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Southern Baptist Controversy: Explainer and How Its Future Leaders Perceive It

By  |  March 14, 2017, 09:49pm  |  @DavidClosson

The Washington Post set off a flurry of speculation yesterday by publishing an article with the explosive headline: “Could Southern Baptist Russell Moore lose his job? Churches threaten to pull funds after months of Trump controversy.” Although criticism regarding Moore’s 2016 election rhetoric has percolated for months, the Post article seemed to insinuate that the Southern Baptist leader’s job was jeopardy.

The article began:

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.

It continued:

“More than 100 of the denomination’s 46,000 churches have threatened to cut off financial support for the SBC’s umbrella fund, according to Frank Page, president of the executive committee. The committee is studying whether the churches are acting out of displeasure with Moore because it has received more threats to funding over him than over any other “personality issue” in recent memory, said Page, who will meet with Moore today.”

Following the aforementioned meeting, the two leaders said in a joint statement:

“We met as colleagues committed to the same priorities of proclaiming the Gospel to every man, woman, boy and girl while also addressing biblical and Gospel issues on a wide range of topics to a culture that seems to have lost its way — issues ranging from religious liberty and racial reconciliation to Kingdom diversity and the sanctity of human life from the womb to the grave…We fully support one another and look forward to working together on behalf of Southern Baptists in the years to come.”

Thus, in retrospect, it appears that the alarmist tone in the original Washington Post story was overblown. Frank Page and Russell Moore are united in their commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Southern Baptist churches that fund the denomination’s missionaries, seminaries, and church-planting efforts.

However, Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article should not be dismissed entirely; it does helpfully capture the lively, ongoing discussion taking place within the Southern Baptist Convention about how to move forward in unity following the divisive 2016 President election.

At the center of the current discussion is Dr. Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with 16 million members in over 40,000 churches.

Throughout the course of last year’s election Moore was often pointed and direct in his critiques of Donald Trump and his supporters. For example, in the early months of the Republican primary, Moore wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values,” in which he said:

Donald J. Trump stands astride the polls in the Republican presidential race, beating all comers in virtually every demographic of the primary electorate. Most illogical is his support from evangelicals and other social conservatives. To back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe.

At times throughout the campaign Moore highlighted Trump’s casino career, recent support for abortion, praise for Planned Parenthood, and slurs against Hispanic immigrants as issues that evangelical Christians should consider before voting. After the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape and Trump’s dismissal of what he perceived as “locker room talk,” Moore tweeted (just a month before the general election): “No contrition. “Just words.” How any Christian leader is still standing behind this is just genuinely beyond my comprehension.”

In light of these criticisms, it is not surprising that in the aftermath of President Trump’s improbable victory that a few prominent voices within the denomination have questioned whether Moore—especially given Trump’ penchant for holding grudges—would have a “seat at the table” in Washington. Given that white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported President Trump, the notion of disconnect between SBC leaders and rank-file Southern Baptists has also been raised.

Moore’s tone has also been cited by some as divisive. Remarking on this, former Arkansas Governor and Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee bluntly said, “I am utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them.”

Jack Graham, Pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church and a former President of the SBC, caused perhaps the most notable stir last month when he announced that Prestonwood (one of the largest SBC churches in the country) would temporarily escrow contributing to the Cooperative Program, the SBC’s funding mechanism over “various significant positions taken by the leadership of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission that do not reflect the beliefs and values of many in the Southern Baptist Convention.” Last year Graham’s church contributed $500,000 to the Cooperative Program.

About 100 other Southern Baptist churches have also withdrawn or threatened to withhold funding. In response, the Executive Committee announced earlier this month that it would launch a study of churches’ escrowing Cooperative Program money, noting that many churches cited concern with the ERLC. However, it should also be noted that the committee has not specified what the normal attrition rate is for a convention with 40,000 churches.

Responding to the study, Moore said: “As a servant of our churches, we are happy to work with the Executive Committee, and more broadly, grateful to be able to serve our churches daily, whether by answering their questions, providing resources and assistance or standing alongside them in the public square contending for the fundamental issues of life, family and religious liberty.” The Executive Committee has promised to conclude its review by the annual SBC meeting later this summer.

Replying to critiques of his tone during the election, Moore issued an apology on his website in December. He wrote, “I was pointed in my criticisms, and felt like I ought to have been. 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. 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. There’s a massive difference between someone who enthusiastically excused immorality and someone who felt conflicted, weighed the options based on biblical convictions, and voted their conscience. In a heated campaign season focused on sound bites, this distinction can get lost in the headlines, so it bears repeating.”

The apology was well received and the vast majority of SBC pastors and churches have expressed a desire to move forward in unity. Many actually cited Moore’s winsome approach to political and cultural engagement as a primary reason for their continued involvement in the SBC. Further, in response to yesterday’s Washington Post article, overwhelming support on social media indicated Moore’s strong support throughout the convention.

In articles covering yesterday’s story and the larger conversation taking place within the SBC, former and current SBC luminaries have weighed in and offered their analysis. Megachurch pastors and leading opinion leaders have given their opinion on Russell Moore’s leadership, Cooperative Program funding, and the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. But noticeably unrepresented in the coverage has been the response and opinion of the denomination’s seminarians and young pastors, many of whom have followed the ongoing controversy on social media very closely.

