ATLANTA (BP)–Drawing on the accounts of division in the early church expressed in the New Testament books of First Corinthians and Acts, former president Jimmy Carter, a Sunday School teacher and sometimes deacon told participants to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s annual general assembly June 29 to focus on a single statement in order to work together to fulfill a global mission.
Calling the disciple James’ remarks concerning the debate among early Christians about circumcision in Acts 15 an “authoritative statement, in extent, summarizing and boiling down the premise of the Christian faith to a simple statement,” Carter said the apostle Paul, however, said it best in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 when Paul said, in part, “‘…for I determined not to know anything among you save but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.'”
“The complexities and details and arguments about political intrigue and control and women deacons or women pastors or homosexuality,” Carter paused, “those things in God’s eyes fade into relative insignificance, as did circumcision in the first few days of the church.”
Carter said Paul’s remarks represent “a broad enough of a foundation for all of us to inhabit and work together,” urging CBF and “traditional” Baptists to lead out “more aggressively to another to assume the common ground.”
Carter’s remarks came at a time when participants to the CBF assembly meeting June 28-30 at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center were still wrangling over a statement released last October prohibiting its funds from going to pro-homosexual organizations and from hiring or sending missionaries who are practicing homosexuals.
In a coordinating council business meeting on June 27 members refused to rescind the original motion creating the statement, while in a general assembly business meeting the morning of June 29, participants made a motion which sent the matter to a breakout session later that morning for discussion. At that session, where nearly 300 participants discussed the statement and motion for almost an hour, a motion was made to suspend action on the statement for a year while a study committee examines it and reports back to next year’s general assembly. Finally, on the last morning of the assembly, June 30, participants voted down the motion to suspend the statement, letting it stand.
CBF is a decade old denomination-like organization of mostly former Southern Baptists who remain critical of the conservative leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Speaking of his own spiritual journey, Carter, who this past year denounced the Southern Baptist Convention over its doctrinal statement, said he considered basic principles that have guided his life and his work at the Carter Center to “exemplify CBF” as well, where he and Rosalynn have found a “new home.”
“We don’t duplicate or compete, we encompass those who have different political and theological opinions and we deal in action, not just verbiage,” said Carter.
The three principals he identified are:
— No competition with any other organization. “We don’t duplicate what others do. We try to fill vacuums and go where we are most needed, where people need us the most.”
— Non-partisan and non-denominational. When a difficult issue arises, Carter says he invites along a Republican like Colin Powell to go with him.
— Action. “We don’t just talk. Unless there is a direct action, component, we don’t call a conference. If there are answers to a question and a solution to the problem, we are deeply involved in the solutions to the problem.”
With his voice hoarse at time, the smiling and tanned Georgia elder told about 7,000 participants at the assembly his experiences in the White House also shaped his journey.
“I had to change some of my personal religious habits,” reminisced Carter. “I had always been taught that Baptists and Catholics were on the other size of the chasm of light, that they were competitive with us, kind of the enemy of us, some of struggling for the souls and minds of the poor innocent people in China … and in other places.”
About this time in 1979, Carter said he was visited by the newly elected president of the SBC. He said he was told then he had become a secular humanist, but that there was hope he would become a Christian again.
“I had no idea what this meant,” admitted Carter to the laughter of CBF participants. “I went home and asked Rosa, ‘Rosa what in the world is a secular humanist?'”
Many things have changed since he’s left the White House, said Carter, but not the “argument or debate among Baptists.”
“It’s regrettable that we find this division among people who express exactly the same commitment to follow our savior Jesus Christ,” he said.
After several meetings at the Carter Center in the 1970’s when he tried to bring Baptists together to find common ground, Carter said “not much came about that would ease the superficial, the non-important differences between us, at least as measured by God.”
“The important things — faith in Christ — were there, and a belief in justice and peace and humility and service, compassion and love, all were there — there were superficial things in the eyes of God that persisted.”
A statement was issued about being kind to one another, but division still continued, according to Carter who said more recent meetings with “traditional” moderate Baptists have been more hopeful. Citing meetings that have included CBF coordinator Daniel Vestal, CBF moderator Donna Forrester and leaders from the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Association of Baptists in Virginia, Carter said they have worked on finding “a common ground on which we might form partnerships that might be more effective in carrying out the mandates of God with the leadership and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ.”
Reading a newly drafted statement from the platform, Carter admitted it included some “very controversial” things, but was agreed on by those who had met together in partnership:
“We receive the Holy Scriptures as inspired and authoritative. Agreeing that the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ. Although often helpful, human statements of faith are not to be regarded as infallible, nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority or as instruments of doctrinal accountability.
“We believe in the principle of local church autonomy, with the understanding that a local congregation can use its own prayerful judgment in seeking and following God’s will — this includes a selection of pastors and other leaders. Our faith continues to be based on the historical Baptist principles of soul competency, priesthood of believers, separation of church, religious freedom, compassion for unbelievers, and respect for all persons as inherently equal before God.
“Since every believer and every church is called by Christ to share the gospel with all people, we are committed to a greatly strengthened global mission and the need to serve in close partnership with each other and with our missionary force to achieve this paramount goal. The education of future Baptist leaders is crucial for the success of this effort.
“Directly and through the BGCT and Baptist Association of Virginia, and the CBF, churches need a way to participate in this common commitment with their personal and financial support. A global mission partnership should be established through which support for mission and education should be established.”
While a “little long and verbose,” Carter said the statement is echoed in a summary written by Daniel Vestal and published in Baptists Today.
“It’s not all that difficult, in my opinion, to find a common statement,” asserted Carter. “… It’s good for us to remember that this altercation or argument debate or division is nothing new,” Carter said, in beginning his remarks about the disciples’ New Testament statements to the early church.
“I think we need to have a world mission vision based on the practical application of world mission work,” said Carter. “And this is presumptuous on my part, not being a missionary, not being a pastor or having studied theology on my part, but I believe that what Christ did was not just to preach, but that he ministered to people in such a fashion that they could not control their commitment to follow him.”
Describing a missionary couple from their church that began work in the 1970’s, Carter said they were ultimately responsible for building a concrete bridge, 81 new churches, 167 wells, and 21 irrigation ponds. Within 80 miles, Carter said, over 5,000 had accepted Christ.
“I think we should reach out to other traditional Baptists to moderate Baptists — not only in this country but in Europe or other places and to form a coalition or partnership that would greatly strengthen what we can do. But we have to set the example,” said Carter. “If there are other Baptists who don’t want to respond, don’t want to cooperate, forget them, forget them and move on, as Christians, and as Baptists — just following Jesus.”