Can Baptists Cooperate?

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of educators and pastors from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  I delivered my stump speech on 10 Dispatches from the Emergent Church and got some excellent feedback.  Then I was thoroughly questioned by Bo Prosser, who really raked me over the coals.

The folks who make up the CBF are primarily expatriates from the Southern Baptist Convention — at least that’s how they identified themselves to me.  The fellowship formed in the early 1990s when the conservatives in the SBC completed their takeover.

In some ways, I felt great resonance with the CBFers, in that they are generally moderates/centrists/independents.  They also practice congregational polity, which means that each church is autonomous and voluntarily in fellowship with other churches — thems my people.  They do struggle with not becoming a denomination; one person said, “We did what we knew, which looks a lot like a denomination.”

One interesting conversation, however, caught my attention.  The CBF is not moderate about baptism: It’s believers’ baptism only, no exceptions.  I found it interesting that an otherwise non-ideological group is hard and fast on that one element of Christian practice…

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  • From what I know about the CBF, beliver’s baptism is really one of the only visable things holding them together. Its a very Anglican ecclesiology, if you ask me (cf. the instruments of communion.)

  • Speaking as an at-least-third-generation Baptist (though not of the CBF variety), believers baptism is about all that holds any of us together. The joke goes that if you get three Baptists together you end up with at least four opinions (or something like that).


  • Landon

    I thought it was “If you have four Baptists there’s usually a fifth.”

    Oh wait – That’s Presbyterians. Nevermind.

  • I was reading an interesting thoughts on baptism here:

    Many baptists that I have read simply are very extreme about all of this.

  • Brian

    Interesting that you would use the word “ideological”. Are you equating ‘ideology’ with ‘doctrine’? Just curious how you’re using the word here.

    I find the persistence in the practice of “believer’s baptism” to be consistent with what it means to be a Baptist. To be otherwise, would be, well, non-Baptist.

    This is just a thought, but could your alarm be from the mere fact that these “moderate/centrist/independent” folks took a doctrinal stand at all? I mean, I could see if you said “wow, these Baptists took a no-wiggle room stand on using a certain hymn book or having a plurality of elders in their polity, and I find that odd”. But finding it odd that Baptists are strong on believers baptism, well, that’s just odd.

  • elmol

    · Church Administration from A to Z, Nashville: Convention Press, 1994

  • I have worked or been a part of a number of CBF churches and at least those had open baptism policies. Those who never received a form of baptism would be dunked (as the NT and Didache describe) upon confession of faith. If they were previously baptized, even sprinkled as an infant, it would be accepted. If you don’t then you end up inferring rather crude things towards whole traditions whose baptisms weren’t seen as valid. This doesn’t mean we change the ideal, which for baptists, is believer’s baptism. Of course I am not sure how well we stick to that ideology when we dunk 6 year-old adult believers.

    CBF of NC has been real kind to emergent folks, giving money to support both an emergent community known as the Dogwood Abbey ( and funding a church planting event with Doug Pagitt and Tim Conder so all in the state (even non-CBF people Like Steve Knight) could come for free.

  • I was at the gathering in Asheville (great job by the way…shameless brown nosing… ). I think baptism for most Baptists probably does fall in the area of “blind-spot” or at least as so-familiar-that-it-goes-unexamined. I think if you surveyed most CBF affiliated congregations, you would find some similar policies on baptism. The flexibility they have regarding there position on Baptism would likely depend on how closely that congregation is still aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention (yes, we have many schizophrenic churches like that…shocking I know). However, in the pew, I think there would truly be diversity. In the church I am currently attending (which partners with CBF for missions activities) the committee charged with selecting our minister of adult ed and missions was made up of 2 Pentecostals, a Methodist, a Disciples of Christ, a Presbyterian and 3 Baptists. (and they actually came to a unanimous decision…without blood shed or doctrinal inquisitions). I think many people in the pew do not care one way or another and will conform to the “membership requirements” of the community they chose to associate with. The important thing was probably community rather than specific doctrinal positions.

    By the way, I’ve been involved in CBF for a long time (am currently employed by the state organization in Tennessee) and have also been involved in the emergent conversation for a long time as well. I’m pleased that you found some resonance with our group. Myself and many others have felt at home in both conversations for a while and have looked for some intersection opportunities. Thanks Tony.

  • 2 more quick comments:

    I would never remotely assume to speak for baptists in general or CBF more specifically but you might check out the “who we are” link on the CBF website–I do not think baptism is mentioned. ( The “baptist principles” listed under core values would be more representative of a “cbf baptist” than one’s views on baptism.

    Also, you always bring 2 baptist with you fishing. If you bring one, he/she WILL drink all your beer.

  • I am a CBFer, as is my church. While you may find several CBF churches that take a hard line on believer’s baptism, there is certainly no unanimity on that one. Our church “practices” believer’s baptism, but “recognizes/accepts” ALL modes of baptism. Our church is not alone on that stance, nor is our fellowship with other CBF churches at risk because of it. Also, I’ve attended numerous CBF events and have NEVER heard believer’s baptism mentioned as a “hard and fast” requirement, although it is undoubtedly the common practice among Baptists of every stripe.

  • Excellent job, Tony…and the coals you were raked over were fairly cool ones! Next time a bed of nails, I promise.

    Your remarks to the educators brought out lots of commonality among us. The key to understanding CBF is really about local church autonomy and priesthood of every believer. While mode of baptism may be an issue for some, the local congregation decides from an “organic and contextual” base what the Spirit is saying to the church.
    (See for more!)

    While Cooperating Baptists may sound like an oxymoron to some, our Fellowship is an exciting place to be and to become. With more friends like you among us, we are richer.

    Bo Prosser
    Coordinator for Congregational Life
    CBF Atlanta

  • Pingback: Can Baptists Cooperate? « Tony Jones « so here we are in the field…()

  • Nick W

    I think that brian is right, they are baptist adult believer’s baptism is what identifies them. But the insistence on immersion is questionable. I never could understand why baptist had to immerse. I went to a baptist college and a baptist seminary in fort worth and was ordained by a CBF church but never really understood why immersion only. They insist that the greek work baptise means immersion, but I am not certain that is all that it means. It certainly does mean immerse some or most of the times but all I am not so sure. Most congregations are very fluid about the issue of believers baptism though.

  • Nick W

    greek word “to baptize” means immersion