ATLANTA (BP)–To restore their prophetic voice in the culture, Baptists must reject “narrow” interpretations of Scripture and oppose both the Iraq war and President Bush’s tax cuts, plenary session speakers said Jan. 31 at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta.
The auditorium, which holds 15,000 people, was approximately half full for Thursday’s sessions after an estimated attendance of 9,000 for Wednesday night’s address by former President Jimmy Carter. Some attendees of the combined winter meeting of the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Convention appeared to have gone home.
Novelist John Grisham said it is time for Baptists to stop reading the Bible with so-called narrow literalness and celebrate diversity.
He criticized the Baptist church he attended during his youth for taking what he said was an inconsistent and intolerant approach to Scripture.
“In the Baptist church of my youth we were taught that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God — every word is divinely inspired and it is to be read literally,” Grisham said. “It just dropped out of heaven. Five thousand years ago God made the earth in six days, 144 hours. Then He rested on the Sabbath, which is really on Saturday but we’re not going to start that debate. Methuselah lived to be a [thousand], and when Paul wrote that women should be submissive, that was the literal interpretation. It was the law.
“However, when Paul told Timothy to have a little wine,” he said to laughter, “and when Jesus said in Mark 16 that His followers would be known for speaking in tongues, taking up the serpents with their hands and drinking the poison, well then some things were not so literal.”
He called churches holding such beliefs intolerant and harmful to the cause of Christ.
“The church was proudly intolerant of other people, other denominations, other religions,” he said. “Sadly, in many ways and in many places, that church still exists today. Many of you know it because you’re products of those churches.”
Baptists are hated by some people because Baptists “have worked so hard to exclude so many,” Grisham said. Citing Galatians 3:28, he said Baptists must restore their image by respecting everyone.
“Who are we kidding when we try to exclude?” he said. “God made all of us. He loves all of us equally, and He expects us to love and respect each other without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, biblical interpretation, denominations or other religions.”
He specifically criticized those who limit some roles in the church to men only, citing the church of his youth as one bad example.
“In the Baptist church of my youth, women were expected to stay in their places,” Grisham said. “They couldn’t preach, couldn’t serve as deacons.
“They could run the nursery. They could teach the children. They could sing in the choir, but they could not lead in public prayer. They could be appointed missionaries’ wives but not missionaries. And two or three times a year, just for good measure, to remind them of their reduced status, we would hear a long sermon based on the first-century writings of the apostle Paul. How many times have I heard 1 Timothy 2:11-12?”
He remarked of 1 Timothy 2:11-12, “Even as a child I did not understand this.”
Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, called on Baptists to take the lead in lifting children out of poverty.
Millions of children are abused, receive inadequate healthcare, die of preventable causes and lack adequate education, she said. The church must take responsibility for this problem and work for a solution, Edelman said.
“The church ought to be the locomotive and not the caboose in speaking up for the poor children and the neglected children in our country,” she said.
One important way the church should help is by rediscovering its prophetic voice to the culture, she said. It is particularly important for the church to speak against making President Bush’s tax cuts permanent, she said.
“The number of children in poverty has increased by 2 million since 2000, and our uninsured children have increased by 1 million in the last two years, and our political leaders say we don’t have the money to provide five years of $70 billion but say we can afford to give tax cuts to billionaires in the top 1 percent, which costs $76 billion in lost revenue this year alone,” Edelman said.
“That money could lift every child out of poverty and provide all uninsured children and pregnant women healthcare. And you need to raise your voices and oppose any efforts to make those tax cuts permanent.”
Edelman added that any nation spending more money on defense than social uplift evidences its own spiritual decay.
“Just seven months of our last year’s budget on the Iraq war could also lift every child out of poverty and provide every child healthcare,” she said. “And we have got to figure out how we find a better balance between protecting our children from the terrors within and protecting our children from the enemies without.”
Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., said Baptists must move beyond being politely respectful to people different from themselves and embrace all people with Christ-like love.
“Respect, in the end, has no power to change something that’s fundamentally broken in you and me and between you and me,” she said. “Only love can do that.”
Baptists must love like never before those with different politics or theology, Pennington-Russell said.
“Chances are in some ways they’ve been blinded toward you, and chances are you’ve been a little blind toward them too,” she said. “And you and I have no power to heal ourselves of our blindness, but love does.”
Tony Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University, said Christians must make personal sacrifices to help the poor. He asked the hypothetical question, “Can a Christian own a BMW?” and said Jesus would spend His money helping the poor rather than buying an extravagant luxury item.
“Can you imagine Him (Jesus) having to choose between feeding starving kids in Haiti and buying a BMW (and) saying, ‘Forget those kids. I’m buying me a status symbol?'”
In the midst of alleviating poverty believers must never forget that telling the message of salvation to all people is the most important duty they have, he said.
“Even as we feed the hungry, clothe the naked — even as we reach out to the poor and the oppressed of our age, which is the calling of this convocation, we do have to say this: We must also and above all bring the message of salvation, for man (and) woman shall not live by bread alone.”
The New Baptist Covenant meeting is scheduled to conclude Friday with an address by former President Bill Clinton.
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Ky., and a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.