The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship cried foul over two news stories in Baptist Press questioning the way the moderate breakaway group counts churches and criticizing CBF-supported theology schools.
One Friday story in the Southern Baptist Convention news service quoted scholars who termed the CBF’s method of computing membership “disingenuous,” misleading and a violation of local-church autonomy.
Another accused 14 theology schools that receive partial funding from CBF of deviant teaching. One SBC seminary professor said “the disaster of the CBF’s seminaries and divinity schools” make it unlikely the movement will survive.
Both stories written by Greg Tomlin, who has covered CBF General Assembly meetings for Baptist Press for several years, quoted a CBF spokesman as declining to comment.
A Tuesday statement on the CBF Web site, however, responded by calling the BP stories “mean spirited” and “unchristian.”
“This latest series of Baptist Press stories maligning the Fellowship is tragic and perplexing,” the statement said. “Why does Baptist Press feel compelled to publish stories that criticize and defame a fellow Baptist body?”
CBF leaders said such stories were “the modus operandi” of the SBC for a number of years, but it had recently ceased until last week’s stories. “It’s unfortunate that the cessation in this hurtful rhetoric appears to have been temporary,” the statement said. “It no doubt grieves our Lord to see a body that claims Christ as its guiding light choose to verbally abuse Christian brothers and sisters as they simply seek to live out their calling to a hurting and dying world.”
Unlike the SBC, which each year conducts a detailed count of denominational statistics, the CBF defines membership by contribution. For purposes of record keeping, CBF counts the number of contributing churches on a five-quarter system. A total of 1,954 churches have contributed to CBF since April 1, 2005, according to Joel McLendon, CBF development specialist.
CBF bylaws define members as “Baptist churches and the members thereof and individual Baptists who contribute annually to the ministries and operations of the Fellowship.”
“So, if a church sends us a dollar we count that church and its members as part of our membership,” Ben McDade, coordinator of communications and resource development, told EthicsDaily.com.
McLendon said based on the available data, the 1,954 current contributing churches have a combined membership of a little more than 700,000. That is the membership figure for CBF in the Baptist World Alliance report on member bodies and statistics as of June 2, 2006.
In addition to churches, McLendon said, 4,064 individuals have contributed directly to the CBF since April 2005.
SBC seminary professors quoted by Baptist Press claimed CBF’s method of counting inflates membership numbers and bypasses the local church by allowing CBF, and not the congregation, to decide its members.
“I am personally acquainted with several churches which have a single member or a small group of members who contribute personally to the CBF, and by virtue of their gifts the church is counted as a CBF church,” said Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “In these churches, it distresses the larger group of members when they see their church counted as a CBF church, especially when CBF is not even a budget item in their church budget.”
Charles Deweese, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, told EthicsDaily.com the Baptist Press story reflects “narrow-minded understandings of Baptist theology and polity.”
CBF designations of cooperating churches “do not affect the autonomy of local churches in any fashion,” Deweese said.
The SBC claimed 43,699 churches and nearly 16.3 million members in its 2005 Annual Church Profile, but everyone acknowledges the membership figure is inflated by “non-resident” members who move away and don’t join another Baptist church and “inactive” members who remain on a church roll but don’t bother to attend. One fundamentalist pastor critical of the SBC’s reporting estimated that nearly two thirds of members counted as Southern Baptists are “unregenerate” or not really saved.
The companion BP story on theological education said unlike the six SBC seminaries, where trustees are elected and accountable to the churches, CBF-affiliated seminaries and divinity schools “are accountable only to a donor base of nostalgic Baptist liberals.”
“Liberalism has always been a parasitic movement, and the CBF is no exception,” said Russell Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Deweese countered that fundamentalism “has had far more of a negative and infectious impact on Baptist identity throughout the course of Baptist history” than liberalism.
“Historically, Baptists have related officially through associations, conventions, fellowships, unions, federations, alliances and other organizations,” Deweese said. “These organizations typically claimed that they had no right to and could not violate the autonomy of the individual churches. The CBF is no exception.”
The CBF statement said Tomlin approached McDade for a response to his stories. “We choose not to engage in this kind of public debate with fellow Christians,” the statement said. “We believe the resulting mean spirited story validates his decision.”
Tomlin said in a statement to EthicsDaily.com he believes the story was fair.
“If the organization has been misunderstood, though I don’t believe it has, it has been because it has never desired to help Southern Baptists understand its positions,” Tomlin said. “Engaging and explaining would appear the correct course of action to do so, rather than waiting to allege a ‘mean-spirited’ attitude on the part of a writer who reported what others said.”
The director of Baptist Press, Will Hall, called CBF’s complaint of one-sided reporting “a straw-man argument,” because the BP reporter “actively sought input from the CBF.”
Hall, vice president for news services at the SBC Executive Committee, said it is one thing for CBF to identify organizations like the BaptistCenter for Ethics, which receives CBF funds and shares many of its values, as a partner. But, “It is another thing to falsely identify congregations loyal to the Southern Baptist Convention–those who by consensus choose to cooperate with other SBC churches in SBC missions, ministries and theological education–as CBF partners.”
One year the CBF refused to give Baptist Press credentials to cover the General Assembly because of perceived unfair reporting. The CBF Web site devotes an entire page titled “Truth About CBF” responding to “misinformation propagated about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and its ministries.”
The CBF statement concluded: “Free and faithful Baptists are mystified as to why SBC scholars employed by Southern Baptist institutions would malign the character and question the Christian commitment of scholars in CBF partnering institutions. To suggest that they are parasitic and lack biblical, theological integrity is un-Christian. We believe free and faithful Baptists and anyone with critical thinking skills can recognize this charade that the SBC leadership likes to play behind the masks of piety and purity. As free and faithful Baptists, we simply choose not to play this un-Christian game.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.