The New Baptist Covenant Celebration, the effort which organizers have hoped to unite Baptists and create a more positive Baptist image, has roused more debates between conservative Southern Baptists and moderate ones.
Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page released a statement reproving former President Jimmy Carter's New Baptist initiative, saying, "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."
Although Page is supportive of evangelicals meeting for mutual support, instruction and edification and joining together in a positive way, he stressed the priority of winning souls to Christ. Part of the New Baptist Covenant agenda is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ through specifically committing themselves to social causes but the celebration in January, conservatives have argued, has political overtones.
"To be 'a true Baptist witness,' any group must see the winning of souls to Christ as the cohesive factor in our fellowship," said Page in a statement dated May 25.
The denomination head noted that Southern Baptists have given over $220 million to domestic and overseas hunger relief and at the same time, shared the Gospel with 650,000 people - 30,000 of whom made professions of faith last year in the U.S. alone.
"Importantly, the mark of our ministries is spiritual. 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."
His comment comes after Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Atlanta and one of the main organizers of the covenant, said that "North America desperately needs a true Baptist witness" at the January announcement of the New Baptist Covenant.
The new covenant is a push for an effort that would counter the "negative" and judgmental image of Baptists presented in the media, which organizers say is largely painted by conservative leaders in the SBC. Carter is also hoping to demonstrate Baptist unity through social causes such as poverty and AIDS as he raised concern that the most common opinion about Baptists is that they cannot get along.
"Southern Baptists were not invited to be a part of the initial meetings of this group, so let me offer that rather than this being a tug of war to see who can get most microphone time, I encourage the Covenant Partners to truly seek to focus on biblical mandates," Page stated. "I believe God would bless that!"
The Baptist head also noted that many involved in the event are "the very ones who have contributed to the press' reporting of negative images about Southern Baptists."
The list of speakers at the New Baptist Covenant convocation, scheduled for January of 2008 includes: Carter, former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Al Gore, and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee withdrew his participation from the convocation last week, citing the liberal roster of speakers and expressing disappointment in Carter's comments criticizing the Bush administration as "the worst in history." Carter later clarified that the comment was a comparison between Bush's foreign policy to Richard Nixon's.
Carter had recently extended the New Baptist push to involve Republicans and Southern Baptists after allegations that the convocation was a political move. While Huckabee has withdrawn, South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley are expected to participate. Southern Baptists did not formally receive an invitation, but Carter had left the door open for any Baptist who wanted to join. Earlier this month he met with some of Southern Baptist Convention's pastors or well-known bloggers, who have expressed interest but not yet confirmed their participation.
At the meeting, covenant organizers had emphasized that the meeting was about the gospel and not politics.
"I'm not sure where I stand on the New Baptist Covenant - it may end up being a smokescreen for liberal politics - but I'm not sure how much different that would be from a convention attaching herself to right wing politics," wrote Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson, who has expressed more hope than doubt for the New Baptist Covenant, on a Wednesday blog post.
Meanwhile, Page stated, "I pray that the Covenant Partners will truly seek to promote a biblical mandate. I hope that they will encourage all those who are not at the meeting to do the same."
The New Baptist Covenant Celebration is being organized under the umbrella of the North American Baptist Fellowship, a division of the Baptist World Alliance, which the SBC left following concerns over its "leftward drift."