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Southern Baptists, Mike Pence and the quest for unity

Posted June 14, 2018 2:03 p.m. EDT

— If there was a buzzword at Southern Baptists' annual meeting this week, it was "unity."

It showed up in resolutions advocating for immigration reform, renouncing the racist "Curse of Ham" doctrine and calling for "Christlike communication," particularly on social media. (In response to #MeToo scandals besetting Southern Baptists, they also passed resolutions condemning the mistreatment and abuse of women.)

Unity was on the lips of experts in evangelism, as they urged Southern Baptists to put aside differences in service of gaining converts.

Unity was highlighted in a tweet summing up the meeting by Russell Moore, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm. The word was also tweeted by the new president of the SBC, J.D. Greear, as he expressed concern about one of the annual meeting's more controversial moments, Wednesday's speech by Vice President Mike Pence.

The focus on "unity" may seem a bit odd. After all, the Southern Baptist Convention is less a denomination than a fellowship of some 47,000 churches, all of which are autonomous. It's been said that trying to lead Baptists, of any stripe, is somewhat like herding cats -- or, more poetically, "like being president of a flight of butterflies."

I caught up with the man who now has that difficult job minutes after he was handed the gavel, marking the beginning of Greear's presidency of the nation's largest Protestant movement, with more than 15 million members.

At 45, Greear, a megachurch pastor from Durham, North Carolina, is the youngest SBC president in nearly four decades, and the first from generation X.

He's friendly and informal, preferring button-downs and sneakers to fancy suits. He speaks quickly, and packs a lot of ideas into even short interviews.

I asked Greear about the focus on unity, and why he thought Pence's appearance sent "mixed messages" about Southern Baptists. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I've been hearing about "unity" a lot at this meeting. Why is that on so many people's minds?

Jesus prayed for the church in John 17 that it be unified, and so what we have is a unity around a shared gospel doctrine and our Baptist Faith & Message, which we believe is narrow enough that it unites us on the particulars, but also broad enough that there can be some latitude on things that are secondary and tertiary in importance.

We don't endorse political platforms; some of us have different strategies in how to deal with various political issues. Obviously, there's cultural diversity, stylistic diversity, and without getting into a big taxonomy of which doctrines are central and which are not, there is kind of a hierarchy of doctrines, where we can say, "This may be important, but we can come together even if we disagree on that."

So it's not unity for unity's sake. It's unity around the gospel and the mission. And what we've seen challenged in recent days is people who want to disunify over secondary and tertiary things.

Such as?

Such as particular doctrines like Calvinism and the Reform movement. In the Baptist Faith & Message, we believe there is room for divergence there. On political questions, some people think the best strategy to empower the poor is this, and some think it's this over here. And we just think it's wise in those things where the Bible doesn't draw a direct line to show restraint.

We believe that the Bible draws a direct line, for example, on the pro-life question. But when it comes to things like health care and empowering the poor, we say, "Let's show some restraint in our strategy." At the same time, we can agree that all Christians should care about the empowerment of the poor and the full equality and rights for all people in the United States.

Is the unity message in any way a response to the hyperpartisanship and argumentative online culture we see so much of these days?

Yeah, social media certainly hasn't helped that, because it used to be that most of our disagreements would come with context. Now we reduce all of these conversations into little snippets. People talk past each other. People are virtue-signaling and trying to posture.

One of the things that we want to do is, when it does come to disagreement on some of those secondary issues, we want to have empathy and charity with each other. Which means that I want to be able to understand why your cultural perspective may make you see a particular issue differently than I do. That's empathy. Charity means that I'm going to give you the best benefit of the doubt about your motives in why you think that. What you see on social media is an absence of those things. In the church, we ought to have a better way.

You sent out a message about unity after Vice President Pence spoke here. You also said that his appearance sent mixed messages. What were those messages?

Because the SBC has been identified in the past, rightly or wrongly, as part and parcel of the Republican Party, the committee on order of business (at Southern Baptists' national meeting) tried to be very clear that their reason for accepting Mike Pence's invitation was to say that we respect and honor our civic leaders. We honor his position and appreciate certain stands that he has taken that all Southern Baptists would agree on. And we would do the same thing for a Democrat.

However, a lot of people see (Pence's address) as a campaign speech to celebrate all the things the administration has done, as if the SBC was saying that this is our platform and our candidate. There are certainly things in the Trump administration that Southern Baptists can appreciate, but we want to be very clear that we do not identify with that. That is not our political platform. We want to make sure that we don't send out a signal that part of our unity is around the particular political policies or strategies of any administration.

How much does the political debate harm unity within the SBC?

It does when it becomes too large in how we relate. It ought to be that the gospel and our shared set of beliefs and mission are so large that the other things, while they may make for great discussions, are secondary.

The illustration that I always use is that Jesus had 12 disciples. One of them was identified as Matthew the tax collector, another as Simon the zealot. That puts them on opposite sides of the most explosive political question of Jesus' day (whether to cooperate with the Roman Empire). Jesus called them both as disciples and they are identified by their positions, and I'm sure they had some really spicy discussions around the campfire. But they had more in common in their love and faith in Jesus and their commitment to his mission.

It's not that we want to say that (political) questions don't matter. It's just that we've got something bigger and more important to unify around. I hope Southern Baptists will have robust discussions about the best education policies, for example. But we should be able to disagree and at the end of the day unify around the gospel mission.