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An evangelical leader speaks to faith, racism, the role of women, and political support for Donald Trump, this week on ‘Firing Line.’
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My guest today is as Generation ‘X’ as they come.
Pastor J.D. Greear was recently elected the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, numbering 16 million members in 46,000 churches.
Now, he evangelizes from a pulpit that does not seek to bully, preaching an inclusive message that promotes racial diversity and publicly disavows separation of immigrant families at the border.
And yet many evangelicals stand unapologetically behind President Trump, whose behavior seemingly contradicts the values they hold dear.
Greear’s appeal is multigenerational.
With more than 93,000 Twitter followers, he is spreading the message from the New Testament, which says, ‘For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.’
He isn’t the first to tweet chapter and verse, but his savvy use of social media allows him to bring faith to the masses.
Welcome to ‘Firing Line,’ Pastor J.D. Greear.
Thank you for having me.
I’d like to start by asking you about the role of religion in civil society, because our founders, the Founding Fathers of this country, had a really specific idea about the role religion should play in our culture.
You know, there’s one vision that believes that there is a — an ideal role for churches and religion to directly address and embrace society’s ills…
…by trying to mend them and that that can take the burden off the government…
…from having to care for our neighbors and our friends.
I would really kind of say the church’s role is to take care of the people that are in our neighborhood, regardless of how they got there.
We do want to speak into the justice issues of our society.
I mean, we’re all glad that Martin Luther King Jr. brought his faith into the public square and said, ‘Hey, all men really are created equal, and these laws don’t match up.’
And so we want to speak prophetically, you know, about justice and mercy issues.
Our most important role, by far, though, is that we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And you represented at the beginning of the show that we serve a savior who has a Kingdom who’s not of this world and who came and gave His life to die for sin so that people could be reconciled to God.
And that’s our primary message.
I’m glad you mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King, because one of the places where you’re beginning to make a mark, and one of the places that you seem to care quite a lot about, is racial reconciliation.
One of the things you’ve written is that the SBC was forged on the wrong side — that’s the Southern Baptists were forged on the wrong side of the racial question for far too many years.
And so, for people who aren’t familiar with the history of Southern Baptists, what is that history and what do you mean by that?
Yeah, so, 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed.
It split from the Northern Baptists, and one of the primary issues was the fact that the Northern Baptists did not want to appoint slaveholders as missionaries.
And Southern Baptists wanted to leave that as an issue of conscience.
Well, now we recognize that that was something they were woefully ignorant of and even tragically used the Bible to try to support that.
You know, the Southern Baptists officially repudiated slavery years ago.
What we’re looking at now is, how does… It’s one thing to say that the races are equal.
It’s another thing to actually see them come together in harmony.
So a lot of people want a multicolored society, not a multicultural society.
That’s what they want by their church, is they want everybody to come in and assimilate into the majority, the dominant culture.
So we’re asking questions like, ‘What does it mean for people of different cultures and backgrounds to come together where their unity in Christ is greater than the things that divide them?’
Are the Southern Baptist churches integrated enough to your liking?
Oh, absolutely not.
Now, it is remarkable, when you look at the actual percentage numbers, there are a lot of people of color that are a part of our — a part of the denomination.
The leadership doesn’t yet, I think, fully reflect even the diversity of the congregants.
Do you feel that’s part of your charge to address?
How are you gonna do that?
Well, one of the things… You know, the Southern Baptist president, one of the things he does, or that person does, is they will appoint people into positions on committees to be able to control the institutions — you know, our mission boards and our seminaries.
And those are really your positions of influence.
And one of the things I’ll be doing is looking at how those positions can reflect the diversity of the SBC.
This is an area where it’s not like we just, who are in the white-majority culture, need to kindly share our leadership with our brothers and sisters of color.
We actually — I think we really need their wisdom to go into… You know, we have a changing nation, and we need their wisdom to be able to go forward.
You, after the protests and the rallies in Charlottesville, made a really powerful statement.
You said that white supremacy is ‘antithetical to the Kingdom of God.
When we see racism like this in our streets, we should be righteously angry.’
And then, a year later, you made another statement, reiterating that the spirit of racism is antithetical to the Gospel.
Why was it important to you, not once but twice, to make that point?
Hopefully, not just once or twice.
Hopefully, multiple times.
I mean, it would be tragic if anybody in our congregation didn’t understand this about… But, you know, I mean, we always are looking for reasons to divide ourselves and to think of ourselves as superior to one another.
