New Baptist Covenant, Pt. 1…

Several months ago Wade Burleson and I were contacted about a trans-denominational gathering of Baptists scheduled for January 2008 in Atlanta, GA. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were joining hands to bring together the whole Baptist family for a convocation dedicated to the noble goals of social justice and human rights. I said then, and I still believe that it is foolish for Southern Baptists to dismiss this providential moment because of old bitternesses and current fears.

This morning, C.B. Scott and I retrieved Wade Burleson from the Atlanta International Airport and travelled to The Carter Center for our noon appointment with President Carter and Mercer University President Bill Underwood. Dan Malone, a layman from El Paso, TX, and the primary organizer of our meeting, joined us beforehand to introduce himself and brief us about the gathering.

The Carter Center sits atop a gradual granite slope in the midst of a towering grove of North Georgia pines. The gray complex of buildings are understated and the grounds are immaculately landscaped. Today, a cool breeze blew through Fulton County.

Shortly before the appointed hour of quarter till one, President Carter’s assistant escorted us up a wide, carpeted stair to a giant conference, shaped like an oval and well lit by a giant crystal chandelier. We all stood, instinctively, waiting for the President to enter.

There is no written protocol for attire when meeting a man of President Carter’s eminence. Wade Burleson and I chose blue suits, with blue shirts and blue ties. Knowing Wade as I do, he probably chose the subtle tones for the same reasons that I did. One never wants to overpower the President with wild, obnoxious dress; and blue is the color most often associated with the Democratic Party. C.B. Scott, on the other hand, wears red ties for every auspicious occasion, which he paired with his signature Brooks Brothers in charcoal gray with a faint pinstripe. Marty Duren was just careful enough not to wear tie-dye or camoflauge.

When President Carter entered the room from his private office, he greeted us warmly, stopping to tell Wade Burleson that he had been reading his blog. The President took his seat at the head of the table, and we all took ours: Wade and I to his immediate left and right. C.B. Scott and Dan Malone next, with Marty Duren sitting across from Bill Underwood in the middle of the conference table.

The President is shorter than I anticipated he would be. Growing up, you always have this notion that heads of state are giants. The portraits of President Carter in the library adjacent to his suite of offices are larger than life, ill preparing you to shake the hand of a man whose signature smile strikes you with the immediate impression that he’s quite comfortable in his own skin. President Carters hands, however, are large and his grip is firm and sure.

I remember Peggy Noonan’s description of meeting President Reagan for the first time and having a similar impression. Like all men of distinction, President Carter was genteel, courteous, and skilled in the discipline of listening.

Before the meeting, I had revisited the classic political treatise of Cicero entitled On Obligations. In it, Cicero tutors a young statesman in the art of statesmanship, cautioning him about the folly of joking in the presence of his elders. We sat comfortably, and listened to President Carter share his passion for bringing Baptists together for causes of peace and justice. Upon meeting him, you realize that among men he was most qualified to receive the Nobel Prize.

We talked of many things, all centered around the President’s consuming desire for Baptists to model Christian unity for a world tired of hearing about their fights. For a moment, even I, by far the most bellicose of the bunch, believed it was possible.

When I spoke, President Carter shifted in his seat to face me directly. His eyes conveyed his keen attention, and he nodded to acknowledge his agreement with one point or another. I noticed that he did this with everyone present. C.B. Scott asked probing and insightful questions about the central unifying theme of the New Baptist Convenant. Marty Duren offered suggestions for the 2008 meeting agenda, at which point both President Carter and Bill Underwood began taking notes. Wade Burleson expressed his deep conviction that while all is not calm in the Southern Baptist Convention, many pastors and laymen are retracing their steps to the centrality of the Gospel and the high calling of the Great Commission.

I remember how my father used to speak of Jimmy Carter. A lifelong Democrat and unimpressed with Reaganomics, my father revered the man. My maternal grandmother has the deepest respect for Jimmy Carter, a man who will always be her governor whether he had become president or not. I, on the other hand, pledged fealty to the Republican Party shortly after puberty and have voted a straight ticket in every election since Bob Dole lost his final presidential bid in 1996.

I studied in seminary under fundamentalists forever hostile to President Carter and almost embarrassed that he was a Baptist. By osmosis if nothing else, I had cultivated a similar suspicion. Likewise, during the heat of the Baylor crisis over Robert Sloan, I found myself on the opposite side of Bill Underwood on several occasions.

Today, however, I cemented the growing conviction that Southern Baptists of the fundamentalist type have compromised my fair evaluation of brethren differently aligned. There is a way to be Baptist that holds firmly to your individuality but allows for flexibility and respect for others similarly immersed in the name of the Triune God.

