A year after launching an initiative aimed at ending factions in the wide Baptist community, former president Jimmy Carter convened some 1,200 people over the weekend to build on the unity movement.
"Carter is a lifelong Southern Baptist who has lamented the divisiveness that's been present in the Baptist family," said Brent McDougal, coordinator for Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, according to Tuscaloosa News.
"Baptists celebrate freedom of consciousness, autonomy of the local church and the priesthood of all believers," McDougal noted. "Every Baptist stands before God a free person and that leads to a lot of differences – differences of opinions, worship styles and the way we believe church should function."
Hundreds had packed the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday for the first of five regional meetings of the New Baptist Covenant – an initiative launched early last year with the participation of nearly 15,000 Baptists who are aiming to get past the bickering and work together on such social issues as global warming, poverty and human rights.
"There's no way for us to avoid Jesus' emphasis on the poor, the broken-hearted, the captive, the blind and the bruised," Carter said. "We came together in Atlanta – black, white, Asian, Hispanic – to learn how better to serve ... and to inspire harmony among ourselves and others."
Carter, who spearheaded the initiative, called the evolution of the New Baptist Covenant the "highlight of [his] religious life," according to The Associated Press.
The covenant was launched out of concern that the prevailing image of Christians, particularly Baptists, today was one of divisiveness. Baptists have debated and, in some cases, split over such issues as the role of women in ministry and marriage, abortion, civil rights for gays, and Scripture, among many others.
"As we struggle with each other for authority or argue with one another about the interpretation of individual verses in the Scripture, the arguments and even the animosities among Christians are like a cancer," Carter said during a worship service Saturday.
Hoping to overcome any racial, theological, philosophical, geographical or political division, over 30 organizations representing 20 million Baptists (black, white, conservative, moderate, Republican and Democrat) lent their support to the start of the New Baptist Covenant last January.
While some in the conservative Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the country – also participated, leaders of the SBC had dismissed the unity effort as politically charged with a liberal agenda.
The New Baptist Covenant is still evolving as organizers look to expand participation.
"We don't know whether we have a meeting or a movement," said the Rev. Jimmy Allen, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and co-organizer of the New Baptist Covenant, as reported by AP. "What we're after is a movement."
The latest day-long gathering in Birmingham aimed to help churches work better together. It featured seminars and also a message by Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, who spoke on poverty.