Jesus Christ did not come and die as a Jewish person.
He died as the savior of all humanity.
And the community that he created is — you know, He said that one day there will be — you know, Heaven is not gonna be an all-vanilla Heaven.
It’s gonna be people of every tribe and tongue.
And we think the Church ought to reflect that, and we think the Church ought to be the one place — at least, the beginning place — where people of different backgrounds and different ages and different ethnicities should come together and say, ‘Our cultural differences are not as great as the unity that we have in Christ.’
We have one, you know, common Creator — God.
We have one common problem — sin.
We have one hope of salvation — the blood of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.
And that’s a greater unity than anything that divides us.
There are many who hope that you’ll bring a new tone and tenor and really attitude to the treatment of women amongst evangelicals.
So, well, let’s just talk about the elephant in the room.
One of the things that evangelicals believe is that God has created men and women equally but differently.
They are given different roles in various spheres.
You know, specifically, in the Church and in the home, you know, God gave men to be the husbands and the fathers and, you know, Ephesians 5, the spiritual head of the home.
He gave women a different role in those things.
But what happened is, those things went beyond their borders to where it then kind of created more of a patriarchal system in society, where, you know, that kind of idea that men and women are different led to inequality.
One of the things that I hope to do is say, ‘Yes, I want to be faithful to what the Bible teaches about the distinctions between men and women.’
I think gender is a precious gift of God, and I think we’re foolish to tear it down and treat, you know, men and women as if there are no differences and all we have is different plumbing.
You know, I think that we want to maintain that, but we do so with an understanding that, you know, men are to love and to serve and to lift up and that when it comes to arenas outside the Church and the home, we need to be as open and inviting as we can, to let women use the God-given gifts and skills they have.
And will it translate in your leadership tenure at the Southern Baptist Convention into more women in leadership roles or on committees — serving on committees?
Oh, yes, absolutely.
Yeah, I mean, ’cause one of the things, like, even in the Church, is, you know… So, one of the things we believe — 1 Timothy 2:3 teaches that the role of elder is to be — and that’s kind of the pastor/elder — is to be reserved for men.
And so some people have taken that and then basically used that to say that only men serve in leadership positions in the Church.
Well, that’s just one specific role.
It’s the role of the teaching elder.
So we’re gonna honor that, but we are saying, ‘Where are all these other leadership places that women can and should be serving and using leadership gifts and teaching gifts?’
Only men can give sermons in the Southern Baptist Church?
Well, typically, the sermon is given by what 1 Timothy 2 would call your teaching and preaching elder.
If that is the person that is up there speaking, then, yes, that would be something that would be reserved for men.
However, there are times that women teach in the Church, not in that capacity.
Do you think there’s ever a time or a day when women will be able to give sermons?
Well, not as a teaching elder, not if we’re gonna be faithful to… I mean, the Bible is timeless, we believe.
Does understanding of the Bible change over time?
Oh, of course it does.
But then — But I wouldn’t use that to then just cast the whole thing and to put a big question mark over it and say, ‘None of it, we can ever be sure about.’
Like, we can be sure what the Bible teaches about various things.
And I would say that, when you really get into looking at those passages, I don’t — they’re pretty clear.
So, according to your reading of the Bible, what is the role of women in the Church and then in the home?
So, God gave two commands at the beginning of Creation.
He gave a command to — you know, to fill the Earth, to subdue the Earth, and also to be fruitful, multiply, and to fill it.
Men and women in the home have different, you know, roles in doing that.
It doesn’t mean that there are, like, rules that the man is always the provider and the woman is always to be at home doing that.
It just means that there’s a natural kind of tendency toward that.
And women’s role is what, then, in the home?
Well, obviously, they’re the mother.
They’re the only one that can play that part.
There are, you know, certain situations where certainly the woman can even be the one who makes more money and is out working.
I don’t think that’s — I don’t think that violates the…
You know, specifically, there are leadership roles — spiritual leadership roles — that men are given in the home.
The way a friend of mine describes it is, he gets to — he gets to cast the deciding vote.
You know, if there’s, like, we both vote and we can’t come to something, at some point somebody’s got to do that, and that’s what it means to be the spiritual head.
In my home, you know —
So, in every home, the man is the spiritual head?
And so the men get to make the ultimate vote — or the ultimate deciding vote?
Right, but —
Men are the tiebreaker.
But his role is to serve her like Christ served the Church.
And Christ did not lord his authority over the Church.
