NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page has called on organizers of a planned January 2008 gathering of moderates and liberals to focus less on their plan to “take the microphone away” from conservatives and attend more to spreading the message of the Gospel.
Page’s response May 25 comes about a week after former U.S. president and former Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter made a pitch to Southern Baptists to attend the New Baptist Covenant he is organizing with Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University. Bill Clinton, also a former U.S. president with Southern Baptist ties, has described himself as a “cheerleader” for the event. Clinton’s wife, Hillary, a U.S. senator from New York, is a leading contender for the Democrats’ 2008 presidential nomination.
Carter invoked Page’s name May 17, saying the SBC leader “has not been negative” in discussions about the gathering. According to one media report, Carter claimed to have spoken twice to Page about the planned conference and that Page did not express any reservations about it.
Page said Southern Baptists “were not invited to be a part of the initial meetings of this group.” He also responded strongly to the political overtones surrounding the meeting.
“I will not be a part of any smokescreen leftwing liberal agenda that seeks to deny the greatest need in our world, that being that the lost be shown the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord,” Page said in a statement.
Page’s public denouncement of what has been dubbed the “Clinton-Carter confab” was preceded by several days by the sudden withdrawal of former Arkansas governor and current Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist and former pastor. Carter had touted Huckabee’s participation as lending credibility to the meeting.
Huckabee indicated he had given tentative agreement to attend as long as the program was a celebration of faith and not a political convocation.
Speaking to the Florida Baptist Witness May 21, Huckabee cited the involvement of the “very, very liberal” Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, as evidence of the political leanings of the gathering.
Huckabee pointed to harsh comments Carter made May 19 against President Bush as adding to his concern that his appearance would be “giving approval to what could be a political, rather than spiritual agenda.” During a promotional event for his new audiobook series, “Sunday Mornings in Plains,” a collection of Bible lessons from Plains, Ga., his hometown, Carter blasted Bush’s foreign policy, his “pre-emptive war,” the administration’s efforts on peace in the Middle East and nuclear arms, and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Associated Press reported Carter as saying “this administration has been the worst in history” in its impact on the nation’s standing with other countries.
Page rebuked criticisms by New Baptist Covenant organizers aimed at the Southern Baptist Convention. Carter and Clinton have used terms like “negative” and “exclusionary,” and Underwood has said there is a need for “a true Baptist witness.” Defending the SBC, Page pointed to Southern Baptists’ national ministry efforts aimed at meeting social needs but not to the exclusion of evangelism.
“Since 1974, Southern Baptists have given over $220 million — almost one quarter of one billion dollars — to domestic and overseas hunger relief,” Page said. “Last year in the U.S. alone, the Gospel was shared with 650,000 people and 30,000 made professions of faith because of hunger ministries.
“The Christian Women’s Job Corps program combines job training to meet practical needs with spiritual training to meet eternal needs,” he said, adding that both President Bush and former Vice President Al Gore have described the CWJC program as the best “at lifting women out of government dependency and helping them to become self-supporting, wage earners.
“During the past 15 years, [Southern Baptists] have rehabilitated over 11,000 homes, mostly in inner-city areas,” Page said.
Page also pointed to the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief organization, which is the third-largest in the United States.
“The SBC has 74,000 trained volunteers and more than 900 mobile units … [and] the Red Cross stated Southern Baptist volunteers served 90 percent of the meals at Red Cross disaster relief sites during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts,” he noted.
For Southern Baptists, the mark of their ministries is spiritual, Page said.
“Unlike those who focus only on the social good of ministry, we give a man a loaf of bread and also introduce Christ as the Bread of Life,” he said, emphasizing that statistics alone do not show the extent of ministry by local churches “across racial, denominational and cultural barriers” to share the Gospel and minister to those in need “with no strings attached.”
The list of New Baptist Covenant participants includes a number who have been the harshest critics of the conservative movement in the SBC that has seen Southern Baptists elect conservative leaders consecutively since 1979.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, whose moderate and liberal constituency fled the SBC to form an alternative fellowship in 1990, is listed as an organizer. The event is being formed under the umbrella of the North American Baptist Fellowship, a division of the Baptist World Alliance, an organization the SBC left over concerns about its liberal leanings and antagonism toward Southern Baptist missions and ministries.
Also included among the notables attending is Tony Campolo, a pastor, writer and professor popular among the left, who has described Southern Baptists’ belief that Scripture limits the role of pastor to men as “evidence of demonic influence.”
Other participants with not-so-friendly SBC ties include Al Gore, Democrat insider-turned-journalist Bill Moyers, and Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas.
Although Carter, Clinton and Underwood do not appear to have convinced SBC entity leaders to participate, they also have made overtures to four SBC pastors identified with blogging. Underwood and Carter met May 17 with Marty Duren, pastor of New Bethany Baptist Church in Buford, Ga.; Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla.; Ben Cole, pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas; and C.B. Scott, pastor of Westmont Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
Duren is essentially the founder of a close-knit network of bloggers who maintain an ongoing exchange about issues relating to the SBC. Burleson was drawn into national controversy after blogging his dissent as a trustee about policies adopted by the SBC’s International Mission Board that disqualify missionary candidates based on baptism experiences and speaking in tongues practices described as not consistent with the Baptist identity.
Cole has been a vocal critic of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, most recently over his firing of a female professor because she was teaching men preparing to be pastors. Scott began his blog in May 2006.
The outcome of the May 17 meeting is not clear. Participation by the four likely will not increase participation by Southern Baptist laity or pastors, but it indicates Carter and Underwood are targeting at least a segment of Southern Baptists.
