ATLANTA (BP)–Special interest sessions during the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta advocated diverse and at times conflicting viewpoints on issues ranging from the criminal justice system and poverty to sexual exploitation and responding to natural disasters.
The convocation included 16 breakout sessions offered Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at the Georgia World Congress Center, and each featured a panel of participants addressing a specific issue. Baptist Press attended four of the sessions in order to provide a snapshot of the views expressed.
FINDING COMMON GROUND WITH OTHER FAITHS
Baptists must stop trying to convert everyone to faith in Jesus Christ and realize that there are multiple “good” interpretations of Bible passages that appear to exalt Jesus as the only way of salvation, panelists said Jan. 31 at a session called “Can We All Get Along? Finding Common Ground with Other Faiths.”
In dialogue with people of other faiths, Christians must appreciate diversity and recognize that trying to bring all people to faith in Jesus ruins what Gerald Durley, pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, described as the beautiful mixture of religions in the world. He compared the religions of the world to a vegetable soup in which diversity enhances the flavor.
“In a vegetable soup you’ve got carrots, you’ve got potatoes, you’ve got tomatoes, you’ve got all these vegetables,” Durley said. “And I’ve never seen — when they come together, I’ve never seen a carrot say, ‘Boy, I think I’ll become a potato this evening.’ No, the individuality and the freshness of each [vegetable] makes the soup really great. So you don’t have to give that up.”
Joining Durley on the panel were David Currie, executive director of Texas Baptists Committed, and Neville Callam, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.
Durley lamented that some Christians “beat down everyone else” with their beliefs and said he is member of a group involving Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy. In the group all participants learn from each other, he said.
“The commonalities are so pervasive among the religions,” he said. “… One of the things [that is] true is that all religions believe that they can find common ground under the concept of truth. I could sit and talk with somebody across religions. They might believe that’s their truth, this is my truth. But one thing that’s common ground among all of us [on which] we can get along is that there is a truth.”
At one point, an audience member asked panelists how Christians can be inclusive of other religions when verses like John 14:6 appear to teach an exclusive Gospel. Durley told the questioner that a trained theologian knows all verses can be explained in several ways.
“I’ve learned after seminary training I can take one passage and take you down one path and come back and take you down another path and justify it,” he said. “And somewhere in there is the truth.”
Currie called himself a “convictional Baptist” who believes all people need to know Christ as Lord and Savior. He also emphasized that he does not accept all faiths but admitted with Durley that he is not sure how to interpret John 14:6.
“I don’t claim to know what all that means,” Currie said of Jesus’ claim to be the Way, the Truth and the Life. “There are different ways to interpret. But what I believe is I have a right and a privilege and a responsibility to bear witness to Jesus Christ and to partner with Him in everything I do in the world.”
All Christian witnessing must be based on personal experience rather than dogmatic appeal to absolute truths, Currie said.
“It is never appropriate to be dogmatic in one’s convictions,” he said. “God is truth. I don’t know all truth. So what I bear witness to is what I have experienced in my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that’s as far as I can take it.”
Callam added that believers must learn “to receive others in their otherness and to recognize the possibility of God at work in their lives.”
When audience members asked about evangelism, Currie said Jesus did not tell people what to do with their lives until they asked. He said the most effective evangelistic technique is to remain silent until an unbeliever specifically asks about the Gospel.
“For the most part … the most effective evangelism slogan I know is ‘love people and shut up.’ That is good evangelism. And when you love them, ultimately they’ll ask you why and then you can tell them. But if you start telling them before they ask, they’re not going to hear you.”
PROCLAIMING GOD’S GOOD NEWS
In contrast, participants in a Feb. 1 session titled “Proclaiming God’s Good News (Evangelism)” said Christians have a mandate to call all sinners to repentance and faith in Christ.
Brenda Little, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church of Christ in Morton Grove, Ill., said the church does not exist only for itself. Congregations must go outside the church walls in an effort to reach lost people for Jesus, she said.
“We are to be a light that isn’t hid under a bushel,” Little said. “And a light ought to give illumination, to show someone on the way. Even if one person didn’t know where the light was, it burdened me and concerned me as a pastor.”
Evangelism should be bathed in prayer and should never use gimmicks, she said, because God’s power is enough to draw sinners to Christ.
