Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear has explained why he chose to attend last night's White House dinner to honor evangelical leaders despite his calls for the denomination to decouple itself from political partisanship.
As about 100 evangelical leaders and their wives attended the state-like dinner in Washington, D.C., there were some new faces in the crowd of pastors, evangelists and activists who had not previously engaged with the administration in a public manner.
Greear, who became the youngest SBC president in history this summer, was one who seemed to some critics to be a bit out of place because he represents a more progressive strain within the SBC and has decried Church entanglement with political parties.
Greear has also warned against church leaders declaring "a particular political strategy as God's."
Considering that President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump were given a Bible signed by evangelical leaders that had an inscription that reads "History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations," Greear felt the need to detail his involvement at the dinner.
"I received an invitation from the White House to attend a dinner in which the administration would address faith leaders. I weigh every decision carefully and consulted with a number of leaders across the political spectrum," Greear said in a statement. "In this case, I chose to attend in order to listen and meet other leaders and offer perspective where asked."
Greear explained that being a witness in the public square "requires some presence in it." However, Greear assured that he is "as committed as ever to decoupling the Church from partisan politics."
"[M]y desire for the SBC remains what it always has been — promoting a culture in which the Gospel is above all," the 45-year-old pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, wrote. "Sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zones for the sake of the Gospel."
Responding to the fact that the Trumps were presented with a Bible signed by many of the leaders in attendance during the event, Greear assured that he did not sign the Bible.
"I was not asked and was not aware it was being given," he explained in his statement.
During the dinner, over a dozen evangelical leaders spoke about how much they appreciate how quickly the Trump administration has acted to progress many items on the social conservative agenda involving issues like abortion, religious freedom, the embassy in Jerusalem and global persecution. Some voiced concern about the need for "vigilance" heading into the 2018 midterms.
Greear expanded on his position on the Trump administration in an email to The New Yorker.
"One person said to me, 'I know that when you elect a President, we are electing a thousand people (in the form of judges and executive officials),'" Greear was quoted as writing. "I don't really care for Trump, but I like the thousand that I think will come with him more than the thousand Hillary Clinton has promised she will bring with her.'"
Eric Metaxas, a Christian conservative radio host and author who also attended Monday night's dinner, defended Greear from the criticism of Jonathan Merritt, a left-leaning Christian author who questioned Greear's attendance.
"There were people there who don't love this president," Metaxas assured in a tweet. "It was for all evangelicals, including those who didn't vote for him."
Alan Cross, an Alabama Baptist leader who engages churches in immigration and refugee advocacy and promotes racial reconciliation, also came to Greear's defense.
"I've no reason to believe that JD endorses this president, or his actions/behavior," Cross wrote in a tweet. "As Pres of the SBC, it seems you go when invited. Perhaps he confronted? Or, maybe he went now so he could speak in the future? JD hasn't been an acolyte. I'd reserve judgment."
Former Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd, who also attended the dinner on Monday, told The Christian Post that he feels it's important for "any president of the Southern Baptist Convention" to be willing to engage with any presidency when asked.
Floyd said that the leaders in the room Monday were "willed an opportunity" by God to make a difference.
"Anyone that would criticize J.D. Greear for doing that really needs to understand the big picture. We can do one of two things. We can sit on the sidelines and pride ourselves that we have never done anything wrong and we are sinless. But we are not sinless," Floyd said. "We have all fallen short of the glory of God and not just a few of us. We can sit on the sideline with spiritual arrogance like we are too good for this and we will not be contaminated or we can get involved."
"Jesus Christ did not say we need to be distinguished by our spiritual arrogance or by our scholasticism or by anything else other than one thing — love," Floyd added. "[Christ] said, 'Just as I have loved you, you love another.' I think everyone of us need to support the office of the presidency. We honor the office of the presidency and we speak in love, even when we are encouraging truth to be followed. We need to speak with love and live with love and we can't do that if we don't get involved."
As many have accused the president of hosting events like Monday night's dinner and a similar dinner held last May to pander to his evangelical base, Merritt argued on Twitter in response to Cross that "We literally all know what these types of dinners are about."
Responding to critics, former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, who attended both Monday night's dinner and the dinner last May, told The Christian Post that "the answer to anyone who says it is just pandering" is that Trump "is keeping his promises" to the evangelicals who voted for him.
"If it was just photo-ops and pandering, then nothing would happen," Graham, the senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, said. "But all these things are happening and we are amazed that we are seeing these things accomplished in the two years or so."
Earlier this month, prominent black Christian leaders — including South Carolina megachurch Pastor John Gray — faced backlash for their decision to meet with Trump to discuss prison reform. Gray defended his decision by comparing it to Jesus' meeting with tax collectors and lepers.