He used His authority to die for the Church.
So that means that in 98% of the places that my wife and I disagree, I’m the one who submits voluntarily, if it’s your preference.
The only place that I have to do that is, like, it’s a leadership role where I’m like, ‘I’ve got to make this decision for the best of the family.’
And that’s a burden that, you know… My wife would say it’s a burden that’s lifted off of her shoulders and put on me.
I’d like to shift the conversation to the politics of the moment.
You have said pretty explicitly that you have a desire to pull Southern Baptists back from politics…
…to be less involved in politics than your predecessors have been.
How do you plan to do that?
[ Chuckles ] Well, let’s just be clear what I’m saying.
The Church is both organism and organization, okay?
As an organism, it’s, you know, for a Southern Baptist, it’s 16 million members.
We want them to be involved in politics, because they need to be bringing —
In the context of their local government, their local communities, and national politics.
And bringing their faith to bear in it.
That’s Church as organism.
Church as organization, which is what I would represent more, that is where we want to decouple that from politics and we want to say, ‘Let’s speak with clarity about the mission God has given us, and let’s try to teach the values that would shape government, but pull ourselves back from getting too encumbered with policies that would tie the Church to a particular political agenda.’
So, then help me understand where you decide to engage in politics and where you don’t decide to engage in politics.
For example, the hearings for the Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, have been happening this week.
And your organization came out in support of Brett Kavanaugh.
So, how do you decide where there’s clarity to get involved in politics and where there isn’t?
It’s tricky, honestly, and sometimes we might be on the wrong side of the line, sometimes you may be on the right side of the line.
But I would say that two of the primary ones are sanctity of life and religious liberty, are things that we believe are really clear, both in Bible and government.
You know, how do you determine?
I know you say it’s tricky, but is it just up to the SBC leadership, or the Southern Baptist leadership at the moment, to decide, you know, where to get involved in a policy issue and where not to?
Yeah, I mean, honestly, it’s — there are some things that the values are clear in Scripture.
What you’re supposed to do in the moment is not always as clear.
You know —
You get to decide.
Well, I don’t get to decide, because I’m not the pope of the SBC.
You get to lead.
Yes, I get to certainly, you know, speak with things.
And there are times that we’ll say, ‘Yeah, I feel like this is one, with Justice Kavanaugh, with various things where, yeah, this is an issue we need to speak with clarity about.’
So, it is a bit subjective.
We’re really dependent on the person who is the leader at that moment.
I mean, a lot of life is that way.
I want to share with you a clip from a show in June of 1969, when Billy Graham was on ‘Firing Line.’
So, Billy Graham, as you know, is recognized as one of the most influential evangelicals of the 20th century.
And the title of the show was about the decline of Christianity, but there’s a clip here that I want to show you that is about the proper role for government and the proper role for religion.
Seems to be to talk about Jesus as the original good Joe, out to organize the underdogs into a decent shake from the establishment.
Now, in that sense, Jesus continues to be popular, but that’s not the kind of Jesus you’re talking about, is it?
Not at all, because I don’t think that we can say that Jesus represents any particular form of government, because in His day, Rome ruled the world — tyrannical Rome.
And yet Jesus never led a rebellion against Rome.
He never engaged in political activities of that sort.
And He wasn’t crucified for being a seditionist against Rome.
You know, Billy Graham there is commenting about, you know, the role of the Church versus the role of the government.
And I will surprise many people to know that at the time that Billy Graham was on this program, Southern Baptists and evangelicals hadn’t been mobilized as a political force in national politics yet.
I mean, it was really 1976 when evangelicals first mobilized for a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter…
[ Chuckles ]
…before they then joined forces with the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell and then got behind Ronald Reagan in 1980.
How do you reflect on the fact that, you know, Southern Baptists weren’t an explicitly political force in our country’s politics?
Yeah, that was a much healthier era.
I mean, on one side, you do want to advocate for righteousness.
I mean, that’s part of the role.
I mean, and like I brought up with Martin Luther King Jr., I mean, you’re glad when people of faith are advocating for certain things, whether they’re popular in that day or not.
At the same time, you know, it’s when these things become so large and they become so defining that that is who you are.
You know, a biblical definition of an idol is something good that’s become something too large in your life.
I have to go to this question that I think people who aren’t evangelicals would like to better understand — the relationship between President Trump and evangelicals.
Do you think they believe that Donald Trump is a person of faith, pursuing a faith-based agenda?
