February 12, 2008

After writing on the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, David Roach of the Baptist Press wrote a column entitled "Confusion concerning kindness." It summed up this thoughts about the historic gathering and offered some telling insights into why his reporting often miscast the Celebration. It is interesting to note that the Baptist Press (which has run several attack pieces about the Celebration for months that were proven wrong by the gathering), labeled the section with its Celebration articles "2008 New Baptist Covenant Convention." However, it was not and is not a convention. There is no convention being created here, but rather a movement of lots of conventions working together. Apparently the Baptist Press has not been paying much attention or else they would have heard that point made.

In his column, Roach explained that he was confused by what he heard at the Celebration. Here are a few of his comments:

The New Baptist Covenant is certainly right to insist that professed Christians treat one another with love and kindness. However, their definition of what constitutes love and kindness reveals a fundamental flaw in their understanding of those concepts.

Some groups, by their very natures, cannot partner with certain other groups in cooperative ventures. Yet that lack of cooperation does not necessarily make those groups either unloving or unkind.

Consider, for example, a young Democrats club and a young Republicans club on the same college campus. Someone might suggest that in order to promote kindness and love the two groups should start meeting together rather than separately. Anyone who objects to combining the two clubs, the reasoning might go, is guilty of fostering unkindness and intolerance on campus.

That suggestion may sound noble at first, but it contains a fundamental flaw. The philosophies of the two clubs are so at odds that combining the groups would result in each diluting its core commitments. In other words, the Democrat club is so different from the Republican club that it would lose its identity should it choose to partner with its political counterpart. It is not unkind for the two groups to remain separate, just common sense.

Everyone realizes this, and that's why no one accuses the Democrats of being unloving for not combining with the Republicans or the Republicans of being unloving for not combining with the Democrats.
This is a classic argument: we cannot be united because we disagree. Yet, that approach completely denies the prayer of Jesus in John 17. It also perverts the biblical metaphor of the body of Christ. The whole point of the Celebration was that we can be united despite our disagreements. As Christian brothers and sisters, our common faith in Christ is more important than our differences on other issues. Former president Bill Clinton made this point in his address when he explained that Paul said love trumps faith because we see through a glass darkly and know in part. So despite our differences we must come together. It may be hard, but it is what we are commanded to do. So Roach has missed the whole biblical point the Celebration was making about unity.

He then offered a poor analogy. He takes two opposing groups and attacks the idea of merging them. However, as Christians we are all on the same team and part of the same body! Also, the Celebration was not about merging the organizations but getting them to work together. Ironically, my past experience with Roach's very example demonstrates this principle. In high school I led one of the two political clubs (I'll let you guess which one, but I bet many will get it wrong) and my debate partner led the other (so between rounds we often debated each other). We never thought about merging the two groups but we did get along and even promote events together. We knew that hosting debates or other events were things we could both be a part of. We even held a softball/fellowship day (with my group strongly beating the other in the game). If partisan teenagers can do it, surely Christians can.

Roach's next argument, however, demonstrated the real flaw in his thinking. He wrote:
The same is true in the Baptist world. It is not unkind of the SBC to refuse cooperation with participants in the New Baptist Covenant Celebration, just common sense. The fundamental commitments of the two groups are so different that to set aside the differences would force Southern Baptists to give up their core identity.

At the meeting in Atlanta I heard a religion espoused that is different from the religion I practice. I believe that the only way anyone will ever be saved is by explicit faith in Jesus Christ as the only mediator between a holy God and sinful men. But that was not what I heard from all speakers at the New Baptist Covenant.

... I do not bear any ill will toward more moderate and liberal Baptists. In fact, I find many of them to be kind people and enjoyed talking with them in Atlanta. However, their fundamental religious commitments are so different from mine that we cannot cooperate in missions and evangelism without one of us compromising our most precious beliefs.

Either I will have to give up my primary commitment to personal evangelism and the inerrancy of Scripture, or they will have to give up their primary commitment to social ministry -- we're like the Democrat club and the Republican club. And that doesn't necessarily make either of us unloving or unkind.
The real problem with his argument is that he casts his brothers and sisters in Christ as being part of a different religion. The arrogance to say that those of a different focus or interpretation are part of a different religion (and thus not Christian or part of the body of Christ) is astounding. He also forgets, of course, that many Southern Baptists were at the Celebration and some were part of the planners. And the reason the groups came together is because we share the same core truth of desiring to share the love of Jesus. No one was asked to set aside their identity but to join hands with fellow believers. Again, he is incredibly confused about what the Celebration's purpose really was.

He then makes a claim that he did not hear all speakers at the Celebration say that Jesus was the only mediator. He claims that one speaker in one special interest session (out of the hundred people who spoke) said otherwise. It is illogical to take a couple of comments by one person in one breakout session to judge the entire meeting and the thousands who were present. Also, journalist John Pierce's account of that specific session is quite different. I was not in that session so I cannot say for sure, but even Roach's own account mentions that others who made it clear that we need to evangelize so they can be saved through Jesus. Additionally, it is important to note that, based on the special interest sessions he chose to attend, it seems Roach was clearly looking for comments like this to attack the Celebration. He did not attend those on youth ministry, or helping people in natural disasters, or helping those who are sick or poor. Instead he went to those on dialoguing with people of other faiths or that were focused on religious liberty and public policy. In essence, it seems he chose to attend the ones that were more likely to be political or controversial and yet largely failed to find anything with which to attack the Celebration.

Finally, Roach wrongly tries to depict personal evangelism and social ministry as opposing choices. Why can we not do both? We can and that was a primary message of the Celebration. We must meet people's spiritual and physical needs. Sometimes we will need to do the latter before they will be receptive to the former. We are called to share the love of Jesus, which I believe means sharing the loving message that Jesus saves and the love of Jesus that comes in giving someone food, clothes, or medical assistance. That is what the Celebration was all about--coming together as Christians despite our differences so that we can share the love of Jesus. So it is sad that Roach did not understand that message. But I understand why he was confused--he had been told by critics that the meeting would be a pep rally for Hillary Clinton and that it would be a time to bash the SBC. Neither happened and so he was probably left scrambling to find the comments to attack that he was sent to find. It may seem confusing to try and work together despite our important differences and it may seem confusing to share the love of Jesus both spiritually and physically, but Jesus often confused the religious and political leaders. Why should we as Christians following his teachings and example do any less?