By Aaron Weaver
DECATUR, Ga. — At times in our nation’s religious and cultural climate when deliberative dialogue is needed most, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will seek to model the way of unity through cooperation as it develops a process of discernment and accompaniment involving CBF congregational leaders and other CBF stakeholders, CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter told the Governing Board Tuesday.
An initiative adopted by the Governing Board called the Illumination Project aims to shed light on the qualities that have built unity in CBF, and through discernment, will identify intentional processes by which the Fellowship can maintain and grow through cooperation. The Governing Board has authorized incoming CBF Moderator Doug Dortch to appoint an ad hoc committee by the end of August 2016 to begin the implementation of the Illumination Project.
“We are introducing a process not for a single problem and not for one single moment,” Paynter said. It is designed to ‘provide more light, less heat’ in situations where the Fellowship finds itself in conflict or has differences of opinion.
“The Illumination Project is designed to create models of dialogue and decision-making for a cooperative body,” Paynter said. “The goal, often sacrificially enabled, to seek intentional community in spite of differences has been a strong witness of CBF.
“We believe that our commitment to scripture, reliance on foundational faith tenets and the lessons from our history can be used to enable new clarity regarding the process of cooperative Christian community for the Fellowship.”
Paynter said the first commitment in the process is to listen to voices of the Fellowship. She emphasized that the Illumination Project will employ the use of purposeful conversations as dialogue, and conversations around difficult subjects has been a strategy in the Fellowship, with dozens of group phone conference calls in recent months with groups of Cooperative Baptists around cultural challenges from North Carolina’s HB2 law regarding the use of bathrooms in public buildings in the state to “religious freedom” legislation to LGBTQ concerns.
“Purposeful conversations extend to a wide array of sectors and employ a variety of voices across the Fellowship,” Paynter said. “Sometimes those voices are voices of affinity and sometimes they are voices of diversity.
“We will establish a purposeful dialogue process and will use foundational principles and operational practices under the Lordship of Christ. There is no process or project like this. We actually have to use the process of facilitation to be consistent in the manner in which we’d like to speak.”
In approaching illumination, the Fellowship will consider stakeholders in matters of intentional dialogue while also considering the representative values from the wide variety and churches and global partners of the Fellowship, Paynter said. “Because CBF is a network of churches and individuals that is pervasively religious, explicitly Christian, explicitly Baptist, globally active and a mission-sending agency, the Fellowship must name the expectations and benchmarks of unity and participation within those bounds of identity.”
Paynter noted the priority placed on understanding the stakeholders within the broad scope of CBF and its global partners, as well as the importance of respect for autonomous Cooperative Baptists and CBF churches.
“Like the people that compose them, each individual CBF congregation has its own DNA,” Paynter emphasized. “It is an expectation that a congregation within the life of CBF be respected for its approach to living out its calling, be appreciated for its witness to the world for Christ and be granted safety in the knowledge that differences of opinion do not detract from our ability to form together.”
CBF expresses unity as a denomi-network that is cooperative, but not necessarily united, Paynter explained.
“Our unity exists because we have agreed not to agree on everything, but to cooperate instead. So this phrase – unity in cooperation – if you are to say there is brand of unity in CBF, it is that brand of cooperation is our way of cooperation,” Paynter said. Our unity is that way of cooperating with each other without necessarily calling for unanimity.
Historically, she added, the Fellowship has achieved unity through cooperation adhering to the Baptist principle of autonomy of the local congregation. For CBF, unity is found through focus on the four fragile freedoms; networks of relationships of individuals, congregations and global partners; governance structures which differ from traditional conventions and denominations; and robust global and domestic missions.
“Our cooperation among our Fellowship is very unique. We should not take this for granted as traditional denominations have been embroiled one after another in the wake of shifts that I mentioned. Implementing the Illumination Project will yield a process for more light toward the seemingly intractable issues facing CBF, the local church, global missions and partnerships here and around the world.”
The Illumination Project will explore the foundational and operational principles that can guide the Fellowship as a unified body under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Paynter said, with the aim to claim the role and purpose of CBF and explore both the opportunities and limitations of that role.
Important to the process will be listening to voices from within the Fellowship, which can be the consensus voice of an entire congregation, but also individual voices, dissenting voices, minority voices and global voices. This will also include structuring messages and voices on behalf of the Fellowship, where matters of cooperative mission and ministry require response. This includes public communication, press releases, pastoral addresses and other official CBF messages.
Paynter noted that there are important and prescribed roles and processes of CBF’s Governing Board to create, monitor and review policies and funding. These rules and this process are for the benefit of CBF and the witness of Christ, she said.
Additionally, Paynter said, the Illumination Project is to respond to the impact of the cultural and historical. As the moment calls it to use this illumination process at specific times for specific issues. The Governing Board can use this process at its discretion.
“Controversial issues continue to painfully divide the church, in part because we lack an intentional practice of deliberative dialogue. Whatever conversations and processes have carried us to a certain time, there is a need to reconvene with intent as new points of stress present themselves.
Paynter highlighted recent events that have shaped the current cultural context including North Carolina’s HB2 law, a new Mississippi law that allows businesses to refuse to serve to gay couples out of a religious objection as well as a similar law that was vetoed, the worst mass shooting in American history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling requiring all sates to license same-sex marriage, and a concern in Texas that pastors would be forced to perform same-sex weddings despite their conscientious objection.
“In a nation of such dizzying religious and cultural diversity as the United States, clashes occur,” Paynter said. “As a denomi-network, CBF is manifesting that tension in recent discussion about the Fellowship’s hiring policy.
“Can CBF be a big tent with a cooperative culture? Surely we cannot unless we are going to be intentional, prayerful and grounded and put our faith a center, and unless we are going to be grounded in something bigger than the problem at the moment.”
To learn more, read the full version of the Illumination Project.