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…

22 thoughts on “New Baptist Covenant, Pt. 1…

  1. My wife met Jimmy Carter in 1983 while a student at Union University. Dr. Clyde Tilley took a group of students on a mission trip to Americus, Georgia to help build Habitat Houses with President Carter. An article followed the trip in “Student” magazine describing the work with Habitat and the thrill of attending Sunday School under the teaching of a former U.S. President. Until fairly recently, I have always appreciated the manner in which President Carter carried himself as an former president. The extremely partisan and biased way in which he has spoken against our current president has soured me somewhat. I am cautiously optimistic that some good may in fact come from President Carter’s newest venture.

  2. Ben,

    Thank you very much for your description of the meeting with President Carter and those involved in planning for the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. You cannot imagine how encouraged I am to hear your words and the appeal for Southern Baptists to also become a part of this broad movement of Baptists designed to address the issues that Jesus highlighted as the focus of His ministry when He read from Isaiah’s text in the synagogue at Nazareth.

    While I confess to having a very tempered optimism about the possibilities of such collaboration from Southern Baptists in this endeavor, if indeed it could be achieved I think it holds the potential for some significant healing of the scars and collateral damage that resulted from the Conservative Resurgence.

    The active involvement in the planning processes for this event by Baptist groups affiliated with the North American Baptist Fellowship, including the three moderate Baptist state conventions as well as CBF might be just too big of a hurdle for many die-hard conservatives to swallow. Immediately following the announcement of the event earlier this year, many prominent Southern Baptists were quick to label the effort a political maneuver by the Democratic Party because of the involvement of Presidents Carter and Clinton. Others dismissed the focus as just another liberal attempt to substitute the social gospel for the preaching of the Word. I think that such objections are totally baseless, but they do reveal the uphill battle that you, Wade, CB, and Marty will face in attempting to persuade other Southern Baptists to embrace the New Baptist Covenant.

    My prayers nonetheless are that the Lord will sincerely bless your efforts aimed at reconciliation and Christian unity among those who share the name “Baptist.”

  3. I really wish you had told me that Cicero business before I told that “knock-knock” joke.

    Seriously, I am glad the the brief moments of levity were well received and that the entire meeting, in my mind, was successful.

    Rest assured that no one went into this meeting with their brain in a box. It was helpful to leave preconceptions in the lobby and simply enjoy the moment and consider what might be possible. As you state, we don’t have to agree with everything to try and make progress on something.

  4. Well said.

    The historic and traditional nature of Baptists allows for cooperation across some very deep and wide ravines. It is only in recent history that attempts to do this have been thwarted. There’s nothing like sitting down face to face and discovering that most of what you have heard about someone you’ve been taught to despise has been taken completely out of context, or was nothing more than their own distorted perception.

  5. I think that this proves a point, that you should be working on your sermon at your church instead of meeting with a former President, whom is known for policies not in line with the Christian Faith.

    Your Sunday Service is more important than anything else you might even schedule during the week.

    You consistently, talk about others in Southern Baptist life and work, whom you claim are wasting time, energy, and dollars. That meeting in Atlanta you did just the same.

    You are consistently bringing attention to yourself, claiming how great you are.

    I’m not impressed with your time management, nor your style of trying to bring down others whom are more committed than you to building the Kingdom.

    Please, again, stop the madness and concentrate on what God has supposedly called you to do which is, being a Pastor at a Local Church.

  6. [Sarcasm on]

    I’m sure that a meeting headliined by Carter, Clinton and Gore would not have anything to do with election year politics and could only be about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    [Sarcasm off]

  7. It’ll be interesting to sit here and observe whether the conventional establishment has more zeal and enthusiasm for their work and their message, or more zeal for the Savior. That may determine reactions.

    If you guys deem this a worthy venture, count me in. Political cynicism aside, this looks good.

  8. I find it revealing that Ben Cole, the man who gave one of the most eloquent written eulogies and tributes to Jerry Falwell, is now condemned by some Falwell supporters for his tribute to President Carter. It is revealing in two directions: First, it reveals a duplicity among some Christians when it comes to tributes of their Christian brothers (only those with whom I agree politically can I express praise), and second, it reveals a consistency in the heart of one who desires Christ and the common bond of the gospel to transcend all other political, philosophical and ideological differences.


