Vice President Mike Pence spoke at this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the responses were mixed. While there was plenty of applause during the speech, a few prominent leaders spoke out against the decision to include the Vice President on the schedule. Some criticized the SBC for hosting a politician at all, others focused their attention on the specific role that Pence plays in the Trump administration, and many felt that the decision to allow him to speak only solidified an unhealthy relationship between Southern Baptists and the GOP.
Our responsibility is not primarily toward those who share our nationality, and it’s certainly not primarily to those who vote the same way we do. Instead, our ultimate loyalty, our ultimate allegiance, is not to our country or its leaders, but to the global church.Regardless of the wisdom of accepting Pence’s offer to address the convention, the message he chose to deliver should give Christians of any denominational affiliation pause. The ending of his speech well encapsulates its primary focus: “I know that with your support and prayers, with the strong support of leaders at every level of government, 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.”
Pence’s speech was, unsurprisingly, focused on Donald Trump’s signature MAGA slogan. He listed the many accomplishments that President Trump had achieved thus far, he pledged the administration’s support to causes like abortion and religious freedom, and he encouraged the SBC messengers and leaders to join in their plan to make America safe, prosperous, and great. There’s nothing inherently wrong with (most of) his goals, but they represent a mindset that far too many evangelicals have succumbed to: America first. We have allowed our loyalties and loves to be shaped by something other than our faith.
Politicians, parties, and nations—none are content to form us in merely superficial ways. We may consent to some education or participation, thinking that it will shape only our political or social values, ignorant of the ways that we will be formed on spiritual levels. Our values are never content to stay in the boxes we put them in; they bleed into other areas until they become our ultimate values. While the SBC was not necessarily wrong to invite a politician, the invitation does represent a larger trend toward our willingly signing up to be formed in ways that directly contradict the gospel. There are various historical and social reasons American evangelicals are so susceptible to this particular brand of political participation. But there’s one reason especially relevant to this cultural moment: many of us have lost touch with our roots.
In his new book, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, Ben Myers beautifully articulates the significance of each line of the ancient creed. Even more helpful, Myers keeps one theme running throughout the small book: saying these words is significant not only because they communicate deep truth, but also because they connect us to the global, historic Christian church. There might be nothing more desperately needed in the American church today than the regular reminder that our greatest loyalty is not to our nation or our favored political party, but to fellow believers. Instead of being united by a set of shared political beliefs or geographic origins, we are most strongly united by our devotion to Christ.
Myers compares evangelicals’ distaste for the Apostles’ Creed to the trend away from reciting standard wedding vows in favor of couples’ writing their own. He explains that what was once seen as a couple participating in the same tradition that their parents and grandparents did has been rejected out of our skepticism of the past: “We assume that the truest thing we could ever say would be something we had made up ourselves.”
We’ve taken the same approach to the Apostles’ Creed—it’s nice, we think, but a “genuine” expression of our faith is really only possible when we decide on the words for ourselves. Or so we tell ourselves. This attitude consistently disconnects us from the broader tradition we were meant to be inextricably bound up in.
When we say the creed we are not just expressing our own views or our own priorities. We are joining our voices to a great communal voice that calls out across the centuries from every tribe and tongue. We locate ourselves as part of the community that transcends time and place. That gives us a critical distance from our own time and place. If our voices are still echoes, they are now echoing something from beyond our own cultural moment.
Going back to the vice president’s speech, at one point Pence even encouraged the large group (including many foreign missionaries) to “keep changing lives, keep ministering to the spiritual and the practical needs of the American people, especially the most vulnerable.” While Pence certainly has a great responsibility to protect and provide for the needs of the American people, our job description (and his as a fellow Christian) is much broader. Our responsibility is not primarily toward those who share our nationality, and it’s certainly not primarily to those who vote the same way we do. Instead, our ultimate loyalty, our ultimate allegiance, is not to our country or its leaders, but to the global church. When we recite an ancient creed, we aren’t just reminded of our roots but of our current connection to a global church, as many of them use the same words in different languages to remind themselves of the fundamental truths of our faith.
Myers goes on to articulate some specific ways that the Apostles’ Creed grounds our faith in the proper context. The confession that Jesus was born “of a virgin” isn’t included just to maintain technical theological accuracy, but to remind us that our faith has “deep roots in Israel’s story”—a story frequently marked by unexpected births, promises of new life and hope. The inclusion of the historical figure Pontius Pilate forces us to reckon with the historical reality of our faith—a history that began in a culture, language, and society markedly different from our own.
When we affirm that we believe in the “holy catholic church,” we are reminded of our place in a universal, global church that is far-reaching in history and geography, a church with boundaries “wide as the human race.” When we say we believe in the “communion of saints” we place ourselves in “the circle of Jesus’ followers,” choosing the company that Jesus chooses, with all its misfits and social outcasts. When we affirm that God created the world, that Jesus was born as a physical body, and the “resurrection of the body,” we can’t escape the goodness of the created order. From beginning to end, the creed affirms the value of the material world—a powerful antidote to an attitude towards politics that assumes that the only truly valuable thing is that your soul is saved.
When we distance ourselves from this powerful and important practice—the recitation of an ancient creed—we are susceptible to political formation that seeks to capture our highest loyalties. But when we truly locate our story within the context of the broader story of our faith, we will begin to see our lives as having meaning beyond ourselves. We will see ourselves as “part of a great company, an ever-widening circle of people who have handed their lives over to the pattern of Jesus’ life. This great company of disciples seems to speak with one voice, to breathe with one Spirit, to cry ‘Abba, Father!’ with one unceasing prayer (Rom 8:15–16).” In the face of powerful political forces, our greatest weapon may be simple words, conveying powerful truth, throughout time and across the globe.