Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page blamed organizers of an Atlanta meeting in 2008 aimed to counter negative and judgmental images of Baptists in North America for contributing to those very images by criticizing SBC leaders in the press.
EthicsDaily.com carried an editorial Thursday critiquing statements by Page quoted from Baptist Press rebuking the Jan. 30-Feb. 1 New Baptist Covenant Celebration as a smokescreen for a “leftwing liberal agenda” he charged seeks to deny the world’s greatest need is to hear the gospel of salvation available through Jesus Christ.
Announced at a January press conference featuring former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Mercer University President Bill Underwood, the celebration is aimed at uniting Baptists in North America around Jesus’ message in Luke 4:18-19 announcing justice for the poor and oppressed.
At a recent planning meeting, Carter reportedly said he had discussed the confab twice with Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., and the SBC president’s response “has not been negative.” Baptist Press cited Carter’s words as a reason Page decided now to set the record straight.
“I appreciate that early on in my tenure as SBC president, both Presidents Carter and Clinton called me and offered congratulations, prayer support and encouragement as I spoke of my goal to present a positive face for Southern Baptists,” Page said in his statement.
“However, these same men have worked against Southern Baptists, creating a negative caricature of our churches and our beliefs through the press to the world. Their call for a more positive face of Baptists in North America must be measured against such statements as those by President Carter who has used the word ‘fundamentalist’ to equate the democratic election of conservative leaders in the SBC with the rise to power of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.”
Page, who has a Ph.D. in Christian ethics, said he commends “anyone who wants to seek the application of Jesus’ teachings to a hurting world.” Yet he said the “true Baptist witness” is found in Luke 19:10, where Jesus says he came to “seek and save that which was lost.”
Some of the criticism against the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in conservative Baptist blogs includes allegations that Carter, who introduced the term “born again” into America’s political lexicon when he ran for president in 1976, doesn’t believe Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.
In his recent book, Our Endangered Values, Carter called himself an “evangelical” and defined the term with the tenet “that salvation is achieved by personal conversion to faith in the atonement of Christ.”
“To be ‘a true Baptist witness,’ any group must see the winning of souls to Christ as the cohesive factor in our fellowship,” Page said. “I will not be a part of any smokescreen leftwing liberal agenda that seeks to deny the greatest need in our world, that being that the lost be shown the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Page said Southern Baptists have done much to meet human need. “Importantly, the mark of our ministries is spiritual,” he said. “Unlike those who focus only on the social good of ministry, we give a man a loaf of bread and also introduce Christ as the Bread of Life.”
Despite a “woeful early history,” Page said Southern Baptists have been “leaders in racial reconciliation,” apologizing in 1995 for “our corporate failure about slavery with repentance and asking forgiveness.”
Miguel De La Torre, a regular columnist for EthicsDaily.com, said he is “amused” by statements by white leaders of predominantly white institutions claiming progress in the area racial reconciliation.
“Our marginalized communities are not interested in apologies for the past, but changes in the present,” De La Torre said.
De La Torre, director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said such pronouncements “betray a total lack of comprehension of the experience of marginalized communities.”
De La Torre said Page’s perspective is “diametrically opposite to the majority of Christians of color.”
De La Torre said the SBC continues to be among the most racist of the mainline Christian denominations, because its leaders fail to recognize that structural racism exists and ignore their own complicity in those structures.
Page’s own church, De La Torre noted, has 13 staff members, and none are persons of color.
While some token representation exists for people of color who defend white privilege, in an attempt to prove the denomination is “non-racist,” De La Torre, an ordained Latino Southern Baptist minister and graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he has “no voice” in the SBC.
Page said Southern Baptists’ commitment to diversity is also demonstrated in outreach efforts to ethnic groups including Hispanics, African-Americans, Koreans and “Messianic Jews.”
Those outreach efforts haven’t always been welcomed in the Jewish community, however. An analogy by one SBC leader in 2003 comparing failure to evangelize Jews with a doctor who refuses to tell a patient he has a “deadly tumor” prompted charges of anti-Semitism from Jewish groups.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.