These are issues of ethics and religious freedom. The SBC and other denominations need to speak out on these issues to offer moral leadership and defend religious freedom. Moreover, to use the language of The Gospel Coalition, these are all Gospel issues. Not to speak out is to deny the Gospel. To speak out to to testify to the whole Gospel. To which I say, Bull Hockey. I have another question: WWJ&AD? What would Jesus and the Apostles do? To judge by the New Testament records the answer is: Nothing.
The Washington Post reported that Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and Frank Page, chairman of the Southern Baptist (SBC) Executive Committee, would hold a meeting which could lead to Moore’s resignation or firing. This morning the Post reports that, after their meeting, Moore and Page issued a joint statement:
We fully support one another and look forward to working together on behalf of Southern Baptists in the years to come. We will collaborate on developing future steps to deepen connections with all Southern Baptists as we work together to advance the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So Moore survives – for now. But the divisions among Southern Baptist remain. It reminds of the old joke about Baptists – their primary method of church planting is by congregations splitting. Our Southern Baptist friends have experienced quite a lot of fights. They remain, along with the Missouri Synod Lutherans, one of very few denominations ever to turn itself around, stopping the moderate train in its tracks and hitching itself to a powerful conservative locomotive. It was a brutal fight. People got fired, agency boards got changed, and 2000 congregations left (they are not missed) to form The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Besides taking firm hold of the process for choosing the President of the Convention, the conservatives gained control of the seminaries. The biggest feather in their institutional cap was the takeover of the flagship seminary, Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, where before assuming his present position, Dr. Moore was the man at Dr. Al Mohler’s right hand.
Drs. Moore and Mohler have also been involved in another SBC fight. They are Calvinists in a denomination that has embraced evangelism and church growth of first of the Second Great Awakening sort (100 verses of “Just As I Am” waiting for one more sinner to be converted or one more backslider rededicate) and then of the church growth/contemporary church sort (rock bands, smoke machines, and preachers sitting on stools). But large number of Southern Baptists have embraced what they call “Calvinism” (How is a credo-Baptist really a Calvinist?), or “the doctrines of grace” (“soteriological Calvinism, though one must also ask what kind of soteriological Calvinism denies a means of grace, baptism, to children?). The tension between traditional Baptists and the so-called Calvinistic Baptists is another fault line in the Convention, though a piece of plywood has been put over crack.
And now there is Moore who was elected to head the ERLC in 2013 after Richard Land stepped down. Moore has distanced the SBC from the old Criswell-Reagan, SBC-Republican alliance. Moore wants the SBC to move from the moral majority model to a prophetic minority model of relating to the society and the political system. Moore made SBC Trump supporters spitting mad by his criticisms and virtual opposition to Trump’s candidacy (Moore voted for neither major party candidate), while several prominent Southern Baptists, including past Convention President, Ronnie Floyd, were members of Trump’s advisory team. Baptist preacher, former Governor of Arkansas, and contestant for the Republican Presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee has said: (I am) “utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them.” Prestwood Baptist Church is so upset by Moore that it is putting one million dollars in escrow rather than sending the money to support the Cooperative Program. Young evangelicals who are more moderate of tone and substance than their forbears, and who thus share Moore’s outlook, are distressed that that he could be forced out.
Then in this time when everything has become about race, there is race. Moore has given himself to the cause of “racial reconciliation” among Southern Baptists. He has spoken out against any displays of the Confederate Battle Flag. He has facilitated getting white and black Southern Baptists to talk with one another. These black Southern Baptists, among whom are Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of the Anacostia Baptist Church, and Dr. Jarvis Williams, a member of the faculty of Southern Seminary, see the pressure on Moore as evidence that the SBC is still racially insensitive. According to the Post Mr. Anyabwile, thinks:
A threat to Moore’s job would have a “chilling” effect on efforts toward racial reconciliation.
He is further quoted as saying,
The fallout will be the denomination signaling to African American and other ethnic groups that they’re tone deaf and disinterested in that membership.
Dr. Williams represents himself and other Black evangelicals, Southern Baptist or otherwise, and their younger white supporters when he contends in a recent article, Why Racism Might Defeat American Evangelicalism: Part 1:
Jim Crow laws are gone, but its racist ideology remains. Colorblindness allows certain white evangelicals (and some black and brown evangelicals) to ignore the disadvantages that non-white people have in society, and deny the advantages that certain white people have in society because of their whiteness. The ability to ignore racism and to deny its pervasiveness in American evangelicalism is a benefit enjoyed only by the privileged and those who benefit from the privileged. But colorblindness won’t lead evangelicals toward gospel unity and racial reconciliation in our churches, institutions, and communities.
Yesterday Jemar Tisby, a PhD student at Ole Miss and head of the African American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary, tweeted about the Moore situation:
This is what happens when you question the unholy alliance between white evangelicalism and Republicanism. It’s truly sad.
Justin Taylor, executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway, tweeted concerning the possibility that Moore would be forced out:
This would, in my opinion, be an act of generational suicide for the SBC. I hope it does not happen.
Let me ask two simple questions: (1) Why does the Southern Baptist Convention have a lobbying office, the ERLC, in Washington? (2) Why is Russell Moore speaking out for Southern Baptists about Donald Trump, the Confederate flag, immigration, race relations, etc.?
Well, of course, I know the answer. These are issues of ethics and religious freedom. The SBC and other denominations need to speak out on these issues to offer moral leadership and defend religious freedom. Moreover, to use the language of The Gospel Coalition, these are all Gospel issues. Not to speak out is to deny the Gospel. To speak out to to testify to the whole Gospel.
To which I say, Bull Hockey. I have another question: WWJ&AD? What would Jesus and the Apostles do? To judge by the New Testament records the answer is: NOTHING. Jesus would never have instructed his church to form an ERLC. There were plenty of issues of governmental ethics and protection of religious rights on which the Apostles might have spoken. But they said not a word.
Here is the truth: Most white evangelicals are politically conservative. Eighty percent voted for Trump. Most blacks are politically progressive. What the percentage of black evangelicals (a hard group to define) who voted for Trump might be, I do not know, but I would be surprised if it varied much from the way all blacks voted.
Now, if politics is the test of evangelicalism or Christian brotherhood, then disunity is certain, and splits likely. If Jarvis Williams and Mike Huckabee have to agree about Trump to have unity, there will be no unity. If Jemar Tisby and I have to agree about race for us to be reconciled brothers, then there is no reconciliation. But if Jarvis and Mike can do and say as they each want in the political arena, but do not allow either of their political views to become necessary for church unity, there can be unity. If Jemar can promote his progressive views all he wants as a private citizen and I may do the same with my conservative views as a private citizen, but we don’t allow our political views to become tests of fellowship, then we can be reconciled brothers.
Is it one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of us all, or not?
If Russell Moore is forced out of his job or if a number of congregations feel they are forced because of him out of the Convention, then it will be just one more case of: You live by politics. You die by politics.
Bill Smith is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Roanoke, Va. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.