Page, in an apparent reference to the New Baptist Covenant themes of “Justice,” the “Poor,” “Diversity,” the “Stranger,” the “Captive” and the “Broken Hearted,” took issue with the groups’ focus on social ministry and lack of evangelical emphasis.
“To be ‘a true Baptist witness,’ any group must see the winning of souls to Christ as the cohesive factor in our fellowship,” Page said. “I pray that the Covenant Partners will truly seek to promote a biblical mandate. I hope that they will encourage all those who are not at the meeting to do the same.”
Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press, a national news service supported by contributions from Southern Baptist churches through the Cooperative Program.
The full text of Page’s statement follows:
Southern Baptist Convention
Statement of the President
on the New Baptist Covenant gathering
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TAYLORS, S.C., May 25, 2007—“A recent announcement outlined next January’s New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta, Georgia, sponsored by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, along with Mercer University President William D. (Bill) Underwood. Included in that announcement was also the news that several Republicans had announced their planned attendance at the January 31 – February 1, 2008 meeting.
“Organizers say they are attempting to provide an opportunity for Baptists to come together to counter a negative and judgmental image of Baptists in North America. However, many involved in the event are the very ones who have contributed to the press’ reporting of negative images about Southern Baptists.
“Let me state (as I have stated before) that I encourage any group of evangelicals to meet for mutual support, instruction, and edification. I think it is wonderful when brothers and sisters can join together in a positive and refreshing way. As an ethicist, pastor, and believer, I support efforts to exalt the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and to seek His example of compassion to be manifest in greater and broader ways.
“However, Jesus said in Luke 19:10 that he came to ‘seek and save that which was lost.’ To be ‘a true Baptist witness,’ any group must see the winning of souls to Christ as the cohesive factor in our fellowship. Again, as an ethicist, I commend anyone who wants to seek the application of Jesus’ teachings to a hurting world. I will not be a part of any smokescreen leftwing liberal agenda that seeks to deny the greatest need in our world, that being that the lost be shown the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
“Earlier press reports from the Covenant Partners stated that one of the primary reasons for this meeting is to ‘take the microphone away’ from the conservatives. Southern Baptists were not invited to be a part of the initial meetings of this group, so let me offer that rather than this being a tug of war to see who can get most microphone time, I encourage the Covenant Partners to truly seek to focus on Biblical mandates. I believe God would bless that!
“I appreciate that early on in my tenure as SBC president, both Presidents Carter and Clinton called me and offered congratulations, prayer support, and encouragement as I spoke of my goal to present a positive face for Southern Baptists. However, these same men have worked against Southern Baptists, creating a negative caricature of our churches and our beliefs through the press to the world. Their call for a more positive face of Baptists in North America must be measured against such statements as those by President Carter who has used the word ‘fundamentalist’ to equate the democratic election of conservative leaders in the SBC with the rise to power of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.
“Much more can and needs to be done, but Southern Baptists have been compassionate followers of Christ even as we have taken biblical stands on cultural issues in the public square of debate.
“Despite our woeful early history, Southern Baptists have been leaders in racial reconciliation, in 1995 addressing our corporate failure about slavery with repentance and asking forgiveness. Our effort to reach diverse people is evident in the vibrant and growing fellowships of Hispanics, African Americans, Messianic Jews, Koreans and other ethnic groups who call the SBC ‘home.’
“Southern Baptists long have been committed to meeting the needs of the hurting, and tremendous work continues to be done in social ministries in our desire to be the face of Christ while serving as His hands and feet:
— Since 1974, Southern Baptists have given over $220 million -– almost one-quarter of one billion dollars — to domestic and overseas hunger relief. Last year in the U.S. alone, the Gospel was shared with 650,000 people and 30,000 made professions of faith because of hunger ministries.
— The Christian Women’s Job Corps program combines job training to meet practical needs with spiritual training to meet eternal needs. In 2006, 13,163 volunteers ministered to 2,134 participants at 168 sites. In 2004, WMU established a similar program for men, CMJC, which now operates seven sites in three states. Both then Vice President Gore and then Governor George W. Bush described the CWJC program as the best of its type, private or government, at lifting women out of government dependency and helping them to become self-supporting, wage earners.
— Over 22,000 individuals participated in 86 World Changers missions projects at 1,000 work sites in North America during the summer of 2006. During the past 15 years, participants have rehabilitated over 11,000 homes, mostly in inner city areas.
— The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief organization is the third largest in the U.S. behind the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. The SBC has 74,000 trained volunteers and more than 900 mobile units. Importantly, both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army depend on the SBC for volunteer manpower to staff their disaster relief centers. The Red Cross stated Southern Baptist volunteers served 90% of the meals at Red Cross disaster relief sites during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
“Importantly, the mark of our ministries is spiritual. Unlike those who focus only on the social good of ministry, we give a man a loaf of bread and also introduce Christ as the Bread of Life.
“Statistics alone do not show the true extent of ministry going on in local churches as Southern Baptists reach out across racial, denominational, and cultural barriers to share the Gospel and minister with no strings attached to our entire country. As I said, much wonderful work is being done. Yet, there is much more to do!
“I pray that the Covenant Partners will truly seek to promote a biblical mandate. I hope that they will encourage all those who are not at the meeting to do the same.”
The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest evangelical denomination, having more than 16.3 million members in over 43,699 churches nationwide. The Executive Committee is the administrative entity responsible for facilitating the ongoing work of the Convention between annual meetings with offices in Nashville, Tennessee.
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