|One of the world's most famous Baptists, Jimmy Carter accepted Christ at age 11 and began teaching Bible lessons 65 years ago.
"But this celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is the most momentous event in my religious life," the 39th U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize winner said during the opening session of the historic gathering of black and white Baptists from across North America Wednesday night in Atlanta.
"For the first time in more than 160 years, we are convening a major convocation of Baptists throughout an entire continent without any threat to our unity or to our freedom caused by differences of race, politics, geography or the legalistic interpretation of scriptures," Carter said.
Carter called the gathering, organized by volunteers during the last year, the culmination of a number of efforts beginning in the 1990s between traditional and conservative Southern Baptist leaders. That group, which included at least seven past and future presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a unanimous statement after several meetings that included the following:
"We receive the Holy Scripture as inspired and authoritative, agreeing that the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.
"We believe in the principle of local church autonomy, and our faith continues to be based on the historic Baptist principles of soul competency, priesthood of believers, separation of church and state, religious freedom, compassion for unbelievers and respect for all persons as inherently equal before God."
"That was more than 10 years ago," Carter said. "We thought at the time this common commitment would be adequate and maybe binding." But that consensus was "short-lived," Carter said, and further moves toward reconciliation "remained somewhat dormant" until conversation started about two years ago that culminated in the New Baptist Covenant Celebration.
Traditionally known primarily for the divisions among them, most obviously by race, Carter challenged Baptists to acknowledge that manmade arguments continually threaten to divide the body of Christ.
"How many of you believe that women should play a full role as Christians, including serving as deacons, missionaries, pastors and military chaplains?" he asked. "Or how many believe women should be submissive to their husbands and excluded from any role as leaders or teachers as men?"
"How many believe the earth was formed in 4004 B.C., or that God created the universe approximately 15 billion years ago?
"How many believe that the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade was appropriate and should remain unchanged, or that all abortions under all circumstances should be prohibited?
"How many believe that homosexual believers should be accepted in Christian congregations and treated with respect, or that the sin of homosexuality is so serious as to warrant the exclusion of Christian gays and lesbians?
"How many agree with Thomas Jefferson that a wall should be maintained between the church and state?
"How many believe that the United States should continue as the only democratic nation that continues to approve the death penalty?
"How many believe in the priesthood of believers, or prefer that elected leaders interpret the scriptures for the rest of us?"
"You see the divisive nature of these kinds of questions," Carter said, "and they are the cause of the separations and divisions that have debilitated so much the world Christian church."
While each of those issues is important, Carter said, "compared to the gospel message, they have the same historical status as eating meat offered to idols or becoming a Jew before accepting Christ."
Carter then posed another set of questions.
"How many believe that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ?" he 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," he said. "We should remember which are the most important."
Carter said he hoped the New Baptist Covenant would lead to collaborations including missions, reducing poverty, prison reform, protecting Christians around the world, promoting religious liberty and the environment.
Mercer University Bill Underwood, one of the meeting organizers, quoted Martin Luther King's famous dream speech that "one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood."
"It is fitting that today, on these red hills of Georgia, Baptists have come together and taken a step forward in the long journey to achieve Dr. King's dream," Underwood said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.