In the closing address of the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant last night, former President Bill Clinton was gracious, biblically-astute, politically nonpartisan, insightful, personal — and a bit off topic.
He rightly called his fellow Baptists to relate in loving ways, even to those who are critical. He correctly described the different (and often divisive) ways persons of faith can view biblical authority and interpretation.
However, his focus was almost exclusively on the division in the Southern Baptist Convention over the last quarter-century between fundamentalists and moderates that led to the formation of new, more inclusive Baptist ways of belonging.
Not only have many recovering Southern Baptists, affiliated with groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Alliance of Baptists, the Baptist General Association of Virginia and/or the Baptist General Convention of Texas, already moved on — but many others in attendance at the Celebration have had no previous SBC ties.
They are happily involved with other denominational groups such as the American Baptist Churches, USA, (whose breakup with Southern Baptists occurred more than 160 years ago over slavery) and/or various historically black National Baptist groups.
An effort to cross racial divides and build respectful relationships was a major aspect of and attraction to the New Baptist Covenant.
The Celebration was a step forward to new relationships, not a backward step to ones that painfully failed.
The purpose of the New Baptist Covenant was/is not about the impossible task of reconciling alienated former Southern Baptists with those who know not reconciliation, only dominance.
(In fact, the very week of the Celebration, one agency board of the non-participating SBC pushed out a trustee over the “crime” of dissenting opinion from the majority.)
Despite the repeated questioning of reporters and the attention given to the subject in Pres. Clinton’s address, the historic gathering was not about the SBC at all.
The larger conglomeration of “other Baptists” of varied hues and histories came together in Atlanta to build new, hopeful relationships based on mutual trust and respect, not to revisit old ones severed by suspicion and condemnation.
The New Baptist Covenant is about a promising future of inclusion and cooperation.
While certainly imperfect and without a completely cohesive message, the Celebration was enriching and inspiring in so many ways.
Worship was uplifting, abundant and varied in style. Many wonderful gifts and talents were shared.
In special interest sessions, Baptists with similar concerns — yet often previously unacquainted — tackled some of the most challenging issues facing churches and communities today.
Now here on the morning after, when the Georgia World Congress Center is vacated by Baptists, the dominant question remains: What does this gathering mean for the future?
The answer will not come immediately, but over time.
But most importantly, we must realize that the “celebrity Baptists” got us talking, got us to town and got us to listen. However, the potentially deep impact of the New Baptist Covenant does not rest with those who stood behind the podium this week.
The significance will be defined and determined by the growing relationships and cooperative ministry efforts that occur outside the glaring spotlight of an Atlanta stage.
(Photo by Billy Howard)