I mean, there’s no way for me to speak for all evangelicals on that.
Of course not.
Even though the majority of evangelicals have supported Donald Trump, do you have a sense?
So, you know, I think the number that always is thrown out is 81% of evangelicals — or white evangelicals, at least — voted for Donald Trump.
And what’s misleading about that is, they were all over the spectrum.
I mean, you have some people that felt like, ‘Man, he is God’s man,’ right?
And then you have people — have a large group of people, I think — who were like, ‘Well, I don’t think we should vote for Hillary.’
The way one guy said it — a guy said to me — he said, ‘You know, when you elect a president, you elect 1,000 people, and I like the 999 I think Trump will bring with him more than the 999 Hillary has promised she will bring with her.’
What I hear is a lot of evangelicals that are very disturbed by both the tone and the tone-deafness of our president and some of his spokespeople in engaging certain issues.
There are certainly some things that they are happy about.
They’re happy about, you know, justices, like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, and they’re happy with other things economically that he’s done.
But there’s a sense in which this is not our representative.
No president should ever be our representative, but really, when it comes to — we are very uncomfortable with the fusing of the evangelical message and identity with Donald Trump.
I read this really compelling quote that you wrote, that Trump was — ‘has publicly and repeatedly bragged about committing adultery, saying things about women that you would never want your daughters to hear, he has mocked women, the disabled, prisoners of war.
His general impulse in any situation seems to consist of protecting his image while insulting those who disagree with him.’
So, then why such strong — you know, 80%, 83%, 67% — anywhere between 67% and 80% of evangelicals to this day support him?
For some people, it’s fear of the alternative.
They feel like, as bad as this is, it’s not as bad as the alternative, if you go that direction.
For other people, I mean — again, I feel like, at this point, I’m trying to make judgments on people’s motives — but for some people…
I’m not asking you to do that.
…there are a few issues that have become so large to them that they literally drown out everything else.
And that’s not always healthy — you know, when you say, ‘Well, as long as you’re right on these, I don’t care if you’re wrong on all this other stuff.’
In other words, they have a moral priority?
Yes, they have a moral priority.
And we all have a moral priority, but you take that to a point that it just — it trumps — no pun intended — everything else behind it.
And you’re like, ‘That’s not a healthy way to live life.’
You know, it reminds me, someone like you, who preaches for racial reconciliation, and you hear a president who’s stereotyped, you know, Mexicans migrants as murderers and rapists, who called neo-Nazis — has sort of morally equivocated about white supremacists and used pejorative words to describe people from, you know, countries that are non-white.
It must be difficult for you, or it must pain you in some way, that the leader of the country espouses those views and that so many people that ascribe to your faith have decided to put that on a lower rung, in terms of moral priority.
Well, let’s just say this.
I am unhappy with the fact that that is how the world sees the evangelical Church.
Is that — Is that accurate in how most of them feel?
I don’t believe so.
I believe that those stereotypes often serve the media’s interest as much as they do reflect the reality.
And so the only way to overcome that is to just — I mean, we need to be who we are.
And we are communities that welcome in the stranger, that advocate for the vulnerable.
We’re people who, yes, we have political convictions, but our main message is about a savior who gave His life so that people could be forgiven and live eternally, and not a kingdom that we’re trying to set up on Earth.
As a pastor, when a member or somebody in your congregation comes to you and is grappling with this question of the President’s behavior, versus evangelical teachings and the Bible, how do you counsel them?
[ Chuckles ] Well, I always tell them, you know, that, I mean, the Bible is our rule, Jesus is our hero, and that every political leader will fail us, and we ought to evaluate and judge and have the courage to speak out.
You know, a lot of times, I will tell the people who — the 81% who voted for Trump — I’m like, ‘If you felt compelled to vote for Trump because you didn’t like the alternative, your voice should be the loudest in speaking out on his inconsistencies and the areas you’re disturbed, because, at that point, you know, everybody thinks that you just kind of go along with those.
If you felt compelled to vote for Trump, you should be the first one saying, ‘We don’t like it when he talks about women, we don’t like it when he talks about people of color this way.’
We need to be the advocates for — of the inconsistencies — or against those.’
And do you do that?
Yeah, I believe so.
You do that?
When I feel it’s appropriate, we will come out and we’ll clarify.
We did it with Charlottesville.
We’ve done it with a number of statements that have been made.
I want to be clear that there are things that Trump and his administration have done that we’re grateful for.
