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They Call Themselves Christians

The recent New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta focused on Jesus’ moral agenda, outlined in Luke 4. Perhaps like the Shema (Dt 6:4-9), we should keep these words of Jesus in our hearts, recite them to our children, and talk about them when we are at home and when we are away, when we lie down and when we rise. They are worthy of our binding them as a sign on our hand, fixing them as an ensign on our foreheads, and writing them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates.

There are so many meaty points in Jesus’ address to his hometown folk that there hardly seems room here to recite them. He refers to the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. He speaks of Jubilee when all debts are paid and claims of ownership are reversed (“the year of the Lord’s favor”). And then he has the audacity, from the perspective of his fellow Nazarenes, to say that all this is fulfilled this day in him.

EthicsDaily.com has carried a number of retrospective articles that ask the basic question: now that the celebration is over, what do we do next? Goodwill Baptists are concerned with fulfilling the message that has been proclaimed. We recognize there is much to be done, for we must make up for much of what has not been accomplished in the past in Jesus’ name.

However, Jesus made a remark in Nazareth that has already come true, in light of our recent meeting. He told his hometown folk, those who knew him best, that no prophet is accepted in his own country. Responses to our meeting prove him, once again, to be the voice of truth. Three of our current prophets–Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and Robert Parham–have already been castigated for their roles in the Atlanta celebration, and those who are most critical bear the same appellation of our prophets: they call themselves Christians.

One News Now, affiliated with the American Family Association, says, “Al Gore has used a speech to hundreds attending Jimmy Carter’s liberal Baptist meeting in Atlanta to sell his global warming campaign.” Two questions: since when was it Jimmy Carter’s meeting and what makes it liberal? Both are easy to answer. Yes, Carter was a prime mover in seeing that the celebration occurred. But that doesn’t make it his in terms of ownership. If so, he would need to personally foot the expenses. Where do I send you my hotel bill? And liberal? To these people, anything is liberal if it doesn’t kowtow to their bullet points of required beliefs before one can be designated a Christian. I ask, is that attitude Christian?

Another critic says, “Jimmy Carter said that it is impossible to agree on doctrines and issues and we should unite rather on ‘the gospel,’ but the gospel was never defined.” And how would this observer define the gospel? “The virgin birth, substitutionary blood atonement, bodily resurrection, repentance as necessary for salvation, etc.,” adding that “there are many within these groups who deny these and other cardinal doctrines of the faith.” Even if the attendees at the celebration had affirmed all of these requirements for being a Christian, he would probably come up with more etceteras to keep us outside his camp of orthodoxy.

Not even Jesus defined the gospel, certainly not by these narrow constraints. He proclaimed a kingdom of righteousness and forgiveness available even to those outside his faith experience, and then he told his followers to go out into the world and do the gospel. He does not mention definitions.

Which brings us back to Luke 4, the reason for our recent celebration. Our gathering was not designed as a counterpoint to “the other side.” We recognized that there are Baptist Christians in North America who have more in common with one another than that which keeps them apart.

Our most compelling commonality, of course, is the Great Commission. But it is now obvious that when followers of Jesus come together to strategize about fulfilling Jesus’ command, there are others who would label them as unworthy of the gospel. And sadly enough, they call themselves Christians.

Randy Hyde is pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark.

EthicsDaily.com is posting a series of opinion pieces about the New Baptist Covenant, evaluating the gathering and making suggestions about next steps.