In my soon-to-be 67 years on this earth I have struggled to comprehend the numerous seachanges that have occurred in Baptist life in America. I have witnessed firsthand many of the critical events that have led to our current Baptist dilemma. I have met and known many of the Baptists who have shaped our national and international identity. Sometimes I feel like a Baptist version of Forest Gump. A couple of my memories stand out, even today. Please indulge this old man as I take a brief journey down memory lane.
In 1990 I traveled with a small group of South Carolina Baptist pastors to meet with Daniel Vestal at his church in Atlanta where he talked about the impending formation of the CBF (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship). In those days I was pastoring a traditional Southern Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., that in a short time would ordain its first woman to the gospel ministry and that would eventually also ordain its first group of women to the deaconate. It would soon after also admit its first African American member. Those were days of great anticipation and I hoped, in good time, to lead our congregation to become a more progressive fellowship in other matters as well.
A turning point in my hopefulness that still stands out vividly in my memory was the 2001 general assembly of the CBF in Atlanta. By then I was pastoring a CBF-affiliated congregation in Kentucky. The great debate those days was over whether gays should be considered eligible for CBF institutional leadership and missionary placement and whether CBF funds could be granted to affiliated organizations that condoned, advocated or affirmed anything other than a heterosexual lifestyle.
There was a great deal of fear in those days in the CBF regarding the issue of homosexuality. The CBF leadership rightly sensed a very real vulnerability regarding this issue and the newly ascended SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) hierchcy was always ready to accuse the fledgling CBF of being heretically liberal, grossly unbiblical, and openly supportive of sexual immorality. To the Fellowship’s credit there was a great deal of honest debate in the background and in the open about the inclusion of gays in the CBF’s structural vision. In the summer of 2001 as my wife and I headed to Atlanta I had a sense that the convocation there would be a bellwether event in the CBF’s history. And so it was. At least it was for me. There the issue of gay inclusion was first passionately debated in a well-attended break-out session. Then in a hurried and somewhat chaotic special business session on the final morning gathering, after a number of impassioned speeches and comments, as most good Baptists do, it was decided that the disagreement could only be resolved by taking a vote (there are many things Baptists believe can’t be prayed through and this was apparently one that couldn’t). Keith Parks spoke prior to the vote at the assembly. Keith was the ex-FMB (Foreign Mission Board) of the SBC executive director and the recently retired CBF global missions coordinator. My wife and I had served as SBC appointed missionaries in the Middle East during Keith’s tenure at the FMB. I understood all of the pragmatic arguments about how homosexuality was viewed in many other cultures. Everyone present also understood the argument that this fragile organization called the CBF was still in its infancy and it would perhaps, if a progressive stance was taken, suffer irreparable damage by losing the critical financial and political support that the more conservative members and churches provided. CBF leaders were perhaps also correct in their assertion that the majority of CBF supporting churches were pretty much in line with mainstream Southern Baptists regarding homosexuality and that the open inclusion of gays in CBF Institutions and the forwarding of CBF funds to inclusive affiliates would result in the CBF’s immediate demise. Today there still are very few CBF-affiliated churches that openly bless same-sex marriages or have a gay pastor. My own prediction is that this will change significantly over the next decade.
But now back to my story. After the business session and the approximately 60/40% vote in favor of effectively prohibiting CBF Institutions from hiring lesbians or gays was announced the assembly was reminded that the last item on the agenda for the assembly was communion. The announcement that we would all join in communion at the close of the gathering came rather abruptly without any serious attempt to carefully transition from the announcement of the voting results to the invitation to participate in the Lord’s Supper. We were, it seems, unforgivably behind schedule. At that point I looked around and saw a number of couples and individuals weeping in various locations. Some hearts were obviously breaking. I surmised at the time that some were most likely parents of gay children and some LGBTQ individuals who had hoped that the CBF would be liberal enough and prophetic enough to take a stand for the rights of all those LGBTQ members who had for decades been faithful to their Baptist churches. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the now discordant juxtaposition of the two programed events. The moment was surreal. I looked at my wife and said, “I cannot participate in communion after such a display of insensitivity to the pain in this room. This supper is no magical ritual that can be employed to heal the wounds just inflicted and the divide that exists, if that is the intention.” And so my wife and I left and walked out into the streets of Atlanta and began our solitary trek back to our hotel. We left without taking communion. In my heart I also left the CBF that day and have remained an outsider, a Baptist without a larger Baptist community to call my home.
When I returned home from Atlanta I did not press my congregation to disconnect from the CBF and it is still CBF affiliated today. That church had gay members who still feel fully included in the congregation’s life. My current home congregation is solely affiliated with the CBF and my pastor has publically taken a stance for gay rights and I am extremely proud of him. He is way ahead of the curve on this matter. My Baptist church has no exclusionary policies like those adopted by the CBF some fifteen years ago. I am not gay. I have no immediate family members who are gay. Throughout my life I have had many close friends who were gay and I have pastored many church members who were gay. Jesus has taught me that everybody has basic human rights and that heterosexuals are not the only ones who enjoy a deep personal relationship with him.
Now the fascinating reality is that the hyper-accelerated culture we live in is swiftly passing us all by. This is true for Southern Baptists and for Cooperative Baptists. All I can say is Hallelujah! This is the remarkable nature of our age. It used to be that we could say that the next generation will have to apologize for our sins because cultural and religious change will always come slowly and stubbornly. No longer is this so. Perhaps it will never be so again. Our children and our grandchildren will not be able to repent or apologize for us. That will be far too late. I like to think that I am not a bitter man. I am a grieving man. In my life I have watched with a sense of helplessness as the marvelously inclusive institutions of Southern Baptists were turned into instruments of exclusion. Legalism replaced grace in word, creed, and in deed. In a few brief decades a carefully cultivated respect for differences was overwhelmed by intolerance. Closed-mindedness became routine and the scriptures became a tool to do violence to gentle and loving souls. I also grieve that the CBF could not be a sheltering home for me and for many others who had hoped that it would be so for them as well.
Today I identify with no organized Baptist entity outside of my wonderfully inclusive local congregation, although I greatly admire the Alliance of Baptists and AWAB and have found them to be a remarkably prophetic Baptist forces for justice and equality. But these organizations barely have a foothold here in Kentucky. I hope their numbers and their presence here will increase. In the meantime I just hold on to Jesus and to the souls around me who value people more than they do institutions, doctrines, power, money and careers. I pray for all the souls around the globe who have been told that they will never be welcome in the Kingdom of God on earth. Although I grieve I do not have pity for myself. I know that I will not have a right to be comfortable at the Lord’s Table until my LGBTQ brothers and sisters are openly welcomed by all Baptists to sit at that table as well. I know that day is inevitable and I hope that I live long enough to see it.
I still have hope for the CBF. I hope that one day soon, while there is yet time, the CBF will rescind its official policies that prohibit the full inclusion of LGBTQ Baptists in its corporate and ecclesial structures and apologize for the wrong it has done to them. Whether that apology is accepted or not would of course be up to the community of LGBTQ Baptists that have suffered from the discriminatory stance of the CBF. I do hope to one day soon attend another general assembly business session and communion service that openly affirms and celebrates the equal participation of LGBTQ Baptists in the CBF experiment. I am hopeful that the Fellowship and her affiliated congregations will one day soon display the courage necessary to be found on the right side of history, on the right side of human rights, and more importantly, on the right side of the gospel of Jesus. _______________