Former President Jimmy Carter talks with reporters covering the 2005 Baptist World Congress. (BWA)
This story updates and replaces an earlier report posted Sunday as part of developing coverage of the 2005 Baptist World Congress in Birmingham, England.
"Despite the fact that Jesus Christ was the greatest liberator of women, some male leaders of the Christian faith have continued the unwarranted practice of sexual discrimination, derogating women and depriving them of their equal rights to serve God," Carter said during a morning Bible study billed in advance as the "world's largest Sunday school class."
In the service, one of seven Webcast on the Baptist Centenary World Congress Web site, Carter said it is an "incontrovertible fact" that Jesus treated women as equal to men, a view dramatically different from the prevailing culture of his time.
While the Gospels give several examples of Jesus exalting women, Carter said, "There's a current effort by some devout and sincere Baptists to keep women in their place."
It is based, he said, "on the ridiculous but official assertion," that "man was first in creation, and woman was first in the Edenic Fall," a citation from a 1984 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on "Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry."
One of 12 "Whereas" statements in the resolution said, "While Paul commends women and men alike in other roles of ministry and service (Titus 2:1-10), he excludes women from pastoral leadership (1 Tim. ) to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall (1 Tim. 2:13ff)."
Carter said the statement twists the meaning of Genesis and "puts the blame for Original Sin on females."
He acknowledged that selected passages from the Bible can be used to suggest that Paul "deviates from Jesus and has a bias against women, suggesting they should be treated as second-class Christians, submissive to their husbands, attired and coifed demurely and silent in church."
"I would never claim the Scriptures are in error," he said, "but it is necessary in some cases to assess the local circumstances that may have existed within a troubled early church and to study the ancient meaning of some of the Greek and Hebrew words."
Noting that modern Baptists ignore other writings by Paul forbidding women to worship without wearing veils or from braiding their hair and wearing rings, jewelry or expensive clothing, Carter said the overarching message of Paul is spelled out in Gal. 3:28, where he declares "there is neither male nor female; for you all are one in Jesus Christ."
Carter said he believes the Bible teaches that women ought to be treated as equals to men in their right to serve God.
"Should we Baptists or we Christians exclude more than half of the devout Christians on earth from fulfilling the call of God to the service of Christ?" he asked. "That's one of the main bones of contention between us and the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention."
Carter was a lifelong Southern Baptist before renouncing his ties with the SBC in 2000, saying some of the denomination's teachings, including that wives should "submit graciously" to their husbands, "violate the basic premises of my Christian faith."
Yet Carter said he was "grieved" because differences, "which I don't totally comprehend," have separated the SBC from other Baptists.
"Some of their top leaders, I don't think a large proportion of their total membership, have chosen to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance," Carter said.
"None of these differences, no matter who defines them, are important enough, to use Paul's words to the Galatians, to prevent reconciliation," he said. "And I think all of us ought to hope and pray that in the not-too-distant future we will be completely reunited with them and with other Baptists."
Carter warned against "elements of fundamentalism [that] are used to exalt some believers and to denigrate or exclude others," describing such divisions as "the most serious blight" facing Christians today. "The division, and even animosity, that exists among Christians is like a cancer that is metastasizing within the body of Christ," he said.
"There is nothing wrong with believing in fundamentals," Carter said later. "All of us have fundamental beliefs, the most important of which is the gospel message."
He said belief that people are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ "should be adequate as a fundamental belief in which Christians can organize our evangelical efforts…. It doesn't require any additional creed."
While Carter said he believes strongly in equality for women in the church, it shouldn't be a litmus test for membership in the BWA or a barrier to Christian unity.
"Let some Baptists discriminate against women," he said. "Let other Baptists, to use a bias, say 'Let's treat women like Jesus did.' And let both groups work together in harmony."