossed when the CBF Governing Board misused local church autonomy. For instance, the CBF touts itself as a network of self-sustaining, autonomous churches, yet the governing board is dictating to the local church how to behave in this case. The new standards of the CBF regarding sexual ethics have been moved on affiliating churches.

As a contrast to the CBF actions, note how the BGCT has dealt with this issue in previous years. The BGCT’s standard of cooperation regarding sexuality is and has been consistently clear. Regardless of how we feel about the rightness or wrongness of the BGCT’s position, the churches which have disagreed and have since moved out of fellowship based on sexual ethics have certainly acted within their bounds, since neither the state denomination nor the local church dictated policy for the whole.

‘A fresh history lesson’

Perhaps we Baptists today need a fresh history lesson on local church autonomy. The clearest example I can find goes back all the way to 1840 when Texas Baptists developed the Union Baptist Association. They maintained cooperation by establishing Articles of Faith in their Constitution. These Articles were considered the “essential” doctrines upon which cooperative Baptist churches must adhere if they were to remain in the association. The bar for cooperation was set and consistent.

Accordingly, even autonomous, cooperating Baptist churches must have essentials upon which we agree without ifs, ands or buts. The CBF leadership seems to have dictated those essentials. The Southern Baptist Convention pulled the same tricks, which led to the development of the CBF in the first place.

Our church, just as we did in the days of the chaos in the SBC, decided that we can no longer cooperate with a group which does not adhere to essential Baptist orthodoxy. Now that the sexual ethic has been changed, we will no longer be able to partner with CBF. Our differences in doctrine now are simply too much for our church to allow.

Crossing ethical lines

The ethical line was crossed by the Illumination Committee and the CBF governing board in their abandonment of a consistent and scriptural sexual ethic. It is interesting that the CBF staff and Illumination Committee seem to have “evolved” on the issue of homosexuality in recent years. Consider, for instance, some statements of certain people lauded in the past as CBF heroes regarding historic Christian orthodoxy and homosexuality.

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T.B. Maston said, “The Bible reveals that any expression of the sex urge other than the normal physical union of husband and wife is contrary to the purposes of God. This not only includes adultery and fornication, but it also includes homosexuality and other forms of sexual deviation” (Maston, “Problems of the Christian Life—The Bible and Sex,” Baptist Standard, February 21, 1968, 16).

Cecil Sherman, first executive coordinator of CBF, said, “I think that the main reason the CBF has slowed in growth is right here (failure to respond to critics about CBF being pro-gay). We’ve not been able to handle our critics. The lies have piled up. If we don’t tell the truth, error will come to be public perception.” (Elizabeth Flowers, Into the Pulpit, 172–3).

Daniel Vestal said, “Except for a small handful of Baptist churches, the vast majority of churches that partner within CBF will not call/hire/ordain a practicing gay/lesbian Christian as pastor or ministering staff member. It is because of our desire both to serve these churches and extend their ministry around the world that CBF does not ‘allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual’” (Baptist Standard, March 8, 2012).

Texas Baptist friends, it profits us nothing to gain the whole world but to lose our souls because of fundamentalism of the Left. I grew up under the wonderful preaching of Winfred Moore, who said it like this: “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow line and dead possums.”

That’s West Texan for “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

James Hassell is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas.

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