I don’t want to tie our testimony to him.
And there are things that he has done that we are very uncomfortable with and that I am.
And I want to speak with clarity about the issues and not get engaged so much with the person.
Is moral character of public officials important to evangelicals.
Of course it is, yes.
Has that changed?
You mean, like, from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump?
Yeah, yeah, right?
You know, it’s amazing how… I mean, you see this when you watch any talk show.
Whatever — Whatever the Republicans are guilty of, the Democrats are outraged about.
And then, the moment they become guilty of it, the Republicans are outraged about it.
It’s selective outrage.
Sadly, I think Christians are — can be in that same category, where we’re outraged about the inconsistencies of people that we are not fans of.
I think that sends a mixed message.
I think it is very hypocritical on our part.
We need to — We need to be able to say, ‘I like what this person did here, but I cannot — I cannot — turn a blind eye to those things.’
You went to this White House dinner…
…a couple of weeks ago, or 10 days ago.
I received —
There’s a question, I think, about sort of whether — whether the relationship isn’t transactional.
For some, it certainly may be.
I received an invitation, as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, by the leader of our nation that he wanted to discuss some things that were on his mind and get some feedback from us.
I know — I know our government has a purpose in those kinds of things.
I know that there are photo ops, and I know that they may be more interested in just getting out the vote than they are hearing from us.
I mean, I’m not naive enough to not realize that, but also —
Did it feel that way?
You know, in that moment, I know that their purposes and my purposes might be different.
I felt like —
What was your purpose in going?
My purpose is, if you’re gonna have a witness in a public square, you got to be present in it.
And I don’t think that it’s all about gaining influence, but I do think there are times where you need to speak up for, you know, the things that you see are being neglected.
Did you have an opportunity to speak up.
Not at this one.
In some ways, it would have been more of a political statement to go.
It could be, yeah.
And so, if someone wanted to disassociate themselves from politics, it would have made a strong statement to show up.
Well, so, I’m — Margaret, I’m confident about the values that I’m being led by.
The values are that you got to be present in the public square, and you’ve got to be there to influence where you can.
That’s one value.
But on the other side is a value that says, ‘You should not be co-opted by an administration.’
I might be wrong about the decision, but I feel pretty confident about the values.
The President made a joke, early in his campaign, saying he could go in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still love him.
There’s strong political support for the President from the evangelical community.
Is there anything, in your estimation, that would lessen that support?
You’ve got a few issues with evangelicals that — let’s just say, rightly or wrongly — tend to rule the day.
They are pro-life.
You’re gonna have religious liberty.
There’s even a, you know, among evangelicals, kind of a strong leaning toward fiscal conservatism and why that’s ultimately better for the country, you know, and that sort of thing.
So, they, rightly or wrongly, will put up with a lot of inconsistency in other things to preserve those.
Sadly, we should be the ones that are speaking about the wrongness of murdering somebody on Fifth Avenue and the wrongness about speaking about the refugee and the immigrant, and the wrongness of talking about women that way.
If — If someone feels compelled to, at the end of the day, say, ‘I got bad choices here, I’m gonna go with this choice here, with Trump,’ they ought to be the ones saying, ‘I am going to speak with such clarity on the dignity of women and immigrants and our responsibility to the refugee and the importance of justice equally for all people.’
We can’t be unclear on the issues, and we can’t let political strategy cause us to pull back and not speak with clarity on the issues.
And that’s where many evangelical leaders, I think, have not failed, or at least we haven’t been heard when we’ve been doing it.
And I think there’s a concern that evangelical leaders might be being used…
I’m sure there is.
…by the President.
Yeah, of course.
Every president, since as far back as you can go, is attempting their own political game.
Is it greater with this administration?
I mean, that’s a good judgment.
But I think we got to be aware of that, and I think we got to speak with clarity.
When you think about public affairs in this country, and you think about the country and its future, what do you pray about?
Well, the primary thing that I pray for our country is that, not as a government but as individuals, we would come to see the truthfulness of Jesus Christ and His message.
I pray that we will be a nation that treats people with justice and equity, that all people — black, white, Hispanic, young, old, rich, poor — would have the same, you know, opportunities for progress and the same equal treatment under the law.
And so I want to build our platform, and the Southern Baptist platform, on advocating for those things — for belief in the Gospel and for righteousness.
J.D. Greear, thank you very much for joining me on ‘Firing Line.’
It’s a delight to be with you.
Thank you for having me.
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