by Rod D. Martin
April 28, 2017
Southern Baptists are upset at one another again, this time due to radically differing views of the decisions of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore.
Moore came into office as an almost universally popular choice. Things have since changed. Among the reasons why are Moore’s stands on the ethics of attending a same-sex wedding (you should avoid the ceremony but attend the reception), his vociferous NeverTrump pronouncements (which included some unfortunate statements against fellow Southern Baptists who disagreed), and his signing of an amicus brief in support of the construction of a mosque (which his supporters saw as defending religious liberty, but many others saw as using tithe money to build a pagan temple, indeed a high place).
Moore’s defenders complain that the SBC (as an institution) is too political. Moore’s detractors complain that it is Moore who is too political, at least in ways they dislike. Many of Moore’s defenders said the same thing about Moore’s predecessor Richard Land. Relatively few have been genuinely happy with the ERLC, ever.
Like everyone else, I have opinions on all these matters. But everyone’s opinions on the issues just named (and others) miss the real point. We have put Dr. Moore (and Dr. Land before him) in a no-win situation.
Indeed – and I say this with the greatest respect for those who differ, and also as one of the most political Southern Baptists who has ever lived – the real questions are these:
Why do we have an ERLC at all? Does its existence advance or detract from Southern Baptists’ mission? Or is it just a needlessly divisive tradition we’ve failed to cast off?
Or perhaps most to the point: would any of us create the ERLC today if it did not already exist?
Needless division hurts the Gospel. It is hurting it right now. And that hurt is even more needless than you think.
The Troubled Birth and Life of the ERLC
Many of Moore’s followers are too young to remember it, but we’ve seen this play before.
Before the 1990s, Baptists did not have an ERLC. Rather, they partnered with a number of other Baptist denominations in an effort called the Baptist Joint Committee. Because the SBC was by far the largest partner, it provided the overwhelming majority of the funding; and because the SBC was led by liberals – and liberals who were able to use the nature of the BJC as a partnership to blame its leftist stands on the other partners – it is not surprising that the BJC took stands supporting a range of leftwing positions up to and including abortion.
Yes, your tithe money was being used to support the legal dismemberment of infants, with the full support of the former SBC leadership. Which is no small part of why they are now “former.”
In 1990, in the last days of what we then called the Controversy (ahem, the “Conservative Resurgence”), conservatives finally gained the upper hand denominationally, and the SBC eliminated 87% of the BJC’s funding, eliminating it entirely the next year. But the new conservative leadership did not wish to simply eliminate the BJC, the purpose if not the thrust of which all agreed was important.
Instead, they rebranded an already-existing Southern Baptist entity, the Christian Life Commission, as a new Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, with Richard Land as its President. This two-pronged mission seemed wise at the time.
Experience has demonstrated it was not.
From the beginning (and don’t let anyone fool you, it is still true) the “RL” in “ERLC” was always intended as a user-friendly phrasing for “lobbying,” and certainly not just regarding religious liberty. The ERLC explicitly and intentionally inherited the BJC’s mission in Washington, of convincing politicians to vote correctly on matters of concern to Southern Baptists, and speaking out publicly on same when appropriate.
In theory this all sounds perfectly sensible. But it left several questions hanging.
Personnel. Like Russell Moore, Richard Land was and is an exceedingly well-credentialed ethicist, thus easily fulfilling the “E” in “ERLC”. He was also, like Moore, far more savvy politically than the average pastor, and had some meaningful political experience. But he was not – and Moore is not – a genuine professional lobbyist. And indeed, though it has a Washington office, the ERLC is actually based in Nashville.
These facts alone are enough to place the ERLC in a hopelessly deep well. Think Bambi vs. Godzilla.
Accountability. The ERLC is governed by a board which, like all SBC entity boards, is elected by the messengers at the annual meeting. But that process is byzantine. Nominations are rarely made from the floor, and rarely successful if they are. The President of the Convention names a Committee on Committees. The Committee on Committees names a Committee on Nominations. The Committee on Nominations nominates board members, who are then usually rubber stamped by the messengers. The only meaningful election in all of this is the election of the President. The entity board is all-but autonomous apart from this process.
