On Wednesday, Vice President Pence addressed the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, which I attended.
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 flowchart for confrontation occurs in Psalm 2: “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.” The arrow moves from God’s people to rulers of the nations, not rulers of God’s people. Jonah didn’t invite the king of Nineveh to challenge him. He said, “Repent.”
[Pence speaks to Southern Baptist Convention: ‘Our administration will always stand with you’]
Permit me to remain neutral on Pence himself. Whether you love 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 Jesus asking the Roman centurion to make an appearance at his next speaking event to “share a word from his heart,” even after the centurion proved to have “great faith.” No, Jesus had a different mission. He taught us to keep church and state separate.
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, “Here’s a good seat for you.”
When running for president, George W. Bush attended a funeral for college students killed in a fire. He was asked to speak. He replied, according to a member of the pastoral staff, “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.”
[Why Southern Baptists giving Mike Pence a platform was so controversial]
Reason two that I wish Pence hadn’t spoken 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. We don’t need to take a stance on Pence or any politician to be a church or to work together as churches. Yet bringing in a politician, especially one so identified with a divisive administration, works against our unity in the gospel.
Which means, ironically, I am not sympathetic to some of the critiques I’ve seen on social media from Christians of the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision to bring in Pence. Don’t assume that just because people like Pence, they also like everything his administration represents. After all, I suspect there are things that Christians on the political left would prefer not to be associated with as well, such as abortion. They should extend the same courtesy to Christians on the right.
[Georgia church kicked out of Southern Baptist Convention over allegation of racism]
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 in such support. Until we become convinced that 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.
Am I saying we should never invite or receive politicians to address a Christian assembly? Not necessarily. I can envision a few circumstances in which there might be some measure of mission overlap. Maybe a group of Christian college presidents asks the education secretary to address them. Or a Christian conference on work asks a Christian member of Congress to talk about working as a Christian on Capitol Hill, so that attendees can apply the principles to their own settings.
Certainly a politician can join a church and lead a Bible study like any other member. But the criteria I’m offering are: How does this kind of platform comport with the biblical pattern of prophetic speech, and how will it affect the mission, witness and unity of the church?
[Southern Baptists adopt resolutions on abuse and affairs, amid a reckoning on gender]
Let me conclude on an underlying 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?
Jonathan Leeman is editorial director of 9Marks, has served as an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in the District and has written several books, including “How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age.” You can follow him on Twitter. This piece was originally published by the Gospel Coalition.