    The Holy Spirit is now, apparently, blogging under the name “ronthom85.” Ben, you’d better listen, dang it.

    You’re probably right. The next thing you know they’ll be asking Condi Rice to speak at their annual get together. No, wait…wrong group of politicians.

  10. The Problem with meeting with President Carter is that he has made statements in the past that do not line up with historic Christianity. Below is an article from Newsweek in which he states that Mormons are Christians. If he does not believe in the exclusivity of the Christian faith or of Christ then how can we can be sure of Christianity? And why if this is true would one want to meet with him and others who hold the same beliefs in order to bring Baptists together? Is that the kind of way we want to bring Baptists together.

    Do you think a Mormon is a Christian?
    Yes, I do. I have a cousin who is a Mormon and she married one of the Marriott family. I don’t know anyone who’s more devout in their faith than she and her family. I admire them very much.

  11. ronthom85 – wow, you wrote an eight objection comment, that’s not easy to do … here they are:

    Asked and Answered
    Assumes Facts Not in Evidence
    Improper Impeachment
    Misstating the Evidence
    Opinion by an Unqualified Witness
    Personal Attacks
    Prejudicial and Inflammatory Remarks

    Marty –

    I’m glad you are true to yourself such that you won’t wear a tie even before a former President. I’m also glad that someone finally found a way to get a picture of you on the web. I had forgotten what you looked like. I looked at the SBC Annual Meeting schedule this year, and last I checked, so far it didn’t look like there was anything political scheduled on it as far as Republican promotional time.

  12. Ben, why not give us a financial rundown. It would be great to know who is bankrolling this meeting. I wonder if the convention officials involved are spending state convention money to fly back and forth to Atlanta. Did they send you a plane ticket or were your guys to be so overwhelmed at the invitation to meet with a former president that you paid your own way? I wonder if any DNC money has been used to encourage the democratic leadership to jump in?

  13. gmay, speaking of money, who bankrolled the trip to Atlanta for the meeting?

    Hopefully it was not the local church that they Pastor. I really see no benefit to the members of that church to meet with a former President who has an objectionable stance on Christian Issues.

    Was it considered vacation time or were they “on the clock” by their church. If was a member I would not want my donations going to my Pastor meeting with Jimmy Carter.

    If so what was your budget? Where did you stay, for how much? Where did you eat, and what did you spend? What type of Car did you rent, what was the cost? What was your airfare?

    You are very quick to point out these financial facts of others that you blast on your blog.

    Or is this information like your baptism stats, info that you fail to present because it tells a bigger picture of your leadership….

    Please do tell….

  14. May the Kingdom of God be advanced, Ben. Thank you for being willing and obedient in spite of the fervor. May your fear of God always exceed your fear of man and other fears.

  15. ronthom85,

    Thank you for your concern over our church finances. However, I would like to set the record straight. We personally paid for CB’s trip to Atlanta. CB picked up the other fellows in our Surburban so no car was rented. We did not turn in any tickets for reimbursement to our church.

    Also CB works at least 70-90 hours each week, which includes 18-24 hours of visitation per week. How many do you usually work in a week?

    He has not taken any personal time off since our grandson was born and we took a few days to go visit him in January.

    Also, since we are faithful to give our tithe and offerings to our church and support many para church organizations, I really don’t see how it is any of your business how we spent what God has blessed us with.

    We will gladly provide you with the phone number for our Chairman of Deacons and/or Treasurer if you would like to verify this information. Also our church has grown by 200% since we came in 2005.

    If you run into CB in San Antonio, please make sure that you let him know who you are and he will buy your lunch.

    Karen Scott

  16. Does no one have a rebuttal or does no one care about President Carter’s belief that one can be a christian without believing in the most basic teachings of the church? is it that one is so longing for Baptist unity or maybe one is so happy that he can be controversial and anti-conservative that one does not care if he has lunch with a child of the devil or not? I am not necesssarily calling president Carter a child of the devil but if he believes mormons are Christians then that puts him on very shaky ground.

  17. Karen,

    I respect your opinion, and the fact that you tithe.

    Was CB on Vacation during the visit to Atlanta? Or was this considered “On The Clock”.

    It also seams that this blog cares about how other ministers spend their personal finances, so why can I ask the same of you? That does not seam fair and balanced.

