Russell Moore is in the news once again. The head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Moore’s speaking, writing and commentary for years have challenged Southern Baptists especially but also evangelicals as a whole to be wary of allowing political entanglements to overshadow biblical ministry. That was well and good as long as Moore kept his opinions on a generic level—who could disagree with someone calling on Christians to reach across races, economic divides and political affiliation in order to preach the gospel to everyone? But as the familiar preacher’s saying goes, Moore left off preaching and went to meddling. And now it looks like his position might be in jeopardy.
Here’s what happened. Moore was deeply concerned during last fall’s presidential campaign with Southern Baptist pastors taking public stands for Donald Trump because of Trump’s track record of personal immorality and professional dishonesty. In Moore’s estimation, ministers who aligned themselves with such a political figure risked compromising the gospel. As far back as September, 2015 Moore wrote in a New York Times editorial that supporting Donald Trump “would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist ‘winning’ trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society.”
It really came as no surprise that in the aftermath of the election’s surprising result, Southern Baptist pastors across the country who had supported Trump began to publically question Moore’s leadership of the ERLC.
National Public Radio in December pulled together several of the leading SBC figures’ criticisms of Moore:
“Since Dr. Moore has taken over, there are a lot of things that are being said on various issues that the Southern Baptist people at large don’t agree with,” says Bill Harrell, the pastor emeritus at Abilene Baptist Church in suburban Augusta, Ga. “It’s developed into a very touchy situation, and it needs to be addressed in some way.”
Harrell served on the SBC committee that created the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission more than 20 years ago. He says he has heard from other Southern Baptist leaders that the convention’s links with the ERLC need to be reconsidered if Moore is to continue leading the group.
“There are a number of churches that I have heard of in the SBC, fairly large churches, that are going to withhold their funds from the ERLC,” Harrell says, “until this gets straightened out.”
The Louisiana Baptist Convention, a state division of the Southern Baptist group, is among the organizations reconsidering its funding for Moore’s commission. A resolution calling for a review of the links to the ERLC was referred to the Louisiana convention’s executive board at a meeting in November.
Among the conservative leaders now going after Moore is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, himself a Southern Baptist pastor. “I am utterly stunned that Russell Moore is being paid by Southern Baptists to insult them,” Huckabee says.
One well known Baptist pastor, Prestonwood Baptist Church’s Jack Graham, had his church place their annual denominational contribution of $1,000,000 in escrow until Russell Moore was brought to heel. He claimed that he wasn’t doing so because he was upset over what Moore had said but the way he had said it.
Well. I take it as an article of faith as a long-time Baptist preacher that whenever someone tells me they agree with what I said but disagree with the way I said it what they really mean is that they disagree with what I said.
The story gets stranger. Moore issued a sort of apology before Christmas but the powers that be didn’t think it went far enough. So as things started to spin out of control, SBC Executive Committee Chairman Frank Page called a meeting with Moore to try and persuade him toward a more meaningful “reconciliation” with his critics. By “reconciliation” I assume Page meant that Moore would need to walk back some of his more extreme criticisms of leading SBC figures in order to keep his job. Apparently Page was successful and last Sunday the ERLC’s Board of Directors issued a vote of confidence in Moore at the same time that he released another apology. I guess this one satisfied his critics because the usual list of seminary presidents, leading pastors and others lined up to support it.
Christianity Today reported the two statements.
“I stand by those convictions, but I did not separate out categories of people well—such that I wounded some, including close friends,” said Moore. “I cannot go back and change time, and I cannot apologize for my underlying convictions. But I can—and do—apologize for failing to distinguish between people who shouldn’t have been in the same category with those who put politics over the gospel and for using words, particularly in social media, that were at times overly broad or unnecessarily harsh. That is a failure on my part.”
Among early reactions, Prestonwood’s pastor Jack Graham—a former Southern Baptist Convention president and a Trump adviser—called Moore’s statement “gracious and unifying.”
His church previously cited “various significant positions taken by the leadership of the [ERLC] that do not reflect the beliefs and values of many in the [SBC]” for why it was escrowing funding to the Cooperative Program.
In today’s statement, the ERLC asserted that it is Moore’s job to speak “prophetically both to our culture and to our Convention.” J. D. Greear, a notable North Carolina pastor who withdrew from last year’s election for SBC president, applauded both Moore and Graham for their remarks: “Grateful for the gospel unity being pursued by these leaders.” Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called Moore’s statement a “gracious and timely word” and “a model of clarity and charity.” The statement also drew praise from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Danny Aiken and North American Mission Board president Kevin Ezelle.
Read the whole thing here
Maybe the attempts to salvage Moore’s job while preserving his prophetic witness will be successful. But I’m not so sure. We Southern Baptists have a way of killing our prophets and Moore is just the latest in a long line. Clarence Jordan in pre-Civil Rights Georgia called for racial reconciliation long before we were willing to consider it. His ministry and life were threatened because of his heroic stance. Findley Edge, a professor and writer who in the heyday of Southern Baptist life in the 1960s warned us that institutionalism was choking the spiritual life out of us was shoved to a back burner as fast as possible. He was right of course, but his own day was unwilling to listen. Racism, institutionalism and now politics. Maybe these are the three major struggles our denomination has struggled with since our beginning. And each time, those who tried to tell us better were silenced.
While I don’t agree with all Russell Moore has to say—about politics, the church or the culture—I believe we impoverish our denominational life and dilute our gospel witness when we lose voices like his. It’s no accident that people like him have always been sent to God’s people—in ancient Israel as well as the church since New Testament times. Indeed, the prophetic voice is indispensable.
I hope and pray Moore stays in his place—unrestricted and undiminished—and continues goading us toward faithfulness and truth. We’ll be the better for it.