If Southern Baptists would commit to issues of social justice with the same rallying cry that founded the Cooperative Program for the task of world missions — namely that we can do more together than we can apart — we might find the good and pleasant blessing promised of God when brothers dwell together in unity. If we can collaborate as Southern Baptists to reach the ends of the earth with the message of Jesus without relinquishing our autonomy, it should certainly be possible for us to do the same with whomever we can wherever we can to speak prophetically and give sacrificially for those whom Christ came to set free: the poor, the oppressed, and the lost.

To be continued…

Roman Baptist Convention, Pt 4…


Part One

Part Two

Part Three

6. The exclusion on women from the priesthood.

Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics are alike in their views on women clergy. Except Roman Catholics are at least consistent in their view, whereas Southern Baptists press the point to the absurd.

Here’s what I mean: Roman Catholics believe that the apostolic succession of the Petrine office necessitates that the supreme pontiff, the college of cardinals, and all the bishops down to the smallest parish priest are men. When you are Roman Catholic, you are very clear on what the Church teaches about women’s roles and religious orders.

But Southern Baptists are victimized by ad hoc theology as it relates to women clergy. For most Southern Baptists, the New Testament does not allow a woman to serve in the ruling and teaching office of pastor. For the most fundamentalist of Southern Baptists, the Pauline instruction to suffer not women to teach or exercise authority over a man extends to the seminary classroom, the counseling office, the administration of institutional resources, and elected convention office. Some of our seminary administrators have even taken to hiring men only to serve as their private secretaries, presumably because even that role involves a little too much authority for the weaker sex.

In fact, I’m fairly certain that most Southern Baptists would be appalled if they knew the trajectory of misogynist theology influencing denominational life today. Watching the exegetical hoops through which Paige Patterson, for instance, leaps to justify women teaching pastors in the School of Educational Ministries while denying them faculty status in the School of Theology – except his wife, of course – is quite amusing to me. I suspect it will be amusing to accreditation agencies and a federal jury as well.

For years, women have served in every support staff capacity within Southern Baptist life, even at the most conservative of churches. The Sunday School ministry of First Baptist Jacksonville, FL, would never have become a convention model if not for the labors of Miss Guynelle Freeman. First Baptist Church of Dallas would have been short over a million dollars per year if not for the Sunday School class of Betty Criswell. Three pastoral tenures at FBC Dallas would have bankrupted the church if not for the tight fiscal controls of Church Administrator Sherryn Cates.

The list of women who serve in vital pastoral roles in Southern Baptist churches could go on and on. To salve their tender fundamentalist conscience, many of these churches’ pastors call them “directors” instead of “ministers” or “pastors,” but the differences between a pastor and a ministry director is hard for them to explain. Indeed, the difference seems to be one of spelling rather than function.

Southern Baptists were hijacked into adopting a confessional clause regarding the role of women in the churches with ominous threats about the feminist agenda, which in most messenger’s minds means lesbianism. In fact, the appeal to include the statement on women’s roles was made with sweeping statements about the so-called feminist agenda, as if armies of bra-burning Wiccans were lined up waiting to present letters of membership at your church and mine.

Never in the history of Christendom has a confessional statement moved gender roles from the periphery of doctrinal affirmations to the centerpiece of ecclesial identity. That is, until the Southern Baptist Convention felt threatened by fourteen women pastors in 150 years. “The feminist movement is on the move,” we were told back in 2000 by men who – had they taken the time – would have discovered that feminist ideology and Mother God worship predates the advent of the Nazarene.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely affirm that the Lord intends his church to be led by men, though I do not believe such an affirmation is even tertiary to my Christian identity as a Baptist. I most certainly deny that such an affirmation necessitates the narrow interpretation afforded it by some Southern Baptist leaders.

For one, I’m grateful that a woman named Winky Foote led me to Christ. I’m grateful that a woman named Jessie Norman taught me the Bible. I’m grateful for a woman named Mary Cowen who regularly encourages and corrects me. I shudder to think where I would be without the Ollie Colliers and Roberta Wibles and Joann McLeods and Lib Rhodes in my life. I become anxious when I think of my church without the Lindas and Pats and Genoas and Berthas that serve in various leadership capacities. I cannot imagine a Southern Baptist Convention without a Bertha Smith or a Joyce Rogers or a Lottie Moon.

And quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing a recitation of the list of things that Southern Baptists won’t allow women to do. More tomorrow on this as I continue my reflections on Roman Catholicism and trends in Southern Baptist life.