There is no doubt that an event with the name “Baptist” attached to it, and the names Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore also attached to it, would attract a lot of attention. I’ve been told that the reason for the last three being involved is precisely for that purpose. It worked. Not only did it attract a lot of attention, it created a lot of controversy. You weren’t surprised by that either, were you?
There are a number of individuals from the BGCT that are involved on the committees of the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant. It is difficult to explain to those not familiar with the Baptist way of doing things that their presence there does not constitute either an “official” relationship between the Celebration and the BGCT, nor does it constitute an endorsement of the Celebration by the BGCT. The publicity for the Celebration is careful to describe the relationships with its partnering organizations as an “informal alliance.” However, it is reasonable to think that these individuals are participating out of a sense of commonality of purpose and a desire for Baptist unity around the stated causes, including sharing the gospel and its implications for public and private morality, peace with justice, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick and marginalized, welcoming the strangers, promoting religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.
It is also reasonable to raise questions about potential secular political implications, given the prominence of two former Presidents and a former Vice-President, all three Democrats, in the Celebration leadership and on the program. It is reasonable to ask questions about whether “welcoming the stranger” is a veiled reference to endorsing illegal immigration, or whether “respect for religious diversity,” a broad and general phrase, means that there are other ways to have a relationship with God besides Christ. The reasonable response from supporters of the Celebration would be to answer the questions truthfully and honestly, and not by hostile attacks accusing those with questions of “mischaracterizing” the event.
In all fairness, there is an appearance that this event involves a majority of Baptists on the left. That would be my conclusion without hesitation. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not. But there are difficulties that have arisen out of the perception that the BGCT’s leadership has jumped into this with both feet, and has not considered the fact that many of its churches, especially those that do not lean to the left, might object to what looks like wholehearted participation. I do not believe it has been made abundantly clear that there is no formal tie between the Celebration and the BGCT, and that the participation of BGCT leaders in this event does not constitute an endorsement of it by all of the churches in the BGCT. I’m also not really sure that the BGCT leaders who are participating in this have considered all of the implications that might arise out of their involvement. To say that the concerns of conservative Baptists in the BGCT related to the political and religious implications that may arise out of the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant are unfounded is just not accurate.
The concerns about secular political implications arising out of the involvement of Carter, Clinton and Gore are absolutely legitimate. These individuals have taken positions that are well known and highly controversial. That’s the nature of secular politics. It’s also no secret that many Baptists, probably a majority of those in the BGCT, do not fall on the same side of the aisle in terms of their perspective. The presence of a couple of Republican Senators on the program for “balance” doesn’t achieve that. This is a legitimate concern.
There are Baptist organizations and individuals involved in the Celebration who are from the far left side of the Baptist theological spectrum, in some cases uncomfortably so. R. Kirby Godsey, former Mercer University president, authored a book entitled When We Talk About God…Let’s Be Honest,” in which he questions the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the Bible as the “Word of God,” and in which he expresses universalist views. I have the book, and I’ve read it, and he does. Godsey is on the finance committee of the Celebration. Bill Moyers, who puts the New Testament teaching about Christ in the same category as myths about Moses, Mohammed and Buddha, is on the communications committee. These individuals are entitled to their views, and equally entitled to express them, but it should also be expected that questions would be raised by putting them in key leadership positions of a Baptist gathering. I would have a difficult time explaining to the people in my church why I agreed to serve alongside someone who believes in universal salvation, or that the virgin birth or New Testament is myth. I think, as members of churches that contribute to the BGCT, we are entitled to ask that question of Charles Wade, Joy Fenner, Steve Vernon, John Lilley, David Nabors, Albert Reyes, Mark Wingfield, and other BGCT leaders and employees who are participating in the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. And please hear me, I am NOT accusing them of believing in universal salvation or that the virgin birth is a myth. I just want to hear from them why they feel they can participate in a Baptist covenant gathering with individuals who do.
My advice to those in the BGCT who are involved in this event is to proceed with caution, and do not give the appearance that your presence and involvement in the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant is representation of the Baptist General Convention of Texas as a body. You did not ask the convention for their endorsement or affirmation of your participation. There is clearly opposition from individual churches to being associated with this event. Respect them.
Because one Baptist does not speak for all Baptists, or for any other Baptist. Because you are steeped in historic, traditional Baptist principles and you respect dissent and disagreement, and love your brothers and sisters who dissent and disagree.