Vice President Mike Pence addressed the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention yesterday, and it went about as well as anyone could have expected.
That is, a gathering of the country’s largest Protestant denomination was turned into a Donald Trump campaign rally, with some messengers applauding and shouting “four more years” and others — as Ruth Graham reported for Slate — “sitting with their arms crossed through many applause lines.” Even newly-elected convention president J.D. Greear admitted that the SBC had “sent a terribly mixed signal… Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”
I know that sent a terribly mixed signal. We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our … https://t.co/BT1SgUXWgj
— J.D. Greear (@jdgreear) June 13, 2018
It’s hard to imagine how SBC leaders thought that giving such a platform to Donald Trump’s vice president would somehow benefit a convention that was already roiled by the Paige Patterson scandal. But earlier in the meeting Grant Ethridge, the Virginia pastor who chairs the SBC’s committee on order of business, defended the invitation to Pence:
…in keeping with our SBC history, we have had many government official to address our convention. We have many other government officials who will be addressing the convention today and tomorrow. So as in keeping with what the precedent has been in the past, I have sought to carry out my duties in a Christ-honoring way.
True enough, as our friend Tommy Kidd pointed out earlier in the week, there’s nothing new in SBC leaders giving that stage to government officeholders — at least, since the 1980s, Republican ones. But Ethridge appealed to an authority higher than tradition: “Since we’re Baptists the Bible is our final authority for faith and practice, I will let the word of God speak for and to us.” He proceeded to paraphrase or quote several New Testament passages addressing Christians’ relationship with political authorities.
So let’s unpack a couple of those proof-texts, starting with Ethridge’s appeal to:
1 Timothy 2:1: “First of all I urge that petition, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made for everyone, for Kings and all those who are in authority.” Verse three says “this is good and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”
I’m not sure why he started there. 1 Timothy 2 seems to argue in favor of the counter-proposal (from another Virginia pastor, Garrett Kell) to which Ethridge was responding: that SBC messengers have a time of prayer rather than listening to a political speech from one of “those who are in authority.”
To be sure, the biblical exhortation to pray for our leaders has been an important part of Christian practice for two thousand years. In the midst of sporadic Roman persecution, the North African church father Tertullian emphasized that Christians prayed regularly for the emperor, even though — precisely because — he persecuted them: “[I]n all our prayers,” he explained, “[we] are ever mindful of all our emperors and kings wheresoever we live, beseeching God for every one of them without distinction… And who such cruel persecutors of Christians as the emperors for whom they are persecuted ? And yet these are the persons we are commanded by the word of God expressly, and by name, to pray for…” Thomas Cranmer included a petition for the monarch in the very first edition of The Book of Common Prayer, and nearly 250 years later his rebellious American descendants prayed that God would
behold and bless thy servant The President of the United States, and all others in authority; and so replenish them with the grace of thy holy Spirit, that they may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way. Endue them plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant them in health and prosperity long to live; and finally, after this life, to attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
But it’s important to note how this prayer is constructed: not as a celebration of any leader’s particular policies, but on the assumption that our leaders, like all sinners, need God’s help. Implicitly, the 1789 American BCP suggests that the president (or vice president, I suppose) of the new republic might incline against God’s will and not walk in His way, apart from God’s grace. And that’s entirely in keeping with the parts of 1 Tim 2 that Ethridge failed to quote (in italics):
First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1-4, CSB)
In any event, Ethridge quickly moved on to other passages from the epistles: those that instruct followers of the Lord Jesus Christ to honor the lords of this world and time. Alongside Titus 3:1, he started with Romans 13:1, with its familiar injunction to “let everyone submit to the governing authorities.” (As I’ve pointed out here before, it’s a verse with which Mike Pence seems well familiar.) Again, I’m not sure this actually compels any Christian gathering to accept any politician’s request to address them, but it is a powerful text. Poor Cranmer even preached on it just before he was burned at the stake on the orders of his queen:
The second exhortation is, that next unto God, you obey your king and queen, willingly and gladly, without murmur and grudging. And not for fear of them only, but much more for the fear of God: Knowing, that they be God’s ministers, appointed by God to rule and govern you. And therefore whoso resisteth them, resisteth God’s ordinance.
Then Ethridge reached the verse he thought argued most strongly for his position: “I Peter 2:17 for me really sums it up. Honor everyone. Love the brethren. Fear God. Honor the emperor, or some of your translations will say honor the King.”
Yes, and amen. But nothing in this verse requires any part of the Body of Christ to make itself party to the agenda of any particular political leader. Early Christians like Tertullian may have prayed for the emperors of their time, but there were clear limits to the “honor” they felt they owed to any earthly empire.
If anything, that’s even more true in the context of our political system. Having no emperor or king, I’d suggest that American Christians instead need to honor democracy. In a system that gives authority to the people, we “submit to every human authority because of the Lord” (1 Pet 2:13) not by approving whatever our leaders do and say, but by honoring the institutions, procedures, offices, and underlying values of our democratic system.
How do we do that? Most often, we prepare ourselves for citizenship: studying our nation’s history, following current events, and listening to the concerns of our neighbors. We participate in and support the institutions of civil society. And we honor democracy by defending the right of the press to freely ask hard questions of our leaders and the right of dissenters to protest those leaders’ words and deeds.
Then once or twice a year, we vote — even in those non-presidential elections that Americans tend to neglect. (Maybe especially in them. I’d argue that we honor democracy by paying attention to local and state issues that are not the responsibility of the president or other federal officials, not letting the incessant noise of national politics deafen us to important questions closer to home.) And we honor democracy by honoring voting; we should oppose partisan gerrymandering and reject attempts to justify voter suppression with unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud.
Rather than chanting “four more years,” we should resolve never again to support a presidential candidate as obviously unqualified as Pence’s boss to hold so high an office. And until 2020 rolls around, this congressional election year we should only vote for candidates who will prudently and courageously use their constitutional power to check and balance the president’s power — and to investigate abuses of it. (And to approve wise, fair-minded justices and judges who will check and balance the legislative and executive branches.)
None of this is particular to Christians, Southern Baptist or otherwise. But rather than making ourselves pawns of any party or politicians, we must act as responsible citizens of a religiously plural democracy that separates church and state, taking care “to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Pet 2:12, NLT).