When Southern Baptists opposed to what they felt was a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) met three years ago in Atlanta, they had no name or detailed agenda. Yet, they were determined to develop a response.

That meeting laid the groundwork for what became the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which formed officially in 1991. If there were any initial doubts about the viability of this new organization, they appear to have been erased over the past year.

When Cecil Sherman became the first CBF coordinator (top official) in April 1992, the organization counted 391 churches as financial supporters. That number has risen to 1,094. Sherman estimates that by year’s end, CBF, which employs nine full-time staff persons, will have handled $10 million in contributions. About a third of that money, according to Sherman, will end up with the same SBC agencies and institutions as before, sent to CBF instead of the SBC as a “mild protest.”

But a growing number of churches appears to be avoiding official SBC institutions. Two years ago, 77 percent of the funds received by CBF landed in SBC coffers. Sherman predicts the percentage will drop below 30 next year, “CBF was formed not because we lost, but because we had no chance to argue our point of view [in SBC forums] on matters that are very important to us.”

Sherman cites six specific differences between CBF and SBC leadership. They encompass different philosophies of education and mission, opposing views on women in ministry and on church-state relations, and disagreements over the appropriate role of pastors and of SBC leadership in influencing individual churches.

CBF opposes efforts to require seminary professors and missionaries to subscribe to a strict view of scriptural inerrancy. And it maintains that local congregations—not SBC leadership-should be free to reach their own conclusions on such issues as women’s ordination without fear of reprimand.

Most churches that have signed on with CBF, according to Sherman, have retained association with the SBC. But as CBF matures, those associations may increasingly come to be regarded as mere formalities. With the money it is receiving for its own purposes ($5 million this year), CBF is supporting 26 missionaries and three seminaries.

Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, says CBF is akin to “a new, intradenomination on the left fringe of the SBC.

“My sense is that there is strong division within the CBF between those who want to maintain as much participation as possible with the SBC and a younger, more aggressive group that is ready to cut the umbilical cord.”

Given the number of churches associated with both the SBC and CBF, an official schism in America’s largest Protestant body appears unlikely.

But some observers believe the SBC, for all practical purposes, already has split.

By Randy Frame.

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