Conservative Baptist History

Those People Called Conservative Baptist

By Bruce L. Shelley (Adapted)

On a chilly day in 1943 in Chicago, the temperature hovered around zero most of the day. Newspapers on Michigan Avenue told about the Russian advance against the Germans at the Dnieper River. But across town at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, the men and women who climbed the steps to the auditorium of the church had neither the weather nor the war on their minds. They were gathering to do the work of God. These men and women, after prayer, ratified the recommendations of earlier meetings, elected eighteen directors, and appointed their first missionary couple, Mr. and Mrs. Eric Frykenberg, for service in India. This was the birth of CBFMS, the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society, known as CBI and now WorldVenture.

Most of us consider 1943 a long time ago, a time before the atomic bomb, before the Beatles and Viet Nam, before satellites, terrorism, crack and AIDS. But in these forty-four years, Conservative Baptists have sent nearly a thousand missionaries to Japan Brazil, Indonesia, Austria, Zaire and twenty-three other countries, and contributed significantly to the resurgence of American evangelicalism.

Conservative Baptists, counting about 230,000 members within their churches, are one of the mid-size Baptist groups in America. Their history and mission, however, make them a bit unusual in the list of Baptist bodies. In just over four decades Conservative Baptists have created what they like to call "the movement." Like many Americans, Conservative Baptists have their reasons for rejecting bureaucracies, especially religious bureaucracies. So, to avoid traditional denominational structures, Conservative Baptists choose to work within "the movement." They like the suggestions of action, growth and mission.

The movement rallies about twelve hundred churches, chiefly in the northern United States, in the Conservative Baptist Association of America. But the movement also serves hundreds of other churches through WorldVenture; Mission to the Americas, Southwestern Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, and three theological seminaries, Denver Seminary, Western Seminary and the Conservative Baptist Seminary of the East. Since each of these agencies and schools has its own governing board and budget, the Conservative Baptist movement is not one, but seven organizations functioning like cooperating interdenominational or "para-church" ministries. The comparison to interdenominational schools and missions is appropriate because Conservative Baptists are a part of the larger picture of American evangelicalism during the last fifty years.

The 1940's mark not only the birth of Conservative Baptists, but also that of a host of well-known evangelical ministries including the National Association of Evangelicals, Youth for Christ, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and the National Sunday School Association. During World War II and the years immediately following, millions of evangelicals felt that the hour had come for them to recover their mission to America and the nations beyond. Billy Graham is the best-known spokesman of this recovery, but Conservative Baptists have played a significant part. Conservative Baptists saw the hand of God in the creation of CBFMS, because they were committed to an orthodox missionary society for their churches. The background of that concern lies in the fundamentalist modernist struggle within the Northern (now American) Baptist denomination.

As early as 1920 conservative pastors tried to establish doctrinal standards for missionary agencies within the Northern Baptist Convention. But every attempt to get the denomination to accept such standards proved futile. Finally, in 1943, after renewed but frustrating efforts to create theological tests for the Northern Baptist Convention's missionary program, several hundred conservative churches joined in the call for the creation of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society. The Conservative Baptist Association of America was organized when it became apparent, at the Northern Baptist Convention meeting at Grand Rapids, Michigan (1946), that the older convention would not tolerate a competing missionary agency within its structures.

From the start, then, Conservative Baptists had two concerns: missionary expansion and adherence to the gospel. Accepting, affirming and sharing the gospel are not the only ways to reflect the Christian faith. Some Christians come to the faith with moral concerns. They ask, "What is Christianity doing to help people in the world?" Others believe that to be a true Christian, you must belong to the right church. That is the institutional expression of religious faith.

Still others understand Christianity through some religious experience that they have had. That is the experiential approach to faith. Each of these has an element of truth. But Conservative Baptists have always insisted that the first word to say about Christianity is how much God has done for us. By participating in the widening witness of evangelicals in America, Conservative Baptist agencies grew rapidly during the first fifteen years of their independent ministry. In the late 1950's, however, the movement was drawn into a conflict within evangelical circles.

The vast majority of Conservative Baptist churches cooperated with evangelical para-church agencies like the National Association of Evangelicals and, specifically, with the Billy Graham Association. A militant minority within Conservative Baptist circles, however, taking their cues from Graham's critics, insisted that Graham's "cooperative evangelism " was dangerous and to be avoided. These were the "fundamentalists" within Conservative Baptist ranks.

After seven years of intense debate over second separation, the militant minority, consisting of about two hundred churches, left Conservative Baptist ranks and found a new home in fundamentalist circles. These fundamentalists demonstrated a danger that seems to accompany confessional Christianity. It is what we may call "scribalism." It is an arrogant confidence in the power of religious dogmas. It is the assumption that if we know the right truths in our heads, we will have the spiritual reality in our hearts. "Scribalism" often shows its true colors when it attempts to refine doctrine on top of doctrine. It loves systems. It is given to word games. It builds walls between us and them by insisting that every truth has to be defended with holy passion. And all seem to be equally important for a believer's salvation. Conservative Baptists rejected "scribalism" and have kept their focus on the essentials of the gospel.

Historical Perspective

By Dr. Stephen LeBar, National Executive Director of CBAmeria in 2006

Early History

The Conservative Baptist Association came into existence in 1947 with the purpose of providing a fellowship of churches that hold in common certain basic convictions concerning core issues of biblical faith and Baptist polity. The very word "conservative" gives identity to the movement, because the intent was to conserve (to keep, to retain) the basic biblical distinctives that have historically distinguished Baptists as a people of God. Furthermore, Conservative Baptists have, from their inception, been deeply involved in a worldwide missionary outreach.

