The Doctrinal Trajectory of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the First Thirty Years, Pt. 8 – Sanctity of Marriage

Read Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four, Part Five, Part Six, and Part Seven.

            The issue of the sanctity of marriage is a recent conversation in world history and consequently in church history.[1] This discussion, however, is not simply about marriage, but also about human sexuality and gender, and therefore the issues of marriage and LGBTQ+ rights are necessarily intermingled together. Unlike the issue of abortion, this ethical issue has been heavily discussed and debated by the CBF. These issues were also the subject of the first ever resolution passed by the CBF General Assembly.

            In July 1991, during a lecture delivered to the Wake Forest University Pastor’s School, supported by the CBF as “an advocate for theological education and the training of ministers in Baptist churches and other Baptist institutions and ministries,”[2] the lecturer stated that same-sex attraction “is not something to be celebrated as an (sic) legitimate alternative life-style.”[3] This lecturer concludes “by saying that the real wonder of the God revealed in the Jews and Jesus Christ is that He is the male God who does not act like a man. He is the masculine God of power who exercises it by means of the feminine virtue of mercy.”[4]

            In March 1992, during a panel discussion at Wake Forest University, Ralph C. Wood, current Professor of Theology & Literature at Baylor University, offered a statement on homosexuality in a discussion of “Theology, Homosexuality, and Convention” at Wake Forest University. He states, “Only in humanity does sexual orientation vitally matter: God creates us male and female. … Scripture calls us to join God in affirming the goodness of His creation by fruitfully multiplying.”[5] He concludes that “Homosexuality … denies the gracious order of God’s complementary creation: it rejects otherness in favor of sameness. … Such sex goes against the very grain of creation. Homosexual intercourse turns deliberately away from procreation.”[6] At the beginning of the CBF, the theological education one received at Wake Forest was opposed to same-sex marriage. 

            But it wasn’t just theological institutions opposing same-sex marriage at the CBF’s founding. Cecil Sherman, one of the founders of the CBF, stated in an article for Baptists Today dated April 1, 1993, that he hoped the “CBF will not make ‘a statement’ on this subject.” [7] He felt compelled, however, to speak to the issue because he was the one asking people to fund the mission work of the CBF and therefore wanted to go on record as to what he personally believed. He maintained, “The Bible teaches homosexuality is a sin.”[8] He said that he thinks “the gay interpreter of the Bible twists the first and traditional meaning of the text. Those who defend the homosexual using the Bible are poor interpreters who are more into American culture than they are into Bible intention.”[9] He declared that he did not believe the CBF would “appoint a practicing homosexual to be a missionary.”[10] His final comment is in response to the question “Are we against homosexuals?” to which he answered, “Yes, we are against the sin. But we have a wonderful message for those people. … God loves you, sent His Son to die for you. You can be remade by the grace of God.”[11] All of these statements would have been affirmed by any Southern Baptist today.[12]

            In 1992, the Alliance of Baptists, “a group of progressive Baptists and Christians committed to enacting God’s love and justice in the world,”[13] appointed a task force led by the Alliance President Ann Quattlebaum, who was a member of the CBF-affiliated First Baptist Church, Greenville, SC. The purpose of the “Task Force on Human Sexuality” was “to develop a working statement for consideration by the Board of Directors of the Alliance of Baptists on the subject of human sexuality with special attention to persons having a same-sex attraction.”[14] While legitimately calling for repentance due to unjust treatments of same-sex oriented persons, they also opened the door for acceptance of homosexuality as a God-approved lifestyle by stating that, “Scripture must be interpreted using all the gifts of human experience and aspects of human reason given by God. … Personal experiences, as well as the relevant insights of historians and social and physical scientists, are to be received as legitimate resources in our understanding of God’s truth.”[15] Furthermore, they stated “that Scripture must be interpreted in light of the experiences of the interpreters – individual and shared – in and through which the Holy Spirit may speak in new and insightful ways.[16] This statement on the Holy Spirit’s continued revelation of new truth in the Scriptures would become a common one in this discussion.

            In July 2000, Dan Vestal, another of the founders of the CBF, wrote in an email to Lindsay Bergstrom that the CBF “has never issued any statement, taken any action, or spent a single dollar that was intended in any way to condone, endorse or promote the gay-lesbian lifestyle.”[17] Later, in October 2000, the CBF Coordinating Council adopted a two-paragraph statement on homosexuality by a 35-23 margin. The statement was titled “A Statement of an Organizational Value Regarding the Funding of Partners,” and reads as follows:

As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness. We also     believe in the love and grace of God for all people, both for those who live by this understanding of the biblical standard and those who do not. We treasure the freedom of individual conscience and the autonomy of the local church, and we also believe that congregational leaders should be persons of moral integrity whose lives exemplify the highest standards of Christian conduct and character.

