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Truth, Power, and Pence at the SBC

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I’m sitting here at the Southern Baptist Convention. Earlier today Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention. We were told he initiated the offer to speak. I wish we had not accepted.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m grateful to God for our nation. I want him to bless it. But here’s a question for my fellow Southern Baptists and evangelicals more broadly: can you name a place in the Bible where God sends a ruler of a (non-Israelite) nation to speak to God’s people? Is the pattern not just the opposite? Moses challenges Pharaoh. Daniel confronts Nebuchadnezzar. John the Baptist calls out Herod. And Paul appeals to Caesar. The biblical flow chart for confrontation occurs in Psalm 2: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.” The arrow moves from God’s people to rulers of the nations, not rulers to God’s people. Jonah didn’t invite the king of Nineveh to challenge him. He said, “Repent.”

Permit me to remain neutral on Pence himself. Whether you love him or hate him, reason one our churches and associations of churches should ordinarily not receive political leaders to address their assemblies is that it goes against the pattern of the entire Bible. You never see Daniel asking Nebuchadnezzar to show up at the next worship gathering, or Jesus asking a Roman centurion, even one with “great faith,” to make an appearing at his next sermon to “share a word from his heart.” No, Daniel and Jesus were after something different than were the rulers of the day.

Politicians Should Be in the Pew, Not the Pulpit

Here’s a practical takeaway for the pastor: don’t invite that congressman or governor to address your assembly. Rather, invite him or her to sit in the pew with everyone else and to hear from God’s Word, as Psalm 2 directs. When we do otherwise, it reeks of the favoritism that James warns against, like saying to the rich man, “You sit here in a good place” (James 2:2). Really, there’s no reason to give attention to a politician’s words over a plumber’s or an accountant’s, at least not in our assemblies or associations.

When running for president, George W. Bush attended the funeral for 12 college students killed by a bonfire. He was asked to speak. He replied, “No, this is not a place or moment for political positioning, but a place and time for worship. I will sit in a pew like everyone else and worship and pray.”

Reason two I wish Pence hadn’t spoke follows from the first: having a political leader address our churches or associations of churches tempts us to misconstrue our mission. Our mission is not the mission of the Republican, Democratic, or any other party. Our mission, when gathered, is to work toward Great Commission ends. To bring in a politician risks subverting our gospel purposes to the purposes of that politician’s party.

Certainly, that’s how outsiders will perceive us. They conclude, “Ah, that church or those churches are just an appendage of the party.” Call this the third reason not to give a platform to politicians in our assemblies: it undermines our evangelistic and prophetic witness.

Reason four is that it hurts the unity of Christ’s body. Some Christians will like Pence. Others won’t. And we don’t need to take a stance on Mike Pence or any politician to be a church or to work together as churches. Yet bringing in such a politician, especially one so heavily identified with a divisive administration, works against our unity in the gospel.

Which means, ironically, I am not sympathetic with some of the critiques I’ve seen on social media from Christians for the SBC’s decision to bring in Vice President Pence. Don’t assume that just because people like Pence they also like everything his administration represents, or accuse him of such. After all, I suspect there are things that Christians on the political left would prefer not to be associated with as well, like abortion. They should extend the same courtesy to Christians on the right. Argue for specific issues of justice, yes! But recognize that the decision to support a particular politician is one or two levels removed. Other variables and strategic calculations weigh into such support. Until we become convinced a politician is so far beyond the moral pale, such that support for that politician should lead to church discipline, Romans 14 requires us to make space for differently calibrated consciences. We are not apostles who can be certain that our decisions about political tactics are the direct revelation of God.

Temptation of Political Access

Am I saying we should never invite or receive politicians to address one kind of Christian assembly or another? Not necessarily. I can envision a few circumstances where there is some measure of mission overlap that could justify it. Maybe a group of Christian college presidents asks the secretary of education to address them. Or a Christian conference on work asks a Christian congressman to talk about working as a Christian on the Hill, so that attendees can apply the principles to their own settings.

Indeed, The Gospel Coalition probably had such a justification in mind made when they invited Senator Ben Sasse to speak at one of their conferences. We can leave for another day whether its justification works. There will always be questions of wisdom at play in decisions like these. But the criteria I’m offering are, how does it comport with the biblical pattern of prophetic speech; and how will it affect the mission, witness, and unity of the church?

Let me conclude on an underlining issue in all of this: There’s nothing necessarily wrong with desiring political access. You can desire political access for love of neighbor and for the sake of justice. The question is, are you willing to lose your head by speaking against the powers that be when you have such access? John the Baptist was. If you’re not willing to lose your head, it tempts people to wonder why you really want access.

To my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters, whom I love: how would you say we’ve been doing lately at speaking up against the powers that be? Or here’s another question: is it possible we just got played?

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