The Doctrinal Trajectory of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the First Thirty Years, Pt. 9 – Missions

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

            The CBF was originally founded as an alternative missions sending agency to the SBC. Because this was the primary reason for the founding of the CBF, the literature and rhetoric of this time often centers on the mission, and therefore the Great Commission gospel work, of the local church. At the CBF Convocation in May 1991, Dan Vestal stated, “We have come to know God through faith in Jesus Christ. . . . We’ve experienced that Gospel. But we’ve not only experienced it, we’ve been entrusted with it.”[1] In 1993, Cecil Sherman clearly articulated the gospel in addressing the issue of homosexuality. He proudly proclaimed, “God loves you, sent His Son to die for you. You can be remade by the grace of God. You can come to a life that is pleasing to Him. This is Good News, and our business is to go and tell it.”[2]

            The CBF’s evolving view of the mission of the church as centered in the gospel message of Scripture is perhaps most clearly found in three key addresses delivered by Walter Shurden. In 1991, he stated the “mission task is to reach people for faith in Jesus Christ by preaching, teaching, healing and other ministries of mercy and justice. … Fundamentalists … allow their emphasis on direct evangelism to undercut other biblical ministries of mercy and justice. This narrowed definition of what a missionary ought to be is a contention between us.”[3] Shurden reiterated this stance in a 2011 address delivered on June 27, 2001, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the CBF.[4]

            But, in 2011, Shurden redefines mission as he redefines the gospel. He calls on the CBF to

            Find new ways to think of what it means to be ‘lost’ in our society. … Scaring hell out of people no longer works for churches, so a redefinition of ‘lost’ is in order if our churches are to have authentic growth. Loneliness and the need for community, alienation and the need for reconnecting, meaninglessness and the need for purpose, the inability to find a sanctuary for shame and guilt, and the deep, deep sense that one is not loved – these are the marks of lostness in our time. … If we do not believe that people live hellish lives today in homes that surround our churches, we will have little success in developing any passion and urgency for the gospel at any level, local or national.[5]

            Today, the CBF simply states that, “God calls and equips us to spread the hope of Jesus Christ to the least evangelized, most marginalized people on earth. Whether we’re feeding the hungry, lifting up the voiceless, digging for water or helping families get back on their feet after a disaster, we and those with whom we minister experience renewal.”[6] Specific mention is made of mercy ministries, but not of the content of the hope of Jesus Christ, the gospel.

            Whereas the CBF called the SBC to task for not engaging in mercy ministries in the latter half of the 20th century as part of a gospel ministry and mission,[7] today the predominant missional emphasis of the CBF has replaced the gospel of Jesus Christ with social justice issues. To better understand the lack of an emphasis on the gospel in the CBF, including discussion of missions, one can go to cbf.net and search for “gospel.” There were only 39 results with the lead result being “The Gospel Ministry of Advocacy,” a locked PDF file that requires personal information to access.[8] That document was primarily concerned with immigration reform and was from the fellowship! magazine dated February/March 2014.  Yet any mission or ministry that is not rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ as defined in Scripture (e.g., 1 Cor 15:1-3) cannot claim to be fulfilling  Jesus’ Great Commission, and therefore cannot claim to be biblical missions.


[1] Daniel Vestal, “Address,” The Baptist Fellowship, May 9, 1991, CBF Archives.

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

[3] Walter B. Shurden, “An Address to the Public from the Interim Steering Committee,” CBF Archives.

[4] Walter B. Shurden, “A Decade of Promise,” June 27, 2001, The Shurden Papers Archives, Jack Tarver Library at Mercer University in Macon, GA (hereafter cited as Shurden Papers).

[5] Walter B. Shurden, “I Remember…I Hope,” Tampa, FL, June 24, 2011, Shurden Papers.

[6] Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, “Learn About the CBF,” 2021, https://cbf.net/learn-about-cbf, accessed October 6, 2021.

[7] “[The SBC allows] their emphasis on direct evangelism to undercut other biblical ministries of mercy and justice.” Shurden, Jugular, 268.

[8] Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, 2021, accessed October 6, 2021.

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

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