I’m in Dallas, Texas, this week, attending the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. But as the Holy Spirit would have it, the Southern Baptist Convention is being held here as well, and most of us are staying at the same hotel, which means there have been a few uncomfortable moments in hotel elevators.
We haven’t talked to each other in years.
My last Southern Baptist Convention was in 1990 in New Orleans, when the “Moderates” were making a last-ditch effort to take the Convention back from the “Conservatives.” One of the big issues in those days was the role of women in the church. The conservatives were saying that women should be silent in the church, that they shouldn’t teach men, and that they couldn’t be deacons or pastors: the Bible said so. The moderates disagreed. They had benefited from the ministry of women for years, and found plenty of evidence in the New Testament that the early church did too. I remember seeing my adorable nieces at that meeting wearing big buttons with the message: “If you won’t ordain me, don’t baptize me.”
Those girls are no longer Southern Baptists.
In 1991 some 6,000 moderate Baptists gathered in Atlanta to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, effectively ending their relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention. As a member of the Governing Board said recently, “If the SBC hadn’t told us we couldn’t ordain women we might still be Southern Baptist.” But we’re not. And now, 27 years after the split, we find ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder once again. The Southern Baptists are wearing their name tags on red lanyards. The Cooperative Baptists are wearing theirs on purple lanyards. The hotel lobby is like a scene from West Side Story, with the Sharks and the Jets eyeing each other suspiciously.
But on Wednesday morning I bounced into the elevator in my gym clothes and found myself in the company of three red lanyards. “Going to the fitness center?” one of them asked. “Yes,” I said. “Better you than me!” another one chimed in. “Well,” I answered, “it’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to feel so self-righteous afterward!” And they chuckled politely.
But I needed a cup of coffee first. I got in line at the coffee shop and found myself behind one of the red lanyards I had seen on the elevator. “So you’re NOT going to the fitness center!” he said, smiling. “No,” I said, “I am. I just need coffee first. Otherwise I might…drop something on myself.”
And then we began to talk.
He was wearing a name tag with the IMB logo on it (the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose headquarters are just a few blocks from Richmond’s First Baptist Church). “Do you live in Richmond?” I asked. “No,” he said. “I’m from Louisville. I was commissioned last night.” “Oh, congratulations!” I said, meaning it. There was a time when I had dreamed of being commissioned as a Southern Baptist missionary. “Are you from Richmond?” he asked. “Yes.” “What do you do there?” “I’m a pastor,” I said. And then he made an assumption: “Are you enjoying the Convention?” “Actually,” I said, “I’m here for the other Baptist meeting.”
And a wall went up between us.
I kept talking until it was my turn to order coffee, but he didn’t make eye contact again. As I walked away I thought, “What a shame; here we are, brothers in Christ, destined to spend eternity together, and yet we can’t even carry on a conversation.”
This morning I’m wondering if the same thing could happen to the CBF. We haven’t talked about it yet, but there is some tension in our fellowship over the role of gays and lesbians in the church. Some are advocating for full inclusion. Others are “not there yet.” I wonder: 27 years from now will we be eyeing each other suspiciously in a hotel lobby, some of us wearing rainbow-colored lanyards and some of us wearing purple ones? Will we talk to each other while we’re waiting in line for coffee? Will we regard each other as brothers and sisters?
Bill Leonard may have said it best in our Governing Board meeting on Tuesday. He said, “Please, how much more division can we stand?”
Somewhere Jesus is still praying for the unity of his church (John 17:21), and begging us to remember that the world will know we are his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:35).