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A democracy Jimmy Carter cannot support

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Jimmy Carter, the globetrotting ex-president, spends a great deal of his time promoting democracy, as he sees it, around the world.

Interestingly, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical fellowship of churches in America, functions as a democracy. The majority of the messengers attending a given annual convention seek the mind of Christ and vote as a democratic body, an annual activity one would think Jimmy Carter would applaud. However, the SBC is a primary target of the former president’s harshest criticism in his latest book, “Our Endangered Values.”

What he writes is nothing new. Carter’s criticism of the conservative direction of the SBC is longstanding. In 1993, he and his wife publicly announced their allegiance with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (a breakaway group of liberals and moderates, formerly of the SBC but now stridently anti-SBC), and in 2000 he felt compelled to announce with fanfare once again his break with the SBC.

For the record, individuals do not have membership in the SBC, but churches affiliate through their friendly cooperation with and financial support of SBC causes. Despite his claim that the other members of his church agree with him about the SBC, his church, Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, continues to contribute financially to Southern Baptists’ cooperative missions, ministries and theological education.

In “Our Endangered Values,” he espouses values that are not mine, likely not yours, or those of a majority of Americans in general or Southern Baptists in particular; the “our” is a limited constituency at best. Nevertheless, in light of the recent media attention, Carter’s views are worth revisiting for the sake of clarification and distinction.

At multiple annual meetings, the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists who were present repeatedly expressed a belief in the biblical value of human life. Interestingly, this is a belief which Carter also professes.

“I am convinced that every abortion is an unplanned tragedy, brought on by a combination of human errors,” he has stated, adding, “I have never believed that Jesus Christ would approve … abortions.”

However, his public record doesn’t match his private beliefs.

While governor of Georgia, Carter publicly supported family planning programs that included abortion. Writing the forward, he also endorsed a book titled “Women in Need” advocating a woman’s right to abortion. As president, he organized the White House Conference on Families in 1979, which stated the right to abortion as a national priority. Finally, he hired Sarah Weddington as a White House staffer — the lead attorney who argued for abortion in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that made abortion legal.

Clearly, his stated beliefs don’t match with his public practice, and his de facto support of abortion rights certainly doesn’t reflect the values of most Southern Baptists.

The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists believe in the biblical guidelines for human sexuality, including those dealing with the sin of homosexuality. These beliefs have been expressed through resolutions, in our statement of faith and also in our national ministry efforts to promote chastity before marriage, encourage faithfulness in marriage, and to reach out to help homosexuals who desire to leave that lifestyle.

Carter, on the other hand, sends a mixed message on the issue — having declared that he personally believes that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman, while also publicly advocating civil unions for homosexuals.

In 1992, Carter served as the honorary co-chair of a fund-raising dinner for one of the nation’s leading homosexual advocacy groups, the Human Rights Campaign. Not surprisingly, he believes that a marriage amendment to the U. S. Constitution is unnecessary. He has stated that homosexuality is a sin, but sees nothing wrong with a “Christian” homosexual being ordained. In fact, he compares the sin with adultery, but forgets that Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11, NKJV).

Moreover, he stated to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s general assembly that homosexuality is one of several issues that “in God’s eyes fade into relative insignificance, as did circumcision in the first days of the early church.” If they could speak, I don’t think the former residents of Sodom and Gomorrah would agree.

His criticism of the SBC leadership on the issue of homosexuality is particularly harsh, lumping us in with groups that “have chosen gays and lesbians as the foremost targets of their denigration” as a result of our “increasingly narrow and rigid definition of the Christian faith.” His characterization is grossly unfair, but if Southern Baptists must suffer his wrath for adhering to a biblical position on the sin of homosexuality — stating the necessity of turning from that sin, as with any sin — then so be it.

In Southern Baptist life, only local churches have authority to ordain men and women to church office and the convention has not restricted churches in this action. Based on our understanding of the Bible, the majority of Southern Baptists strongly embrace women in ministry, but reserve pastoral leadership for men. Carter decries this democratically arrived at position as the primary reason he “decided to sever my ties” with the SBC.

Carter makes the outlandish claim that by encouraging women to submit to their husband’s “servant leadership,” as taught in Scripture, conservative Christians somehow want to subjugate women like those in some Islamic nations.

In the article on the family in the SBC’s statement of faith, he apparently missed the language about “equal worth” of the husband and the wife before God, or the statement that the wife “being in the image of God as is her husband” is “thus equal to him.” He also ignored the charge to husbands that they should love their wives to the point of dying for them as Christ sacrificially loved the Church.

Christ doesn’t seek to subjugate us, and neither is that the intent of our statement of faith with regard to the relationship between men and women.

A consensus of Southern Baptists attending an annual convention endorsed a statement of faith called the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. It is not a “creed” as Carter erroneously claims.

He also misrepresents one change to the wording as a “substitution of Southern Baptist leaders for Jesus as the interpreters of biblical Scripture.” He uses the general public’s lack of understanding about liberals’ misuse of the language defining Jesus Christ as “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted.” Carter and other liberals use this language as a means to deny the truthfulness of certain passages, by stating, “My Christ would never …,” as if Christ was someone other than revealed in the Bible, or that Jesus could be someone different for each of us depending on how we choose to define Him.

“Our Endangered Values” is full of confusing commentary. To his credit, the former president admits “there were a few inconsistencies” between what he professed to believe privately and his public actions. Further, his claim to be guided by the “Holy Scriptures” conflicts with his cavalier treatment of the biblical text. At once he quotes “Saint Paul” as authoritative and then dismisses other portions of Paul’s writings as culturally conditioned. Therein lies the greatest difference between Jimmy Carter and the vast majority of Southern Baptists — he believes that the Bible “contains” the Word of God, but we believe that it “is” the Word of God.

Certainly, he has been benevolently active since departing the White House. Southern Baptists applaud his work with Habitat for Humanity and his humanitarian efforts abroad. Through the Carter Center, he has aspired to promote democracy around the globe — a worthy goal.

However, it is unfortunate that in his post-partum relationship with Southern Baptists he continues to repeat old complaints about the SBC rather than move on in his relationship with his new faith group.

While it is unfortunate, given his track record, it is not surprising.

What is surprising is that a man who professes to be devoted to democracy, and travels the world as the champion of democracy, decries the same democracy when it is faithfully exercised by Southern Baptists to declare our values.
Morris H. Chapman is president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. He served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1990 to 1992.

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  • Morris H. Chapman