Many people know Jimmy Carter as the 39th president of the United States and winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. But for many Christians, President Carter is one of the world's most famous Sunday School teachers, having taught classes for over 30 years. He currently teaches at his local church Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga.
His Sunday School teachings and interpretation of Scripture are included in a new study Bible called, NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter.
President Carter spoke to The Christian Post about his new Bible book and shared his Christian beliefs when it comes to difficult topics in the Bible such as abortion, women in leadership, homosexuality, and salvation.
The transcript of the interview with President Carter can be read below:
CP: What is the purpose of writing the NIV Lessons From Life Bible?
Carter: The overall purpose of the overall project is to bring ancient scriptures into modern applicability. When I speak at my local church, which I try to do 35 to 40 times a year, I try in every lesson to take the Old Testament text or New Testament text and apply them to what is happening to me or how that applies to the audience that I'm teaching in a modern, fast-changing, technological world. I use headlines, interfaith and that sort of thing.
I was incapacitated this past summer, I had both my knees replaced and so I was relatively dormant. The editors of Zondervan and I went through all of my lessons that I've taught - they were all tape recorded - and we selected passages from those lessons that apply to the various scriptures throughout the Bible. So I've given you the criteria we've used to selecting what's in the Bible.
CP: What has been the challenging topic or passage for you to address in this project?
Carter: Well, I think the most challenging thing for me in my life and in the Bible is that we worship Jesus as the Prince of Peace. And our country is constantly at war. When I was in the White House, I was confronted with the challenge of the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and I had 30,000 nuclear weapons that could destroy the entire earth and I had to maintain the peace. We had a lot of challenges then but that's one of the main things I did.
I never found any incompatibilities though between my religious faith and my duties as a politician except in the case of abortion. I don't believe that Jesus would approve abortion except in the case of incest, rape or the mother's life in danger. But I had to enforce the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade so I tried to do everything I could to minimize the need for abortions, making it easy to adopt children and by caring for women and infant children in the so-called WIC program. So, that was an incompatibility that I had – to maintain peace and to put my basic Christian moral values into practice – were the things that were most challenging for me.
CP: Which scripture can you point to that would support your views that Jesus would not condone abortion?
Carter: Well, Jesus never mentions abortion. But I think that Jesus did care for the unborn child, I think that Jesus did care for people who were completely helpless, who depend on others for their life and livelihood. I just believe that this should be minimized if possible.
As you probably know, America has about three times as many abortions as they have in Norway, or Sweden, or Nordic countries, and they don't have any laws at all about abortion, but they care for women and infant children, which is a major cause for abortion.
So I believe that we should do anything we can to minimize abortion and not to encourage it.
CP: Now, the NIV Lessons from Life Bible that you've written is based on the new NIV translation, is that correct?
Carter: That's correct.
CP: It's been characterized by Zondervan as gender-neutral. There have been some controversial passages that some Christian leaders have taken issue with. For example, 1 Timothy 2:12. In the old version, it says I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must be silent. In the 2011, "have authority" has been changed to "assume authority." Which version do you prefer and why?
Carter: I believe strongly that in the eyes of God women and men should be the same and they should be given the same authority in the church, women should as men. For instance, my wife is a deacon now. She's one of the leaders in our church. I have been in the past. And we have two pastors, one of them is a man and his wife is a woman, of course. I believe there is complete equality between men and women. And I believe those passages in the New Testament, not by Jesus, but by Paul, that say women should not adorn themselves, they should always wear hats or color their hair in church – things like that – I think they are signs of the times and should not apply to modern-day life.
When Paul also says, I think the third chapter of Galatians, Paul says that there is no distinction between men and women, or between Jew and Greek, or between slaves and masters even, that all people are the same in the eyes of God. That's what I used as a guiding light in that sort of argument.
CP: So, you would prefer the newer translation?
Carter: Absolutely. Yes, I certainly would.
CP: I also recently read your interview with The Huffington Post and I would like to ask you some questions regarding some of your statements.
CP: You said that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.
Carter: That's right.
CP: Many believe that Apostle Paul addressed the issue of homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 and that has been referred to a lot in this debate amongst Christianity. How would you interpret this verse?
Carter: Well, Paul mentions a lot of other things too. Paul advised people not to get married unless they could not control their sexual impulses and he chose himself not to be married. So I think Paul had some letters he wrote to the congregation based on the current events that might have been affecting that particular group of people. Paul was highly biased in some of his statements. But in general, in the matters that relate to theology or behavior, people to one another, Paul was obviously biblically correct. But when he said that women should always cover their hair or that women should not teach men, women should not have leadership positions in the church, women should not speak in the church, I don't' think that those writings of Paul can be extracted by themselves to stand alone. Also, Paul said that women should be subservient to their husbands but if you read a couple of verses down it says husbands should treat their wives as equals.
So you have to use your own modern-day beliefs and basic Christianity to select which of those conflicting statements of Paul you want to observe that says we should treat women as equals and says we should not discriminate against people.
CP: So for that verse in Romans 1, do you believe it characterizes homosexuality as a sin or do you believe homosexuality was a cultural issue that was relevant then and not relevant now?
Carter: Well, homosexuality was massively practiced in some of the conflicting religions at the time of Christ and even at the time of Christ, in Roman times show that homosexuality was widely prevalent. I think it's quite significant that Jesus never did mention it.
When Paul mentions the verse, it can be interpreted homosexually critical. He also says that selfishness is sinful. He also goes through a whole gamut of things that are sinful. On Saint Paul, he's probably one of the best theologians of all time, but I don't believe that some of his teachings are appropriate today.
When I have a conflict like that in my interpretation of scripture, I go back and see what Jesus said about that.
CP: So, you don't believe homosexuality is a sin?
Carter: No, I don't. Our church accepts gay people without any question. We don't perform marriages between gay couples. That's something that a local Baptist church decide on being autonomous. I don't have any complaints about homosexuals being married in a civil ceremony. But I don't think that the government ought to require religious organizations, churches, should perform marriages between homosexuals if a local congregation decides otherwise. I believe in the autonomy of individual churches.
CP: Well, marriage was an institution that was defined and established before government. In the interview with The Huffington Post, you said that you were fine with gays being married in civil ceremonies. On the issue of gay marriage, not civil ceremonies, do you believe the government or the church has primacy, or ultimate controlling authority, in defining marriage?
Carter: Well, those are two completely separate things. I believe in the separation of church and state. The government has the right to say what happens in a civil case, like in a court house. And religious people have a right to say what happens in a church congregation. They are two completely separate things. And I think it's alright if the government wants to say, in the state of Massachusetts, in the state of New York, in the state of California, that civil ceremonies should be accepted, I think that should be fine. I don't think that even those states that believe in civil marriages between homosexuals or ordained in a church should perform civil ceremonies.
CP: Next, there is also a statement you made regarding the fallibility of the Bible. You said, "So there is some fallibility in the writings of the Bible." Can you explain what you meant by that?
Carter: Yes, I think the Bible is completely inspired by God in it's overall messages. But, for the people of those days to know what was going to happen 4,000 years later in a world of astronomy or subatomic particles. They didn't have access to the knowledge that we presently have about geology. So, we know now that the world was created many of billions of years ago, 13 or 14 billion years ago. As far as they knew, the earth was the center of the universe. They thought that stars were little twinkling things in the sky where as now we know stars are very distant and much larger than the earth. For them to say that stars fall on the earth like they fell off a Christmas tree, that means it's human fallibility. It doesn't mean it was ordained by God who created everything. So I think that those matters of those lack of knowledge about science and technology that come along later are understandable.