A Word from a Founder to All My “Moderate Baptist” Friends
This post is intended primarily for Southerners among Baptists who consider themselves “Moderate.” For those of you outside that movement, I’ll explain briefly.
Throughout the 1980s and until today many churches and individuals affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.) felt excluded by the SBC’s leadership because of their embrace of egalitarian beliefs and their denial of “biblical inerrancy.” They considered the new SBC leadership too conservative. The presidents and professors of the SBC-related seminaries were ousted and replaced by people they considered “fundamentalists.” Almost two thousand formerly SBC-related churches throughout the South separated from the SBC and together founded a network of “moderate” Baptist churches called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) (1990). (The CBF, however, does not include all moderate Baptists. There are other groups of Southern moderate Baptists.)
Cecil Sherman (d. 2010) was the first moderator of this new “moderate Baptist” denomination (that doesn’t call itself a denomination but a network). Gradually, over the next two decades, some CBF individuals began to sound more liberal than moderate. Today, some CBFers are very worried that the denomination is drifting in a liberal direction and away from its evangelical roots. (I use the word “evangelical” here in terms of ethos not movement. The CBF was never part of “the evangelical movement” as such.) A division is gradually developing between those in the CBF (and moderate Baptist circles generally) who want to use the Baptist concept of “soul competency” to justify leaving behind basic evangelical Christian convictions and commitments and those in the CBF (and moderate Baptist circles generally) who want to hold to basic Christian orthodox and evangelical commitments while avoiding rigid, narrow dogmatism over secondary matters.
Cecil Sherman was by all accounts the figurehead leader of the moderate Baptist party that left the SBC to look for and establish a truly moderate, not liberal and not fundamentalist, Baptist group in the South. My experience is that some who call themselves “moderate Baptists” have forgotten the founders’ evangelical and orthodox commitments and are rushing headlong toward a new form of liberal theology and church practice. On the other hand, many who wish to retain the basically but broadly evangelical ethos of the original CBF (and other moderate Baptist groups) are blaming the whole CBF for the excesses of some. Nobody speaks for the whole CBF or all formerly Southern Baptist moderates.
I think it would be helpful for all moderate Baptists to take a deep breath and step back and listen to the words of Cecil Sherman about Christian doctrine. I am absolutely sure these words will surprise and shock the left-leaning moderates who still revere the founder and even many of the more conservative Southern Baptists in exile. Here is what Sherman wrote in 2000. (I reprint it here with permission from publisher Smyth & Helwys.) This appeared in the Smyth & Helwys “Formations Commentary,” May-August 2000 (p. 92):
“Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” has several implications:
(1) We did not make up the Christian religion; it was passed down to us. Wise and thoughtful Christians from long ago honed and refined the essential elements of our faith and passed them on to the next generation. Subsequently, those people preserved and honored these same ideas and gave them to their own children. And in similar fashion, the faith has come down the line of time to us. What we have been given is a treasure and a trust.
The people who pounded out the basic theology of the Christian religion are called “the Church Fathers.” Most Protestants know little about them. Our heroes come from the Reformation. But in the first five hundred years of the Church, the Fathers worked through a definition of who Jesus is, the doctrine of the Trinity, the books to be included in our New Testament, what constitutes holy living, and the nature and mission of the Church. All this has been given to us.
(2) “Once for all entrusted to the saints” suggests that we are not at liberty to change “the faith.” We can accept it or reject it, but we are not free to amend or delete. The faith is no more ours to change than the Ten Commandments are ours to vote up or down. Each generation will have to examine and put into their own idiom the ideas of “the faith.” But the goal of rephrasing is not to change, but rather, to clarify. We are always preserving the essence.
(3) What has been given us has to be defended. How nice it would be if the opponents of “the faith” were all atheists. All sides would become easily recognizable in the contest. But that’s not the way it works. The hard part of defending the faith comes when weasel words suck the content out of the “the faith.” People who are half agnostic use “faith” language to seduce us into quietly changing “the faith.” Somebody has to defend the ideas given us by the apostles and saints.
I cannot help but believe that if Cecil Sherman were alive today he would have some harsh words of correction for some influential moderate Baptists, including some within the CBF, about resisting repetition of the old (or new) liberal theology that reduces “the faith” to being nice and inclusive to the exclusion of correct belief. I’m sure he would place limits on “soul competency”—a Baptist idea that some use to excuse heresy.
Contrary to what some (not only moderate Baptists) believe, strongly affirming and adhering to basic Christian orthodoxy does not mean “fundamentalism.” Fundamentalism elevates non-essentials of belief to essentials and practices separatism (refraining from Christian fellowship) with fellow Christians who do affirm basic Christian orthodox but are perceived as “liberal” only because they do not similarly elevate non-essential to essentials. (For example, “young earth creationism” and/or “premillennialism” and/or “inerrancy.) Cecil Sherman was not espousing or encouraging fundamentalism. Anyone who knew him knows this to be true. But he was prophetically calling moderate Baptists to adhere to “the faith once for all entrusted to the saints”—by the church fathers and reformers.
On the other hand, some CBFers talk of leaving the denomination because a few individuals within it have publicly expressed what they consider liberal views. But this is itself a kind of fundamentalist approach! It’s separatism. Indeed, there comes a time when it is appropriate to leave a church or denomination—when its leadership and movers and shakers have becomes heretical or apostate. But two things must be said about this. First, the CBF is not really a “denomination” as such; it is a network of churches (and institutions) cooperating together in mission. There is no leadership that speaks for the whole. Second, even the more conservative moderate Baptists criticized the SBC for leaving the World Baptist Alliance because it contains some liberal Baptists. How would leaving the CBF be any different?
I still consider myself a moderate Baptist even as some people I respect drop the “moderate” label because it is increasingly associated (in their minds, anyway) with a more liberal approach to being Baptist. I do not like to give up good labels just because some people distort them. I still consider myself “evangelical” even though the label is synonymous with the Religious Right in many people’s minds. However, I am a conservative among the moderates in the CBF and urge those moderate Baptists who are really liberal, in the historical sense, to drop the label moderate and just call themselves liberals. When they agree with Marcus Borg’s theology, for example, they are liberal, not moderate.