By Bill Webb
The long-awaited Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant is history now, but it appears it will be history with a future. Almost as soon as the opening session of the joint convocation of some 30 Baptist conventions came to a close, hall talk turned to what should happen once the three-day meeting ended last Friday evening.
As co-chair Jimmy Carter explained it, attendees were anxious in making sure they were experiencing a movement and not just a moment.
It is no exaggeration to call this an historic gathering of Baptists. More than 160 years had passed since the pre-Civil War split of Baptists into Southern and Northern varieties. White Baptists split over slavery and questions about whether slaveholders could be appointed missionaries. Northern Baptists said no; Southern Baptists took the other position. African-American Baptists went their own way.
A catalyst for the New Baptist Covenant was the historic joint meeting of the four largest African-American conventions in America five years ago and the decision to repeat that experience the two days preceding the New Covenant gathering this year. They agreed to cut their meeting short and then stay for the expanded meeting.
The “vehicle” for the Covenant convocation was the North American Baptist Fellowship, the regional arm of the Baptist World Alliance. The Southern Baptist Convention helped rejuvenate NABF when it withdraw funding for BWA, charging some participants were too liberal and that Southern Baptists had too little control over the worldwide body for the dollars they were giving it. Quickly, the North American body became more important to the remaining North American members.
Virtually all of the participating Baptist bodies in the New Covenant event are under the umbrella of the North American fellowship. That may help explain why the Southern Baptist Convention did not participate. In fact, SBC leaders were quick to criticize the whole idea of a joint celebration. Some called the effort politically motivated since former President Jimmy Carter was its prime mover and former President Bill Clinton voiced his support. Both are Democrats and claim a Southern Baptist heritage.
African-American Baptists and Anglo Baptists were joined by Hispanics and Asian-Americans and others, making this a very diverse gathering of Baptists. In that regard, the setting probably was a little more like heaven than most Baptist gatherings.
The variety appeared in the preaching, in the music and in special interest sessions designed to urge joint involvement in ministering to people and addressing the pressing issues of the day.
Diversity is a problem for some people — even some Baptists — but by all indications, this celebration was a huge success. And it was in part because of the diversity and the quest for unity.
Some speakers lamented that Baptists often are known for their infighting and for excluding others. Virtually all called for a unity based on continued fellowship and specific initiatives as diverse as ministering to the hurting, ensuring justice and jointly standing for religious liberty.
It is important that the movement continue for several reasons.
We need each other because we are different.
It is obvious that no one group of Baptists has it all. The preaching styles vary. The music is different. We see the world differently, and we bring different perspectives and gifts to the common table. We make a greater impact on our world when we harness our efforts.
These Baptists in Atlanta didn’t agree on everything, but they listened and learned and discovered they could still be accepting and respectful of their Baptist brothers and sisters. All of these Baptists have far more in common than not.
Baptists are hungry for unity.
Most of these groups haven’t known each other well enough either to get out of sorts or to seek unity. Christ placed a high priority on His followers being one. Covenant participants got a taste of unified effort and found it satisfying.
God has a plan for unified Baptists.
Actually, God has a boatload of plans for the various bodies, their churches and their members. Excitement is growing for those plans to be realized.
The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant was a long while in coming. It’s good that it finally arrived. By all indications, this fellowship will be open to all Baptists, even those who chose not to participate this year. To any Baptist who is hesitant: Come on in; the water’s fine.