Threading the ethical needle is always a delicate matter in institutions and agencies that serve a diverse community.
This is especially true when an issue is seen from a wide variety of deeply held perspectives among the people who make up the community.
The evolving values that accompany a faith journey present a significant challenge in the areas of policy and practice that represent that community.
This has been the challenge faced by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Illumination Project – undertaken at the meeting point between a long-standing “hiring policy” and some tragic expressions of violence against LGBT persons.
Part of the context also includes a growing number of churches that have taken specific steps in response to the issue by adopting inclusive policies for both membership and ministry leadership.
The likelihood of division in such a context is obvious, and the project’s goal of exploring ways for such diversity to serve together in harmony is a noble one.
Those who were chosen to serve in the project are people of maturity and good will, and appreciation is due them for their hard and faithful work.
The work of the committee has been clear and transparent from the beginning. Many people were involved in formal interviews, and more provided input directly and indirectly to the committee. The process has been well publicized.
Now the report has been offered and the revised hiring policy within the report has been approved by the CBF governing board, and the conversation now begins to explore its implications.
Many voices have and will continue to weigh in on the report and its place in our ongoing journey together. The engagement of responses is an important part of the process of which the report is a significant threshold.
The tone of the report offers more of a guide for ongoing conversation than a fixed framework for adherence. These conversations can and should guide the way forward.
Two features of the two-part recommendation (“policy” and “implementation procedure”) have given me pause for reflection, in light of the specific issue and where CBF is historically as a coordinating nucleus of a diverse fellowship of churches.
The first is the policy itself and its elimination of the explicit singling out of one group of people for discrimination in hiring.
Framing the new policy with positive affirmations of faithfulness and affiliation, the project’s leaders have offered qualities that are embraceable by anyone who chooses to join CBF and its ministry.
In the accompanying commentary on the policy (page 17), the affirmation is made that “We will work alongside all churches as they discern and fulfill their God-given mission” (presumably including the churches who are welcoming and inclusive of LGBT persons in membership and ministry), and “we will gladly consider scholarship applications for any Cooperative Baptist student who senses a call to ministry, receives a recommendation from one of our churches and shows promise for exceptional ministerial leadership in the Fellowship.”
Those who have hoped for the removal of the stigma of official discrimination can certainly find in these words reason to be encouraged. It is a significant step.
The second feature is found in the “implementation procedure.”
It should be noted that the governing board did not vote to adopt the implementation procedure as policy, but the board voted to “receive” the report (including the implementation procedure).The implementation component is the responsibility of the executive coordinator.
It sets forth the normal indications of responsibility for hiring and assigning persons for specific places in the agency’s work, and the understandable affirmations about the sensitivities and needs of the contexts for such service.
Here the specter of discrimination, banished from official “policy,” peeks around the corner in the implementation procedure in response to a rationale that says, in effect, “Since most of our churches do not call LGBT persons to serve as pastors, the CBF office will reflect that practice by not employing them for leadership positions in ministry.”
Persons who meet the qualification for employment in ministry leadership roles will be those “who exhibit the ideals set forth in our hiring policy, have gifts appropriate to the particular position and who practice a traditional sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage between a woman and a man” (pages 21-22). It is pretty clear who is being excluded.
It should not surprise us that many will hear in these words the perspective, “Because of who you are and because of whom nature has programmed you to love, you are not worthy of full participation in Christ’s call to discipleship and ministry.”
These two features together – the removal of the older hiring policy and the retention of its discrimination in the implementation procedure – leave me with some thoughts I look forward to discussing further among our CBF family members.
We have taken down from the front door the most obvious signs of discrimination (“No Irish Need Apply,” “Whites Only,” “No Homosexuals Hired Here”), and that is a necessary and important step.
Wisdom leads us (and has led us in this step, I believe) to embrace community and to cooperate with God’s spirit in the transformation of our society and world in the direction of who we are created to become.
But wisdom also reminds us that the residue of discrimination (such as the racism and general xenophobia that affect our broader culture) remains and does its work long after the explicit signs come down. There is work yet to do – there always is.
Let us hope that our ongoing listening and speaking will continue to “illumine” all who call CBF “family,” and that we will continue to be faithful “works in progress.”
Illumination can either be a flashbulb that freezes an image of where we are or a lantern that lights the path toward what we hope to become. That choice is now clearly before us.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Illumination Project. The first article in the series is:
Illuminations: Agree to Disagree – Agreeably by Steve Wells
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).