The initial core of churches was comprised of those departing from the Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches) over issues of theological liberalism, abandonment of Baptist polity and centralized denominational control. In 1943 the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society (now WorldVenture) had been formed because of similar issues and the appointment of missionaries under the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society regardless of their liberal positions.

In a series of conferences held in 1947, about 3,000 people endorsed the recommendations of an appointed committee. Included was a reaffirmation of faith in the New Testament as divinely inspired, trustworthy and authoritative. The outcome of those meetings was the formation of CBA of A. The Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society (now Mission to the Americas) was formally launched in 1950.

By 1953 there were 500 churches in national association, and an additional 240 churches fellowshipping in state associations. From the outset, fellowship was offered to "autonomous Baptist churches without regard to other affiliations." Myron Cedarholm, the second General Director, listed several fundamental principles of the movement. (1) It was a confessional body, declaring its fundamental doctrines. However, Cedarholm went on to say, "The CBA believes that details of interpretation and application are the prerogative of the local church, under the illumination of the Holy Spirit." (2) It was a fellowship of independent churches. He emphasized that the Association is not a denomination. It has no power to make decisions for the churches or to impose programs upon them. It has no desire to establish centralized authority, ecclesiastical connectionalism or dependent organizations that the churches must support. "However, there rightly exists among the churches an interdependency." (3) It had "no organic relationship to the organizations which its churches support." Each of the agencies was independent of the others. (4) It refused to make contributions a prerequisite for membership.

There has always been some confusion as to how the church association relates to the two mission societies. As early as 1949, the leaders of the three groups recognized the "growing confusion that exists in the minds of many people, who regard these various conservative organizations as one and the same." The consensus was that each should function as an autonomous group and should seek to serve its own constituency. Nonetheless, in the years that followed, numerous unsuccessful attempts were made to bring all under one organizational umbrella. The latest attempt came to a halt in 2004.

Recent History

In January of 2002, the National Coordinating Council, made up of key leaders from the various CB entities, issued a "Call for Change Among the Conservative Baptist Family." Citing our strong heritage of biblical integrity, missionary zeal and passion for the local church, the council observed signs of plateau, and even decline. Two task forces were created to address the concerns and to propose "radical solutions to assure a healthy and bright future together."

The Organizational Task Force was to address the lack of networking and organizational cooperation among the CB family, which the NCC defined as "all CB-affiliated ministry agencies, local churches, schools and various governing bodies." This group was mandated to recommend a national CB organizational strategy that would result in greater Kingdom impact. The Doctrinal Task Force was to address cultural, societal and theological challenges that the organizations face. This group was mandated to identify key doctrinal issues and how the CB family believes God would have us respond to those issues in a sound, unified and biblical framework.

After diligent and sacrificial labor by the two Task Forces, a Vision Summit was called in Littleton, CO on September 10, 2003. Forty-two CB leaders representing the numerous CB entities gathered to hear the reports and recommendations. It seemed that the endeavors would continue and result in the desired outcomes.

On October 27, 2003, the NCC met in Portland, OR, and received the final report from the Doctrinal Task Force. The report was received, and the NCC voted to conclude the work of the task force, "sensing that the Task Force had substantially fulfilled its purpose." As stated in the Final Report from the Council dated November 28, the churches and agencies in the CB family will continue to be guided by the doctrinal statements currently in use. In the same report, the Council announced that the Organizational Task Force recommended dissolution due to "inability to make progress on a plan to consolidate CB ministries."

The report went on to say, "The spiritual and relational challenges we face as a CB movement will not be solved by structural changes. Nor will greater ministry be advanced by a centralized leadership structure. The challenge is to strengthen the ties between our churches in regional associations and resource those regions to effectively serve our churches. The pledge of the schools is to come alongside the local church to help equip the next generation of leaders. The mission agencies renewed their dedication to sacrificially serve CB churches in the realization of their global witness."

On January 28, 2004, the CBA (association of churches) Board met and made significant decisions. It ratified the Mission, Vision and Values Document that was developed in concert with the Organizational Task Force and the Regional Directors. Next, it empowered the Regional Directors to develop a "new day for CBA." Further, it resolved that in the change process, the existing uniqueness of each region, including millennial positions, would be honored. Finally, a resolution prevailed that linked CBAmerica with the CB churches in the Philippines on specific issues of Biblical inerrancy.

On March 17, 2005, the Regional Directors met in Chicago, functioning as the CBAmerica Transitional Leadership Team. At this meeting a new paradigm for CBAmerica was envisioned. The new model is a Fellowship of Regions, bound together by mutual and accountable privileges and responsibilities. The Regions share core values, mission and vision. Relationships among the Directors and among the Regions are covenantal, with mutual submission to the greater good of the whole. The Regional Directors are the national coordinators of service to and among the local churches. The National CBAmerica office serves as the hub of operations and networks among the Regions.

On June 24, 2004, the CBAmerica Board of Directors voted to accept the recommendations of the Transitional Leadership Team, including the new paradigm of relationships, the new organizational structure, the new model of ministry, and a new National Director, Dr. Stephen LeBar.

A New Purpose Statement

CBAmerica exists to serve, resource and represent regional fellowships of Conservative Baptist churches.

A NEW driven, through Regional Ministry Hubs

  • Individual believers enter into a covenantal fellowship (membership) of a local CB church.
  • Individual churches enter into a covenantal fellowship (membership) of a CB regional association.
  • Individual regional associations enter into a covenantal fellowship (membership) of CBAmerica.
  • Individual national fellowships enter into a covenantal fellowship (membership) of CBGlobal.

Other entities with Conservative Baptist roots are affiliates, with whom we partner in serving the churches.