JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Former president Jimmy Carter convened a large assembly of moderate and liberal Baptists in Atlanta a few weeks ago, meeting under the banner of a “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” seeking unity for social action across racial and theological boundaries among 30 different Baptist denominations. Ironically, President Carter’s appeal to the first century dispute between Paul and Peter as an example of why Christians today should seek unity in spite of theological differences is actually a vivid illustration of the theological danger ahead for this effort and why Southern Baptists cannot be involved.
Conspicuously absent from the gathering was America’s largest Baptist — and Protestant — denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. No SBC leaders were consulted in the planning of the meeting and only after it was announced did Carter seek to reach out to Southern Baptists. The lack of involvement of the SBC, however, was not surprising, given Carter’s long history of SBC bashing, including his very public departure from the SBC in 2000 (although he remains a member of a church that is dually aligned with the SBC and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).
Nevertheless, many secular journalists observing the New Baptist Covenant meeting saw its purpose as “the liberal answer to the Southern Baptist Convention,” as one Wall Street Journal columnist wrote. The Washington Post before the meeting wrote, “Many hope it will also serve as a counterweight to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention….” The New York Times reported, “But for other Baptists and experts on the faith, the central aim of the gathering seems to be to create a theological and political counterweight to the Southern Baptist Convention, which many of the groups that plan to attend have left.”
Still, it seems like the meeting was extraordinary. The fact that so many Baptists met — estimates ranged as high as 15,000 — representing significant racial diversity is certainly noteworthy. News accounts also suggest that for the most part the meeting was characterized by the laudable desire to find common cause on issues like racism, poverty and care of the environment.
Organizers were careful to point out that the purpose of the meeting was not political, contrary to the claims of some critics and in spite of the fact that three former Democratic politicians — Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore — played prominent roles and the meeting was held only days before the Super Tuesday presidential primary. Although Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spoke at the separate meeting of the four African-American Baptist denominations that took place before the New Baptist Covenant gathering, presidential politics was largely absent from the Carter-led confab.
There was dissension among the rank-and-file Baptists attending the New Baptist Covenant over the degree to which “homosexual rights” would be featured in the meeting. Organizers rejected requests of two homosexuality-friendly groups that wanted exhibits, explaining there was no consensus on the issue among the theologically diverse Baptists.
“We are not going to act as outsiders, trying to get in,” Ken Pennings, executive director of the pro-homosexuality group Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, told Religion News Service. “We’re already in. Some just don’t know it yet.”
The homosexual cause was represented at the meeting during a speech by American Baptist author Tony Campolo who “wore a brightly colored stole to show solidarity with gay and lesbian Baptists,” according to RNS.
The theological diversity at the New Baptist Covenant meeting — including the prominent role of women pastors — was predictable, especially in light of two interviews Jimmy Carter gave before the gathering explaining its purpose and desired outcome. In very similar comments to The Los Angeles Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Carter cited the biblical example of the “public disagreement” between Paul and Peter to illustrate how “temporal” issues separated Christians in the first century and why such division should be avoided among Baptists today.
Naming issues like homosexuality, the role of women, and the role of church and state, Carter told the Times “all of those things are deeply felt beliefs on the part of human beings. I have deep feelings on all those subjects of my own. But I don’t see why those beliefs should separate you from me, if both of us believe in Christ and believe in furthering God’s kingdom.”
The vast majority of Southern Baptists have strongly held biblical convictions regarding homosexuality and the role of women, and the role of church and state, to a lesser degree, perhaps. And, while some would characterize those issues differently with regard to their potential for the necessity of Christian division, what is extraordinary about Carter’s comment is his appeal to the disagreement between the Apostles Paul and Peter. In fact, Paul and Peter were not disagreeing on “temporal” issues but on the very nature of the Gospel itself.
Paul’s description of that disagreement (Galatians 2:11-21) is a perfect illustration of the danger fraught within the Baptist movement Carter is seeking to build, and it is an example of why Southern Baptists must “oppose to (their) face” (v. 11) Baptists who are not “straightforward about the truth of the Gospel” (v. 14) in the same manner that Paul rejected Peter’s error.
In his address at the New Baptist Covenant meeting, Carter sounded very similar themes, citing “manmade issues” like the role of women, homosexuality, and adding, this time, abortion, saying: “How many believe that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ? How many believe that like the early Christians we should put aside our deeply felt personal differences and work in unity to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ? You see the distinction between those kinds of questions. We should remember which are the most important.”
Tragically, however, these Baptists do not even agree on the Gospel. I could cite many statements by leaders of the New Baptist Covenant illustrating a very different understanding of the Gospel from Southern Baptists — and many other evangelicals, including Carter’s own view that Mormons are Christians, Clinton’s belief told in his autobiography that God was manifested in a voodoo ceremony he saw in Haiti, or Gore’s pantheism illustrated in his book, “Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.”
During the New Baptist Covenant meeting, while there was a call for unity around the Gospel and even appeals to spread the Good News, a breakout session demonstrated the lack of clarity, to be as charitable as possible, concerning the nature of Gospel.
In a session, “Can We All Get Along? Finding Common Ground with Other Faiths,” panelists seemed flummoxed by a question about applying Jesus’ own exclusive truth claims in John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”)
Texas Baptist leader David Currie said he doesn’t accept all faiths, but agreed with another panelist that John 14:6 was open to interpretation. “It is never appropriate to be dogmatic in one’s convictions,” Currie said (rather dogmatically), according to Baptist Press. “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.”
I can only imagine what the Apostle Paul would have said if he was in that panel discussion, but I’m fairly confident it would have sounded very similar to what he told Peter!
It’s really unremarkable that the liberal/moderate Baptist movement has come to this. Conservatives warned during the “controversy” with liberals in the SBC during the 1980s and 90s that their failure to accept the total truthfulness of God’s Word (or, in the case of some moderates, to accommodate those liberals who rejected inerrancy) would have terrible theological consequences. Those ramifications were all too obvious in the New Baptist Covenant meeting.
There is no enduring — eternally speaking — future for this Baptist effort if they cannot get the Gospel right. Such error is not a “manmade” or “temporal” issue that can be ignored for the sake of social action. Indeed, it goes to the very core of what it means to be Baptist — and more importantly, what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, no matter what Christian denomination.
For the sake of true unity, let’s pray these Baptists can find their way back to the Gospel, for only then will their efforts matter for the Kingdom.
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at FloridaBaptistWitness.com