Friday, June 20, 2008

Whither the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? Don't ignore the glue that binds 'em

Within the past four decades, two major U.S. Christian denominations have been wracked with internal dissension over how to interpret the Bible. One said the debate was over "infallibility" of the Scriptures; the other said the issue was "inerrancy" of the Bible. For all practical purposes the debates were the same. 

In both cases—the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention—each denomination arrived on the threshold of a major division that might have divided each group along 50-50 or 60-40 percentage lines. However, in each case the losing side—in both cases known by the same "Moderate" label—hesitated so long and waffled on what to do that it not only lost the battle but ended up a tiny fraction of what it might have been.

The so-called Moderate wing of the Missouri Synod—once a very powerful and influential force—vanished completely into the annals of church history.  Its remnants were absorbed into other pre-existing Lutheran bodies.

The lingering remnants of the SBC's Moderate wing are scattered and divided—hardly a shadow of what they formerly were—but lurking still like defeated bands of Confederate soldiers roaming the familiar countryside not quite sure what to do with themselves. Fractured and divided, their only common thread seems to be their disdain for the entrenched conservative rulers of the SBC.

  This week in Memphis the largest group of those war veterans—the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship—met for its annual reunion. It displayed once again how small, insignificant, and angry the group has become. Its stagnated budget is but a tiny glimmer of the much wealthier SBC and its membership totals remain vague and nebulous--apparently hopelessly intertwined with SBC totals. Remaining passive while a key leader likened their debacle in the SBC to Hitler's Holocaust exposed the group's continuing seething anger.

I find feeling sorry for the CBF members easy because, as one extremely honest former Southern Baptist exec said to me over coffee one day: "I've spent my life swimming in this huge lake called Southern Baptists. I just don't know that I could ever move over and swim in a tiny pond (the CBF). What would I do?"

Many, particularly those with white hair at the Memphis meeting, once were influential in the SBC—often members of its huge bureaucracy somewhere. Now too many of them are crowded on the same ship without enough lay people to lead and not enough denominational money to function like in "the good ole days".

The lingering SBC Moderates have reinforced what I observed within the Missouri Synod: Denominations are made up of much more than just theology and common beliefs that bind them together. This "glue" consists of family ties, friendships, common histories, common ancestries, emotional connections, cultural language, and varied and assorted other things that create bonds between human beings.  

When push comes to shove over tricky theological points, which the vast majority of church members usually never understand anyway, this "glue" continues to bind them together and keeps them from separating.

Because the Missouri Synod was smaller than the SBC—the Southern Baptists are roughly five times the size of the LCMS—this "glue" and its impact was easier to see. Families caught in the crevices of the fight couldn't stand to part with each other; a common Germanic history and sense of identify pulled all but the most stalwart Moderate Missouri Synod members back to the core once the Conservative wing scored a resounding win.

Those same factors that pulled the Missouri Synod back together are still at play within the SBC. Observing it has led me to conclude that while important, theological issues are not nearly as divisive within churches today as theologians, denominational leaders, and pastors like to think.

Whither the former Moderate Southern Baptists? Now that's an ongoing sticky subject!

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