In the summer of 1990, following the final loss in a decadal series of dispiriting defeats, moderate Southern Baptists called a meeting for Atlanta, a last waltz for those who’d been laboring first to stop, then at least slow, the fundamentalist movement seizing control of the SBC.
The New Orleans convention in June 1990 signaled the end to organized opposition to SBC fundamentalism. They’d won. We’d lost. It was time to fold our tents and consider other lands of promise.
Two hundred people were expected in Atlanta that August. Three thousand showed up.
The next few days were dramatic, to say the least. Some mourned over what they’d lost. Others raged against the dying of the light. The Old Guard longed for “the way things used to be” when the fish were jumpin’ and the cotton was high. Young Turks caucused in the hallways, impatient with the Back to Egypt crowd.
It was not at all clear at first what was happening, but it became clear soon enough. By the time we left, we had blessed the conception of a new Baptist organism, called simply The Fellowship, and elected an interim steering committee to spend the next nine months preparing for its birth.
I served on that interim steering committee, and led in planning the initial convocation for The Fellowship the following May at Atlanta’s Omni. At that meeting I was elected the first moderator of what was eventually named, after lengthy debate, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. As we were leaving, I called us “free and faithful Baptists.” The label stuck.
Twenty years on, I’ve had occasion to reflect on those heady days of denominational fermentation and ponder the power of new wine in new wineskins. The people who birthed and shaped CBF brought a variety of hopes and dreams to the task. Some envisioned it as little more than the SBC-in-Exile, a shadow convention offering churches a pre-1979 structure of cooperation and mission support. But there also lived among others of us the vibrant hope that we could fashion in the Baptist tradition a home for a brave, progressive Christianity.
One of my vivid memories from those early days was the constant pressure to “go slow” from those resistant to the new winds of change. Go slow on women in ministry. Go slow on liturgical renewal. Go slow on anything friendly to the sensibilities of the (then) Southern Baptist Alliance. Go slow on leaving the SBC.
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Twenty years on our hesitancy seems almost comical. Today millions of American Christians serve the Lord in congregations led by women clergy, yet CBF churches are among the last to embrace the giftedness of our prophesying daughters. We waited so long to leave the SBC that they finally expelled us, depriving us of the joyful responsibility to shake their Pharisaic dust off our feet and seek more fertile fields of ministry.
Our fear of all things homosexual deprived us of any chance to offer a welcoming voice of love and justice to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. And while we were clinging to denominational identity, the post-denominational world arrived and moved right on past us.
Twenty years on, I’m increasingly convinced that church is about life, not the other way around. I was raised a wall-to-wall Southern Baptist: Sunbeam, Royal Ambassador, member of the youth group. I attended a Baptist college, was active in Baptist Student Union and went on to a Southern Baptist seminary.
My life was all about church. And church was about Baptists, “free and faithful” ones to be sure, but congregational life lived out within the narrow constraints of our tradition.
How I wish now I had sent us forth in May 1991 with the call to be free and faithful Christians. And how I repent over being held captive by an insular theology that assumed that life at church was the only life we could know.
Now CBF has an opportunity to catch a fresh vision of what God is actually doing in God’s world, that we might go and do the same things. I am cheering them on, albeit from the sidelines, praying that the original dream of a brave and progressive Christianity in the Baptist tradition might come to pass, to the praise of God’s glory, for Christ’s sake, and our sakes.
John Hewett served as the first moderator of CBF from 1991-92. He is CEO of Hewett Consulting, a firm providing strategic counsel to churches and nonprofits nationwide. He lives in Charlotte, N.C., with his wife, Andi Stevenson.