September 15, 2023
This week I read that Jonathan Howe, the SBC Executive Committee’s vp for communications, has been appointed the agency’s interim CEO following Willie McLaurin’s departure. And then I read that Howe belongs to a church (Woodmont BC) with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship connections: What in the wild world of sports is going on! Maybe he hadn’t heard that several years back, the Kentucky convention, upon hearing that the CBF made room for gay staff members, voted to disallow dually-aligned churches (SBC/CBF) like Howe’s. Or that a hallmark of the CBF from the beginning was the enthusiastic support of women pastors, a cause the SBC emphatically rejected at our recent meeting in New Orleans.
The CBF Surfaces (and then Takes on Water)
From its beginning in 1991, the CBF fielded rival missions channels, disparaged efforts to replace theological liberals with biblical conservatives in the seminaries, and charged biblical inerrantists with “bibliolatry.” Their motives for competition were mixed. Many were true believers in the “progressive” cause. Others had tender, trusting attachments to beloved institutions (the ones they remembered from days of yore) and leaders (pastors, professors, agency heads) who sounded the alarm over barbarians at the gates, the redneck deplorables who were stirring up strife in the pleasant groves of Zion. (Of course, by this time, the “moderates” were appalled to discover that way too many Southern Baptists weren’t buying into their narrative and grievances.) Anyway, the CBF has walked along as best it can through the years, bending further to the left.
The Woodmont Connection
From its 1991 founding, the CBF has enjoyed warm hospitality at Woodmont, first under the leadership of Pastor Bill Sherman, whose brother Cecil was the CBF’s first coordinator. The CBF could count on the church for funds and meeting space for its events, even though the group worked to undermine the direction the denomination. Yes, Woodmont contributes to and works with national, state, and associational enterprises within the SBC. And yes, they do good things, such as serving as the parent-child reunification center in the wake of the shootings at the nearby Covenant School. But there are scads of Southern Baptist churches in Nashville doing good things without channeling money to the CBF.
So, what gives with Howe, the “voice of the SBC,” joining with them? Why not pick a church that’s happy with our Baptist, Faith, and Message’s statement on Scripture (with “. . . God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter”)? Instead, they say that the “Bible is God’s holy Word and is exactly as He intended for it to be.” Well, yes, but it leaves wiggle room they think they need (and you can find any number of writers who find this a convenient way to handle “awkward” miracle accounts). For comparison (and, perhaps forgiveness), when Sharon and I told the kids there was a Santa Clause, our words were exactly what we intended them to be, and with the desired effect. Of course, our story telling was not a matter of “truth, without any mixture of error.” (And yes, we set the record straight in due season for those who hadn’t quite figured out the logistical impossibilities.)
It's hard to figure what a “public relations” officer is thinking when he plays with bad optics, which may well be more than optics. Is this an effort to sweetly accommodate the lingering sensitivities of those who were heartbroken over the conservative resurgence back in the day? Maybe the church is the go-to place for those who want to hang with the SBC somehow but continue to express their disgruntlement at the denomination’s conservative features—a venue for Jonathan’s bridge building. Perhaps Jonathan and his wife Beth (the student and discipleship minister) are pleased with the “big tent” approach, seeing Woodmont as a healthy microcosm of the denomination. Or maybe they’re crusading insiders, not pleased with the CBF’s counting Woodmont as one of their own. Or maybe it’s really nice to have a family member with an employed-ministry slot at a big church. Beats me. But it seems odd.
I’ll not get hysterical over this, but I hope you’ll indulge my getting a bit historical, for I held a communications post at the Executive Committee back when the CBF was launched. As state exec for the Indiana convention, I’d written some columns in favor of the conservative resurgence, consonant with the work of Indiana Baptist editors, David Simpson and Gary Ledbetter. In this, I and we were out of step with the other state papers, which either castigated the fundies or favored the status quo by “not taking sides” while reflexively passing along reports from the biased denominational press.
To make a long story short, I found myself in the position of vice president for public relations, a new post created to complement Baptist Press, which, under Herb Hollinger (newly arrived from the California Baptist) could now stick to news without “spin.” We’d been brought in to replace two men whom the Executive Committee judged to be rooting for the “old guard.” I didn’t care for the odor of the “PR” title, but there I was. (You often hear, “It’s just PR,” but not “It’s just the gospel ministry” or “It’s just pediatrics.”)
The same month I came on board in Nashville, US News and World Report came out with a special double issue—“Outlook 1991, What’s Ahead: 24 Predictions for the New Year.” And right there on page 64 was the headline, “A Rift Over the Book,” with the explanatory sub-head, “Baptist Moderates Split with Fundamentalists Over Biblical Authority.” The article noted that a number of realignment options (including the not-named Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) were on the table, and the illustration topping the piece showed a big old church being split down the middle by a bolt of lightning.