    Growing by 200% does sound good, but, what was the base number? 200% from a low number might not be that big of a deal.

    Please don’t act so defensive when ask some detailed and personal questions, you are negative of others, and how they spend their personal finances. In fact this blog has gone to some extremes in pointing out how other Minister’s spend their God given money, and made some very negative comments about that, and allowed other to post negative comments.

    I disagree with the trip to Atlanta meeting with someone whom does not agree with some core Christian values. If I was your Chairman of Deacons, I would question the leadership decision to go to the meeting. Also, I would question the use of this blog. I would not want the church to have invested a dime in support of two things that really does not make sense.

    If your willing to ask some personal questions of others, and point out personal financial information, then you must also be willing to answer some personal questions, and be open to when someone finds out some personal information about you and forms a negative opinion about those personal choices.

  18. This whole thing reminds me of Rick Warren’s work with Presidential Hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama on the African Aids issue. Ben, do you think it commendable that Warren has Obama to speak in his pulpit, or that he has teamed up with this baby-killer to fight the aids epidemic? Is that something you or Wade (or the infamous Marty Duren)? Obama is not a Baptist, but he does identify himself as a Christian (much like homosexuals and baby killers in the Bible belt do). A desire for Baptist unity is one thing, President’s Clinton’s and Carter’s political ambition is another, but where does one draw the line? There has to be a line among “brothers,” right. I am thinking of 2 Thessolonians 3:6: “Keep away from any brother who is . . . not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Do you think Jimmy Carter is Pauline in his Christianity? Does it matter to you?

  19. I’m only a lawyer and certainly do not claim to be a theologian of any sort. But I just went and listened to the BeliefNet interview of President Carter. Quite frankly, other than the tag line to the interview (“The former president on why he believes Jesus will save everyone”), I didn’t hear anything in the interview to support the criticism/questioning in this post that President Carter teaches or believes anything other than an orthodox Gospel.

    Just as no one would reasonably build a Biblical argument on only one isolated verse from the Bible, neither should we ascribe to President Carter a position on the Gospel or as an “inclusionist” (I’ve never even heard terminology before reading this post) based on a tagline created by an interviewer, or on a portion of the interview that either lacks crystal clarity or which has been misconstrued.

    For you theologians, please listen to the entire BeliefNet interview, or at least listen to the portion in this link below, and help me understand how your understanding of the Gospel differs significantly from President Carter’s. Please try to use quotes from President Carter’s actual words when possible, and in fairness, try to put your criticism within the totality of what he said in the interview.

    It seems very difficult to conclude that President Carter believes that all will be saved, whether they believe in Christ or not, when his actual words indicate (to me at least) nothing but traditional, Evangelical, Gospel orthodoxy:

    – “What Paul said to the Corinthians, to the Ephesians, and I’d say more vividly to the Galatians, is that we should just remember one thing and that is that we’re saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ.”

    – “We don’t have to give up our beliefs. But, we should have those as a very secondary thing to our common belief that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ.”

    – “So, the opportunity for everyone to be saved through the grace of God with faith in Christ applies to everyone.”

    – (In response to question of whether he had one favorite Bible verse) . . . But, I think everybody likes John 3:16, and everybody likes the statements of Paul’s that we are saved through the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ, and the first verse of the eighth chapter of Romans where Paul has described all of his own sins and failures and he knows about what he ought to do, but he never does do it, and then, the first verse says that “there is therefore now no condemnation of those in Jesus Christ.” And so, those are some of my favorites just off the top of my head.

    – “I would say that modern day Christians are more divided than they were in those early Christian church days. The Baptists are divided, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians from the Anglicans, the Catholics are divided from one another and so forth, maybe even more deeply before. And it saps away, saps away at the vitality of us to expand God’s kingdom through Christ in a very serious way.”

    Last question for you theologians: If Carter truly did believe that all will be saved (not just that all have the opportunity to be saved), how could he refer to “expanding God’s kingdom through Christ?”

    (This same post is repeated on Wade Burleson’s “Grace & Truth to You” blog — sorry if this repeated post violates blogging rules. If it does, my only defense is that I’m new to the blog world.)

  20. ronthom85

    I did answer the questions. It seems that either you did not read the answers or you can’t handle the answers.


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