Why Cooperative Baptist?

by: Rev. Evan Willhite

February 16th, 2021

Note: This is the second of a 3-part series that comes out of conversations between Amanda and I over the past few years. In moving into ministry, these conversations have helped to clarify our calling to church ministry and the convictions that eventually led us to BBF. They also help speak to our vision for church ministry if you are looking to learn more about us and the church.

In the first post, "Why Church?," I made a case for being a part of the church in general, arguing that it can be a source of true community, rootedness, and joy, characteristics so often elusive in today’s culture. In this post, I seek to answer the question, “Why Cooperative Baptist?” - or said differently - “Why in a sea of churches and denominations (including non-denominational) should I care about being associated with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF)?”

Let me start by saying that it’s funny that I’m even writing this post, as I don’t remotely consider myself a denominational flag waiver. In fact, more often than not you will hear me talking about Christians needing to work across denominations. Amanda and I meet regularly with friends who are ministers in town all across the denominational spectrum. I believe that denominations are all mere expressions of the mysterious, deep, and wide “body of Christ,” and we would do best in our individual denominations to not think of ourselves as right but look instead for our own blind spots. But that’s another post for another day, because by now you’re probably wondering, is he even going to answer his own question?

The strongest case I can make for CBF isn’t going to be found in their mission statement or marketing material - it is from my own story. Amanda and I both were raised and taught within CBF circles, and it was the people we came across within those circles and the characteristics they inhabited that make us thankful to be a part of it in our own ministry.

Rich Soil

Any farmer will tell you that good soil is a complex thing that needs a diversity of nutrients and care to maintain it, particularly if it will produce richly over time. In fact, folks who study the life of the soil often speak about it like those who study the cosmos - with a sense of wonder and respect to the mystery of its balance, creation, and preservation.

The first characteristic of the people Amanda and I came across in the CBF denomination is that they saw the faith life this same way. A good example of this concerns that oh-so-divisive topic within the church: scripture interpretation and rules (law). Ironically (but helpfully), one of the great themes in scripture from the Israelites and the Mosaic law to the New Testament gospels and epistles is the misuse of law. In fact, only one group of people made Jesus consistently angry in the gospels, and they were the church leaders whose usage of the law was actually doing more harm than good to the kingdom of God.

Many of my teachers at my home church and professors in college knew this, and the CBF denomination gave them the space to teach scripture with a care to its complexity and a humility to its interpretation. Scripture is held as sacred in CBF circles, and part of that very belief in its sacredness demands careful interpretation particularly around determining law. After all, scripture itself speaks regularly to the pitfalls of this. And if this theme is consistent in scripture, then that means it is consistent in us. Much like tending to soil, human interaction has the capability of doing more harm than good, so humility, grace, and most importantly the guidance of the Spirit are required.

I am so deeply grateful to carry and pass on this level of care and depth in approaching scripture in our church. It is a way capable of being in conversation - with science, culture, unique individuals, and opposing views. It allows for a faith rooted in the mystery of God as opposed to our own inherently limited understanding. Rich soil can sustain life through countless seasons, and so it is with this kind of life of faith - it can remain vibrant and life-giving, always growing and ever-dependent on the Source.

Freedom

Freedom is a double-edged sword in Christian tradition. One of the core Christian tenets is often the belief in free will, which most of us would admit gets us into trouble daily. That said though, there is a lot in scripture about good, healthy freedom. Here is one of my favorite verses, from The Message translation:

It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. -Galatians 5:13

Freedom has been an essential ingredient in the formation of the Baptist denomination. Baptist church historian, Walter Shurden, wrote a book, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms, in which he outlined the following four “freedoms” core to our identity:

Bible Freedom: The Bible is foundational to us as individuals and as a congregation. Every Christian has the freedom and right to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The wisdom and counsel of the larger congregation should nurture individual believers as they seek to understand, interpret, and apply Scripture to their daily lives.

Soul Freedom: Each person is accountable to God individually without the imposition of creed or the control of clergy or government. This personal experience with God is indispensable to the Christian life and necessary for a vital church. This is sometimes described as the “priesthood of all believers.”

Church Freedom: Baptist churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership, leadership, doctrine, and practice. Instead of depending on larger organizations to dictate who we are and what we do, Baptists believe that God has equipped the local church and its leaders to figure out how we can best live out and share the Gospel.

Religious Freedom: Everyone should be able to worship (or not) as they feel led without necessary interference by the government. Just as religious freedom involves the freedom to practice religion, it also includes the freedom to not practice religion. The separation of church and state affords an important constitutional protection of religious freedom for all.

The people who Amanda and I grew up around and were trained by in the CBF denomination attempted to embody and defend these freedoms. The most impactful example of this is in Amanda’s own ordination as a minister. Amanda has sensed a call to ministry since adolescence. The people in this denomination not only honored that calling by leaving it freely to the local church to decide, but many ministers and professors along the way also encouraged her by recognizing, affirming, and honoring that calling. Her ministry is now a testimony to the faithfulness of those who embodied these freedoms along the way.

Middle Way

Sometimes it feels like we live in an age of extremes. Biased media outlets tout polarized politics at every turn. In a Sunday School class at a previous church when discussing a cultural issue one day, I remember vividly someone saying, “Whatever happened to all the moderates?” This wasn’t this person’s way of arguing a specific political stance - he was looking for a public dialogue that was moderate in nature - willing to hear opposing viewpoints with decency and humility and also willing to balance difficult topics and make decisions that often compromise between extremes.

Politics aside, in the quiet of our personal lives, we all live in a “middle” place. One person I know feels strongly that a certain sexual preference is wrong, but knows and loves someone deeply in their own family who lives that lifestyle. Another person I know believes that wearing masks during COVID-19 is not that important or helpful but chooses to do it because of their own high-risk spouse. Others wouldn’t associate with alcoholics or drug-addicts while suffering from hidden addictions in their own lives. Our daily lives are messier than our neatly constructed belief systems. The incredible news is that this honest, vulnerable place is precisely where Christ tends to meet us. I can’t think of a single person whose formative Christian experiences happened while neatly structuring their belief systems. Everyone I know has experienced the love of Christ in deeply personal moments riddled in their own sin and life’s messiness.

In my experience, people are desperate for others to walk with them in this “middle” place. We ache for conversations deeper than the mainstream media is providing. We long for experiences deeper than our saccharine culture and often culture-matching churches are providing. We long to know and love people in all their glorious idiosyncrasies and to be fully known and loved by them in return. This is the middle way, and thanks be to God, it is a way we are able to attempt to embody in our own ministry.

Final Note

Denominations, like all human constructions, will inevitably fail us. They are filled with Christians as sinful as the ones in our churches - sinners exactly like you and me. But in an area where there is little to no Cooperative Baptist Fellowship presence, Amanda and I believe this is actually one of the gifts we have to offer to the local community. We can stand in this middle way, offering these fragile freedoms and the rich soil in which to grow in Christ.


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