DALLAS (BP) -- Vice President Mike Pence affirmed Southern Baptists for their gospel witness and then encouraged Southern Baptists to continue in that commitment, speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting on Wednesday.
"What began more than 170 years ago at First Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., has now become one of the greatest forces for good anywhere in America.... The Southern Baptist Convention has always strived to reach the world for Christ, and so you have throughout the decades. I believe with all my heart: Your faith has moved mountains, and your witness changes lives every day," he said in his opening remarks.
He described being raised in a Christian home, attending church on Sunday mornings and saying "grace before dinner," and recounted when he heard the Gospel message afresh "40 years ago this spring.... I walked the sawdust trail that night in 1978 and gave my life to Jesus. Thank you for carrying that timeless message every day so faithfully," he said.
Southern Baptists, he said, "have always worked to bring about renewal of America and new beginnings."
Pence said that he believes America is in "a time of renewal and a new beginning of greatness." He recounted numerous accomplishments of President Donald Trump's first 500 days in office. "It's been 500 days of action, 500 days of accomplishment, 500 days of promises made and promises kept," Pence said.
Among the accomplishments Pence highlighted were a stronger military, law enforcement support, Trump's recent summit with North Korean leaders, America's fight against terrorists, the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, a recovering economy, protection of religious liberty and commitment to the sanctity of human life. Pence said these accomplishments are due, in part, to the "support of men and women like so many of you."
Pence commended Southern Baptists for their faith that translates into action. "We know that what you do in the ministries of your churches make an extraordinary difference in the life of our nation. We know that what you confess with your lips is the conviction of your hearts. We know that because we see it," he said. "You're the cornerstone, not just of your communities but, in so many ways, of our country."
"Thank you," he said, "to the Southern Baptist Convention for the essential and irreplaceable role you play in America."
The vice president encouraged attendees to "continue in your calling with renewed energy. Stand and go and speak.... I believe that your voice, your compassion, your values and your ministries are more needed now than ever before."
Saying that he and the president will "fight for what we know is right," Pence acknowledged that "the most important work in America doesn't happen in the White House or anywhere in Washington D.C. for that matter. The most meaningful, the most transformative work happens through you, through your ministries in the hearts and lives of the American people."
Pence continued, "No podium that the president and I will ever stand behind will be of greater consequence than the pulpits that you stand behind every Sunday. No policy we enact will ever be more meaningful than the ministries you lead. No action will ever be more powerful than your prayers."
Commending the leadership of pastor Frank Pomeroy in the aftermath of the horrific church shooting at First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas, Pence said, "There's was a small church, but their faith was not small."
In his concluding remarks, Pence encouraged Southern Baptists to "continue to do what each one of you do every day. Preach the Word, in season and out of season. Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have. Keep changing lives. Keep ministering to the spiritual and practical needs of the American people, especially the most vulnerable."
Quoting the late evangelist Billy Graham, who said, "To get nations back on their feet, we must first get on our knees," Pence said, "In these challenging times with threats abroad and too much division at home, let's pray for America." He said he was not asking for prayer for an agenda or a cause, quoting President Abraham Lincoln, who once said, "My concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God's side."
Vice President Pence continued, "I have always believed those ancient words recorded millennia ago that Americans have clung to in much more challenging times than we face today, and they are still every bit as true today: If His people called by His name will humble themselves and pray, He will do what He has always done through the long and storied history of this country. He will hear from heaven, He will hear us pray as one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all."
Prior to Pence speaking to the annual gathering, Southern Baptists on Tuesday (June 12), considered an amendment to the order of business to replace Pence's scheduled message with a time of prayer.
Garrett Kell, pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church, Alexandria, Va., stated that omitting Pence could further unity, especially among Southern Baptists of different ethnicities, clarify the Gospel's centrality to the SBC and avoid putting overseas workers at risk.
"We must do all that we can to preserve the purity of the Gospel, and this invitation works against it," he said. "... Right now, there is a world filled with people who are going to hell, and what we need to be about is the Gospel and anything that can distort that, I think, is a step backward and not a step forward."
In response, Grant Ethridge, chairman of the Committee on Order of Business, explained that the White House approached Southern Baptist officials about Pence's speaking during the annual meeting. Ethridge, senior pastor, LibertyLive.Church, Hampton Roads, Va., emphasized, "The Southern Baptist Convention aligns itself with no political party. Our loyalty is to King Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords."
After quoting several Scriptures, Ethridge further stated, "As a committee we feel to not show hospitality to those in authority would be a bad testimony.... We respect the position, regardless of whether or not you supported or voted for the person," adding that if President Barack Obama had requested to speak at Southern Baptists' annual meeting when he was serving, that request would have been granted. He urged messengers to present a "biblical Christ-like welcome to the vice president of the United States."
The vote to amend the order of business failed.
Other motions presented later on Tuesday also addressed concerns related to allowing elected officials to speak at future Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings. The motions were referred to the Executive Committee for further consideration.