Jimmy Carter is a member, deacon, and Sunday School teacher at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. He is also the 39th President of the United States. I met President Carter for the first time two years ago on a visit to the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Since that initial meeting some of my friends have spoken to me about Mr. Carter and have condemned him for what they call his "lack of Christian character"--as if attacking him as a person would cause me to see the true evil nature of the former President.
Allow me to set the record straight.
I am a Republican. President Carter is a Democrat. We don't see eye to eye politically. I am pastor in a church active with the Southern Baptist Convention. Though President Carter's church still gives 50% of their mission offerings to the Lottie Moon offering, Maranatha is no longer active in the SBC. We don't see eye to eye ecclesiologically. I am calvinistic in my soteriology, partial-preterist in my eschatology, open communion in my ecclesiology, conservative in my theology, inerrantist in my bibliology, and continuationist in my pneumatology. President Carter would probably agree with me in less than half of the foregoing theological positions. We don't see eye to eye theologically.
Yet, in my opinion, President Carter is a man of the highest Christian character and integrity. It should be an honor to all of us who name Christ as Lord to call Jimmy Carter a brother in Jesus Christ.
(1). He professes privately, publicly and without apology that "Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ."
(2). He serves his church as deacon, mowing the church lawn on a set rotation, fulfilling the responsiblity of being a church deacon with humility and grace.
(3). On two occasions that I have spoken privately spoken with him, not one time has he spoken a critical word about a fellow Christian in terms of their character, in spite of the fact he has been criticized, condemned and censored by several Christian leaders.
(4). He teaches Sunday School every Sunday that he is in town. Last Sunday was his 503 time to teach, and hundreds from all over the world came to hear him in a town with a population of only 600.
(5). His mission in life is to make the world a better place to live, striving to eradicate disease, educate children, and initiate peace between countries known for war.
(6). The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 to Mr. Carter for "his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democrac and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
(7). Every year the President Carter and Rosalynn volunteer one week to help build homes for the homeless through Habitat for Humanity.
For the above seven reasons alone, not to mention what could be said about his marriage, his family, and his tireless support of Baptists worldwide, every follower of Jesus Christ with Baptist convictions should refrain from attacking the character of this man. Disagree with him? Of course. Question his Christianity? Not unless you wish to answer to His heavenly Father for your attacks.
There are four areas that Christian leaders seem prone to use as an occasion to incessantly attack Mr. Carter's Christian character. I would like to show how one may disagree with Mr. Carter with civility and respect--while upholding the dignity of his Christian character.
Israel, Palestine and the Middle East
Many evangelicals are pro-Israel because of a seemingly uniform eschatalogy (pre-tribulational pre-millenialism). As a result, some Christian leaders castigate President Carter's advocacy for a Palestinian state and his defense of the Arab people. I happen to believe the United States should protect Israel, not because of my eschatology, but because I believe Israel stands alone in her democratic principles in a region known for autocratic dictatorships, religious theocracies, and other dysfunctional forms of government. Nevertheless, all of us must deeply appreciate what President Carter has done since the 1970's to bring peace to an area that most simply believed would never experience it. Whether you agree or not with Carter's position on the Palestinian question, no fellow Christian should feel compelled to attack Carter's character as he fulfills his role as statesmen in the Middle East. In fact, that in itself would be un-Christian.
Women in Ministry
See my previous post. Whether one agrees with his position or not, it would be prudent for all to treat his views with respect and to respond with civility due the dignity of his person. I predict that within a few decades even the Southern Baptist Convention will believe Carter's views on women in minsitry to be orthodox and biblical.
Christian universalism is the belief that all people are redeemed by Christ and will eventually be brought to faith in Christ--either here or in heaven. Mr. Carter has repeatedly stated that the only way to be delivered from God's judgment is "by grace through faith in Jesus Christ." I have asked him why some insist that he is a universalist when he is so clear about how a sinner is delivered from God's judgment. He says he believes people misunderstand his views because he is gracious, respectful and tolerant of those who disagree with him, even those from other religions. Of course, he does not change his own views, but he is uninterested in condemning people who do not agree with him. He simply shares his views and believes God will do the saving.
If there is one thing that keeps some evangelicals from seeing the call of God on women, it is the fear that recognizing "women preachers" is the first step down the slippery slope of recognizing "homosexual" preachers.
I don't understand that kind of thinking--unless of course, one believes homosexuality is part of one's personhood, rather than one's choice of behavior.
Let me illustrate.
Our church views homosexuality the same way we do adultery, or sexual activity before marriage, or any other sexual act outside the confines of a husband/wife marriage. We have many people who attend our church that are involved in these particular sins. We love them, we help them, and we encourage them, but we let them know that their lives will never be holy or genuinely happy until Christ enables them overcome their sinful sexual behaviors. We don't single out any one particular "sexual activity" as worse than others. We identify them all as sin before God.
There are some Christians who believe that God makes "homosexuals" the way they are and that having sex with a same sex partner is not "sin" if the relationship is monogamous, committed, and loving. We believe that the sacred text in several places, both Old Testament and New Testament, disputes this. The essence of Christianity is repentance of sin--and same sex homosexual behavior is sin. At the same time we love the person whose heart tends toward this sin - we will simply help him or her overcome it by the power of Christ just like we help the adulterer, the pedophile, the sexually immoral, overcome their urges toward sexual sins. We no more believe a homosexual is qualified to be pastor than we do an adulterer, a pedophile, etc . . . because of abnormal and sinful sexual behavior. For those who want others to believe that homosexual or lesbian sexual behavior is normal, just remind them that it's a good thing their parents didn't homosexuality normal sexual behavior. Again, homosexuality is a behavioral choice.
But a black man who preaches the gospel can't change the color of his skin. A woman who preaches the gospel can't change the gender of her person. A homosexual who preaches the gospel can change his or her behavior. Homsexuals are not part of a minority group, they are part of a behavioral group.
President Carter is not opposed to the government recognizing "homosexual unions." All of us know that the government must designate people in various civil unions for tax purposes, census taking and other government reasons. Carter himself, however, called "homosexuality" a sin at the conference where I heard him speak this past week. What baffles me is why we Christians rail against the United States government recognizing "homosexual" unions while we are often stone quiet when it comes to the practice of our government recognizing civil unions among men and women who live together outside of the covenant of marriage--and this type of civil union has been recognized by our government for decades. Both types of sexual unions (homosexual and heterosexual), outside of the covenant of marriage, are "sin" as defined by the church. Could it be that Christians like Jimmy Carter don't believe governments should be involved in the business of the church and vice-versa? In other words, just because a Christian is not opposed to homosexual civil unions being recognized by the government doesn't mean that Christian doesn't view homosexuality as sin.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Carter's views in the above four areas, my point in this post is to remind those of us who follow Jesus Christ that it is important that we refrain from attacking the character of our fellow Christian brothers and sisters and simply voice our disagreements with the grace of Christian love. Respect, civility and dignity should be the accompanying disciplines of all us who have been saved and are being transformed by our Lord Jesus Christ.
And I believe with all my heart that this Christian grace, civility and love should be shown toward Jimmy Carter, a man of genuine Christian character.
In His Grace,