I was still trying to sort out the WordPerfect Ctrl-B and Alt-Shift-F5 of my inherited computer and locate the office supply closet when I got a call from an Executive Committee officer. He told me I needed to tell Jeff Sheler, the writer of the piece, that he’d gotten things wrong: In fact, there was no big SBC split, one which would render the convention “not . . . likely to flourish,” in the words of liberal SBTS professor Glenn Hinson, whom Sheler quoted. (As I recall, the CBF budget was 1/30th of the SBC CP’s, more a splinter than a calamitous rift.)
I hustled to write a letter of counsel to Sheler and ran it by the officer to see what he thought. He thanked me but hurried to say that he meant something more direct—that I should get on a plane and “have a word of prayer,” face to face in DC. I didn’t even know I had a travel budget, so I checked, and, sure enough, the funds were there for a trip.
The Coppenger/Hollinger Tour
I mentioned my journey of discovery to Herb, and he suggested we turn it into ride up the East Coast to introduce ourselves to religion writers at secular publications. We could answer questions, show that we were human (contrary to press narratives), and open channels for input to their stories. So, we took off our on magical mystery tour, with visits to the religion editors of USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, and USN&WR, all in DC. And then up the road to the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, the “Big Apple” outlets (New York Times, Associated Press, and Time magazine), Hartford Courant, Providence Journal, and Boston Globe. I was surprised at how cordial they were, even thankful for our visit. And we were intrigued by some of the comments and connections: At our first stop, USA Today, Cathy Grossman, told us that she “got it”—that we were like Jewish families from her own tradition who banded together to conserve their venerable practices, including spinning the dreidel during Hanukkah. We also discovered some Evangelical connections: Jeff Sheler had a daughter at Wheaton, where I’d been a prof; the man at The Sun was a relative of Isaac Jacobus Van Ness, who led our Sunday School Board (now LifeWay) from 1917 to 1935; and the wife of Richard Ostling at Time taught at King’s College up the Hudson in Briarcliff Manor.
Turns out, some of the connections were visibly fruitful over the years: George Cornell (called “the dean of religion writers”) was kind enough to tweak the way he described our controversy— a move from calling us “moderates and fundamentalists” to “moderates and conservatives.” (It helped to point out that the AP Stylebook said you shouldn’t call people “fundamentalists” unless they chose that label for themselves. The term was too negative to do otherwise. And, I suggested that, to be fair, if AP stuck with “fundamentalist,” they should go with the other radioactive term, “liberal,” for the “moderates.”); in 1998, USN&WR’s Jeff Sheler and a photographer followed Sharon and me around as we witnessed through Crossover in Ogden, Utah; then, in 2014, Cathy Grossman (who’d moved to Religion News Service) asked me to pitch in a piece on President Obama’s use of Exodus in a speech promoting his lax immigration policy, and the Washington Post subsequently ran it on line.
Whatever the case, Herb and I made no attempt to sugarcoat our culturally awkward ways to ingratiate ourselves to the preferences of those editors. And when we perceived we were being slandered or innocently misrepresented, we pushed back, as Christians have had to do from the beginning. (“No, I’m not involved in incest. I know I said, ‘I’m exhausted. Let’s go home sister and hit the sack. But I was referring to my wife, who’s not a biological relative, but a sister in Christ.”) As for Jonathan, I’m not persuaded that his defense of the SBC against the sketchy if not malignant work of the Houston Chronicle and Guidepost Solutions to cast us in a terrible light is up to snuff. (And now, as interim CEO, he’s had to join in downsizing the staff because of the millions of dollars we’ve blown in an effort to “clean up” a doubtful mess.)
Here We Go Again
When I was serving in Indiana, I read a piece (I think in Christian Century) saying that Christian institutions were typically able to hold onto their founding focus and commitments for about fifty years. Some hang in there for maybe a hundred years. But, after that, churches should go ahead and gift them to the culture. No need to get huffy as Northwestern (Methodist), Columbia (Anglican), and Brown (Baptist) drift secular. No big deal if they drop the C from YMCA. And so what if a denominational hospital starts offering abortions. His answer: Start new ones and enjoy their early years on the conveyor belt of social assimilation. Of course, some denominations and her institutions break the mold by returning to their roots. The Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Southern Baptists undertook this project in the 1970s. So circling back is possible, however rare, but necessary again and again.
And I’d urge the SBC Executive Committee, in their choice of full-time CEO, to circle back to the days when CBF affiliation was unthinkable for our leadership. It’s not been fifty years, but we’re getting close.