The New Baptist Covenant creates vibrant, inclusive Baptist communities, building bridges in places previously marked by division. We are called by God to champion the weak and oppressed, honor the diverse workings of the Holy Spirit and to share the love of Christ. Our work is rooted in the words of Jesus Christ found in Luke 4:18-19:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free.
This statement comes from the New Baptist Covenant’s website, and is found as part of the definition of its mission and purpose. You remember the New Baptist Covenant? The organization founded by Jimmy Carter, assisted by Bill Clinton, in 2006 as a means to bring segregated Baptist denominations and church bodies together for the purpose of building “covenant relationships” to engage in social justice ministry. That was its narrower purpose, but during the first gathering in Atlanta, many of the speakers envisioned the covenant as a means of drawing various Baptists together in other ways, and laying the foundation for a greater unity and cooperation between the churches and denominations that share the common theology, practice, and the name name, “Baptists.”
So what’s happened to the New Baptist Covenant?
It’s still there. There are Baptist groups and churches which become involved, engage in covenant relationships with churches of like faith and order but a different racial makeup, and do social justice ministry together. And that’s a good thing, wherever it is happening. Baptists, like most other Protestant church groups in the United States, remain far more racially segregated than the culture at large, so when churches are working together, pooling resources and doing some good, especially in the realm of social justice, it’s good, and it is also a very effective way to model the gospel.
It’s still meeting. It has summits which feature worship times, speakers drawn from the Baptist constituency that supports it, mostly individuals with prominent jobs within the various denominational groupings. After the initial gathering in 2006, where several African American denominations were meeting together in a historic show of unity, the attendance and participation has been quite small, the result of the fact that most Baptists haven’t caught the vision, and don’t participate. At the initial gathering, news media reports stated that the delegates in attendance represented Baptist denominations with a collective membership of over 20 million. But the nature of Baptist gatherings is not representative. No Baptist speaks for another, so if there are ten thousand delegates from 20 different denominations with a collective membership of 20 million, there is no representation by anyone in attendance of any Baptist who isn’t there. And it’s become pretty clear, in the years since its formation, that only a few thousand Baptists, out of the more than 30 million people who are members of a Baptist church in the US, are involved in the New Baptist Covenant.
So why didn’t this movement get off the ground, so to speak, and start a move toward Baptist unity, as its founders hoped?
A majority of Baptists in the United States belong to denominations that can easily be labelled as “conservative” from a doctrinal and theological perspective. The Southern Baptist Convention accounts for slightly more than half of all Baptist church members in the US. Another large conservative Baptist constituency is found in churches that label themselves “Independent Fundamental Baptist.” The SBC is not likely to support any group in which the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is involved, and they are one of the groups that participated in the organization of the Covenant. There are some Southern Baptists who see the value of it, and some churches which have become engaged and involved, but as a denomination, there is no support, and very few churches and individuals have made a commitment to the Covenant.
Independent Fundamental Baptists generally don’t get involved in anything that doesn’t demonstrate an exact line up with their doctrinal positions. They see the Covenant as a gathering of “liberals” and there are few, if any, of their members or churches willing to get involved.
Unfortunately, social justice ministry isn’t a high priority for many conservative Baptists. Seen more as a fief of more liberal Baptist denominations, mainly because it is the leadership of those groups that are prominent advocates for this kind of ministry, the conservatives don’t cooperate. There is persistent resistance to cooperating with any other Christian groups that don’t share some of the common doctrinal marks of more conservative Baptists, and something like the covenant looks “ecumenical,” which they see as doctrinal and theological compromise. But social justice ministry is a model of the application of the gospel. It is a more effective means of planting seeds for evangelism than some of the methods churches use now.
“Baptist unity,” too, is a fleeting concept. Outside of a few common doctrines, and some common church practices, mainly the idea of the independent, non-connectional, congregational local church and baptism by immersion following a testimony of faith in Christ as savior, there is not much which Baptists share. The Southern Baptist Convention is build around its missions ministries, and theological seminaries, and is not interested in cooperating in ministry because it does not need to do so. The nature of an Independent Fundamental Baptist church is that you can’t work with anyone else because they might not have right doctrine. And they incorrectly see any form of Christian cooperation as automatic endorsement of everything those other Christians believe. Their colleges and universities don’t mind accepting tuition dollars from the majority of their students who don’t attend or belong to Baptist churches, but they won’t work together with the church down the street to build a better neighborhood for the kids or families.
So the Covenant continues. It’s small, it has become relatively unknown and ignored by most Baptists, but it is still there, and it forms a valuable foundation and framework for social justice and ministry cooperation between the Baptists who are interested in using it as a resource. And to be honest with you, I’m not so sure Baptist unity would be all that good.