The former head of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship says in a forthcoming book he wishes the group had long ago formed a new denomination, because the Southern Baptist Convention he once identified with no longer exists.
Cecil Sherman, the first paid coordinator of the CBF, led the fledgling moderate organization from 1992 to 1996. He is one of 29 authors contributing essays to a book due out in April titled Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War.
In his essay, Sherman said he believes moderates could have won the long struggle for control of the SBC if only they had hung together.
Long before the SBC holy war pitted fundamentalists against moderates in the 1980s, two groups co-existed largely apart from each other within the SBC tent, Sherman said.
One group was “into evangelism,” Sherman said, and was very conservative in theology. A second group “clustered around missions and the denomination” was also theologically conservative “by any reasonable standard,” such as compared to Methodists or Episcopalians, Sherman said.
“But we were open to ethical issues and usually came down on the progressive side of those issues,” he said. “Race, hunger, ecology, women–these issues found us voting a Democratic ticket and pushing for social change. We saw these as justice issues and appropriate to Christian concern.”
The two groups, Sherman said, “were almost exclusive. If you were in one, you were not in the other.”
“I never invited one of the right wing to my church,” he said. “Their gospel was different from mine. They went about doing church differently than the way I did. They read the Bible differently from me.”
“They did not know me, and I did not know them. Now their side runs the SBC.”
The CBF, which formed in 1991 in response to the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, early on avoided declaring itself a new denomination, fearing it would split churches and result in loss of funds.
While not classified as a convention, the CBF performs many services of a denomination. It appoints missionaries, endorses chaplains and supports seminaries. It also has been accepted as a member of the Baptist World Alliance, a global Baptist body which typically relates to Baptist conventions and unions.
Various terms used to describe the CBF have included “quasi-denomination” and “shadow denomination.”
The group’s current coordinator, Daniel Vestal, has described CBF as a “denomination-like organization” that serves the purpose of a denomination for an estimated 150 to 175 churches that relate to the CBF but aren’t affiliated with the SBC in any way.
Most of the estimated 1,800-2,000 churches that contribute to CBF relate to both groups. That runs the gamut between churches that allow a single member to designate that part of their church offerings be directed to CBF to congregations that fund CBF in their budget.
The CBF overwhelmingly rejected a motion to form a new convention in 1996, and then commissioned a major study that found no overwhelming reason for doing so. In 1995, Sherman said the CBF wasn’t yet ready to take that step, but he would be surprised if it hadn’t done so within 10 to 20 years.
Now, Sherman says, most CBF members no longer consider themselves Southern Baptists. While autonomous, he said, Baptist churches need some kind of system to help them with three important tasks. They need a missions-delivery system in order to obey the Great Commission, seminaries to train ministers and someone to write curriculum for Christian education.
“We call that ‘some kind of system’ a denomination,” Sherman wrote. “Then we get to the real question: what kind of denomination? This is the sixty-four dollar question.”
“I wish CBF had declared herself a denomination a long time ago,” Sherman said. “If a Baptist church wishes to be in SBC, ABC, CBF–and all at the same time–it is none of anybody’s business. This is Baptist polity. But that church needs help doing those three essential things. I am not cynical about denomination, and I wish moderates would come together and make a larger (not necessarily stronger) denomination.”
Sherman said one positive outcome of the SBC struggle for moderate churches has been “a rediscovery of Baptist polity.”
“Not many churches have had the backbone to pull out of the SBC, but several thousand churches have re-examined Baptist polity,” he said. “Though these churches have not pulled out of the SBC, they have pulled back from her. They divide their money with CBF and other good causes. They have come out of the Baptist cocoon; they are more likely to cooperate in interdenominational causes.
“These churches have put denomination in her place. The SBC had become too dear to us. It had become big, rich and very powerful. We worshiped her. It was an idolatry, and we will not do that again. But we still need the services of some kind of denomination.”
Sherman said he was only on the edge of Southern Baptist leadership before he convened a meeting in 1980 of 17 individuals in Gatlinburg, Tenn., to organize resistance to political fundamentalism that first captured the SBC presidency in 1979. Sherman’s group, nicknamed the “Gatlinburg Gang,” was the beginning of the counter-political group that came to be known as “moderates.”
While the group failed in its effort to regain power in the SBC, Sherman said, there were some successes.
“Contrary to the cynical comments of some, we were not politically naÃ¯ve,” he said. “We explained to thousands the consequences of a fundamentalist takeover. We gathered thousands to the annual meetings of the SBC. Our percentage of the vote grew from about 40 percent in 1981 to just over 48 percent…. We did what we could, but we lost.”
But Sherman said he also disagreed with people who say, “If you people had not quit, you could have won.”
“I think those people are mistaken,” Sherman said. “Fundamentalists do politics ‘as unto the Lord.’ Moderates feel dirty when they do denominational politics; they have no heart for it.”
Sherman said when he resigned from the SBC Peace Committee in 1986, he was most angry not with “those people” but with moderates.
“On the Peace Committee there were people who could have helped but wouldn’t,” he wrote. “They just couldn’t believe ‘those people’ were really going to make over the SBC. Or they didn’t agree that moderates needed to get together: ‘That’s not the Christian thing to do.’ Or they had a kind of pietistic rationale: ‘If we could just have a prayer meeting, this would be resolved and we would all live happily ever after.’ And most often of all, ‘Cecil, if you will just stand down, be quiet, this will all work out. The pendulum will swing.'”
“I’ve no doubt moderates could have won the SBC wars if moderates had been able to get together,” Sherman said.
Sherman said losing the SBC battle once bothered him, but it doesn’t any longer. Since retiring from CBF, he has taught adjunctively at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, a theological education “partner” of the CBF. Sherman said the formation of new seminaries and other CBF partner organizations ensure “there is going to be a moderate voice in this century.”
“The fundamentalist victory in the SBC wars did not silence us,” he said. “We are teaching, redefining ourselves, and stirring next generation of moderate Baptist leadership.”
Published by University of Tennessee Press, Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War is edited by Carl Kell, a communications professor at Western Kentucky University.
It is a follow-up volume to In the Name of the Father: The Rhetoric of the New Southern Baptist Convention, which Kell co-wrote with Ray Camp. The first book was a scholarly analysis of the preachers who gave voice to the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention,
Exiled is a collection of first-person stories by individuals ranging from denominational leaders to people in the pew estranged by the SBC takeover. But in addition to stories of casualties, Kell wrote in the book’s preface, there are also stories of “renewal and release.”
“The clear message of this book is that, in the 21st century, the exiled have a new voice: a rhetoric of freedom and a spirit of hopefulness for the future,” Kell wrote. “For them, there is a new and exciting promised land. They are no longer in captivity; they are free.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.