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Beyond the Wilderness
From a speech presented at a MBN Banquet, Ft. Worth, Texas—June 26, 2002
By Dr. Cecil Sherman

Dr. Cecil Sherman was the first Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Prior to his service at CBF, he was pastor of Broadway Baptist Church, Ft. Worth, Texas; for twenty years he was pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, North Carolina. Currently, he is a professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. Sherman is a graduate of Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary. He has written widely on issues in Baptist life and ministry.

A lot of things have happened. The stars have kind of aligned themselves and there is an opening for our kind of people. It is not everyday that you have a window of opportunity. We had a window of opportunity in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994. I think we made the most that we could of those opportunities.

It seems to me that we have come to such a time again. Now it is possible that reading a few Baptist papers and being an adjunct teacher in a Baptist school can cause your balance to be a little shaky or your vision to be a little bit blurred. If that is so, then what I say tonight will not cause much harm, but if I read it right it has a chance to do more and be more.

The metaphor that I wanted to use as a way of introduction has already been spoken in prayer. The Hebrew experience is a mirror. In it we see ourselves and by the grace of God we have been set free.

If you are at this meeting, you are not in bondage, you are out of Egypt and you are free. Do you recall the euphoria of 1990 in Atlanta? How many of you were there? How many of you will bear witness that there was a euphoria about that meeting that is absent from most Baptist meetings? That meeting was different, it was not like a convention or general assembly. It was a magic moment. It was magic because we were free.

I went back and read Exodus a few days ago in preparation for this meeting. They got free of Egypt but they did not immediately get to the Promised Land. Getting free of Egypt got them to the wilderness.

Getting out of Egypt does not solve all the problems. We are not in Egypt but neither are we in the Promised Land. We are in an in between state and so using the biblical language I call it the wilderness. The wilderness is in many ways unsatisfying. Fainthearted people look back and this often happens to people whose sympathies are with us but the security of the former home pulls them back. But even while they are thinking those thoughts, Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb are looking ahead and plotting where do we go from here.

That is what I want to talk to you about. What would it take to get us out of the wilderness and into our own Promised Land? I am not speaking just of CBF or of Mainstream, but I am speaking of all of the organizations that we have spawned. Because we are all on the same road, we all cluster at this meeting. We all talk to each other and understand each other. We have common enemies and we have common aspirations and that makes us kin. That is why David Currie can function in each organization. However, there is a sense that you and I are a rather ill-formed cluster of clusters. It is to that point that I want to talk to you and make some suggestions.

Get Beyond Negative Self-Definition

If we are going to take a step forward, we have to get beyond defining ourselves by what we are against. It will get us out of Egypt, but it will not get us much further. Some of the people who came out of Egypt with us are nuts. They are fruitcakes. Every once in a while they wound up on the Coordinating Council of CBF. They did not represent Baptists.

Talking about the fallacy of the SBC will not get us much farther than we are currently. They are rather predictable. Let them go. They are very creative in saying things that embarrass our common name. It is unfortunate, but I believe we have lingered in the wilderness because defining what we are against is both difficult and divisive. We have created a rationale to justify our settling down in the wilderness. At this point I am going to say something that some of you could take as a shot. It is spoken in the best spirit. When people talk about post-denominationalism they are out of touch with truth and reality.

Do you really think that a hundred years from now that there will not be any Anglicans? Do you really think that Lutherans are about to fold up? For all the bad publicity, do you think that the Roman Catholic Church is on its last leg? Denominations change, shift and refocus. What they do best is stay alive. They are going to stay alive.

David Matthews once said to Buddy Shurden, “People who have questions about denominations should try living without one.” Do you know why you are here? Because you do not want to be alone, you want to be among your own kind. There are a lot of good reasons for denominations. Talk of post-denominationalism is a clever way to avoid the hard thinking a new denomination requires.

We have been building a new denomination for ten years. We have not named it. None of the organizations want to call themselves a convention but they are all a part of a convention and the convention is meeting this week. It is in Fort Worth and we are here. When I took the CBF job, Herbert Reynolds said, “Cecil, understand that what you are going to do is start a new denomination of Baptists. You can name it any time you want, but understand what you are doing from the start.” That has made imminently good sense to me.

David Currie said in his writings, “ The time is not yet, but the time will come.” Now understand what we are about and start thinking about what we are doing. Think about it in these terms. We are a convention. Use any language that you want but that is what we are. That is what this is.

