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Friday, February 8, 2013

20 Years a Prophet

In the September 1993 issue of Christian Century Nancy Ammerman examined the state of Baptist denominationalism at the close of the 20th century and in light of the Fundamentalist takeover of the SBC that had begun in 1979.[1] Her analysis of the nature of the SBC and its conservative bureaucratic organization was contrasted with the new (at that time) and emerging Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
            Twenty years have passed since the writing of Ammerman’s speculative article about the new type of denomination that was emerging from the modernist approaches to Protestant ecclesial management. In that decade the SBC has remained (structurally, at least) largely the same. The Southern Baptist Sunday School Board was transformed into Lifeway Christian Resources[2] and the Cooperative Program has been reimagined[3], but trends in the denomination have tended toward less giving and fewer baptisms.[4]
            Ammerman’s examination is helpful to understanding what happened organizationally in the splintering of the SBC in several entities, notably the CBF.  She says that “the existing SBC structure, now in the hands of fundamentalists, is likely to stay rather close to its original bureaucratic form…Still, the denomination itself is settling into a new calm that doesn’t seem to call for great change.”[5] How right she was. Her insight into the SBC doesn’t concern inerrancy or theological issues; rather, Ammerman is concerned with the actual structures of the organized churches regardless of how they stand on the Fundamentalist party line.
            Ammerman mentions the CBF as an off-shoot of the SBC whose “organizational forms are considerably less clear and subject to considerably more tension between old and new.”[6] At the time of its formation, the CBF was considered “a kind of caucus within the SBC, a shadow institution within the larger denomination, paralleling many of the larger organization’s forms and structures but not entirely replacing them.”[7] Ammerman argues that such a setting for the CBF is untenable. She says that “those who are willing to join the CBF have already demonstrated their ability to break those bonds [with the SBC] even if they do so while saying that they are staying within the SBC…The only viable constituency for the CBF is those who are already “marginal” enough to think about giving up the denomination-sponsored Cooperative Program.”[8]
            Although the CBF has completely broken free of the SBC over several theological/ecclesial issues, Ammerman was certainly correct in her analysis of the types of people that the CBF would attract in Baptist life.[9] Those who were socially and theologically conservative but who were unwilling to join with the Fundamentalists in their takeover of the SBC were looking for an alternative denominational organization, a faction that reminded them of the “pre-1979 bureaucracy with moderate men in charge.”[10] Unfortunately, forming a denomination on parliamentary procedure grounds is not enough to withstand the powerful lines that are formed in theological debates. Since Ammerman’s writing, fights over women in ministry, alcohol consumption, homosexuality, and the framework of missions have broadened the gap both theologically and socially between those who would have once been considered “moderate” in the SBC and those who were willing to remain in the CBF.
            Now the CBF and the SBC exist separately; no longer is the CBF a caucus within the SBC. However, it is an error to suppose that there is no overlap between the two organizations. The SBC counts as its members those who are members of an SBC church, that is, a church which participates in the Cooperative Program. The CBF, by contrast, counts as its “partners” any church, organization, or individual that contributes funds to the CBF. This is a crucial distinction, and one that makes separating the two organizations impossible in practice or in theory. A member of an SBC church could sent a check to the CBF and be considered a “partner” of the latter denomination without ever altering their relationship with their local SBC congregation.
            Herein lies the amazing potential for the CBF. No longer do sweeping organizational changes have to be made to convince entire churches to join the CBF. Rather, the CBF counts as its own those who agree with the mission of the CBF (at least in part) who may belong to a congregation adamantly opposed to women in ministry or another theological dividing wall.
            Ammerman identifies four areas through which she hopes the CBF will become “a model for new forms of denominational structures.”[11] She lists Activities, Technology, Organization, and Relationships as the four critical areas of emphasis for an emerging denominational organization. In explaining these four areas of hope, Ammerman describes a denominational entity that is local and global at the same time through the use of technology. How she had the foresight to imagine Twitter and YouTube in 1993 is beyond me! By communicating as a community of like-minded believers, Ammerman believes that technology can help maintain a de-centralized model of denominational control that has ossified the SBC. By forcing decisions, media, and planning to the local level, Ammerman believes that the CBF can maintain the flexibility and adaptability that will be demanded by the CBF’s “diverse constituency.”[12]
            All of this has come to pass and is, even now, being more firmly established as theological and ecclesial issues splinter other denominations. The nature of the CBF is not as a bounded set where every church, organization, and relationship must be governed by a set of commitments set in stone; rather, the CBF’s organizational genius is that of a centered-set, where the core commitment to Jesus Christ and his gospel is what binds these Baptists together. The use of technology has greatly increased the reach of the CBF’s message, although, even 20 years after her writing, it seems that the CBF has yet to fully operationalize emerging technologies.
            Ammerman was, and still is, a great prophet for our time. She saw that the organizational failures of the SBC would be just as culpable for its decline as its theological fundamentalism. She saw that a new, flexible, adaptable, relational model of denominational organization was absolutely essential to the next iteration of the Church in the world. What the CBF has become, though, is not entirely these ideals made flesh. There are still miles to go and painful growth to endure. However, these are but the beginnings of the birth pangs of whatever is coming next – a new, postmodern denomination.

[1] Nancy Ammerman, “SBC Moderates and the Making of a Postmodern Denomination,” Christian Century September 1993.
[5] Ammerman, 898.
[6] Ammerman, 899.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[10] Ammerman, 899.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.

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