Former President Jimmy Carter's "resignation" from the Southern Baptist Convention was intended to draw public attention --- and it did. After all, it isn't every day that one of the world's most famous citizens denounces his denomination.
Carter has been America's most active former president. His efforts at peacemaking, international negotiation, home construction for the impoverished and the eradication of diseases in Africa have earned him the world's respect. Nearly 20 years after leaving office, Carter remains an actor on the world scene and at home.
News of Carter's denunciation of the Southern Baptist Convention made headlines because the former president has been publicly identified with the SBC ever since he ran for president in 1976. He had joined a Southern Baptist congregation as a boy and became the denomination's most famous Sunday School teacher, even as president of the United States.
What is going on here? Carter cited several reasons for leaving the SBC. All are related to one central fact. The former president is solidly identified with the liberal wing of the SBC and has opposed the conservative leadership elected by the convention for the past two decades.
On an entire spectrum of theological and moral issues, Carter has been estranged from the SBC. On issues ranging from homosexuality and abortion to the nature of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture, the former president is out of step with the majority of Southern Baptists.
The breaking point in Carter's relationship to the SBC came with the denomination's adoption of a revised statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message. Approved overwhelmingly by messengers to the convention, the statement clarified the SBC's convictions on theological issues such as the total truthfulness of the Bible and the sinfulness of abortion and homosexuality. The statement also affirms the nuclear family as the foundation of civilization.
Carter, whose favorite theologians are drawn from the left wing of Christianity, claims that the Baptist Faith and Message is now "an increasingly rigid SBC creed" that violates "the basic premises of my Christian faith." Thus, the Carters have shifted their allegiance to the liberal Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
But this is not news. Carter made a similar announcement in 1993, declaring his identification with the CBF. "I pray that as Rosalynn and I cast our lot with this fellowship for the rest of our lives, we can be a part of a transcendent movement."
Without question, denominationalism is not what it used to be. Every major denomination has experienced controversy and division over critical issues.
American Protestantism is now divided into conservative and liberal movements. Unique among major denominations, the SBC has come under conservative leadership as grass-roots Southern Baptists demanded doctrinal accountability and championed biblical inerrancy.
Carter, on the other hand, is an advocate for more liberalized positions on the Bible, the Gospel and crucial moral issues. In recent years he has stated that he doubts the validity of some of the miracles recorded in Scripture. "But I now believe that, even if some of the more dramatic miracles recounted in the Gospels could be untrue, my faith in (Christ) would still be equally precious and unshaken." He has also denied that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. "I cannot imagine innocent persons being deprived of God's eternal blessing because they don't have a chance to accept Christ." Carter has been unclear concerning other religions as avenues to salvation. In a startling affront to the SBC, Carter criticized witnessing to Mormons --- but seemed not to know that Mormons do not accept the Christian gospel.
The issue of women as pastors also drew Carter's ire. The SBC has stated its conviction that the office of pastor is limited by Scripture to men. This is the position shared by the vast majority of Christians throughout the world. Carter, whose pastor is a man, is outraged by this restriction and blames the "fallible human beings" who were the human authors of Scripture for this restriction.
The chasm between Carter and the Southern Baptist mainstream is most clear on moral issues. As president, Carter made abortion rights a priority and organized the infamous 1979 White House Conference on Families --- now recognized as a watershed event. Evangelical outrage prompted by the conference contributed to Carter's election defeat in 1980.
In his post-presidential years, Carter has supported the cause of homosexual rights and raised money for gay-rights groups. All this is in direct conflict with the beliefs of Southern Baptists, who refuse to compromise clear biblical teachings on these controversial issues.
The sad reality is that Carter has been estranged from the Southern Baptist Convention for decades. He shifted his identification to another denominational fellowship years ago.
His much-trumpeted denunciation of the SBC is a post-presidential publicity stunt, apparently timed for maximum assistance to the Baptist General Convention of Texas in its break with the SBC Cooperative Program. In the end, it says far more about Carter than about the Southern Baptist Convention.
Dr. Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.