Vice President Pence Speaks to the Southern Baptist Convention

I’ve tried all week to describe the two story lines of this week’s convention. The first was the celebration of worldwide missions that’s our reason for existence. We’re passionate about taking the message of Jesus to the world.


The second story line was the hand off of leadership to a new, younger generation, something that didn’t go as smooth as it could have but at the end of the day had to take place.


But Vice President Mike Pence introduced an altogether different narrative when he spoke Wednesday morning: our denomination’s connection with a single political party and its agenda. Even though I had voted for him to speak (more on that below), I wasn’t comfortable with the direction his speech took. I wasn’t the only one. Following Pence’s speech, newly elected Convention President J.D. Greear tweeted, “I know that sent a terribly mixed signal…we are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our convention but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the Gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission.”


Virginia pastor Garrett Kell had warned us the day before that this could happen when he brought a motion to withdraw Pence’s invitation to speak. I blogged earlier about that debate:


First, Kell said, many minorities feel alienated by the present administration and hosting the Vice President would hamper our relationships with them. Second, such a message would diminish the gospel by entangling it with politics. And third, our mission partners around the world might be jeopardized if the nations in which they serve feel threatened by President Trump. 


Kell’s motion was voted down, not because his position didn’t make sense but because Southern Baptists prioritize the biblical principle of honoring our political leaders. “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God,” says Romans 13:1, the best known of many such passages. The convention’s invitation to the Vice President was confirmed and he was scheduled to speak at 11:00AM.


The Vice President began his message with his own testimony. To my mind, his spiritual experience is real and everything I read about him corroborates his relationship with Jesus. His account of ministering to the pastor and victims of last November’s shootings at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas was especially moving.


He was also on target with his conclusion when he encouraged us to “keep doing what you always do. Preach the word, in season and out of season. Keep meeting needs. Be faithful to your call.”


It was what lay in between that was often the problem.


Pence spent the bulk of his time calling for support of President Trump with the constant refrain, “President Trump delivers on what he says.” He walked us through many of the administration’s signature achievements, including tax cuts, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, destroying Isis, backing out of the Iranian nuclear deal and negotiating with North Korea. After listing each political accomplishment he paused for applause, and most of the people obliged. It felt just like a political rally.


Another group of the administration’s accomplishments that Pence brought up were in line with the occasion because of how they connect with our convention’s identity and purpose. The president’s focus on religious liberty here and abroad is of vital interest to all believers. As is the protection of unborn children through restricting abortion. And selecting conservative judges may well turn out to be this administration’s most important legacy of all.


It wasn’t that Pence isn’t a godly man. It’s not as if his speech didn’t include important truths. It’s just that the overall purpose was clearly political. His message was pretty much everything the people who didn’t want him to speak were scared of.


Pence could have hit a home run if he had stayed in bounds and respected what he was invited to do. If he would have shared his testimony, connected the dots between our religious mission and his administration’s priorities, touched on the areas of shared interest regarding human needs, and closed with a call to prayer, his message could have been a gift to us and to the country.


That’s not what happened.


Honor works both ways. When we honor civic leaders by inviting them to speak to our convention they must extend the same courtesy to us by not using the occasion for political purposes.


I don’t know if the convention will allow any more national figures to address us, and I grieve over that. It’s important for us to stay connected with political leaders and it’s important for them to hear us.But our priority must always be the gospel. Anything or anyone who compromises or dilutes our message shouldn’t be given a platform.


Thanks to the Dallas Daily News for the picture at the top.