Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines discussed a range of topics of interest to Baptists in a question-and-answer session with state Baptist paper editors during their Feb. 14-16 annual meeting in Ontario, Calif.
The discussion covered President Donald Trump's first 25 days in office, including the refugee crisis; controversial comments by Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore during the election; churches tithing 10 percent to the Cooperative Program and state conventions splitting their CP receipts 50/50 with national entities; Millennials and the future of the convention, and the future of the nation.
Gaines, pastor of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church, said he voted for Trump as president, but he was not his first choice. He voted for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in his state's primary election. But given the choice in the national election, Gaines cast his ballot for Trump because of the New York businessman's pro-life stance.
People voted for Trump for a variety of reasons—economic, social, political, Gaines said. But in reference to Trump's campaign slogan, Gaines noted that the only way to really make America great again is by winning people to Jesus Christ and mentoring them and changing society through the people they influence.
Gaines expressed his approval of nine of Trump's 16 cabinet choices being Christians, but voiced disappointment with newly-appointed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was instrumental in the Boy Scouts opening their ranks to homosexuality in 2014.
"Overall I'm pleased with the appointments; they are better than what we could have had [with Hillary Clinton]," Gaines said. He also agreed with Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch's view to interpret the Constitution "the way it was written, not rewrite it."
"A lot of people like me chose the candidate who was more friendly to pro-life [causes] and marriage between one man and one woman," Gaines said. "I do not support many of the things Trump has said, especially what he has said about women. But he was the best choice that we had [in this election]."
Gaines said he prayed for President Barack Obama and his family by name virtually every day of his eight-year term.
"I doubt that I missed 30 days during his time as president. I prayed for Michelle and Malia and Sasha, even though most people I know don't even know his daughters' names.
"I'm now praying for Donald Trump with that same commitment."
Although saying he does not understand how God works in the electoral process, Gaines noted that "He raises some up and puts others down. I just want the Lord's will to be done."
Concerning the fallout following the issuance of Trump's executive order on immigration, Gaines said, "At some point we need to understand that God is not an American and is not Republican or Democrat. Christians need to remember that we have dual citizenship, with our allegiance first to the Kingdom of God.
"It's important to remember that to some degree we have more in common with a believer in a lost country than an unbeliever in our own country," Gaines said.
"We certainly need to vet people coming into our nation to be sure we are safe from those who would do us harm. That's why I have locks on my doors at night to keep my family safe.
"On the other hand, I do not want us to be guilty of the European nations who, at the onset of World War II, refused to let refugees into their countries.
"How can your heart not go out to those people who are today fleeing from wars and violence? We need to remember that at some level we are all immigrants to America."
Gaines said he has "no problem with a wall" on the nation's border with Mexico but he does have a problem "when we are not compassionate to hurting people who are fleeing intolerable living conditions."
Concerning controversy involving Moore's political comments during the election, Gaines said he hopes there would be less divisive talk coming out of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"I hope the kind of talk we have been hearing is not the direction in which we are going. I hope Russell will remain in his position and that we have reconciliation with a lot of people," he said.
Gaines then spoke of how easy it is to criticize people without talking to them first. He then gave examples of how he kept an open mind during the run-up to the presidential election and was criticized for supporting one candidate or the other when he was only seeking to be informed on the issues.
"My family and I were in New York City when Trump announced his bid for the presidency. I went down to hear him with about a thousand other people; I would have gone if it had been Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. I did not think Trump was the best candidate but I went anyway to listen to him." Gaines added, "A few years earlier I met Obama at a prayer breakfast," and explained that is who he [Gaines] is—keeping an open mind and seeking information from all sources.
But his listening to Trump that day did not keep the critics from complaining about the message he was sending by attending the event. That was unfortunate, he added.
IMB & its court brief
Regarding the amicus brief involving a New Jersey mosque which has embroiled both the ERLC and the International Mission Board in controversy, Gaines said he believes IMB President David Platt would possibly think twice before the mission board enters such a case.
"I know from being a pastor that there are times when you make decisions without asking a lot of people for their input. I know David's heart; he is a good man. He loves Jesus. And I believe that is exactly what happened.
"You may not agree with his theology but he has no arrogance whatsoever in his heart. I really don't think he would have signed the document [favoring government permission for the construction of the mosque] if he knew the ramifications."
Concerning the Cooperative Program, Gaines said there is no biblical imperative for churches to tithe 10 percent of their receipts to the Cooperative Program, regardless of how good the SBC missions support program is. Churches today have a number of their own ministries for reaching their communities for Christ, he said, and those ministries should not be sacrificed for giving to the Cooperative Program through their state conventions.
While Bellevue Baptist does not give 10 percent through the Cooperative Program, Gaines his wife Donna are motivated to give a tithe because of the good work they see going on in their community as well as around the world.
He also said he does not feel all state conventions should be pressed to give half of their receipts through the Cooperative Program, as encouraged by the Great Commission Task Force Report in 2010. Some conventions, such as those in the western states, have far less income, he said, and need much of their funds to support their own work in sparsely-populated locales where churches are few.
Looking to the future
Gaines, now 59 and "a long time" since he was a young adult, said he is optimistic the younger generation will become more active in SBC life.
He recounted that he remembered in his early ministry how his spare time was taken up with giving attention to his wife and family; there was simply no time for denominational involvement.
"I did not go to state conventions regularly and was even less involved on the national level, even up to the time when I became president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. But I do believe that this new, younger generation will respond when we older men reach out to them.
"State conventions need to be proactive and reach out, embrace them, cultivate them. You know, it's far easier to talk about someone than it is to talk to them. When you talk to them you get on their level, you empathize with them. And that's what it's going to take."
Looking to the future of the nation, Gaines spoke about his desire to see revival once again sweep America. He learned through his mentor, the late Roy Fish, professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, that such events occur roughly every 70 years.
"The last time it occurred was the Jesus Movement of the early to mid-1970s. That's when we as a denomination reported the largest number of baptisms in our history. Many missionaries and pastors and church staff members came out of that movement and changed America. It can happen again, and that is my prayer."
The next decade will be the most important in the history of the nation, Gaines added.
"Just look at the election we have just been through. America is divided. I have never seen such an election in my 40 years of voting. I am praying for a mighty revival, a movement of God on our land."
Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.