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The big news from this year’s Southern Baptist Convention gathering in Dallas concerned two presidencies.
On Tuesday, June 12, nearly 70 percent of the 10,000 “messengers”—delegates—elected J.D. Greear the denomination’s new president. The election of Greear, the senior pastor of a multisite megachurch in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., marks a key change for America’s largest Protestant denomination.
Why? Because Greear’s a Calvinist. He’s socially conservative, yet unafraid to criticize the Republican Party. At 45 years old, he’s the youngest president in nearly four decades—and in a sea of wingtips and pinstripes on the convention floor, Greear stood on the stage in blue jeans and Air Jordans.
On Wednesday, June 13, another presidency loomed large as Vice President Mike Pence appeared and said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican in that order. … No podium that President Trump or I stand behind will be of greater consequence than the pulpits you stand behind every Sunday.”
During the past 30 years, Republican sitting presidents or vice presidents have spoken at the Southern Baptist gathering and Democrats have not. Bill Clinton—himself a member in good standing of a Southern Baptist church upon his election—never spoke to the convention. (In 1993, the messengers adopted a resolution to pray for Clinton, that he might reconsider his aberrant pro-abortion views.) Barack Obama also never appeared, but both Presidents Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle did.
When Pence spoke of the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem and the recent release of hostages by North Korea, most messengers stood and applauded. Pence’s closing line became controversial: “With your support and prayers … with President Donald Trump in the White House, and with God’s help, we will make America safe again, we will make America prosperous again, and—to borrow a phrase—we will make America great again.”
Before Pence spoke, a motion to rescind his invitation cited Southern Baptist church unity, gospel clarity, and overseas missionaries’ safety. Others, though, cited Biblical commands to pray for leaders and show hospitality—and the motion failed resoundingly. After the speech, Greear said the decision to have Pence speak “sent a terrible mixed signal,” since Southern Baptists should emphasize “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms.”
While Southern Baptists met in Dallas’ convention center, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship held its annual meeting at a hotel just a few blocks away. The CBF split from the SBC in 1990 in response to its return to conservative theology in general and its prohibition of women as pastors in particular.
More than a quarter-century later, the CBF is dealing with its own potential split—this time over homosexuality. In February CBF leaders announced the end of a long-standing policy that precluded “practicing homosexuals” from serving on denominational staff or as overseas missions personnel. At the same time they declared that CBF leadership and missionary positions would be reserved only for those “who practice a traditional Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage between a woman and a man.”
Moderate congregations criticized the first announcement, liberal congregations the second. Sensing an oncoming institutional rupture, some CBF leaders want to push the discussion to the congregational level. “The deciders on this matter and all matters are the people in our church pews,” past moderator Doug Dortch said: CBF leaders “do not tell churches and individuals how they are to decide on anything.”
Also in June, the Presbyterian Church in America’s annual General Assembly met in Atlanta and unanimously elected Irwyn Ince to be its moderator—that’s the PCA equivalent to the SBC presidency.
Ince, a teaching elder in the Potomac Presbytery and the director of Grace DC’s Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission, becomes the first African-American moderator in the denomination’s 46-year history.
—Alex Duke is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course