The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s (CBF) decision to lift its absolute ban of hiring homosexual and transgender individuals has drawn diverse reactions from within the Fellowship – and predictions that churches on both sides of the ideological spectrum could break ties with the CBF.
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“The reality is that we’re liable to lose some churches – on the left and on the right,” Steve Wells, a Houston pastor who served on the CBF committee that recommended revising the Fellowship’s hiring policy, told Texas’ Baptist Standard news journal. “I really don’t believe it will be that many.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. predicted a more severe division within the CBF, writing in an online commentary it “was evident from the beginning” that “the LGBTQ revolution would be the fuse that would detonate the CBF.”
The CBF was founded in 1991 as a fellowship of churches that objected to the ideology and methods of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Conservative Resurgence.
The CBF Governing Board voted Feb. 9 to open some positions with the Fellowship to “Christians who identify as LGBT” but to continue to restrict “leadership positions in ministry” and missionary roles to believers “who practice a traditional Christian sexual ethic.” The policy change was recommended by the seven-member Illumination Project Committee appointed in 2016 to chart a unified path forward for the CBF amid diverse views on human sexuality.
The new hiring policy and an accompanying implementation procedure replaced the previous CBF hiring policy, which prohibited “the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.”
Following the Governing Board’s vote, some more conservative voices related to the CBF – including the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) – restated their belief that sexual expression should only occur within a heterosexual marriage. Some progressive CBF voices – including homosexual pastors – said the Governing Board did not go far enough in revising the policy.
The BGCT – which allows churches to designate a portion of their gifts through the state convention to CBF – issued a statement Feb. 12 underscoring the convention’s “long-held position” that homosexual behavior is sinful.
“In light of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Governing Board’s vote to approve the recommendations of the Illumination Project, Texas Baptists reaffirms its long-held position on [b]iblical sexuality and marriage,” the BGCT stated. “While we understand the decision-making process undertaken, our position remains unchanged. We believe the Bible teaches that any sexual relationship outside the bounds of a marriage between a man and woman is sin.
“Texas Baptists values every human individual, and our churches continue to be loving, respectful and welcoming to all people,” the BGCT said.
Howie Batson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, which cooperates with CBF, told the Standard, “CBF’s position is completely confusing. If same-gender sexual behavior is wrong – and [s]cripture says that it is wrong – then it is wrong for all employees, not just certain employees. The double standard is a sure formula for failure that treats staff members as second-class employees.”
Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church of the City in Washington, expressed a moderating view on the Governing Board’s action, writing in a Baptist News Global column, “The new hiring policy represents genuine change,” but “there is room for shared disappointment.”
“Those who regard LGBTQ inclusion as a sin issue may feel that these changes reach too far,” Pennington-Russell wrote. “Those who regard LGBTQ inclusion as a justice and hospitality issue may feel that the implementation procedure doesn’t reach far enough.”
On the progressive end of the CBF spectrum, the lesbian co-pastors of a Washington church called the Governing Board’s decision “discriminatory” and “deadly.”
“This policy actively restricts the activities and callings of the individual LGBTQ+ Christians among us who feel called to do Christ’s work in the world,” wrote Sally Sarratt and Maria Swearingen, co-pastors of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington. “It belittles their struggles and hard fought battles to understand their belovedness, pushes an oppressive theology on their lives and inherently claims that the priesthood of all believers does not include them.”
Sarratt and Swearingen, who are legally married to each other, added, “We would imagine that in the coming weeks and months, our congregation will seek intentional conversations about our broader Baptist affiliations in light of this decision.”
Haley Cawthon-Freels, a self-identified “gay woman pastor” in a CBF partner church, wrote in a Baptist News Global column, “The Governing Board has made it plain what they most value: money. They have thrown aside those churches which are doing meaningful justice work in areas and to people where monetary contribution is minimal.”
Cawthon-Freels, formations minister at Redeeming Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., interpreted the Illumination Project Committee’s claim it contacted some 800 “stakeholders” in CBF life before presenting its recommendations as a reference to churches and individuals which forward significant financial contributions to the Fellowship.
CBF leaders, Cawthon-Freels wrote, “chose to listen to the ‘stakeholders’ who give the most money in order to please them – out of fear that if what they recommend to the Governing Board didn’t please them, that CBF would lose their money.”
The pastoral staff of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., cited “disappointment with and disapproval of” the Governing Board’s action.
In a letter to the congregation, seven Highland pastoral staff members said they “feel called to use our voice to faithfully advocate for LGBTQ siblings within our own congregation and in broader CBF life.”
A Highland task force will continue to “evaluate our church’s affiliation with CBF,” the pastoral staff wrote, a task begun last year.
Mohler claimed the CBF exemplifies a pattern evident “throughout mainline liberal Protestantism.”
“The moral revolutionaries push and push until the denominational middle gives way or dies out,” Mohler wrote. “… Eventually, the revolutionaries will win, and they know it.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)