Jimmy Carter and the New Baptist Covenant Celebration
Former President Jimmy Carter is backing a big gathering of Baptists in Atlanta early next year. The New Baptist Covenant Celebration will include the predominately black Baptist denominations, as well as moderate, predominately white Baptist groups. But Jimmy Carter is also reaching out to pastors from the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention to get their support.
Two blogging Baptist pastors have reported on their meeting with Jimmy Carter. Wade Burleson, a pastor in Oklahoma, says this in his long report of the meeting:
I was impressed with President Carter's humility, mental acumen at age eighty three, and his gentle manner. He was very sincere in expressing his desire that Baptists unite around the fundamentals of the gospel of Jesus Christ at this convocation and lay aside all political and minor doctrinal differences for the greater purpose of building the kingdom of Christ. Not once was a negative word spoken about anyone. Not once was there expressed critical statements about the SBC or SBC leadership. Rather, there was a repeated desire expressed that everyone in the SBC feel welcome and a fully participating partner at the convocation.
The discussions for an hour were around the world's need of Jesus Christ and the great possibilities if Baptist Christians were to unite to help eradicate some of the major problems in our world including poverty, disease and injustice. President Carter shared that he teaches anywhere between 200 to 600 guests who attend his Sunday School class during the forty weeks out of the year he is at First Baptist Church, Plains, Georgia. He still uses the traditional Southern Baptist literature (he's been teaching Revelation the last four weeks), but makes it a point to share the gospel of Christ every Sunday because there are people who have come to hear him preach that are in need of Christ. Mr. Carter keeps the main thing the main thing on Sunday morning.
The prayer time at our meeting yesterday was truly a prayer time. The Spirit was present, the words were heartfelt, and the yearning for God to send revival among all Baptists very real. I am not sure what the outcome of the meeting may ultimately be, but I can assure you that it was refreshing to be someplace where discussions of denominational or national politics were taboo, discussions of Christ and kingdom ministry encouraged, and the ideas of all parties.
. . .
My prayer is that we as Southern Baptists can get to the point where our relationship with Christ and each other is more important than our political, philosophical or national ideology. We are part of a kingdom that transcends the natural. It is eternal and spiritual. The head of that kingdom is Christ and He himself said By this shall all men know that you are my disciples; if ye have love one for another.
I shall maintain my conservative values. I have no desire, nor shall I ever have a desire, to recant my conservative beliefs. My love for Scripture and its sufficiency in my life for faith and practice is a bulwark against theological liberalism. I am who I am. However, I refuse to let others define who or who is not my brother in Christ. Nor will I relent to the demands that I not associate with those Baptist brothers who are different than I.
It's time we focused on what unites us with other Baptists instead of what divides us from other Baptists.
I studied in seminary under fundamentalists forever hostile to President Carter and almost embarrassed that he was a Baptist. By osmosis if nothing else, I had cultivated a similar suspicion. Likewise, during the heat of the Baylor crisis over Robert Sloan, I found myself on the opposite side of Bill Underwood on several occasions.
Today, however, I cemented the growing conviction that Southern Baptists of the fundamentalist type have compromised my fair evaluation of brethren differently aligned. There is a way to be Baptist that holds firmly to your individuality but allows for flexibility and respect for others similarly immersed in the name of the Triune God.
If Southern Baptists would commit to issues of social justice with the same rallying cry that founded the Cooperative Program for the task of world missions — namely that we can do more together than we can apart — we might find the good and pleasant blessing promised of God when brothers dwell together in unity. If we can collaborate as Southern Baptists to reach the ends of the earth with the message of Jesus without relinquishing our autonomy, it should certainly be possible for us to do the same with whomever we can wherever we can to speak prophetically and give sacrificially for those whom Christ came to set free: the poor, the oppressed, and the lost.
I also wonder if this is a model that the Anglican Communion could use to get beyond the bitterness of the current disputes about sexuality. Could we organize a gathering around what unites us, rather than what divides us? Seems to me that if Baptists, who are already divided into separate denominations, can do so, we can too.