Now in concluding this part about negative self-definition, I do not think that we have processed our SBC controversy experience as well as we ought. We should not say “I do not want a convention” any more. We should ask “what kind of convention do I want?” Now think about it. That is the question that needs to be answered by people who are 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 years old. Folks like me do not have a lot of business at the table. We have had our turn.

The question you need to be raising is “what kind of convention?” Do not let negative self-definition have a large part in what it is about. I want a soft convention, not a society. I want a soft convention— not the hard convention that the SBC has become. Do not insist on conformity. That is not the Baptist way but a convention is the Baptist way only if it is a soft convention. Give people some space. We are not all alike, but we are more alike than we admit.

I grew up in Texas. The language in the SBC used to be that Virginia and North Carolina were the left wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. I wound up spending twenty years in North Carolina and now six years in Virginia. I have been in about 200 Virginia Baptist churches in the last ten years, the CBF years and the six years in Virginia. There are not but about 1500 total churches up there. Big, little, rural, blue-collar, upscale, you name it. They are not that much different from Texas Baptists. It offends them mightily when I say that. About the only difference that I can tell between Virginia Baptists and Texas Baptists is that maybe Virginia Baptists have slightly better manners. That is about the only difference that I can see.

Now I have been told that there were a lot of differences, but they are really a whole lot alike. A lot of people in Texas came from there some generations removed. There churches still sing some of the same songs that I learned here. The ties that bind us together are real, deep, and longstanding.

I want you to think about what we are becoming. We are not where we were in 1990. We have moved; we have changed. We are moving towards something. The people who seem to be the most likely to help us are Charles Wade, John Upton, David Currie and Daniel Vestal. I could not be more pleased with that quartet. They could fight for their own personal causes, but instead they listen to Baptists and fight for the good of all. That is good leadership, but we are not where we were in 1980 or 1990—we are a lot farther along.

Think about where we are going.

Snuggle up to Baptist people and polity

Ire causes struggle. Mainstream can almost win in Tennessee, but it has not happened. We can almost win in North Carolina. It is a toss up in Kentucky. Why is that? A lot of Baptist people do not like the actions of the SBC but they are not sure they want to join us. One of them told me that I do not like the SBC but I do not trust you. That will reassure you.

It lets you know where you stand very clearly. Now at this point we need to look at ourselves and think about some of the things that we have done. Have there been times when elitist groups among us have represented us to a larger audience but they never did really describe the majority of us.

On occasions we have strayed from mainline Baptists. Bob Campbell said it right; Baptists are conservative. I have been called a fundamentalist at Princeton. One guy said, “I looked through my fundy finder and found you.” He meant the student handbook. That is when I was a fundy. Then thirty years later I was liberal. I have a fat file of letters that call me a liberal. I got letters from Alabama and Tennessee praying that I would be saved. Some times Dot, my wife, prays with them.

Baptists are conservative people. If we are going to commend ourselves to Baptists and ask them to join us we must present ourselves in ways that make them say, “I am like them.” I tell the students that I teach at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond that Baptists are Bible believing people and unless you can make your case from the text you are going to lose before a Baptist jury.

Now you can get into an awful lot of trouble being Bible believing, but that is good trouble. You can get out of that trouble in a Baptist church. As soon as I got to First Baptist Church Asheville I nearly lost it over the race issue, but I was hard to hit because I just kept on thumping the Bible. That greatly inconvenienced my critics. You can be for causes if they are clearly biblical causes. They will stick with you on that. They will not let you go counter to their understanding of scripture or when you fly in the face of scripture.

So we need to honor Baptist polity. When I was first with CBF I was given the assignment of sitting down with the Alliance and talking to them about joining with CBF. We had two such meetings. The moderator of the Alliance was there. This person said, “We do not trust you people.” I wanted to know what the problem could be? She said that they did not trust us on the woman’s issue. So I said, “What do you want?” She said, “We think that every church in CBF should hold our position on the woman’s issue.” I said, “We will never merge.” She said, “What is wrong with you.” I said, “What is the difference in requiring me to say inerrancy and requiring me to say your language on the woman’s issue?”

It is an affront to our polity. Does everyone at this meeting understand that? Is anyone going out of here saying that I am giving away the woman’s issue? I did not say that. I said that decision should be left to your congregation. You get to interpret the text. What if you interpret the text and disagree with me? Are we are going to design a convention that is so hard on our select issues until we exclude or marginalize all others? Think about what you are doing.

