We Southern Baptists are at it again. Disagreements. Family squabbles. And good old fashioned politics. Imagine that. (And in other news, the sun came up!)
So, what’s the issue this time? The authority of Scripture? The divinity of Christ? The Trinity? No – it’s the leadership of Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
To understand the current Baptist brouhaha, it’s first important to grasp what this SBC agency is and does. The ERLC is the public policy face and voice of our convention. When issues of social justice or religious liberty are in the news, that’s when the ERLC is called upon to speak. And that job goes in two directions. The ERLC speaks to Southern Baptists (educating and clarifying biblical positions to our churches) but they also speak for Southern Baptists (advocating and defending our biblical positions to the world).
They speak to us through articles, videos, conferences, podcasts, literature, bulletin inserts, and other resources that help us filter the issues of our day through a biblical sieve. (It’s one of few blogs I regularly read. Check it out: www.erlc.com.)
The ERLC also speaks for us by issuing statements, lobbying politicians, filing lawsuits, and appearing on news outlets – such as MSNBC, FoxNews, and CNN – as the official voice for the 15 million-strong SBC when it comes to moral and political topics.
With that framework in mind: it’s this latter issue that has landed Moore in a less favorable position with some. It is no secret that Moore was an outspoken critic of now-President Trump’s nomination as the GOP candidate. He was the highest profile anti-Trump voice within the world of evangelicals.
Leading up to the election, Moore repeatedly argued that he was merely being consistent: applying the same presidential character-expectations to Trump in ‘16 that earlier Southern Baptists had applied to Bill Clinton in the ‘90’s. (At times, even quoting our own Resolutions back to us. And in all fairness, Moore was equally critical of Hilary Clinton for many of the same character issues.) But with 80% of white evangelicals having voted for Trump, Moore’s criticism gained little traction.
In the opinion of some, then, he was not representing the SBC, but misrepresenting it.
But there is more to the Moore matter than just Trump. Moore has touched several nerves by taking a bold stance for religious liberty (e.g. NJ Mosque) and advocating for immigration reform as well as calling for a more open refugee policy. At the same time, Moore has been a tireless advocate for racial reconciliation. You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to know that issues like race, Islam, refugees, and Trump are touchy topics that invite backlash and can put one in a vulnerable position.
Baptist historian, Nathan Finn, has summed it up best:
“If you’re one step in front of Southern Baptists, you’re a leader. If you’re two steps in front, you’re a prophet. Three steps in front of Southern Baptists? You’re a target. And a lot of Southern Baptists think Russell Moore is three or four steps in front.”
Finn’s analysis is spot-on. Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee (a Southern Baptist) said that he was “utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them.”
After the 2016 Presidential election, the initial SBC grumblings about Moore and his anti-Trump position began to surface. Back in December, he even issued a public apology regarding his critique of Trump supporters.
Moore wrote that his criticisms were for “a handful of Christian political operatives excusing (Trump’s) immorality and confusing the definition of the gospel.” He then added, “But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump.” Moore concluded, “I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.”
If the Moore mayhem had stopped there, it would be yesterday’s news. Words are words and they are sometimes quickly forgotten. But as we all know, money talks louder than words. And money is now at stake.
In February, Texas megachurch pastor, Jack Graham, informed the SBC that his congregation, Prestonwood Baptist Church, would begin withholding $1 million in donations to the Cooperative Program (in view of Moore’s leadership). Since Graham’s announcement, nearly 100 other SBC churches have joined them in escrowing CP dollars.
And there is no better way to get a Baptist’s attention than by withholding money (that, and by withholding fried chicken.)
Now – there is much more that could (and frankly, should) be said about these issues. But space does not allow. Let me conclude with a few of my thoughts.
I like Russell Moore. I really do. Grant it, I do not agree with everything that he has said or even the tone with which he has said it. But, overall I believe that he is leading us in the right direction and must stay in his position. Moore’s concerns about leadership character, religious liberty and racial reconciliation are thoroughly biblical, thoroughly Baptist and thoroughly needed. He apologized when needed. He has even praised President Trump’s work when needed. In my opinion, removing or pressuring Moore to resign would be an unmitigated disaster – especially for those in the SBC who are younger or minorities. Moore is the right man for the right time.
I like Jack Graham. I really do. Grant it, I do not agree with him flexing his economic muscles to get his point across or to get his way. There are other, more constructive ways to handle this disagreement and I hope that those avenues will be pursued. At the same time, I think he (and others) can disagree with Moore and still cooperate together. I also think he and his congregation have every right to do whatever they want with their money – that’s how local church autonomy works, and I support it 100%. Though I am bothered by the thought that countless IMB/NAMB missionaries will potentially suffer because Graham wants to play SBC politics.
I like the SBC. I really do. For years I have said, “I was SBC born and SBC bred and when I’m gone I’ll be SBC dead.” And I hope and pray that I can still say that in the years to come. But it feels to me that we, as a convention, are at another crossroads of sorts. And I hope that we choose wisely.
Will Russell Moore run, too far too fast ahead of Southern Baptists? I hope not. Will we add a GOP-litmus test to being a Southern Baptist? I hope not. Will we be able to come back together and work together, despite our disagreements, for the sake of the gospel? I sure hope so. May we all pray and work towards that end.
(For another perspective, that is superb, I also recommend Dave Miller’s insights found at SBC Voices.)