The Doctrinal Trajectory of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the First Thirty Years, Pt. 1 – Introduction

In May 1991, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) was formed in Atlanta, Georgia, to serve as an alternative mission sending agency to that of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).[1] While the CBF was not initially formed as a different denomination, differences between the CBF and the SBC were still acknowledged at the time. For example, in his “Address to the Public,”[2] Walter B. Shurden stated, “It should be apparent that the points of difference are critical. … We are different. It is regrettable, but we are different.”[3] Shurden’s second major heading in that document was “Our Understandings Are Different.”[4] He listed six differences between the SBC and the CBF, and then, to emphasize the point, used some form of the word ‘different’ eleven times to drive home the necessity of creating this new fellowship. Yet, he claimed that these differences and the necessity of a new “fellowship,” “does not require that we sever ties with the old Southern Baptist Convention.”[5] However, by 2002, when the CBF sought acceptance into the Baptist World Alliance,[6] they offered “supporting documents to show they are a separate organization from the SBC and that their understanding of what being an organized body of Baptist churches and individuals in a covenant relationship is different from the SBC’s.”[7]

            This series of articles seeks to show that the differences between the SBC and the CBF acknowledged in 1991 at the CBF’s founding are far greater in 2021, as the CBF has now had thirty years to mature, define, and redefine who they are as a fellowship. Because of the way the CBF functions as a fellowship of affiliated churches and entities without a developed statement of faith, and not as a centralized denomination, one would be hard-pressed to find many official statements declaring what the CBF stands for or against. Thus, to more clearly understand the doctrinal trajectory of the CBF, one must look to their professed core values, the evolving explanation of those values, and how those values impact both their approaches to ethical issues and missions. The core values of the CBF function as their confession of faith, and all churches who choose to affiliate with the CBF indicate their agreement to these doctrines. Quotes from representative pastors, affiliated church members, affiliated theologians, and affiliated institutions will demonstrate not only how their core values have been and are currently understood, but the evolving trajectory of how they have been applied.

            To demonstrate the trajectory of the changes from the CBF’s founding to the present, as well as the increasing differences between the CBF and the SBC, this paper was organized into three sections: Doctrine, Ethics, and Missions. Doctrinally, the CBF has held to four core values from its beginning: soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom.[8] Ethically, this paper will examine the CBF’s progression on two prominent issues from the last thirty years: the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage (with the conversation on marriage by necessity intersecting with issues of homosexuality, gender, and other LGBTQ+ issues). Finally, this paper will examine the landscape of the CBF’s missional endeavors, demonstrating how the CBF’s emphasis on the purpose of missions has shifted over thirty years. Unless otherwise noted, all the documentation used in this paper is from sources that are either affiliated with the CBF or found in the CBF Archives at the Jack Tarver Library on the campus of Mercer University.

Note: To adapt this paper for a blog series, it has been divided into ten parts: introduction, soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, religious freedom, an assessment of the core values, sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage, missions, and a conclusionary thoughts.


            To determine what a denomination or fellowship of like-minded believers believes, one would typically look to a statement of faith. However, the CBF is staunchly opposed to statements of faith.[9] However, we can look to what Walter B. Shurden presented at the CBF Convocation on May 9, 1991 on behalf of the interim steering committee to determine the CBF’s fundamental doctrines. As Shurden notes in this foundational document, his list of core values “gives insight into what Moderate Southern Baptists believe to be consistent with the Baptist tradition of freedom and responsibility.”[10]

            The four freedoms upon which the CBF was founded (referred to today as their Core Values), are Soul Freedom, Bible Freedom, Church Freedom, and Religious Freedom. As Shurden states,

            [I] first identified the four freedoms discussed in this book in the concluding chapter of my book The Life of Baptists in the Life of the World, published in 1985. … [I] arrived at these Baptist Freedoms by analyzing the sermons and addresses given by Baptists from around the world at the meetings of the Baptist World Alliance from 1905 to 1980. [My] conviction is that the Baptist World Alliance is the best place to look if one wants to mark major Baptist distinctives.[11]

Shurden consciously roots these four Baptist freedoms in the twentieth century of Baptist thought, emphasizing the centrality of one’s individual relationship to God, rather than discussing them in the context of the whole of Baptist thought from the seventeenth century to the present, which has not always reflected the modern understanding of the primacy of the individual.

            Though Shurden places the core values in a slightly different order in The Baptist Identity (listing Bible Freedom before Soul Freedom), we will examine them in the order they are currently listed on the CBF web page under the heading, “Who We Are.”[12]

[1] Walter B. Shurden, and Randy Shepley, eds., Going for the Jugular: A Documentary History of the SBC Holy War (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996), 270.

[2] Shurden and Shepley, Jugular, 266. This address to the public was subtitled by Shurden as “The Founding Document of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” and was delivered on behalf of the Interim Steering Committee of the CBF.

[3] Shurden and Shepley, Jugular, 269.

[4] Shurden and Shepley, Jugular, 267.

[5] Shurden and Shepley, Jugular, 270.

[6] The Baptist World Alliance is a network of Baptists at a global level. For more information, see

[7] Spartanburg Herald Journal, “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Joins the Baptist World Alliance,” July 19, 2003, accessed August 16, 2021.

[8] Shurden, Walter B, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1993) 9, 23, 33, 45.

[9] Shurden, The Baptist Identity, 4. See also Scott Walker, “What it Means to be Baptist: Priesthood of the Believer,” (CBF Convocation, Atlanta, GA, May 10, 1991), CBF Archives, Jack Tarver Library at Mercer University in Macon, GA (hereafter cited as CBF Archives).

[10] Shurden, The Baptist Identity, 97.

[11] Shurden, The Baptist Identity, 4.

[12] Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, “Who We Are,” 2021, accessed August 18, 2021.

Note – This article was co-written by Terry Delaney and Dr. Gary Shultz, Jr.

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