CBF focuses on prayer, women's ordination

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)--Prayer and discernment, reports from leaders and an update on the status of the New Baptist Covenant were among the topics discussed at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly June 19-20 in Memphis, Tenn.

As of 6 p.m. June 19, there were 1,824 registered participants at the gathering. Leaders had predicted an attendance of 4,000, but the hall in which the meeting was held contained only 2,800 seats.

Attendees heard a strong criticism June 19 of anyone who believes Scripture limits the office of pastor to men.

Chuck Poole, senior pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., said during a theme interpretation that the church he once attended claimed to take the Bible seriously but ignored its teaching on women.

Proper interpretation of Scripture, he said, involves realizing that some passages "embody the spirit of Jesus" more than others.

"I came to see that passages such as Galatians 3:28 really did embody the spirit of Jesus more fully than passages that drew a small circle and raised a tall wall. And quicker than you can say, 'new skins with new wine,' I came to see that if we were not going to ordain women, we were going to have to stop baptizing girls," Poole said to applause.

Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., said June 20 that the New Baptist Covenant meeting earlier this year was a "moment" but may develop into a "movement."

"Already (Baptists in) various regions are organizing to find ways to connect in practical ways with the vision of New Baptist Covenant through new partnerships and extended conversations," Marshall, who formerly served as a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. "Various regional groups are lobbying to have President Carter come to one of the five regional meetings he promised to attend."

In Kansas City there have already been two regional NBC meetings that have united seven different kinds of Baptists, she said.

The NBC meeting in Atlanta earlier this year satisfied a "holy longing" for racial reconciliation, a spirituality mixing piety with justice, worship that challenged the mind and warmed the heart and application of the Gospel to social concerns, she said.

Apparently referencing the SBC, Marshall said she has long desired to start a denomination called the "not that kind of Baptists Baptists." The NBC meeting began to fulfill that desire, she said.

"At this gathering we were simply Baptists reclaiming the best of the prophetic and dissenting tradition, simply Baptists who cared deeply about the theology and the practice of Luke 4," she said.

Marshall concluded, "The Spirit is urging us to focus on what matters, to leave aside the non-essential and be the presence of Christ in a fragile world groaning for redemption."

Daniel Vestal, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said in his address June 19 that Fellowship Baptists must discern how God led them in the past and where he wants to take their organization in the future.

Vestal's address preceded "Prayer and Discernment Team Gatherings," in which participants met in groups according to their home states and regions to discern God's leading for the CBF's future.

Though the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's past was characterized by both difficulties and joys, it must focus in the present on carrying out God's mission, Vestal said. He added that God's mission involves sharing the Gospel with people who do not yet embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior.

"Gathered at this General Assembly are institutions and representatives of ministries and organizations all across this country who see themselves as participating in God's mission," he said. "CBF itself sees itself as participating in the mission of God."

The future of Fellowship Baptists depends on their ability to focus on God's promises and discern how the Holy Spirit wants them to apply those promises, Vestal said. He cited 1 Corinthians 13:13 as a particularly important promise for CBF's future.

"Love fulfills the law," he said. "Love reflects the life of Christ. Love is the evidence of community, and love lasts. It abides forever because God is forever."

CBF moderator Harriet Harral explained in her June 19 report that prayer and discernment sessions will help the group determine what its chief focuses will be in the years to come.

Some of the topics on which General Assembly attendees should seek God's guidance are broadening the CBF community, including the start of new churches; utilization of resources; training and development; missional engagement; honoring race, gender and generations; interacting with the world community; and spirituality, she said.

By seeking God's guidance, the coming years can build on the exciting past the CBF has enjoyed, Harral said.

"CBF is 17 years old -- and what an amazing 17 years it has been," she said. "A passion for the Great Commission and to Baptist principles of faith and practice have formed bonds of fellowship and ministry around that world -- that passion -- and what someone once told Daniel (Vestal) is the greatest vision statement in all of Christendom -- being the presence of Christ in the world."

Lauran Bethell, a Baptist human rights advocate living in Eastern Europe, said Christians are called to bridge the gap between the church and people in bondage and slavery. She focused on how Baptists should reach out to women involved in prostitution and other sex-related industries, many of whom have been trapped in sexual slavery against their wills.

"As we refuse to be slaves to our doubts and our despairs, refuse to be slaves to our burdened-ness and our bitterness, refuse to be slaves to our anger and animosity, God's Holy Spirit will use us in the lives of others who are entrapped, incarcerated and enslaved," she said.

The General Assembly was scheduled to continue through the evening of June 20.

David Roach is a correspondent for Baptist Press based in Louisville, Ky.

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