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The Baptist Tent: Room for All

Centrist Baptists have voiced feelings of abandonment by fundamentalists on the right and liberals on the left.

They have stated publicly that they feel no room exists for them under the Baptist tent because their centrist theology does not line up with either wing.

Let me begin by extending heartfelt condolences for this perspective. As a non-fundamentalist Baptist, I know exactly how they might be feeling.

I will never forget the moment I realized I was a Baptist without a home – or so I thought.

While I felt like I was wandering in the wilderness alone, I discovered other Baptist nomads looking for a new way.

Realizing I desperately needed a community to survive in ministry, I conducted research and found a new movement called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF).

After reading about CBF, and calling and visiting with people close to CBF, I began to realize I had found my new community.

Within CBF, I realized there was a healthy respect for soul liberty and the priesthood of all believers.

Unlike my previous community, my theological conviction would not be silenced or considered heresy.

What I found in CBF was a diverse community of Baptists seeking to do missions and ministry in new and exciting ways.

CBF was attempting to be honest about the landscape of the world, challenging the church to accept a missional mindset for ministry.

In other words, every ministry of the church and within the CBF network would be considered missional at its core. Indeed, this was new wine being poured into new wineskins.

In this new model for missional ministry, all were welcome to participate. Conservatives, centrists and liberals were encouraged to participate in this new venture.

The theological foundation for this new path was to embrace diversity, respect indigenous cultures and cultivate a passion for following the Great Commission.

The missiology of CBF was to empower indigenous and local leaders to minister to their communities, evangelize, conduct social ministry and start churches.

No longer would photos of white preachers baptizing black and brown converts in exotic rivers be the beacon of missional success.

On the contrary, CBF chose to foster a holistic approach that encourages local leaders to care for the spiritual and physical needs of their people.

CBF chose genuine evangelism over colonial conquest.

For those wanting to continue with an old paradigm, plenty of other denominations and organizations still maintain a homogeneous strategy for missional engagement. CBF, on the other hand, continues to try something new.

No matter one’s theological conviction, CBF created opportunities to work with and support missionaries and their work all over the world.

They have instilled the idea that every Christian was a missionary doing missional work so that churches would come to see themselves as missional agencies in their local communities.

Missions became an umbrella concept that encouraged everyone to follow the Great Commission in tangible ways.

Even CBF’s social advocacy work addressing immigration and predatory lending is missional work.

Again, this is new wine being poured into new wineskins. There was and is no way this new wine could be poured into the old wineskins, which some still advocate for today.

Those critical of CBF’s missional philosophy misunderstand the very heart of the CBF movement, which seeks to embody a holistic ministry like that described in James 2.

Now, this brings me to those feelings of abandonment.

The primary reason CBF started was because fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) shut them out of leadership roles, expelled them from missionary assignments, fired them from seminaries, removed their churches for supporting women in ministry and stopped receiving their money because they were considered “barnacles on the bottom of the boat.”

Given this history, I need to ask some honest and pointed questions for centrists, who feel they no longer have a home or are no longer welcome within CBF:

  • Has CBF ever conducted itself in the same manner as fundamentalists in the SBC?
  • Has CBF blocked centrists from leadership roles?
  • Has CBF expelled missionaries for not signing a creed?
  • Has CBF removed a congregation from fellowship because it practiced the autonomy of the local church?
  • Has CBF said, “No, thank you” to support from churches because CBF no longer finds itself in communion with a church because of a disagreement?

I do not think this has ever happened within the entire history of CBF.

While disagreement over both theological conviction and practice exists, I do not ever remember anyone from the CBF leadership communicating a theology and practice of exclusion toward conservatives, centrists or liberals.

In fact, it seems many in CBF go out of their way to include a diverse group of Baptists among leadership and promote a vast array of churches.

Recently, the issue has centered around the inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ Christians.

While there are many perspectives regarding this issue, CBF has never told a single person or forced a local church to adhere to a particular conclusion.

In fact, CBF’s 2018 Illumination Project Report received criticism from those on the right and left.

The right was upset because CBF will not consider a person’s sexual orientation when interviewing candidates for many positions, and the left was upset because the implementation procedure restricted LGBTQ Christians from holding some strategic positions.

This should have been seen as a compromise by centrists, but instead many criticized the policy. Again, an honest question: What did centrists expect would come from this study given the diversity of perspectives within CBF?

Attempting to compromise, CBF let freedom ring to enable every person to draw their own conclusions and permit churches to make their own decisions. No one has been forced to believe or accept anything.

They did land mostly on the side of a nondiscriminatory hiring policy, but they did not tell local churches how they had to believe or act toward LGBTQ persons.

The theological practices of the priesthood of the believers and local church autonomy are the Baptist way.

We all understand the ground beneath us is shifting. As one generation gives way to another, change is inevitable.

However, my prayer for centrists, moderates and progressives within CBF remains the same: that we all feel as though we have a place, and a family, that we can still call our own.

Families often do not agree on matters both large and small, and at times they passionately disagree, but at the end of the day, I still consider each one of you my brothers and sisters.

The Baptist tent raised by those affiliated with CBF has room for all.

Mitch Randall

Mitch Randall is executive director of EthicsDaily.com.