I began learning about the peculiar tribe of Christians called Baptists in the late 1990s as a recent transfer student to Mercer University. Dr. Walter B. Shurden was my professor, and I had no idea of the extent of his influence and presence in the life of Baptists. All I knew was that he was a tenacious grader, a great lecturer, and a kind soul. Throughout our class entitled “Baptist Heritage,” Dr. Shurden would continually remind us that Baptists were about FREEDOM!
At that time in my life, several of my friends were enamored with the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart, about the historical figure William Wallace. In the dramatic apex of the movie, Wallace appears in front of a rag-tag band of Scottish soldiers who are about to launch into battle against King Edward I and England during the First War for Scottish Independence. Wallace’s motivational speech in the movie is the stuff of legend, and the final lines have been memorialized, “And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance – just one chance – to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom?”
In the intervening years, as my love for and appreciation of Baptists has deepened, I often think about those days learning about Baptists and freedom. From our beginnings in the early 1600s in England, led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, freedom has been coursing through our ecclesial and theological veins. It should come as no surprise, then, that when more fundamentalist members of the Southern Baptist Convention began exerting more control over local congregations, SBC-related seminaries, and agencies, and tightening the reigns on who could be faithfully called a Southern Baptist or who could be truly called by God to ministry, the cry of freedom would burst forth, welling up from deep within our collective souls.
Out of this cry for freedom, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was born. Thirty years ago this month, throngs of freedom-loving Baptists gathered in Atlanta to discern where God would lead us next. It had become apparent that the machinations of the Southern Baptist Convention would not allow for congregations and individuals to hold fast and practice these deeply-held beliefs. No longer would churches be free to follow God as their conscience dictated; strictly and completely aligning with a denomination’s vision and prescription for church practice was the only way forward. The pressure of conformity to a rigidly imposed system of belief and practice was not limited to congregational matters. Those wishing for control instead of cooperation forcefully held that a person’s own interpretation of scripture, even if led by God’s Holy Spirit and nurtured within a community of faith, must fall into line with the views of those at the top of the denominational pyramid, lest that person be accused of heresy or, even worse, be labeled moderate or liberal.
The founding of the CBF marked a new day for Baptists anchored mostly in the south and southeastern United States. Trying our very best to hold on to the historic traditional Baptist principles that placed FREEDOM at the center of our being, we pressed forward with a new dream of being Baptist in a rapidly-changing world. We wanted to hold the tent flaps wide open for those who find themselves at various points along the theological and, yes, even political spectrum. We began this new journey of cooperation and commitment to the work of God in our world, “with the freedom to have both an open Bible and an open mind, a concept of the church that is both ecumenical and congregational, a view of religious freedom that thinks of others as well as self, a concept of ministry that includes laity as well as clergy, an understanding of the church’s mission that includes justice and mercy as well as evangelism and missions.” (Shurden, “A Decade of Promise”: An Address at the 10th Anniversary Banquet of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, June 27, 2001.)
In short, CBF was founded for FREEDOM! We wanted to be free as we read our Bibles, as we brought our whole selves, fully and completely, to God, as we lived out our calling within our respective congregations, as we cooperated with other Christians and other community members, as we humbly approached our mission to be bearers of God’s grace to our world. Our longing for freedom, though, was not simply hoping for less control so that we could have license to sin or even to ignore the words and teachings of Jesus. We were not wishing to be as petulant children, wanting every whim and wish that we imagined to become reality. No, our longing for freedom welled up from deep within our souls, a geyser bursting forth from the heart of our faith that, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is FREEDOM!” (2 Corinthians 3:17)