Our path takes us somewhere
February 20th, 2018 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor in Chief / comments
In the early 1990s I attended the quadrennial meeting of the Disciples of Christ in the city we lived in at the time. I was particularly interested to hear the reports of two committees. One was reporting on what, if any, role Scripture played in the salvation of people. The other recommended a more welcoming and affirming response to homosexuals. Both reports and related actions were decided by a delegate vote. I wrote a column about the oddity of a Christian religious body deciding these issues as if God has not spoken objectively in Scripture. It’s hard to imagine a Christian denomination starting without this foundation. What happened?
A little later I wrote a column about the beginning of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a denomination-like body of Baptist churches that disagreed with Southern Baptists about biblical authority. I didn’t make any connection with the two groups at the time; the CBF was generally a little left of me but mostly just indignant to have lost 12 years of SBC elections. My point then was that they were a separate denomination even though they preferred to keep a foot in the SBC.
Twenty-six years later I see similarity between the now solidly liberal Disciples of Christ and the CBF. On Feb. 9 the CBF coordinating council acted on behalf of the fellowship by altering a 20-year ban on hiring those who engage in homosexual behavior. CBF partisans have responded from both sides; the more conservative wing disagrees with the decision and the liberal wing wants a clearer affirmation of homosexual behavior. I was intrigued by their decision-making process.
After 18 months of deliberation, interviews and listening sessions, the committee chairman said that the resulting statement was “informed” by Scripture but that being Baptist means that we “don’t dictate the beliefs of individuals and churches in a top-down fashion.” Instead, they listened to churches and individuals “in all their diversity,” before deciding that some roles (excepting top-level management and missionary field personnel) will be open to those who practice homosexuality.
So, it’s a little top down in the sense that the council is opening some positions and closing others. The decision is clearly informed by listening to diverse churches and individuals. By opening the door just a little to leaders and employees formerly considered immoral, they can tell the more conservative members that it’s not as bad as it might be and the less conservative ones that it’s better than it was.
“Informed by Scripture?” Not so much. I do understand the hermeneutic of those who pit what the apostles wrote under inspiration of the Holy Spirit against what they imagine Jesus might have said if he had explicitly taught on this type of sexual behavior. I think that’s what the fellowship’s moderator means when he claims that this decision will show the world that “Christ is our center and can hold us together for the sake of the gospel.”
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s path and destination were not as clear when they left us more than 25 years ago. At the time, the leaders were those who had formerly led Southern Baptists. But it was clear that they were on a different path. If you go down a path, you get to where it leads. What was clear then was that CBF leaders were willing to compromise biblical authority for unity. An early leader of the fellowship said that he believed in the virgin birth of Christ, that the Bible taught it, but he did not believe it essential that his pastor or seminary professor believe it. That was the path. The fellowship was a diverse group of people who were unified around little except not being Southern Baptist. In the following years they resisted nearly any effort to describe more or less acceptable doctrine and practice. So the fellowship included seminaries funded by a Baptist convention in Texas with professors who taught that God is not all-knowing, a lesbian married couple who co-pastor a church in Washington, D.C., and a generation of young people who’ve come out of the movement unable to explain or believe the gospel. This recent decision is nothing I imagined when they started; it’s nothing Keith Parks, Dan Vestal or Cecil Sherman imagined. But they should have. It was just over the horizon on the path they chose.
Brothers and sisters, Christian bodies do not get more orthodox because people are nice and well-intentioned. It is serious work to lay a foundation of biblical doctrine and build a church or institution on that foundation. It can be heartbreaking work to keep those commitments when it means that we must lose friends over it. But we are not merely “informed” by Scripture. We are bound to it as God’s revelation of himself and the Savior of the world. If it is not true, we are of all men most foolish.
Perhaps you have seen in your life hundreds of others go astray in the same way as the CBF. You and I can both name churches and schools that took a path that later took them. It is a warning to us all. The path we take determines our destination.