If you are really going to say that congregations are competent, that they get to read the text, do you really expect uniformity? That is silly. If you really give the text to congregations they are going to go this way and that. At that point you need to do some thinking. Some ideas are very important and we really must ask for conformity on the person of Jesus, but I am not sure we should demand conformity on some of these other issues. That is about the only issue that you have a biblical base to demand conformity.

Fundamentalists one time wrote to me and said, “What do you think should be the unifying center of our theology?” I said, “John who was faced with this problem late in the first century said, ‘Who is the person who is outside? It is the person who denies Christ.’” Now I agree with most of you on most of the causes but I am really willing to go to the mat on that one.

Christianity is about Jesus. It is looking at God through Jesus. That is the big idea. It is seeing God through the life and the words and the resurrected Christ. That is what this is about. All the rest are debatable, but that is the one that you can really make a ‘stack pole.’

You know that early Baptists did not really agree on baptism. It took fifty years to come to the conclusion that we ought to immerse people. I make that illustration to say that early on even the singular event that gave us our name was not agreed upon.

Moderate Baptists must showcase quality churchmanship

Baptists want our kind of Baptists to showcase quality churchmanship. Some moderate churches look sick and anemic. They are a poor advertisement for the other things that we are about. So come and join our sick church. Baptist layman should be functional people.

I will illustrate using my deceased father. We came back to Broadway in 1985, Mother and Dad were able to take care of themselves but they declined and pretty soon they did not go very far. Broadway was not on radio or television. Dad was very concerned about how things were going at Broadway and how his boy was doing. Usually when I would get home from church on Sunday morning, the telephone was ringing and it would be Dad. “Hello son. How are you doing?” “I’m fine.” “How was church today?” “Church was fine.” “Have any joiners?” Well sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t. That happened again and again.

Finally I decided that I would lecture my deacon daddy. After all, he needed to learn the larger matters of the law. I explained to him that we could have a wonderful church service with no joiners. He listened to me patiently. What do you think happened next Sunday? You got it. “Hello son, this is Dad. How’s church today.” “Pretty good.” “Have any joiners?” He dusted off my straightening of him.

You know what they want from the kids who graduate from high school? They want somebody who will bring health to my church. Snuggle up to Baptists. Take care of the church. Paul told Titus ‘I put you out there to take care of the church.’ That is the way I viewed the churches that I was entrusted with.

I know a prominent church that I will mercifully not call by name. Intentionally, they were moderate. Intentionally, they called a fundamentalist pastor because the church had shrunk. They did not agree with the theology: they were looking for results. It was the only time in my life that I ever talked to a pulpit committee member.

On my own initiative I said that I think you are making a mistake. Five years later they were ready to unload that guy. He did not fit them. They called him because they were looking for a way to fix a sick church. Listen to Baptists. We want them to come to us. Nearly half of them were with us voting in the 80s. They do not like the SBC, but they do not trust you.

Recover a focusing, centering commitment

We are hard pressed for a positive focusing, centering commitment. Baptists were a scattered fragmented people from 1609 to 1814. Then they began to come together. The focusing, centering commitment was missions. That is what got them together. The original SBC constitution said that the purpose of the organization was “to illicit, combine and direct the energies of the churches in the propagation of the Gospel.” It did not say that the purpose was to make them all think alike. It said that it was to focus the energies of the churches in the propagation of the Gospel. For years and years, there was no organizational center except missions. That is what pulled us together.

Two surveys were made at CBF General Assemblies while I was working for the organization. “What should be the first purpose of CBF?” In both surveys, more that 85% of our people said missions. Herbert Reynolds met with me in a cafe in Hillsboro on a Saturday morning in December of 1991 or January 1992 to discuss the possibilities of me taking the job with CBF. Herbert Reynolds said that Baptists would unite around missions. This is an educator speaking. They will unite around missions and that is all. I found that he had good judgment.

Always in my CBF travels, I asked for questions from the audience and I could always count on one question, “What about the missionaries?” I do not remember a place that I was not asked that question. If you listen to Baptists, they will tell you what they care about. We need a focusing, centering commitment. I have lost none of my enthusiasm for the causes that on occasion have been quite contentious and heated, but if you want to center Baptists as I understand them I hope you will consider the illustrations that I have laid before you.

We are designing a convention of Baptists, but we are having trouble finding something that really pulls them all together. Once it was missions. That was nearly two hundred years ago and it may have changed. If it is not missions you need to find something better and stronger. I will leave that to your judgment.

Think about what we are doing, because every year we meet we are further down the road. Think about the direction we are heading.

September 2002