Russell Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. This entity of the SBC is one of the most important ministries supported by the Convention due to the increasing threats to religious liberty in the United States. The ERLC “is dedicated to engaging the culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ and speaking to issues in the public square for the protection of religious liberty and human flourishing.” The second part of that purpose statement, “speaking to issues in the public square for the protection of religious liberty and human flourishing,” is where we currently find some tension within the Convention.
I am an unapologetic Russell Moore supporter. He was Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during my studies there for the Master of Divinity degree. Dr. Moore has had a tremendous impact on the way I think about theology, church life, and even pop culture. Although thoroughly evangelical and conservative in his faith and politics, Dr. Moore is not shortsighted when it comes to how the faith of Southern Baptists, and more importantly the news of the gospel, can flourish in a world hostile to religious liberty. Thus, Dr. Moore has been consistently outspoken for the liberty of all people of all faiths in order for the power of the gospel to be freely spoken and transformative to all who will hear and believe.
Russell Moore came under fire from some SBC leadership during the recent 2016 Presidential campaign, being accused of speaking and writing in a condescending tone toward Southern Baptists who were voting for Trump. He wrote a clarifying article on his personal website, apologizing to those who interpreted his remarks as a rebuke or ridicule. The fact is, many SBC leaders were outspoken in their concerns for a Trump presidency, but Dr. Moore received most of the media attention due to this role in the more political branch of the SBC.
But that is not the end of the story. Another lingering issue has only served to increase concerns toward Moore’s leadership.
In May of last year, the ERLC and the IMB (International Mission Board) signed an amicus brief along with several other religious groups arguing that contradictory standards cannot be applied to Muslims, or any faith-based group, who wish to construct a place of worship. Specifically, the brief was signed in support of the construction of a New Jersey mosque. The brief had an impact. A federal judge ruled in the mosque’s favor on December 31, 2016.
David Platt, president of the IMB, has since apologized for the distraction associated with the brief. But some push-back has already happened. Dean Haun, pastor of First Baptist Church in Morristown, TN and a trustee of the IMB, resigned his IMB position due to the signing of the amicus brief. He said, “When I look at our IMB mission and purpose statements, I cannot see how this action meshes with them.”
As difficult as Haun’s resignation is to hear, the worst possible scenario is just now starting to play out – some churches are escrowing their Cooperative Program funds until a better understanding of the Convention’s leadership is reached, including a Dallas megachurch who sends upwards of $1 million annually to the CP.
Now, if you are not a Southern Baptist, it might be difficult to appreciate how brutal this is. The Cooperative Program is the means through which the SBC funds its agencies and its mission. Every Southern Baptist Church designates a percentage of their budget to the Cooperative Program. That amount is sent to the state convention that keeps a portion and the rest is sent to the SBC. North American Mission Board missionaries, IMB missionaries, church plants, state missions, the SBC seminaries, and a host of other entities are dependent on the CP for their existence.
Here are a few points of my personal commentary:
David Platt and the IMB
I believe Platt was right to apologize. Although the IMB, NAMB, and any other SBC entity might feel a certain way about an issue taking place in our country, it is not for every entity to take action on those issues. Staying focused on the mission at hand is essential, and the ability for a group of Muslims to build a mosque in New Jersey is probably not what the IMB is called to support. However, the same cannot be said for the ERLC. These are precisely the kinds of issues the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is funded to engage. Remember their statement of purpose? That they exist for the “protection of religious liberty and human flourishing.” So, I affirm Platt’s apology but equally affirm Moore’s action on behalf of the mosque’s construction.
Speaking for the SBC
One consistent complaint I have heard concerning Dr. Moore’s leadership is how he does not speak for Southern Baptists. But what does that even mean? Should Dr. Moore simply do and say whatever the churches tell him to do and say? Or is there room here for us to be challenged and led by our SBC leadership to think critically about difficult issues? And on top of that, save for the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the means to a relationship with the Father, I know of no other single clarifying issue in the history of Baptists than the issue of religious liberty.
Rejoicing in the inability of a religious group to build a place of worship does not win hearts for the gospel. To be clear, I do not want mosques being constructed for the purpose of teaching and spreading a false gospel in our communities. But do we believe in the greater and truer and better power of the gospel? The way we win people to the Lord is not by eliminating every other religion and place of worship, but by believing that the true gospel is bigger than any other religion or place of worship.
If they will prevent a group of Muslims from building a mosque, how long until they prevent a group of Christians from building a church? That, of course, would not stop the church from flourishing (Matthew 16:18), but we do not want to be active participants in the oppression of Christianity in America! And to deny the religious liberty of all faiths is to do precisely that.
Dr. Russell Moore
What is going to happen? Disagreements among trustees and leadership and church members are one thing. Holding back Cooperative Program dollars is quite another. There is an inevitable point where, no matter how supportive a large number of SBC members and leaders are of Dr. Moore, the losing of enough CP dollars will leave the Convention with little choice. But my biggest fear is that Russell Moore, being the kind of person I think he is, would probably preempt something ugly by gently stepping away. Which would be devastating. Absolutely devastating. Pray with me that it doesn’t come to that. That SBC churches will remain committed to the Cooperative Program even when they are in disagreement with a certain leader or action. That Dr. Moore will be comforted by Christ during this incredibly challenging time for him and his family. That we may all as a Convention continue to do the work of making disciples without distraction or division.