Respond to critics with 'spirit of love,' Clinton tells Baptists

By Robert Marus and Greg Warner
Associated Baptist Press

Photo: Billy Howard

ATLANTA (ABP)-The only way for a broad group of Baptists to move toward their goal of unity is with a spirit of humility and forgiveness, former President Bill Clinton told participants of the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant Feb. 1.

"If we are going to form a covenant that can embrace the whole body of the Baptist [tradition], which every Christian can identify with and every good human being on earth can applaud, it is the spirit with which we go forward and our determination to offer specific things we can do as the children of God that will determine how it comes out in the end," Clinton said.

Clinton delivered the closing speech of the three-day conference, which was designed to bring Baptists together across a century and a half of deep theological, political and cultural differences. More than 30 Baptist denominations and groups sponsored and participated in the one-of-a-kind Baptist gathering in Atlanta.

Clinton—one of several prominent Democrats on a program that included one Republican senator-said he was disappointed some conservative Baptists dismissed the unity effort as a "veiled agenda for liberals."

But, he said, their suspicion of the event-and their division from their moderate and progressive brethren, was because "they read the Scripture in a different way."

Clinton said one of the most important verses of Scripture for him is 1 Cor. 13:12, in which the Apostle Paul notes that he does not understand everything about God because, on this side of heaven, no one has complete knowledge. That verse, Clinton noted, precedes the section extolling love as the greatest of all virtues.

"The reason that we have to put love above everything else is because we see through a glass darkly and know in part," he said. "The reason we have to love each other is because all of us might be wrong."

After all, he added, "if we didn't see through a glass darkly and know in part, we'd be the sons and daughters of God.  We would not need Jesus. We would not need salvation."

Clinton said seeking reconciliation with critics in the Southern Baptist Convention and elsewhere must be characterized by such humble love.

"We should not let our response to the people who disagree with us be dictated by what they say about us, or even how they treat people that we care for," he said. "No matter what condemnation is directed against his movement, you must respond with a spirit of love."

Therefore, he added, the meeting "is a wonderful beginning."

The evening's theme, "Baptist Unity In Setting the Captive Free," was given a concrete example by speaker Hanna Massad, the exiled pastor of Gaza Baptist Church.

The only Protestant congregation in the Gaza Strip, Massad's congregation has been repeatedly damaged by Israeli missiles and terrorized by Palestinian extremists. One of its members was murdered last year by an unknown group after he refused to convert to Islam.

"If the Lord is raising martyrs among us … how come we as Christians, many times in our churches, we are fighting among our selves about silly things?" Massad asked.

"The church in the Middle East, loved ones, is rich-it's rich with the blood of the martyrs. The church in America is rich ... with many resources," he said. "Your brothers and sisters in the Middle East have been suffering for so long. Would you join their hands, would you join their hearts, would you accept the invitation?"

Charles Adams, pastor of Hartford Baptist Church in Detroit, preached on "setting the captive free," warning that freedom comes with obligation.

"We are filled with the Spirit only to empty ourselves in the liberation of others, he said. "We are loved only to love others. We are free only to accept the responsibility of setting others free."

"Freedom is not free, easy or automatic," he continued. "It is surrounded by so much determination and necessity that it must be understood as a thin margin, not an open highway.

If we do not share our freedom with others, he said, "then our souls will be destroyed and our freedom with it."

But he warned: "As the quality of freedom blossoms around the world, I am afraid it is fading here at home…. It is said that the civil rights era is over. Never before has the Bill of Rights been in such jeopardy. Never before has the civil-rights movement been in such trouble."

"We are free only if we face the challenge of freedom, do the work of freedom, fight the fight of freedom and die the death for freedom."

"Don't let anybody tell you what you can't do to improve your life and the lives of others," he concluded. "… Don't tell me what you can't do. If you are in Christ, you are free. And you can do all things for Jesus Christ has paid the price for us to be free.

-- Hannah Elliott of Associated Baptist Press contributed to this story.