In October 2000, Jimmy Carter publicly bid farewell to the Southern Baptist Convention. He said he had grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with the Baptist body’s beliefs for years, but then the denomination adopted a “rigid” and conservative statement of faith that asked wives to submit to their husbands and prohibited women from serving as pastors. That was a bridge too far for the former president.
“My grandfather, my father, and I have always been Southern Baptists, and for 21 years, since the first political division took place in the Southern Baptist Convention, I have maintained that relationship,” Carter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I feel I can no longer in good conscience do that.”
The announcement was shocking—it’s not every day that a former U.S. president publicly forsakes a Christian denomination. But there was one glaring problem with his decision: The Southern Baptist Convention is a voluntary collection of congregations, not congregants. Because Carter continued attending and teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia—which was a member of the Protestant group—he was still very much a Southern Baptist, despite his gesture.
I remember this announcement well because my father, James Merritt, was president of the denomination at the time. As he told Christianity Today, “No individual can disassociate himself from the SBC. He’s still a member. He will remain a Southern Baptist until he moves his [membership] letter or Maranatha Baptist Church leaves.”