A decade ago, I was leaving the pastorate to become editor of the Biblical Recorder, and giving up my seat on the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s (BSC) General Board (now Board of Directors) in order to do so.
A highlight of my truncated term on the General Board had been an assignment to serve on the Council on Christian Life and Public Affairs (CCLPA), admirably led by Doug Cole. I was delighted to learn that the BR editor was considered an ex officio member of the CCLPA, so I continued to participate in some measure for the next nine years.
One of the things I quickly learned — and appreciated — was the ground rule understanding that the CCLPA did not presume to speak for North Carolina Baptists. Instead, the council’s role was to investigate matters of ethical, social, church-state, and environmental concern, and speak to the Convention as a voice of conscience.
CCLPA leaders were assigned the task of relating to the legislature, working with other Christian groups and focusing mainly on social and humanitarian issues affecting the poor and disenfranchised. Representatives opposed easy access to alcohol, for example, and worked against government-sponsored gambling through the lottery, which adversely targets the poor. Long before environmentalism was widespread, the council urged N.C. Baptists to be good stewards of the earth: I often bag my own groceries in an “Earth Stewards” bag distributed years ago by the CCLPA.
The CCLPA also served as a clearinghouse for hunger funds contributed through the BSC, processing applications from Baptist-related soup kitchens or food pantries and distributing available money to them.
In the years I spent on the CCLPA, a number of changes took place. Cole’s position was “downsized” in a restructuring of the BSC staff. He was replaced by fellow-staffer Steve Sumerel, who continued the work in the same spirit as before.
As council members became increasingly more conservative, however, meetings sometimes became fractious. It was evident that some members wanted the council to shift directions and become a moral watchdog rather than a social conscience. Sumerel eventually resigned from BSC work, in part because of the competing visions and the clear direction in which council membership was going. There is no longer a full-time staff person assigned to the work of the council.
The CCLPA page on the BSC Website still says (as of today) “The Convention stipulates that the Council will always speak to our people rather than for them,” but that is apparently changing in a big way.
According to informative reporting by Norman Jameson of the Biblical Recorder, the CCLPA has engineered a complete about face in its approach. Roy Varner, pastor of Falling Creek Baptist Church in Goldsboro, recently spoke to the Board of Directors about the council’s work, and said “it’s just starting to get good.”
“We’re talking about a shift from just talking ‘to’ North Carolina Baptists, to talking ‘for’ North Carolina Baptists in the public forum,” Varner reported.
For example, the committee had discussed the issue of global warming, Varner said, and “the council wants the world to know that we never stop worshipping the creator and start worshipping mother earth.”
Next up, according to the Recorder’s report, the council plans to publish a public statement that “will define and defend marriage according to scripture.” Beyond that, it plans to address racism in the Southern Baptist Convention, what British pastor Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) could teach 21st century Baptists about politics, and stem cell research.
Of all the transformative shifts in BSC life, this is one of the most troubling, because it is the least Baptist.
One Baptist does not speak for another. We may speak to each other, and even about each other, but it is not in the nature of authentic Baptists to speak for each other or instruct each other on matters of conscience.
There’s a reason why Baptists are numbered among the Protestants.