Here is a seven-point guidepost to how the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship differ.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination, but not the only national body of Southern Baptists. Two weeks from now, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship also will meet here.
Members in these two organizations once shared a cantankerous, common table. They now gather separately.
Here is a seven-point guidepost to how the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship differ:
First is size. The Southern Baptist Convention claims almost 16 million members and 40,000 churches. It owns six seminaries, has a huge publishing house, sponsors thousands of missionaries and controls numerous other entities, including a number of minor league teams called state conventions.
Southern Baptist Convention officials project the attendance of 16,550 participants, called “messengers,” and adoption of a $167,996,385 budget at their meeting.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship refuses to call itself a denomination, doesn’t have solid membership numbers, and its organizational structure is muddled. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has a small, albeit, growing bureaucracy, owns no organizations and controls very little if anything. It is a loose constellation of individuals, churches and partner organizations.
The organization anticipates 4,300 participants and adoption of a $16,984,120 budget.
Second is the affiliation of some of the nations best-known figures with Southern Baptists. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are Southern Baptists who are frequently targeted for criticism by SBC officials. Former President Jimmy Carter is a Southern Baptist, as is Billy Graham, yet he criticized the SBC’s targeting of Jews for conversion. Newt Gingrich once was the darling of the SBC before his second divorce and publicized affair.
Television evangelist Jerry Falwell, author John Grisham and Seminole football Coach Bobby Bowden are Southern Baptists. Bob Jones III, Jesse Jackson and Henry Lyons are Baptists without the southern modifier.
Third is Disney. My daughter divides Southern Baptists according to whether they boycott or visit Disney.
Those attending the first meeting in June will boycott Disney, believing that Disney is “increasingly promoting immoral ideologies.” They will thunder God’s judgment against those who tread on Disney properties.
Those who attend the second meeting will come early and stay late with discount passes to enjoy Disney. A goodly number will skip portions of the meeting to enrich their family vacation.
Fourth is leadership. The Southern Baptist Convention is preacher led. Only four laymen were elected president of the organization in the 20th century. No women have ever held the top spot.
On the other hand, the top three elected Cooperative Baptist Fellowship officers are women, one of whom serves as an ordained minister. During the organization’s 10-year history, the top elected post has rotated between clergy and laity, male and female.
Leading Cooperative Baptist Fellowship members is like herding cats, while leading Southern Baptist Convention folk is akin to driving cattle.
Fifth is the church’s role in politics. The Southern Baptist Convention is much more politically partisan. Speaking to The New York Times about the Republican Party, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s morality office, the Rev. Richard Land, said, “The go-along, get-along strategy is dead. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage.”
Instead of the symbolism of a wedding ring, CBF members prefer the image of a wall of separation between church and state. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship members are both conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans. They oppose state-written school prayer and believe the posting of the Ten Commandments on public buildings violates the First Amendment.
The SBC will express its moral positions through the adoption of non-binding resolutions. The CBF avoids resolutionary Christianity, believing local churches are the keys to expressing moral statements and giving moral witness.
Sixth is the Bible. SBC clergy will wear suits and carry big copies of the King James Bible. Their CBF counterparts will wear golf shirts and slacks and carry sunscreen.
All humor aside, the Bible is ground zero in the conflict among Southern Baptists. SBC loyalists say they believe the Bible literally. They favor the Old Testament law and the letters of Apostle Paul more than the Old Testament prophets and the Gospels.
CBF members read the Bible as a living document of divine instruction, when in fact they often interpret some texts literally. They highlight the Gospels, prefer the prophetic books and turn to Psalms for devotional reading.
Seventh is theology. The Southern Baptist Convention strives toward theological purity, offering a litmus test for membership. Called a confession but functioning as a creed, the Southern Baptist Convention revised its 37-year-old statement of faith in 1998, metaphorically making June Cleaver the model for biblical motherhood. More changes will be made at this year’s meeting.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has neither creed nor confession. Its theological boundaries are less fixed and more fluid. The organization’s code words are “priesthood of believers,” “local church autonomy” and “religious liberty.”
One practical consequence of these theological differences relates to ecumenism. Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention president, the Rev. Paige Patterson, said Southern Baptists “will not be drawn into ecumenical entanglements” and that the ecumenical movements are “the deceit of Satan.” A seminary president, the Rev. Al Mohler, said the Catholic Church “is a false church” and “teaches a false gospel.”
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, on the other hand, will consider a recommendation to prioritize “meaningful ecumenical partnerships and interfaith dialogue.”
Beneath these striking differences are profound similarities. Both are predominantly Anglo with a shared heritage of slavery and racism. Both stress their Southern values more than biblical principles. Both have sharp disagreements within churches over worship styles. Both have a missionary impulse to send people around the world for the sake of evangelism and organizational unity.
Watch both groups. Make up your own mind about how they walk their talk.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.