Because of this organizational value, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.[18]

This statement caused an uproar in the CBF, and while the statement was eventually approved, it was amended to change the words “organizational value” to “personnel and administrative funding policy.” [19] This statement became the focus of the Illumination Project in 2016.

            In a March 2012 article for the Associated Baptist Press, Bob Allen reports that Dan Vestal defended the CBF’s ban on hiring gays from 2000. Vestal is quoted,

Except for a small handful of Baptist churches, the vast majority of churches that partner within CBF will not call/hire/ordain a practicing gay/lesbian Christian as pastor or ministering staff member,” Vestal said. “It is because of our desire both to serve these churches and extend their ministry around the world that CBF does not ‘allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.’[20]

Allen wrote this article due to the Baptist Conference on Sexuality and Covenant scheduled to take place in April 2012 at First Baptist Decatur, GA.[21] Vestal said that he could “think of no more ‘Baptist’ thing to do than to speak freely and lovingly in community as we each seek to define our own Christian sexual ethic.”[22]

            As the Supreme Court announced their decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, the rhetoric and consequent pressure to repeal the 2000 statement intensified throughout the CBF.[23] At the General Assembly in June 2016, “Suzii Paynter recommended an ‘Illumination Project’ approved by the Governing Board (formerly the Coordinating Council) to develop models for the Fellowship community to air differences not only about the hiring ban but also other hot-button issues dividing churches, denominations and society.”[24]

            In July 2016, Russ Dean, a pastor at Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, wrote an article titled, “When it comes to same-sex marriage, it’s all over but the shoutin.’”[25] In this article, he claims, “Text and context go together, and as cultural, scientific and social advance give us new understandings, God gives us new truth — through the same, ancient word.”[26] Near the end of the article, he makes two comments that demonstrate the new understanding on this issue, and how different it was from the CBF’s understanding when it was founded.  First, Dean states, “Anyone just coming to the conversation should not expect to be allowed the same amount of time.”[27] The implication is the times have changed and there are no longer any valid reasons why one should not celebrate same-sex marriages. Second, he says about the Christian church, “As with too many other social issues, the Church is sadly proving itself the last to accept God’s continuing revelation.”[28] In other words, the truth of Scripture is not settled, and God is still speaking; culture must change our understanding of what the Scriptures actually say. 

            At the CBF General Assembly in July 2016, moderator Doug Dortch appointed a “five-member committee charged in part with guiding the organization through renewed controversy over its longstanding policy against hiring LGBTQ people.”[29] One year later, Charlie Fuller, the Illumination Project committee chair, said during a breakout session at the General Assembly that they “have chosen a specific process that uses secular language, but we believe it’s designed to hear Holy Spirit … designed to hold two opposing ideas in tension … We’re looking for a win-win, where nobody believes there is one.”[30]

            By September 2017, there were over 500 names added to an online petition urging the repeal of the 2000 ban, including twelve former moderators of the CBF. The petition read in part, “Today the truths of science, voices of reason, witness of experience and a fresh hearing of Scripture all compel us to live a wider mercy and extend gospel justice to those excluded by their sexual or gender identity.”[31] By February 2018, the moderator of the CBF, Shauw Chin Capps, claimed that the new hiring policy arrived through the research of the Illumination Project in order “to attempt to meet various CBF constituencies ‘where they are.’”[32] The very next day, Bob Allen reported that “The Governing Board voted unanimously to replace an 18-year-old policy barring ‘the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual’ with a new policy that does not mention sexual orientation.”[33]

            Although the CBF’s core value of church freedom indicates that denominational governance can never tell a local congregation what to believe, the discussion around the Illumination Project demonstrates that the CBF will instruct churches on what is in their best interests and encourage them to get on board about certain issues, at least when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. To further the acceptance of homosexuality, the CBF established the Affirming Network at a breakfast in June 2018 during the General Assembly. Bojangles Blanchard, a co-founder for the Affirming Network said, “The old hiring policy was replaced with a new one that contained no discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While this is certainly progress, the problem was that an implementation procedure rooted in homophobia was also accepted by the CBF governing board along with the new hiring policy.”[34] The stated purpose of the Affirming Network according to is that it

Will create a foundation from which LGBTQ church members and leaders can speak to their own unique experiences and advocate for full inclusion at CBF’s national level but more importantly, at the church level. This is where true heart-changing occurs because within churches, folk develop relationships with each other that erodes the “us and them” mentality of hetero-exclusivism.”[35]

In other words, the network will not be satisfied until every church that is affiliated with the CBF affirms the LGBTQ agenda in addition to same-sex marriage. Both this statement and the Illumination Project directly contradict Vestal’s statement sixteen years prior that the CBF has not endorsed or condoned the gay-lesbian lifestyle.[36]

Supporting the CBF’s Ethical Positions

            Clearly, though perhaps not always officially, the CBF has made its ethical positions known on matters of abortion and same-sex marriage. The CBF has repeatedly communicated their position not only through statements, articles, and conferences, but through the funding of pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ+ agencies.[37] The CBF continues to claim that it is ultimately up to the local church to decide for itself its position on these matters, but their national Governing Board (formerly the Coordinating Council) has increasingly made it difficult and uncomfortable for anyone who disagrees on the matters of sexuality and marriage to remain affiliated with the CBF through efforts like the 2012 Baptist Conference on Sexuality and Covenant and the 2016 Illumination Project. By giving to the CBF, a local church is implicitly, if not explicitly, affirming both a pro-abortion and pro-LGBTQ values system.

