On April 10, 2006, the leaders of several Baptist conventions that together have some 20 million members gathered at the Carter Center in Atlanta at the invitation of former President Jimmy Carter, himself a life-long Baptist. Out of that meeting came a statement called A North American Baptist Covenant. Following is a portion of that statement.
The leaders of these organizations affirmed their desire to speak and work together to create an authentic and genuine prophetic Baptist voice in these complex times. They reaffirmed their commitment to traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality. They specifically committed themselves to their obligations as Christians to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.
They also agreed to plan for a convocation of Baptist people to celebrate these historic Baptist commitments and to explore other opportunities to work together as Christian partners.
The plans for that convocation were announced at another meeting that was held at the Carter Center this week. The leaders of the conventions that make up the North American Baptist Fellowship (NABF), one of six regional bodies of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) met in Atlanta with other Baptist leaders and with President Carter and former President Bill Clinton, who is also a Baptist and who described himself as a “cheerleader” for the movement. Member bodies of the NABF include the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., American Baptist Churches USA, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Canadian Baptist Ministries, Seventh Day Baptist General Conference, Baptist General Convention of Texas, General Association of General Baptists, and others. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), because of its withdrawal from the BWA a few years ago, is not a member of the NABF. Its leaders say they were not invited to participate in this week’s meeting but organizers of the upcoming convocation say that Southern Baptists will be invited to participate.
The convocation will take place at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta January 30-February 1, 2008. According to John Pierce of Baptists Today, “Organizers say the…gathering will be ‘prophetic, but not partisan,’ and focus on Jesus’ reading of the prophet Isaiah as recorded in Luke 4:18-19, calling for preaching the gospel to the poor, healing the brokenhearted and giving liberty to captives.” Tentative themes for the plenary sessions include “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” “Unity in Bringing Good News to the Poor,” “Unity in Respecting Religious Diversity,” “Unity in Seeking Peace with Justice,” and “Unity in Welcoming the Stranger and Healing the Broken-Hearted.” Confirmed speakers include President Carter and Bill Moyers.
One positive outcome of the disruption in the SBC at the end of the last century and the ongoing tendency of SBC leadership to pull back from involvement in the larger Baptist world has been the increased appreciation of many former and some current participants in the SBC for Baptists in other parts of the world and for Baptists in other Baptist conventions. The SBC has over the years become quite narrow in its focus on itself and on limiting fellowship to those of “like mind” with an ever-narrowing definition of “like-mindedness.” For too many years too many of us took the approach that by being involved in the SBC we were by proxy involved in the BWA and the NABF and with the groups that related to those bodies. Now, we understand that it is better to be involved directly through our own participation and support. It is a very good thing, I think, that diverse Baptists from many different conventions are getting together to focus on Christian ministry and on Baptist principles. The NABF is apparently moving toward becoming a more proactive and intentional body, and that’s good. The NABF is made up of some 24 conventions representing some 18 million members. The BWA is made up of some 214 conventions and unions with some 34 million members. Clearly, all those Baptist groups can do more together than they can separately.
I hope that important partnerships, positive Christian ministry, and a clear Christian witness will emerge from this convocation and subsequent efforts. I hope that greater Baptist cooperation will lead to an even broader ecumenism. I hope that the leaders of and the participants in this new effort will make every effort not to unnecessarily narrow the parameters defining what kinds of Baptists can and should participate. I hope the day will come when “fundamentalist” or “conservative” and “moderate” or “progressive” Baptists will stop sniping at each other and just get on with the work of the kingdom. And I hope that I’ll get to know lots of new Baptist friends when I go to the meeting in Atlanta next year.