In February, EthicsDaily.com ran a news story describing an article in forthcoming book, where the former head of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship says he wishes the group had long ago formed a new denomination.
What Cecil Sherman had to say in the article rings true to me. I have wished many times CBF had a more definable identity.
Some of my earliest memories of life are of attending First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. Our pastor, Paul Caudill, was larger than life, and so was FBC Memphis. We attended Sunday and Wednesday; participated in RAs, all types of choirs and sports, as well as Training Union; and went to camps in the summer (and I’m sure I am leaving some things out).
Our family took up a whole pew every time we attended a service, and yet my father could reach my shoulder for the sometimes necessary pinch of discipline–no matter how far down the pew I was.
Later we moved to Louisville, Ky., where we also attended a Baptist church and for the first time I was introduced to “The” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I remember going swimming in the indoor pool there and learning how to scuba dive from some crazy missionary kids, or “MKs,” whom our family knew from our Memphis days.
I also have this hazy recollection of hearing Duke McCall preach at a church we visited early on in our time in Louisville and being awed by this man behind the pulpit. I knew in some indistinct inner sense that I wanted to be like him some day.
After five years or so my family moved back closer to our roots in Jackson, Miss.
Eventually, through a strange set of events, I wound up at Wheaton College in Illinois just outside of Chicago. For the first time in my life I heard the word “evangelical,” and I have been trying to come to grips with “evangelicalism” and its often ambiguous adherents ever since.
After college I went to law school back in Mississippi and then practiced law for several years in the Delta. During these years I was married and we started a family.
At that point, in the early 1990s, the struggle in the SBC was for all purposes over. For good or ill, this was also when I experienced the call to ministry and then went about the tortuous task of trying to decide where to go to seminary.
I ended up at Truett Seminary at Baylor, and my life was forever changed. We studied the Bible and theology in ways I was unfamiliar with, and this opened a new world for me. Of course, it created many moments of anxiety and intellectual/spiritual crisis.
Things were not nearly so simple as I had assumed them to be. Nevertheless, I trudged on into a wholly different kind of education in the ministry–first in a small-town county-seat church in Mississippi and then in a somewhat larger (though certainly not large) church in Georgia.
It was during my approximately five years serving as a pastor that I faced what I can perhaps best describe as my own exile. I felt isolated and misunderstood. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and self-pity.
“Moderate” mentors and peers were hard to find and seemed all too far away. The members of the churches I served either didn’t agree with me about what had happened to the SBC, or (and this seemed to be the majority) didn’t think it really was relevant to their lives.
Over time, I began to wonder whether trying to educate folks about the changes in Baptist life was worth it. I would go to CBF meetings, sometimes on the sly, but could not really be active and quite honestly sometimes felt as much like an outsider at the CBF as I did regarding the SBC.
To this day as I read CBF publications and listen in on CBF conversations, I know in my heart that these are my type of people.
A good friend and one of the few mentors I feel blessed to have known during ministry once told me about Carlyle Marney’s disillusionment with Baptist life. Marney described climbing the wall to leave, but when he did and surveyed the other options available, he slid back down the wall into the Baptist camp.
In large part that is where I am. I have climbed the wall, and the other options don’t look any better. In fact, in many ways, the CBF is very attractive, and I believe it needs to stop apologizing. We need to move on from the past and to find our own voice.
I believe the CBF should become a denomination committed to the broader Baptist heritage. It should incarnate inclusiveness and real dialogue regarding the ongoing ethical, theological, biblical and social issues of our time.
It should continually maintain a self-critical as well as a counter-cultural stance. This will mean listening to some Christian voices outside of our heritage as well as holding fast to those who have carried us along until now.
(Some of those I would want to listen to as part of the conversation are N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, Rodney Clapp, Stanley Hauerwas, Reinhold Niebuhr, Fred Craddock, Charles Marsh, Eugene Peterson, etc.)
This essay is personal and perhaps myopic. Yet, if it will spur on conversation and legitimate dialogue among the diaspora of “moderate” Baptists, then I have not wasted ink (or is it more accurate to write cyberspace?) or time in writing it.
Dave Meadors is a graduate student in the J.M. Dawson Institute at Baylor University.