That means that an entity head, like Land or Moore, is accountable only to a board which is itself almost entirely without direct accountability. And yet unlike the other entity heads, the President of the ERLC routinely makes public political pronouncements in the name of all Southern Baptists, pronouncements with which millions of Southern Baptists frequently and strongly disagree.
Redundancy. Southern Baptists support six denominational seminaries, each of which has an ethics department. It is not easy to explain why we need a seventh. The SBC also has an Executive Committee, specifically empowered to act and speak for Southern Baptists between annual meetings, and constituted in such a way as to be far more accountable than the ERLC to the average Southern Baptist.
And that’s just within the SBC. More than ever before, there are numerous potent, effective, well-funded (indeed, massively better funded) Evangelical lobbying groups in Washington. The Family Research Council alone has five times the ERLC’s budget, is led by solidly conservative Southern Baptists, and runs one of the most professional lobbying shops in D.C.
But it’s not alone, from Focus on the Family’s nearly $100 million operation, to Gary Bauer’s American Values, to Jerry Johnson’s National Religious Broadcasters (which, incidentally, does a far better job than the old Southern Baptist Radio and TV Commission, which we abolished), to a plethora of legal defense funds working round the clock to advance religious liberty, such as Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice. There are literally hundreds of outstanding organizations, many of them led by faithful Southern Baptists, spending far more than the entire Cooperative Program budget to do (and do better) exactly what the ERLC does and more. Much much more.
And they do it without spending your tithe money. And they do it without creating strife and division in our churches.
Cost. In an era of depressed giving, the ERLC costs Southern Baptists $3 million annually, the cost of supporting almost 60 full-time IMB missionaries actually proclaiming the Gospel to the lost.
Seriously? Just because “we’ve always done it this way”?
What Then Should We Do?
Southern Baptists are more divided right now than they have been since the 1980s. But there’s no good reason for them to be. We can solve this problem. And given the needs of the Gospel, we need to solve it. Now.
First and foremost, dissolve the ERLC. Whatever good it does is not enough to justify the cost both in cash and in unity. If the Baptist Joint Committee was in fact a bad idea (and it was), why was the ERLC a good one? This is a tradition we should not allow to bind us anymore.
Second, if appropriate, create a new seminary-led Ethics Commission. Whether or not an actual denominational entity, this new commission would take on the ERLC’s duties to speak to purely ethical (as opposed to overtly political) issues facing us. It would be appointed from among the six seminary faculties by each of the seminary presidents. This is similar to the solution Baptists adopted for the now-dissolved SBC Historical Commission. And as in that case, it would better harness our existing, excellent ethics minds without the expensive bureaucratic infrastructure of a redundant entity.
Third, task the Executive Committee with the absolute minimum political involvement necessary. There are absolutely political matters on which the SBC must act, and when those occasionally arise, the Executive Committee – the most accountable of all the SBC entities – is the correct actor. Moreover, should it need professional help in such instances, it can easily contract with an appropriate Washington lobbying firm for the expertise and relationships it lacks, at a fraction of the cost of the less focused ERLC.
I say all of this as one who has written and spoken tirelessly for the increased political action of individual Christians and churches. But individuals do not speak for or bind all of us, and individual church leaders, when they speak, are accountable to their flocks. The ERLC is accountable to no one. And as much as I would love for Southern Baptists to be active in American political discourse in any number of ways, I simply cannot countenance doing so in a way that is ineffective, inefficient, distracting from the Gospel and divisive of men of goodwill.
The controversy surrounding Russell Moore misses the bigger point that we’ve assigned him a no-win task. Were an unnecessary entity not attempting impossibly to speak for all of us, there would be no current denominational crisis. But as crises tend to be, the current crisis is a chance to re-examine a very old issue, and to get our house in better order.
The need for unity and the requirements of stewardship – and especially of advancing the Gospel with millions more dollars for missions – demand of us no less.
— This article was originally published in the Florida Baptist Witness.
Rod D. Martin, founder and CEO of The Martin Organization, is a technology entrepreneur, futurist, fund manager and author. He was a senior member of PayPal’s pre-IPO startup team, serves on the Board of Governors of the Council for National Policy, and has served as Policy Director to Governor Mike Huckabee and as President of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies. He is a member of the Florida Baptist Convention’s State Board of Missions, a trustee of Criswell College, and Chairman of the Committee on Order of Business of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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