Ah, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship question. Every student wants to know what the Baptist history professor thinks of CBF. Every student wants to know if Wake Forest Baptist Church, located on the corner of our campus, is a liberal church. Every student wants to know how Southeastern is different than Campbell Divinity School. And is it really true that, before Dr. Patterson came, SEBTS actually used a feminist liturgy in a chapel service? (The answer to the last question is yes.)
I have a handful of friends who are active in CBF who sometimes read this blog, so perhaps they will jump in to this discussion. The biggest problem that has faced CBF in their 15+ years is that they have had trouble forging a positive identity. For most of its history, CBF’s basic identity has been “not Southern Baptist.” Furthermore, it has always been unclear as to just what exactly CBF is. Are they a denomination? Are they simply an alternative to the Cooperative Program? Are they a loose-knit coalition? I think the answer is probably that CBF functions as all these things, depending upon how each individual church relates to them.
I think that some of this identification confusion has begun to subside in recent years. There is a rising generation within CBF that is unfamiliar or unconcerned with the SBC. CBF is their ecclesiastical home, whether the Fellowship is a denomination or not. Furthermore, many young moderates are excited about multi-denominational initiatives like the New Baptist Covenant and the post-SBC Baptist World Alliance. If CBF can continue to carve out an identity that is increasingly unconnected to the SBC, then they have as good a hope of surviving as any of us. Their biggest problems are the same as ours: spiritual apathy, anti-denominationalism among the young turks, etc.
Now for the “return” question. First, we need to understand that moderate Baptists are significantly more diverse in their theology than conservative Southern Baptists (and we’re pretty diverse). Some of them are theological progressives who embrace various forms of neo-orthodoxy, liberation theologies, and even sometimes process theology. Many of their pastors and professors, at least the folks I know, are what I would call “evangelical left.” This means they hold to a basically evangelical understanding of salvation but tend to be egalitarian, sometimes inclusivist, and prefer not to use the “I” words like inerrancy and infallibility. Many–perhaps most–grassroots CBF church members are just as conservative as most of us, but they are either anti-SBC for non-theological reasons (politics, personalities, etc.) or simply indifferent.
All that said, I do not think the CBF will “return” to the SBC because most of them never left. I do not have the most recent statistics, but a healthy majority of CBF churches are actually Southern Baptist churches that redirect some of their budget to the Fellowship instead of Nashville or the Cooperative Program. In some cases, it is not the budget itself but individual church members who pass on money to CBF. So I think the question is not whether or not CBF churches will return to the SBC, but rather will all those dually aligned CBF churches eventually drop their affiliation with the Fellowship? I don’t know the answer.
On the one hand, I think some CBF churches will eventually drop CBF because they are fundamentally (no pun intended) SBC churches. As the older anti-Convention generation dies out, they will cut ties with the moderates. On the other hand, I think some CBF churches will eventually totally cut ties with the SBC because they are stronger moderates than they are committed Southern Baptists. As the older pro-SBC generation dies out, they will cut ties with the Convention. I think many churches will choose to remain dually aligned out of habit, preference, or both.
As with the SBC, much of the CBF’s institutional future depends upon how much the rising generation of future leaders cares about their (quasi-) denomination. Their young future leaders are also asking questions, some of them similar to the ones ours are asking. And as with us, it remains to be seen if CBF will thrive or decline as Gen-X pastors and other leaders decide if the Fellowship is worthy of their loyalty or if their time and money is better spent in other ways. So I guess we will have to wait and see what happens.