‘Living History: The New North American Baptist Covenant and Its Celebration’

shurden.jpgBy Walter B. Shurden

I believe … that “The New North American Baptist Covenant and its Celebration” that is presently in the planning stage for early 2008 in Atlanta, GA is one of the most exciting things that has happened in my half-century of traipsing around the Baptist yard of America.

By now, most Baptists and many other Christians are aware that “A New North American Baptist Covenant” has been adopted by Baptist leaders representing an estimated 20 million Baptists, and probably more. It all started with the majestic dream of one of the good and prophetic Baptists of our time, evangelical President Jimmy Carter. Without him, the Covenant would not be a possibility. President Carter wisely chose Mercer University President William D. Underwood to help him spearhead the movement.

What is “The North American Baptist Covenant Celebration”?

Foremost, it is a “covenant,” a good biblical word. It is a covenant that 18 Baptist leaders adopted on 10 April 2006 in Atlanta, GA at the Carter Center (online at www.centerforbaptiststudies.org/covenant.htm) “to speak and work together to create an authentic and genuine prophetic Baptist voice in these complex times. They affirmed their commitment to traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality. They specifically committed themselves to their obligations as Christians to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.”

A second strategic planning committee convened at the Carter Center on 13 June 2006. At this meeting several significant developments occurred. One, the Covenant was reaffirmed. Second, those present underscored the necessity of celebrating the Covenant by crossing racial, ethnic, and gender barriers among Baptists. Third, these Baptists wanted to project an image of Baptist unity among those who represent prophetic and traditional moral values, especially themes of religious liberty and equality in the service of Christ. Fourth, two committees were appointed. The first, led by President William Underwood of Mercer University, would seek to find a time and place for a Baptist convocation that would be a massive Celebration of the North American Baptist Covenant. Dr. Jimmy Allen was appointed chair of the program committee of the future Celebration.

The last meeting for the Covenant planning celebration, now much publicized, met on 9 January 2007, again at the Carter Center in Atlanta. President Bill Clinton was present to endorse and affirm the Baptist Covenant and its celebration.

Why do I think that the Covenant Celebration is one of the most exciting things that has happened in my half century of traipsing around the Baptist yard of America?

First, it puts Baptists on the road to healing. Tragic wounds have scarred the Baptist landscape over the years. These wounds have divided white Baptists from white Baptists since the mid-nineteenth century issue of slavery. White Baptists, North and South and East and West, are now sitting around the same table talking to each other, listening to each other, embracing each other.

Second, it puts us on the road to healing some sinful wounds in Baptist life. These are the wounds of slavery itself, wounds that divided black Baptists from white Baptists since before the nineteenth century. I cannot put into words the thrill of sitting with black Baptists, names that I have known for some years, but who are now becoming friends. One element of our conversation that I have most enjoyed is the absence of playing to an audience. Deference is out. Honesty is in. People are not afraid to say what they think, and others are not afraid to disagree.

Third, it puts Baptists of North America on the road to integration of smaller ethnic groups into the larger Baptist family. Japanese Baptists, Laotian Baptists, Korean Baptists and Hispanic Baptists were all gathered around the table at the Carter Center on Tuesday, 9 January 2007.

Fourth, it puts us on the road to greater awareness of our Canadian and Mexican Baptist friends.

Fifth, and most important, it puts us on the road to working together on issues that unite rather than issues that divide. Those who signed the Covenant and who will be part of its celebration are not a monolithic group. Like good Baptists, we still differ on a number of issues. But we have decided to work in areas of agreement, and most of these have to do with the hurt and suffering of humankind. The best definition of “church” that I have ever heard is: “All who love Christ in the service of all who suffer.” The North American Baptist Covenant Celebration is not a “Church,” but the Covenant leaders certainly plan to act in a churchly manner.

A word simply must be said about what the new North American Baptist Covenant (NABC) celebration is NOT.

First, NABC is NOT an effort to construct a new mammoth Baptist denomination in America. The NABC is an informal Baptist network, not a new Baptist corporation. Baptists don’t need a new Baptist Denominational Corporation in this country. We need cooperation, not Corporation. We need to talk to each other. We need not tread on each other’s turf, and we certainly do not need to tear up turf securely planted. We need energy from each other. We do not need a phony Baptist ecumenism, and we do not plan to have such.

Second, the NABC is NOT an anti-SBC movement. It was not designed to embarrass the SBC. It was not even designed to call attention to the SBC in any possible way. That the Covenant represents some commitments lacking in fundamentalist SBC leadership minds since 1979 has not been a major issue. Most of the Baptists involved in the Covenant group have had very little, if any, historical relationship with the SBC for over a century. Only the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship people, a very small portion of the Covenant group, have had SBC relations within the last 30 years.

Third, the NABC and its celebration in early 2008 is NOT an anti-Republican movement to get a Democratic candidate elected president of the United States. Indeed, the Covenant Baptists are looking for Republicans and Independents that share the values of the Covenant itself. Unfortunately, a kind of political conspiracy theory quickly developed in some suspicious minds that this was an anti-SBC, anti-Republican movement. However, that talk has never been uttered in any of the meetings that I have been in with the New Covenant planning groups, and I have been present at every one of them, including some of the subcommittee meetings. On the other hand, I have witnessed efforts to include people of all political and theological stripes who can commit to the Covenant.

Reprinted from the Feb. 2007 issue of the Baptist Studies Bulletin, edited by Walter B. Shurden. Dr. Shurden is professor of Christianity in the Roberts Department of Christianity in the College of Liberal Arts and executive director of The Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.