Russell Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention: The Saga Continues

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On June 2, a member of the board of trustees for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaked a letter that departing ERLC president Russell Moore had written in February 2020. The letter detailed what Moore believed to be the source of controversy between him and some members of SBC leadership: incidents of sexual abuse and racism. Contrary to media narratives, the controversy in the SBC is not about support for Donald Trump.

Moore’s letter was written in response to the SBC Executive Committee, a group of 86 representatives elected by the Convention to oversee the SBC’s operations between annual meetings, creating a task force to investigate whether the ERLC’s actions under Moore were costing the SBC donations. The chair of the task force was Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga. A member of the steering committee for the Conservative Baptist Network, which thinks the SBC is becoming too liberal, Stone is running for president of the SBC at this year’s June 15–16 annual meeting.

On June 3, Stone released a statement on his personal website responding to Moore’s letter. He writes that the letter “was filled with mischaracterizations of who Southern Baptists are.” Stone believes that the timing of Moore’s letter being leaked is “clearly an attempt to influence the upcoming presidential election in the SBC.” Stone objects to Moore’s characterization of the SBC leadership’s behavior, saying, “His letter contains numerous misrepresentations of me and of the leadership of our beloved Convention.”

Stone writes that, contrary to Moore’s letter, the creation of the task force was not “a unilateral action” by Stone. Moore did not name anyone in his letter, but he does say that someone who is described in such a way that it could only be Stone “drove the motion” in the SBC Executive Committee to create the task force. Stone is correct to say that creating the task force was not a unilateral action, and Moore elsewhere in his letter ascribes the actions against the ERLC to “a tiny minority in our denomination,” showing that he was aware of that fact.

The difference between SBC leadership and SBC congregants in general is important to note. The SBC uses congregational polity, which means that there is no formal hierarchy beyond the local church. The SBC is best understood as a membership organization, not a clerical body, and SBC leadership does not have any ecclesiastical authority over member churches. As a result, many Southern Baptists are unaware of this controversy within SBC leadership because it doesn’t affect their daily church life whatsoever.

Moore was very careful to note that difference in his 4,000-word letter. He stresses that it’s only a “small group in the shadows” that sought to disrupt the ERLC’s work and effusively praises Southern Baptists generally. Stone, on the other hand, conflates the two. Stone:

[Moore’s] view is apparently of an SBC leadership filled with “white nationalists and white supremacists.” His view is of an SBC leadership that contains “neoconfederate activities” and “raw racist sentiment.” That is not the SBC that I know.

He sees an SBC where national leaders employ “psychological terror” against him to prevent him from speaking the truth about sexual abuse and racism. In my entire service at the Executive Committee and as a pastor, I have never heard a single Southern Baptist leader be angry over opposition to sexual abuse or racism. That is not the SBC that I know.

Today, at our 47,000 churches, devoted Southern Baptists are preparing for Vacation Bible School, children’s camps, student mission trips, and more. That’s the SBC that I know.

In the first two paragraphs, Stone is talking about leadership. In the third paragraph, he is talking about congregants in general. Moore’s criticism was never about congregants in general and always focused on leadership. In fact, Moore expresses frustration at the actions of leadership sullying the reputation of the denomination in general:

[In response to leadership controversies] I want to scream: “But that’s not who Southern Baptists are! The people in the churches, everywhere that I have seen, are kind and loving and mission-focused. They are not part of all of that that you see!” And, indeed I think I am right. The people who are left [in the SBC] are those of us who have learned to simply filter out this nonsense and focus on what we know to be the best of us. The rest of the world cannot see that.

In the final paragraph of Stone’s statement, he says, “I regret that Russell’s service as president of one of our agencies has led him to such a disillusioned opinion of who we are.” At this point, it’s unclear what the antecedent of “we” is. Moore’s disillusionment is with some members of SBC leadership. Stone is no doubt among them. So if the antecedent of “we” is “SBC leadership,” then Stone would be correct. But if the antecedent of “we” is “SBC congregants in general,” Moore does not hold the disillusioned opinion that Stone claims.

As to whether it’s true that Moore is seeking to influence the SBC presidential election at the annual meeting, Moore has left the SBC personally as well as professionally. He has joined a non-denominational church in Nashville. Moore was not in the running for SBC president prior to his departure, and not being part of the denomination anymore, he has no personal stake in denominational decisions any longer. For what it’s worth, Moore also accused Stone and his associates on the SBC Executive Committee of timing events to their advantage. They launched their task force and released their report in February, far away from the annual meetings, which are always held in summer. Moore believes they did that because Moore and the ERLC have lots of support in convention-wide votes.

At the very least, Stone and Moore seem to be in agreement that this controversy isn’t about national politics or support for Trump. Stone never mentions the former president or anything about partisan politics anywhere in his statement. The election he is most concerned with has to be the upcoming election for SBC president, which promises to be competitive. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler has been running since last year. Northwest Baptist Convention executive director Randy Adams and Alabama pastor Ed Litton announced their candidacies this year.