After religious and secular wire services circulated stories highlighting removal of a reference to Jesus Christ from the constitution of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, leaders of the Atlanta-based group said they are sensitive to concerns raised about the new wording and pledged to address them.
Baptist Press on July 1 ran a headline reading “CBF modifies constitution; removes reference to Jesus in purpose statement.” The article quoted Southern Baptist Convention leaders critical of the change and prompted an Associated Press story that appeared in media outlets across the nation under headlines including, “Dissident Baptist group deletes mention of Jesus in constitution.”
While not mentioning any specific criticism, a new statement on the CBF Web site says, “Some have criticized the wording of the revised ‘Article II. Purpose’ for not explicitly using the name of Jesus, as had the previous version.”
The statement says the CBF’s board of directors, called the Coordinating Council, “is sensitive to the concerns expressed on this issue and will address them.”
At its June 30-July 1 General Assembly in Grapevine, Texas, the CBF approved revisions to its constitution and bylaws.
A new purpose article now reads: “The purpose of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship … is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission. The Fellowship shall fulfill its purpose in keeping with its commitments to the historic Baptist principles of soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom; to biblically-based global missions; to a resource model for serving churches; to justice and reconciliation; to lifelong learning and ministry; to trustworthiness; and to effectiveness.”
Previously, the article described the CBF’s purpose as “to bring together Baptists who desire to call out God’s gifts in each person in order that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be spread throughout the world in glad obedience to the Great Commission.”
According to news reports, CBF leaders opposed two motions from the floor of the General Assembly to return the document back to the committee for further study.
“There is no reference to Christ, no reference to evangelism in this new article,” Bob DeFoor, pastor of First Baptist Church in Harrodsburg, Ky., said, according to Baptist Press. “A few years ago, another organization did just that … they left Jesus out. We need to make our commitment to Christ explicit. We need to make our commitment to evangelism explicit. We don’t need to leave Jesus out.”
One former CBF leader reportedly cautioned the General Assembly against “nitpicking.” The immediate past moderator said the absence of a reference to Jesus shouldn’t be a concern, adding the document “reflects our strategic plan.”
Dick Allison of Hattiesburg, Miss., chairman of the CBF legal committee, said the intent was to bring the language in the Fellowship’s governing documents in line with its publicized mission statement, according to the Baptist Standard.
“Putting our mission statement into our governing documents in no way diminishes our commitment to the Great Commission; quite the opposite,” outgoing moderator Bob Setzer said in a statement defending the revision. “By being more specific about what it means to honor our Lord’s command, we hope to show we’re serious about proclaiming the gospel in word and deed to all people everywhere.”
An information section on the CBF Web site lists the group’s vision statement as “Being the presence of Christ in the world.”
But none of that could stop CBF opponents from having a field day. Russell Moore, a dean and vice president at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it “represents the eclipse of Christ in the moderate Baptist movement.”
Al Mohler, president of the seminary in Louisville, Ky., commented to Baptist Press: “My central concern is what this means about the true nature of the CBF and its commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The nomenclature of a mission statement sets forth an organization’s central convictions and commitments. How can any organization of churches redefine itself without evangelism without intending to send a message about a larger theological shift?”
The Associated Press picked up on the story last week—two weeks after the General Assembly—citing “Baptist media” as the source.
The CBF, which claims 1,800 churches, separated from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1991 over doctrinal differences. Despite being part of a much larger organization, claiming more than 40,000 churches, SBC leaders view the breakaway group as competition and have frequently criticized CBF throughout the years, largely through Baptist Press.
Just last year the SBC ended 99 years of affiliation with the Baptist World Alliance, because the BWA voted to accept CBF as a member body.
Previous accusations, including that the CBF is soft on homosexuality and that it is unclear about whether an individual must accept Christ in order to be saved, prompted the CBF to devote an entire section to its Web site, titled “Truth About CBF” created to “respond to misinformation propagated about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and its ministries.”
Mohler’s comment about concern over the “true nature of the CBF and its commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ” is ironic to CBF ears. He was a member of an SBC committee that in 2000 recommended changes to the Baptist Faith & Message.
One change was removal of a phrase in the 1963 version of the faith statement: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Moderates critical of the removal said it “demotes Jesus” and turned the Bible into an idol.
The Baptist Faith & Message study committee said in a statement they removed the Jesus reference from the article on Scripture “because it has been subject to misunderstanding.”
“Jesus Christ cannot be divided from the biblical revelation that is testimony to Him,” the statement explained. “We must not claim a knowledge of Christ that is independent of Scripture or in any way in opposition to Scripture. Likewise, Scripture cannot be set against Scripture.”
The Southern Baptist Convention constitution also omits any explicit reference to Christ or the Great Commission. The constitution, adopted in 1845, describes the SBC’s purpose as “to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories for the promotion of Christian missions at home and abroad and any other objects such as Christian education, benevolent enterprises, and social services which it may deem proper and advisable for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.