Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page accuses the planners of the New Baptist Covenant, a working group of some 18 entities, of having a "leftwing liberal agenda."
The New Baptist Covenant celebration was announced at a meeting in early January at The Carter Center, where both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton led discussions with the leadership of the major African-American Baptist conventions and other Euro-centric Baptist conventions. Leaders from Texas and Virginia, two state conventions still affiliated with the SBC, also participated.
The NBC announced that Luke 4:18-19 would be the foundational biblical text for its 2008 gathering in Atlanta.
According to Baptist Press, Page "rebuked criticism by New Baptist Covenant organizers," referencing comments from Carter and Clinton that the SBC was "negative" and "exclusionary." BP also criticized Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University, for saying a need exists for "a true Baptist witness."
The South Carolina pastor said the group sought "to deny the greatest need in our world, that being that the lost be shown the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ."
Claiming that Southern Baptists care deeply about world hunger, Page said, "Since 1974, Southern Baptists have given over $220 million--almost one quarter of one billion dollars--to domestic and overseas hunger relief."
He cited disaster relief work, women's ministries with the poor and rehabilitation of homes as evidence of the denomination's social concern.
Page misspoke badly at three points, necessitating clarification and correction.
First, he has diminished the words of Jesus to a leftwing political agenda.
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus said: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Those words are Jesus' words, not the words of a secular political ideology. If this is Jesus' agenda, who are we to dismiss it as a leftwing agenda? If Page has a problem with Jesus' first sermon, he has much more in common with those who wanted to stone Jesus for what he had said. He has a much bigger problem than the NBC.
The truth is that Southern Baptists and others have ignored, watered down, spiritualized or glossed over Luke 4:18-19, evading or emptying Jesus' first statement of his moral agenda.
Thank goodness the NBC leaders aren't afraid to read and heed the hard words of Jesus, refusing to conform to the cultural captivity of conservative religious tradition.
Another biblically related assertion is that the NBC planners are disinterested in evangelism. Now that is a rather odd claim from a president whose denomination has experienced a decline in baptism statistics and failed to achieve its much ballyhooed goal of baptizing 1 million people in 2005-2006.
Second, Page has distorted the nature of Baptist church polity. When he says that Southern Baptists were not invited to the initial meeting, he speaks as if Southern Baptists can only be represented by paid employees and elected officials.
The truth is that church membership defines what it means to be a Southern Baptist. A good number of those at the January meeting belonged to churches that still support financially the SBC. That makes those participants by definition Southern Baptists.
Third, Page has engaged in historical revisionism of the worst kind, claiming that fundamentalist Southern Baptists have a deep care about the world's hungry.
The truth is that SBC's hunger giving in 2003 totaled only $7.6 million, compared to $11.8 million in 1985. Nineteen years after the all-time hunger giving record, Southern Baptists gave $4.2 million less.
As the former director of hunger concerns at the SBC's Christian Life Commission during the mid-to-late 1980s, I can attest that moderate Southern Baptists were the chief supporters of world hunger giving. Feeding the hungry was seen as a liberal issue.
Despite Page's negativism and the SBC leadership's anxiety about the NBC, I hope they will have a change of heart. I hope that they will set aside racial prejudice, secular political loyalties and hurt feelings, attending what will be a celebration of a new day for all Baptists in North America.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.