Ronald Bobo, pastor of West Side Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, said Christians need a wakeup call telling them to get serious about sharing the Gospel with the world. Preaching from the Book of Jonah, he told attendees to get over their complacency and get trained in evangelism.
“The Jesus who died on Calvary and rose again is still in the saving business,” Bobo said. “You’ve been given a ministry, my friends, or a mission by the Lord. If you have not responded, this is your wakeup call.”
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY & SEPARATION OF CHURCH & STATE
A session titled “Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State” posed the question “How can we ensure freedom for all people to live out their faith?”
Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said Jan. 31 that the committee fights daily in Washington to affirm “the absolute importance of the separation of church and state as a constitutional corollary to the theologically grounded good of religious liberty.”
“The two have to go together,” Walker said. “You can’t have one without the other because as soon as government starts to meddle in religion or take sides in religious disputes, favoring one over another, someone’s religious liberty is denied and everyone’s is threatened.”
Walker said religious liberty is as much diminished when government tries to help religion as when government tries to hurt religion. The best thing government can do for religion, he said, is simply to leave it alone.
“I should not ask government to promote my religion if I don’t want government to promote someone else’s religion,” Walker said.
Cynthia Holmes, co-chair of the Baptist Joint Committee’s Religious Liberty Council and a former Cooperative Baptist Fellowship moderator, spoke about issues that concern her as a Baptist who promotes religious freedom.
Holmes expressed disapproval of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore for placing a monument of the Ten Commandments in the state courthouse in 2003.
“That piece of nonsense … is what my mom would call a graven image or an idol,” she said, adding that she was proud that when the Moore controversy was at its height, 42 Baptist ministers joined in a friend of the court brief to point out why the government should not be erecting religious monuments in the courthouse.
Holmes touched on several other causes commonly championed by conservative Christians.
“We actually have become a nation of whiners. We’re upset when the clerk at Wal-Mart won’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of being upset that we’re there worshipping the god of things,” she said to applause.
Regarding prayer in public schools, Holmes said, “I don’t think most of the Baptists who are promoting that idea would want the teacher leading their child in a prayer starting with ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’ or ‘Allah akhbar.'”
“The creation science thing,” Holmes said, is another issue that baffles her.
“Make no mistake, we all believe probably in this room that God created the universe … but teaching it in science class as science is phony and demeans our religion,” she said. “I like to say the God I worship is intelligent enough to have designed evolution…. When we want our particular view of religion endorsed and advanced, it really is a bad witness.”
Holmes said she disapproves of faith-based initiatives like those President Bush mentioned in his last State of the Union address.
“To me, when we want to go and ask the government to give us money to do God’s work, we are demeaning our Christian witness,” she said. “… There’s a great deal of difference in a cup of water given in Jesus’ name and one given in the government’s name.”
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, also spoke during the religious liberty session, advocating diversity of religions in America, and Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School and moderator for the session, advised participants to protect their religious liberty by refusing to pray at government-sponsored events even when invited by the government.
FAITH & PUBLIC POLICY
Melissa Rogers, a visiting professor at Wake Forest Divinity School and former executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, spoke on “Faith and Public Policy,” addressing how faith should guide people in speaking to the government about the poor, the sick and the oppressed.
Rogers urged her audience to get involved in matters of public policy.
“If you are silent, you create a political vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled,” she said Feb. 1. “So I’m very grateful when religious people will engage on issues like global warming or the economy or immigration reform and stand against those who would be entrenched interests, moneyed interests, corporate lobbyists, and ensure that there is not a vacuum and that there are voices that are speaking for a cause that is greater than their own self-interests in the process and speaking for a cause of ethics, in our case coming from a perspective of Christian ethics.”
Rogers also said there is no such thing as a choice between a social gospel — one that focuses on issues like poverty, global warming and healthcare — and a personal gospel — one that focuses on evangelism and salvation experiences. She said the two are intertwined when churchgoers who have had that salvation experience begin to get involved in ministries that address social problems.
When people of faith are involved in public policy, Rogers said they must remember they are God’s servants, not His spokespersons. She added that religious groups should not practice partisan politics, and she referred to Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that the church should be the conscience of the state, not its tool. She urged political activism but advised churches to heed IRS rules relating to their involvement in politics.
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Ky., and a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.