Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Celebrating the New Baptist Covenant

Baptists have meetings. In our local churches we have team meetings and committee meetings and council meetings and church-wide business meetings. Representatives from our churches gather in associational, convention, fellowship, alliance, or union meetings. These days we’re doing more and more meeting over the internet through our blogs and websites and emails. Yes, Baptists like to meet.

Given that the century is young, it is not hyperbole to say that one of the most important Baptist meetings of this century will take place January 30-February 1, 2008 in Atlanta. It is the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant. That covenant was adopted on April 10, 2006 by representatives of twenty Baptist groups who convened at the Carter Center in Atlanta at the invitation of former President Jimmy Carter, a lifelong Baptist, and Mercer University President Bill Underwood. At a subsequent meeting at the Carter Center on January 9, 2007 at which over thirty Baptist groups, most of whom are members of the North American Baptist Fellowship (NABF), a regional body of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), were represented, plans for the 2008 Celebration were announced.

According to the website of the New Baptist Covenant,
The theme of this historic gathering will be Unity in Christ. The Biblical basis for the meeting is Jesus’ reading of scripture in the Synagogue as recorded in Luke 4: 18-19. In these verses, Jesus reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim the release of the captives, and the recovering of sight of the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” This call by Jesus to pursue both evangelism and ministry to “the least of these” is the Biblical foundation for the New Baptist Covenant.
It’s really hard to imagine how anyone could find fault with a gathering that is built on that foundation.

That hasn’t stopped folks, of course. In particular, many leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have expressed reservations about the gathering. As of this writing, the official leadership of the SBC has not responded positively to the invitation they have received to participate in the gathering.

Thankfully, some “non-official” SBC leaders have shown more openness. I am referring to a group of Baptist bloggers who recently met with President Carter and President Underwood. You can read a news account of the meeting here and read personal accounts by a couple of them here and here. Those bloggers did an interesting and, so far as recent Baptist relations go, a pretty unusual thing: they sat down with people of a different perspective, put their cynicism aside, and tried to understand where those folks were coming from. I don’t know if they will finally decide to participate in the gathering and if they do, I don’t know what they will conclude about it. But I applaud their willingness to listen even if their listening causes them to suffer the slings and arrows of some of their fellows. Frankly, more “moderate” types such as I have been could learn a lot from the example of those Baptist bloggers as could the more “fundamentalist” ones among us.

Let’s face it: the Baptist community needs to exhibit more unity as a witness to a rightly skeptical world. In Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples as given to us in John’s Gospel, he made a really big deal out of the need for love and unity among his followers as the bases for their witness to the world. I have mourned the fragmentations in the Baptist body that have taken place over the past thirty years, such as the moderate-fundamentalist rift in the SBC, the withdrawal of the SBC from the Baptist World Alliance, and the recent ruptures in the American Baptist family over the issue of homosexuality. I am glad that the president of my alma mater and the former United States President who hails from my home state are trying to find a way toward a Baptist unity that is built on sound biblical principles of ministry and evangelism.

Some folks have expressed their belief that the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is really a political rally dressed up in religious garb. Their reasoning goes something like this: (a) Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Baptists as well as former Democratic Presidents, are involved (Carter in a much more substantial way, it appears); (b) the meeting is occurring right at the beginning of the Presidential Primary season (although the way states are moving the dates of their primaries up, we may know who the nominees are before February 1!); therefore, (c) the gathering is obviously a thinly disguised rally for (probably) Hillary Clinton or (maybe) any other Democratic candidate. Such reservations are at best humorous and at worst hypocritical, since recent SBC meetings have gladly received greetings from Republican presidents and at least year’s Greensboro meeting messengers listened gladly to a speech by Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice.

Besides, such fears should have been put to rest by the announcement that speakers would include Mike Huckabee, the Southern Baptist former governor of Arkansas who is running for the Republican nomination for President, and Republican Senators Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa. Imagine that: a Republican presidential candidate was scheduled to speak but no Democratic candidates were (former Vice-President Al Gore is scheduled to speak but as of this writing he is still not an announced candidate for President). Unfortunately, Gov. Huckabee has now withdrawn, expressing displeasure with President Carter’s recent negative comments about the Bush administration’s foreign policy record and with the allegedly leftward tilt of the speakers on the program. Perhaps Gov. Huckabee fears alienating the conservative base of the Republican Party. I wish he would reconsider; those who attend the gathering need to hear voices from all parts of the Baptist choir. I certainly hope that Sens. Graham and Grassley hang tough and follow through on their commitment.

I encourage my church members to attend Baptist meetings. I am encouraging them to attend this one. I am under no illusion that those who are organizing the gathering are right about everything nor do I think that such perfection is necessary. I do believe that this is an opportunity to begin to build and strengthen relationships between the varied Baptist bodies in North America for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is that opportunity that has me excited. It is that opportunity that will cause me to be in Atlanta January 30-February 1, 2008.


Anonymous said...

Just two questions...why is it that the organizers of the covenant event would be so focused on inviting and advertising its obviously political speakers rather than focusing on inviting and advertising the great Christian preachers and Biblical teachers of our time? And, where are the great Christian leaders and preachers who are endorsing this event?

Mike Ruffin said...

I think that the first question you pose is a good one. That they would announce that Carter and Clinton would speak is not surprising since they are two fairly famous Baptists and since Carter is so involved in the event. My guess--and this is only a guess as I am not involved in the planning of the event--is that they wanted to make a big deal about the Republican politicians speaking so as to make it clear that it would be a balanced event or to give the impression that it would be a balanced event, depending on your point of view.

As for your second question, I think that some pretty good preachers and teachers have been named as speakers: Adams, Campolo, Gregory, Pennington-Russell, and Shaw. Their presence on the program is not going to get the same media play as the politicians.

The questions I would ask you are, whose endorsements would make a difference to you? and would such endorsements necessarily guarantee that it would be an event that you would support?

Thanks for your questions. I appreciate you taking the time to read and to comment.