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Passing the baton

Denominations elect new leaders at summer assemblies

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

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Bill Bangham/Baptist Press

J.D. Greear (Bill Bangham/Baptist Press)

Religion

Passing the baton

The SBC and the PCA elect new leaders at summer assemblies

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. This election of Greear, the senior pastor of a multisite megachurch in Raleigh and Durham, N.C., marks a key change for America’s largest Protestant denomination.

Why? Because Greear is a Calvinist. He’s socially conservative, yet unafraid to criticize the Republican Party. At 45 years old, he’s the youngest SBC 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.”

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Police arrive to arrest members of Early Rain Covenant Church (Facebook)

Religion

Arrested in Chengdu

On the 10th anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese authorities played catch-and-release with house church members who commemorated the disaster

Police officers in Chengdu, China, detained Pastor Wang Yi and 200 members of Early Rain Covenant Church over the weekend as they prepared to gather for a service commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. All were released within 24 hours—but the arrests and crackdown on one of China’s most influential house churches raised alarms over the Xi Jinping regime’s growing efforts against Christians.

The magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2008 killed about 87,600 people, left millions homeless, and became a “sensitive” topic after more than an estimated 5,000 schoolchildren died as shoddy classrooms collapsed on top of them during the quake. Many blamed corruption and mismanagement by local officials that led to the construction of substandard school buildings, as structures around the schools remained intact after the quake. In response, the Chinese government silenced critics, banned newspapers from mentioning the issue, and stifled unapproved commemorations—like Early Rain’s service. 

After the May 12, 2008, earthquake, house churches from all parts of China sent teams to help in the relief effort, which began a movement of Christian charities, as organizations provided aid, rebuilt houses, and planted churches. Wang, who at the time was not yet a full-time pastor, helped coordinate church teams that poured into the region to help earthquake victims. 

Wang points to the earthquake as the moment he decided to leave his job as a law professor and go into full-time ministry, helping to grow his house church into one of the most influential in the country. With his background in constitutional law, Wang publicly speaks out about the government’s illegal treatment of churches and is often detained on “sensitive” dates such as May 12 or June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yet not all threats to the church come from the outside: Last year, the church underwent a difficult church split due to differences in personality and vision within the church leadership. 

At 11 p.m. the night before the Saturday morning memorial service, local public security officers showed up at Wang’s doorstep to inform him that Early Rain’s service was illegal. Referring to the new “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” a police officer noted that Early Rain could not set up religious venues or hold religious activities without government permission.

“Then come tomorrow and do whatever you are going to do according to the laws,” Wang responded calmly, according to a cell phone video of the exchange recorded by his wife. “We will still meet tomorrow. Feel free to arrest us. … We will safeguard our legal rights according to the laws: applying for petitions and administrative review, and filing lawsuits.”

Immediately afterward, a plainclothes police officer showed up with a subpoena for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for Wang’s posts online and brought him to the local police station for questioning. Police also detained Li Yingqiang, another church leader.

The next morning at 7:30, church members showed up to attend a prayer meeting at the church only to find dozens of police officers blocking the entrance of the office building where the church meets. According to Early Rain’s Facebook page, which updated the situation throughout the day, police carted 30 congregants off to the local station in police cars. 

Yet congregants continued to arrive for the 9:30 a.m. memorial service. In total, police detained more than 200 church members, including children and the elderly. Police entered the church building, temporarily confiscating 15,600 Christian books and Bibles, as well as more than 900 CDs. As congregants stood outside the church singing “Amazing Grace,” police confiscated many of their phones to keep them from posting the scene online. Even the monitor of the Early Rain Facebook page—inaccessible inside China without a virtual private network—was taken away in handcuffs for sharing what was going on with the outside world.  

By Saturday night, police had released Wang, Li, and nearly all of the church members. Wang sent out a message saying he had finished writing Sunday’s sermon, titled “The Way of the Cross, the Life of the Martyr,” at the police station. He praised his church members for their courage amid persecution: “I am grateful for you because we did not try to retreat, hide, or escape from the coming of this day, but we welcomed it with praise and zeal.”

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