Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Baptists

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Baptists

Just a few days ago former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton announced a major meeting that would take place in 2008 to "improve the Baptist image and broaden its agenda." Associated Press writer Daniel Yee writes that "Baptists who have distanced themselves from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention" are the ones who have organized the meeting. Here is a very brief history.

In the late 1970's and continuing through almost two decades, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) began what is now commonly referred to as the "resurgence." Key Baptist leaders were convinced that the theological and spiritual outlook of the SBC had moved dangerously into a liberal mindset and they set out to make changes that would move the SBC to a more conservative body of believers. The issues that ruled the debate are still divisive in nature and range from the understanding of Scripture as either inerrant or infallible, the role of women in the church, gay marriage and abortion. Once the SBC came under conservative control, many "moderate" or "progressive" baptists who were less than thrilled with the changes branched off and formed what is now called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). I attended a CBF seminary, McAfee School of Theology, for one semester.

The announcement of this meeting to be held in 2008 leaves me, for now, with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I support the notion that Baptists who hold different views should come together under one umbrella for the Glory of God. The potential good that could come from these partnerships is of course a wonderful thing.

On the other hand, I am troubled by a few things that seem to be a common theme in every article and editorial I have read concerning the 2008 gathering. First of all, the purpose of "improving the Baptist image" does not settle well for me. I keep reading that this meeting hopes to "reshape the way people think about Baptists" and usually the well known superconservative figures like Jerry Falwell are used as an example of what our Baptist image does not need to be. The associated press article goes on to say "The announcement Tuesday is the latest chapter in fierce Baptist battles over how to interpret Scripture. Starting in 1979, Southern Baptists who believe the Bible is without error took leadership of the convention, which now claims 16.4 million members. The denomination became a leading voice opposing gay marriage and abortion, and took stands on many other public policy issues." Then, "Lance Wallace, a spokesman for the fellowship, said the goal of the meeting was to give Baptists a more accurate depiction in the public mind-set." More accurate based on what? What Lance Wallace considers to be an accurate Baptist depiction? It seems to me that this group is so "put out" with heavy fundamental pastors who make the headlines in the news that they fail to see the good that the SBC is doing. The millions that are used for North American and International missions, the millions that are used for world hunger and social justice. And isn't there just something a little weird about having President Bill Clinton be the "cheerleader" for how Baptists are supposed to be accurately portrayed?

Secondly, as much as I want to believe that this gathering is to encourage Baptists, both conservative and moderate, to come together in unity and peace, I have my doubts. One of the major headlines from ethicsdaily.com is a landblasting of Richard Land, president of the ethics and religious liberty commission, for his voice of concern over the meeting and the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). The name of the headline is "Richard Land Just Doesn't Get It." Maybe Richard Land doesn't get it, but I have tracked down many of the quotes used against Land by the BWA. Supporters of the BWA said Land "attacked" their organization when he said this: "the Baptist World Alliance was moving in a liberal theological direction by and large, and it was not serving a lot of the needs of a lot of the Second- and Third-World countries." An attack? Or a very different opinion? Isn't the whole point of this gathering to encourage unity among those Baptists who hold different views? If that were the case, then supporters of the Carter/Clinton movement need to stop writing these kind of editorials, regardless of what the few SBC conservative guys are saying. The SBC consists of 16.4 million members, most of whom are not Richard Land. Ethicsdaily.com also posted an article concerning the gathering that started like this: "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." This isn't pointing out one figure in SBC life, this is a broad comment against Southern Baptists in general. Harmony and common commitment is the point of this thing? Not so sure about that.

Finally, I think there is simply a theological problem with the whole thing. The editorial on ethicsdaily.com 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 am not convinced of this particular interpretation of Luke 4. 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.

In conclusion, I affirm the concept of Baptists from all walks of life who love Christ to join in unity and make a difference for the world. Is this particular organization going to succeed in that respect? Only time will tell. We should be praying for the successful uniting of SBC and other Baptist groups in a non-partisan effort to save the lost and help the needy.


Blogger Kelly Klages said...

Sometimes, I really wish that Bill Clinton would just... stop... talking...

Yes, it can be very dangerous to build a rally around the theme of changing people's perceptions about Baptists (or anyone else), when that rally is designed to lead people in a different doctrinal direction. There's a growing idea in some conservative circles that "method" and "mission" are completely mutually exclusive with the end justifying the means, but so many things pose as being matters of "perception" when they actually have huge doctrinal ramifications. I think you're right to be concerned.

I remember having friends in my teen years who, though quite conservative in background like me, suggesting in our Bible study classes that we should drop the name "Christian" and choose another one because unbelievers have negative perceptions of what Christians are. In light of 1 Peter 4:14-16, I was astonished by that idea. But I keep hearing that sort of thing again and again.

January 15, 2007 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Floyd said...

I also think there is cause to be concerned here Beast. Well, maybe not concern, but at least keeping a close eye on the events as they unfold. I am wondering if the fact that this meeting is taking place during an election year and two major political forces are heading it up says anything to us?

January 16, 2007 12:28 AM  
Blogger Orycteropus Afer said...

Thanks, Philip. You're always worth the read; this time, I reckon you should have another Aardie, too.

January 16, 2007 9:14 AM  

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