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Reflections on the 2001 CBF General Assembly

The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Atlanta, GA
November 6, 2000

Being both baptist and theologically progressive places me in an odd position in denominational politics. By profession and calling I am a passionate advocate for progressive issues and have fought diligently for affirmation of gay and lesbian Christians among mainline Christian organizations.

In my opinion, this is essential in denominations with an ecclesiastical hierarchy. A denomination has to define its boundaries and establish specific theological criteria for its clergy, staff, and institutions. As a consequence, it must decide what is acceptable and what is not. Issues have to be defined as either "yes" or "no." There have to be winners and losers (and even, in some cases, victims). Perhaps the ultimate victim, though, is the Church, which as a consequence becomes increasingly fragmented each time the boundaries are too tight to include everyone.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a different story, and the nature of baptist polity is such that it allows me the freedom to admit something that I do not like to talk about: I might be wrong. I do not mean simply wrong about my welcoming and affirming stance. I might be wrong in my belief that the Almighty Creator of the Universe - who can understand the complex orbits of millions of whirling stars and planets – actually divides theological issues into dialectical formulations of "the right side" and "the wrong side."

When it comes right down to it, on the galactic scale (which is still small compared to God) even the smartest of us is pretty dumb. Truth be told, even in our own lives we get confused pretty easily. Case in point: Jesus’ handpicked disciples who rarely understood a word he said, even when he spelled it our for them. Personally and institutionally, historically and right now, we tend to get a lot of stuff wrong.

Being baptist allows for that possibility. The genius of baptist polity is that it focuses on Christ, not human institutions. It allows us to trust the Holy Spirit to manifest in a million different ways, and recognize each of those manifestations as being communities of our fellow redeemed sinners. Our love for autonomy, when coupled with our love for each other, allows us to argue issues from opposite sides of the fence and then walk inside to share communion at the same table.

That’s how it is in theory, at least. The reality is that human beings prefer finding ways to draw lines among themselves. Despite a radical gospel of unlimited mercy and irrational love, a gospel that consistently reminds us of our inability to understand the ways of a holy God, we insist on pretending that we really understand what God wants and how the world works. So, even in "free church" associations like the Southern Baptist Convention, we push for orthodoxy and a rigid doctrinal framework.

The CBF was meant to be different. A resource network, not a denomination, it was a way for us to participate in the larger Church while staying in our local churches. Sadly, with an organizational value preserved by a narrow vote at the General Assembly, that is no longer the case. Whether out of theological conviction or a desire for institutional preservation the CBF has sacrificed the one truly unique gift it had to offer to Christianity: its example. We have chosen to be one more method for hearing God’s rulebook rather than a distinctive example of the miracle of God’s grace (while leaving the rulebooks to the local congregations).

We are no longer a role model for the kind of illogical unity demanded by our common salvation. Instead, based on the votes of a narrow majority, we are just another sectarian body. From a business standpoint, even from an institutional standpoint, this makes sense. Then again, any faith that believes in making sense probably should not center its theology on the execution of its God.

God willing this is not the future of the CBF, but instead just a brief regression to its past. There is still a chance to do a new thing. We can still lead the world by drawing together individual believers and congregations – each of whom is probably a little bit right and a little bit wrong – into one confused, ignorant, forgiven Body of Christ. We may not be able to enjoy the sanctimonious high ground of the self-righteous, but at least wherever we go we will go there together.

 

The Rev. C. Joshua Villines is the coordinator for Progressive Clergy of Georgia, an interfaith community focused on issues of social justice.