Anecdotally, as a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), yesterday’s Washington Post article sent shock-waves through the student body. Today’s seminarians, overwhelmingly from the millennial generation, became politically conscious in the wake of the scandals in the late 1990’s. They remember religious leaders passionately arguing that “character matters” and that political leaders should embody the moral principles prescribed in the Bible. For the most part, these lessons took hold. Today’s average Southern Baptist seminarian is not only pro-life and pro-marriage, but cares deeply about character and authenticity.

Thus, during the recent election when Russell Moore argued that if “character mattered during the 90’s, it should matter now,” the argument resonated. Despite being somewhat disillusioned with the previous generation’s political engagement, many millennial seminarians and pastors embraced Moore’s vision and engaged in the 2016 election process, believing that the issues of life, marriage, racial reconciliation, and religious liberty were gospel issues. Moore’s 2015 book, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, became Christianity Today’s 2016 book of the year largely because of its’ success among young pastors desiring to engage the culture with a prophetic word.

Among young SBC pastors, Moore’s advocacy has been largely appreciated. In response to yesterday’s Washington Post article, Jason Pamblanco, a recent graduate from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) and Executive Pastor of Worship at Thomasville Road Baptist Church (GA), reflected on Moore’s leadership: “Dr. Moore has served as a consistently principled spokesman for Southern Baptists concerning a number of the difficult moral matters being discussed in the public square. Where ethical issues interact with the politics, as almost all of them do, Dr. Moore has sought to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness over party politics. That approach resonates with young SBC leaders like me.”

Caleb Mayfield, the Bay Area Campus Coordinator and a student at Gateway Seminary, attributed the high level of support for Moore amongst SBC seminarians to Moore’s kingdom first approach to politics: “Dr. Moore has challenged many young evangelicals to put the teachings of Scripture over their own political biases. While I have feared the idea of the liberal agenda hindering my freedom to worship Christ in the future, he has shown me that I do not need to submit to my fears, but instead put my full confidence in God and obey the Scriptures.”

Another young SBC minister, Greg Hutchins from Tallahassee, Florida, concurred, saying: “Dr. Moore courageously pursues the glory of Christ in the local church and in the public arena. In a time where so many are only focused on only one or the other, it is supremely valuable to have a leader who desires to see Christ honored in word and deed.”

Commitment to Scripture and historic Baptist belief has also been noticed and appreciated by young pastors. Daniel Rasor, a recent SBTS graduate serving as an Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church Quapaw (OK), reflected: “Dr. Moore sets the example of what it means to live as a Christian in the world. He engages the culture and social issues from a biblical, gospel centered perspective, unwavering in his proclamation of Jesus Christ.”

Remarking on the Washington Post article and the larger discussion within the SBC, Sydney Davis, a SBTS student and Associate Minister to Students at FBC McKinney (TX) commented, “If the convention excludes leaders because of political differences, we will be turning secondary or even tertiary issues into primary ones. Russell Moore is highly regarded as an exceptional spokesman for the SBC. His principled, convictional leadership is a model for how Southern Baptists should engage the culture.”

Last month SBC leadership announced a “Young Leaders” initiative focused on engaging pastors between the ages of 25-45. The goal of the program is to encourage young ministers who are disconnected or minimally involved in Southern Baptist life.

In my humble opinion, Southern Baptist leaders would be wise to listen to the voices of their seminarians and young pastors. We love the SBC and want to see it flourish. We want to see IMB missionaries take the Gospel to the ends of the world. We want to see NAMB church planters succeed in spiritually dark places. We want to see Southern Baptist colleges and seminaries raise up the next generation of pastors, professors, and Christian laypeople. We want to engage the culture with the Gospel and advocate winsomely for issues of life, marriage, and religious liberty. In short, we want the Southern Baptist Convention to succeed because we love Christ and His church.

One of the marks of a healthy denomination is robust dialogue amongst members. In that sense, the Southern Baptist Convention is like a family. Families are able to have open and honest conversations about significant issues. The default assumption in a family is that everyone’s motives are pure; members want what’s best for the health of the whole. This has and should continue to characterize Southern Baptists.

Supporters of Russell Moore would do well to listen to the concerns of the older generations. After all, the millennial generation stands on the backs of those who courageously stood for the inerrancy of Scripture and expunged rampant theological liberalism from the SBC during the 1980’s and 90’s. As a 26-year-old seminarian, I benefit from this daily and owe these leaders an enormous debt. The spiritual strength and vitality of our denomination in 2017 is directly attributable to the grace of God working through the lives of these leaders.

In addition to this, those with concerns about the ERLC and Russell Moore would also do well to listen to the rising generation of pastors who resonate with Russell Moore’s leadership. No one is perfect, and many perceive Moore as an agent of change in areas where adjustments in course and tone are needed. These voices should also be heard and respected.

The Southern Baptist Convention is strong when it is unified. It is a denomination with a distinguished legacy of faithful service to the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, for the sake of unity and the future of our denomination, SBC leaders should seek a path forward that honors our commitment to God’s Word, faithfully represents our churches, and above all, that seeks to honor God. If we do this, our future will be bright.

 

 

Disclosure: David served as an intern with the ERLC in 2015 and continues to contribute in an ad hoc capacity as a research assistant.