Carter asks Baptists to overlook differences

ATLANTA (BP)--Former President Jimmy Carter, during the opening session of the "New Baptist Covenant Celebration" in Atlanta Jan. 30, called for Baptists of all races, political leanings and theological stances to unite around a common belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to set aside the differences that have caused divisions.

"My wife Rosalynn and I have visited more than 125 different nations since we left the White House, and we and our hosts have had many discussions about religion," Carter, co-chair of the event, said. "Among the unsaved people on earth, what is the prevailing image of Christians today?

"It's not the dedicated and inspired work of our missionaries. It's not the great preaching of Billy Graham or others who inspire people. It's the image of divisions among brothers and sisters in Christ as we struggle for authority or argue about the interpretation of individual verses in the Holy Scriptures," Carter said to an estimated crowd of 9,000 at the Georgia World Congress Center.

The arguments over interpretation of Scripture and the animosity that exists among Christians "is metastasizing in the body of Christ," Carter said, and "presents to the world a negative image of Christians that is directly opposite of the gentle and loving aspect of the One we profess to worship."

A longtime Sunday School teacher at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., Carter called the celebration of a New Baptist Covenant the most momentous event in his religious life.

"For the first time in more than 160 years, we're convening a major convocation of Baptists throughout an entire continent without any threat to our unity or to our freedom brought by differences of race, politics, geography or the legalistic interpretation of Scriptures," he said.

The former president said he had high hopes that the deliberations at the gathering would be "guided by the permeating spirit of Jesus Christ with no criticism of others during this entire week."

"Let me say it again: No criticism of others or exclusion of any Christians now or in the future who wish to join this cause," he said.

Carter then said the New Baptist Covenant is the culmination of earlier efforts including some meetings at the Carter Center in the 1990s that included "what I call traditional and more conservative Southern Baptist leaders."

The group, Carter said, included at least seven past and future presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he quoted an excerpt of a statement the group released at the time. The statement addressed the authority of Scripture, church autonomy, soul competency and separation of church and state, among other issues.

"That was more than 10 years ago," Carter said. "We thought at the time that this common commitment would be adequate and maybe binding, but tragically the movement toward harmony was short-lived and the hope of further moves toward reconciliation remained somewhat dormant until almost exactly two years ago [when the New Baptist Covenant organizers convened]."

Carter said the covenant group chose as its focal passage the portion of Luke 4 where Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue, saying He had come to preach good news to the poor and proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and release for the oppressed.

"We come together in peace and harmony with courage to face facts and to search for inspiration," Carter said. "We're ready to make commitments individually and collectively to serve the Prince of Peace with eagerness, to spread His Gospel and to inspire harmony."

Carter read a list of questions on "manmade issues" that he said "are still causing serious and debilitating schisms within the Christian church." The list included topics such as whether women should serve as deacons and pastors; whether women should be submissive to their husbands; whether the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion should be reversed; whether homosexuals should be accepted in the church; whether a wall should be maintained between church and state; and whether the United States should utilize the death penalty.

Those issues, he said, are not nearly as important as whether Christians can unite around an overarching common belief.

"How many believe that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ?" Carter asked. "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."

Carter and others joked often during the opening session and the press conference that preceded it about his wife, Rosalynn, being a deacon at Maranatha Baptist.

"Now I've found that I'm most famous as the husband of the most famous deacon in the world," Carter said at the beginning of his address.

Before Carter spoke, William Underwood, president of Mercer University and co-chair of the New Baptist Covenant, opened the meeting by invoking the name of Martin Luther King Jr.

"It was some 45 years ago when a native son of Atlanta, Ga., a Baptist preacher of the Gospel, shared with all of us his dream, a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood," Underwood said to loud applause.

Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, a Southern Baptist, welcomed the crowd and pointed to Matthew 22:36-40 where Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and the second greatest is to love others.

Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, led in prayer, and William Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia and president of the National Baptist Convention USA, delivered a sermon on peace and justice.

Shaw said calm without justice is an illusion of peace, as illustrated in the recent unrest in Kenya. The violence, he said, grew out of years of inequalities between tribes and an improper governmental structure rather than a single event. For years, Kenya appeared calm, but there was no peace because there was no justice, he said.

As of Wednesday night, total registration for the New Baptist Covenant celebration included 5,000 registered solely with the covenant. In addition, the convention's registration totals included another 10,000 people who were in town for the combined winter meeting of the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Registrants for that winter meeting were automatically counted as registered for the New Baptist Covenant.

The event continues through Feb. 1 with a closing address by former President Bill Clinton.

Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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