[1] This is in reference to the legalization of civil unions in the country of Denmark in 1989 and in the state of Vermont in 2000, leading to the U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage as constitutional in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

[2] “Consortium of Theological Schools Partnering with CBF,” CBF Archives.

[3] “The Threat of Ideological Sexuality to the Gospel that is Not an Ideology,” Lecture IV, Wake Forest University Pastor’s School, Delivered July 12, 1991, Lecturer unknown, CBF Archives.

[4] “The Threat of Ideological Sexuality to the Gospel that is Not an Ideology.”

[5] Ralph C. Wood, “A Brief Statement on Homosexuality by Ralph C. Wood. Panel Discussion on “Theology, Homosexuality, and Convention,” Wake Forest University, March 4, 1992, CBF Archives.

[6] “A Brief Statement on Homosexuality.”

[7] Cecil Sherman, “Sherman in Atlanta, Again,” Baptists Today, April 1, 1993, CBF Archives.

[8] Sherman, “Sherman in Atlanta, Again.”

[9] Sherman, “Sherman in Atlanta, Again.”

[10] Sherman, “Sherman in Atlanta, Again.”

[11] Sherman, “Sherman in Atlanta, Again.”

[12] This is in keeping with an historical and orthodox understanding of biblical sexuality and marriage. See the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 sections 3 and 18.

[13] Alliance of Baptists, History, 2021, accessed October 14, 2021.

[14] “A Clear Voice – The Alliance of Baptists Report of the Task Force on Human Sexuality,” CBF Archives, 1.

[15] “A Clear Voice,” 7.

[16] “A Clear Voice,” 7, emphasis added.

[17] Daniel Vestal, personal correspondence, “CBF and the issue of homosexuality: A response to recent reports from Baptist Press,” July 2000, CBF Archives.

[18] “A Statement of an Organizational Value Regarding the Funding of Partners,” CBF Archives.

[19] Bob Allen, “CBF council adopts value statement ‘welcoming but not affirming’ of gays,” ABP News, October 13, 2000, CBF Archives.

[20] Bob Allen, “Vestal Defends the CBF Hiring Policy,” Baptist Global News, March 8, 2012.

[21] We were unable to find anything in the Mercer Archives or online as to the content of that conference, except for a few reactionary articles.

[22] Allen, “Vestal Defends the CBF Hiring Policy.”

[23] An internet search for “same-sex marriage” will show the number of news articles and opinion pieces at progressive Baptist news websites like were almost non-existent until after 2012, and only increased in volume in the following years.

[24] Bob Allen, “Analysis: A Timeline of CBF’s LGBTQ Debate,” Baptist Global News, July 7, 2016, emphasis added.

[25] Russ Dean, “When it comes to same-sex marriage, it’s all over but the shoutin,’Baptist Global News, July 13, 2016.

[26] Dean. “It’s all over but the shoutin,’” emphasis added.

[27] Dean. “It’s all over but the shoutin.’

[28] Dean. “It’s all over but the shoutin.’

[29] Jeff Brumley, “CBF appoints committee to implement Illumination Project,” Baptist Global News, July 22, 2016.

[30] Bob Allen, “Illumination Project seeks light, not heat, on controversial issues, task force reports at CBF,” Baptist Global News, July 3, 2017.

[31] Bob Allen, “Former moderators sign petition urging repeal of CBF hiring ban,” Baptist Global News, September 29, 2017.

[32] Bob Allen, “CBF moderator says proposed LGBTQ hiring policy meets Fellowship Baptists ‘where they are,’Baptist Global News, February 8, 2018.

[33] Bob Allen, “CBF relaxes policy on hiring LGBTQ staff, but maintains some restrictions,” Baptist Global News, February 9, 2018.

[34] Bojangles Blanchard, “Breakfast at CBF Launches Network for LGBTQ Inclusion,” Good Faith Media, June 21, 2018.

[35], accessed October 6, 2021, emphasis added.

[36] See footnotes 16 and 17.

[37] Russell D. Moore, “CBF to Approve Funding for Pro-Homosexual Groups; Gay Church Literature Featured in CBF Exhibit,” Baptist Press, June 30, 2000. Though the CBF does not publish all of the agencies it supports on their website, the ministry referenced in this article, The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, still networked with the CBF and was still involved in promoting the LGTBQ+ agenda through their organization as of 2017. See their 2017 Annual Report.

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