Thursday, January 11, 2007

Something Hopeful In Baptist Life

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.


The Beast said...

I have been following this as well and I join with your hopes that positive Christian partnerships and ministry will emerge.

The first editorial I have read, however, did not seem to get things off to a steady beginning. Robert Parham, writing about the 2008 meeting, begain the first paragraph of his editorial this way: "Baptists are much more than Southern Baptists, who are more southern than Baptist, more exclusive than inclusive, more theocratic than democratic and more negative than positive."

If cooperation and unity are the sincere goals of this alliance, goals of which I am skeptical, this is an odd way to begin the blending process. The SBC can certainly do their amount of trash talking, but the smear factor is not as one sided as it appears.

Furthermore, the editorial goes on to say that the 2008 gathering will hopefully "reshape public perception about Baptists" by aligning behind the agenda in Luke 4:18-19. The editorial describes this agenda as "lifting up the impoverished, freeing captives, restoring to health the ill, liberating the oppressed and announcing the year of economic restoration." All are noble and worthy pursuits. But reshape Baptist perception around those things? I have never quite understood why Baptists are concerned about the world's perception of us, so long as we are preaching Christ crucified.

I don't want to go on too long here, I will make a post of my own on The Beast's Lair, but I am also not convinced of this particular interpretation of Luke 4. As you know, Jesus in Luke 4 was announcing the fulfillment of Scripture in the synagogue of Nazareth. A fulfillment of God's purpose from the foundation of the world. This is above all else a purpose of saving sinners. Probably, when Jesus is describing the "release of captives" and "recovery of sight to the blind" He is speaking of the saving of sinners. Verse 19 ends with "to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord." Favorable not because Christ has come to ultimately solve the social issues of the world, but to save sinners. The two are compatible, of course, but social justice for the Christian first comes through the saving power of Jesus Christ. If this gathering will be centered around social justice and health issues as a priority, that is wonderful. But not to reshape the way people think about Baptists.

Mike Ruffin said...

Beast, my friend,

You make some good points. As I said in my post, I would like to see Baptists of different stripes stop taking swipes at each other and get on with the business of the kingdom. I suppose that there are always stereotypes to be overcome. It is certainly unfair to paint all of anybody in any group as anything. Not all "fundamentalists" are narrow-minded and negative; they are certainly not all opposed to social ministry. Not all "moderates" are uninterested in evangelism; the vast majority of them, I would say, want to see sinners come to Christ. Personally, I am comfortable with a holistic ministry that addresses spiritual, emotional, and physical needs, because I believe that God is interested in the whole person. As for reshaping the public perception of Baptists, I think that we have to have some healthy acceptance of the fact that there are different kinds of Baptists who will come across in different ways. Let's face it--some "fundamentalist" Baptists want nothing to do with "moderate" Baptists. Some "moderate" Baptists want nothing to do with "fundamentalists." All of us sometimes put our best face forward and all of us sometimes put our worst face forward and all of us sometimes just hide our face. What excites me about this new effort is seeing so many different Baptist groups getting together. I wish that Southern Baptists would participate. But can they tolerate whatever "non-orthodoxy" they think they perceive in the other groups? Can the groups that do plan to participate tolerate what they peceive as the "rigid orthodoxy" of SBC leaders? I'd like to think so, but I wonder.

The Beast said...

Thanks for the article and response, I am glad you have a blog! By the way, your article on the Quran is the best I have read. Blessings.