By Scott Barkley and George Schroeder
A task force studying the effectiveness of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission issued its report in February, acknowledging both support within the Southern Baptist Convention for the entity and that some see it as “a source of significant distraction from the Great Commission work of Southern Baptists.”
Commissioned in February 2020 by the SBC Executive Committee, the task force was charged with reviewing the activities of the ERLC — which is tasked with helping churches understand the moral demands of the gospel and public policy, as well as promoting religious liberty on behalf of Southern Baptists — and to “assess whether the actions of the [ERLC] and its leadership are affecting Cooperative Program giving or the further advancement of the Cooperative Program.”
The ERLC has at times been a flash point of controversy during the tenure of President Russell Moore, for reasons including Moore’s position in opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy during the 2016 election and during Trump’s subsequent presidency.
More recently, the ERLC came under fire for submitting an inaccurate amicus brief in a federal lawsuit filed in August 2020 in support of the North American Mission Board. The brief wrongly described the SBC as a hierarchy. In its report, the task force called the brief, as well as the ERLC’s response and subsequent handling of the brief, “unacceptable.”
The report asserted that “the current perception of the leadership and direction of the ERLC by many Southern Baptists is a substantial impediment to the growth of the Cooperative Program,” with “potential for a measurable decline in the near future and beyond” if there are not “quick and significant changes in that perception.”
The task force also said its findings showed that “considerable conversation” continues in the SBC “as to the effectiveness and efficiency of the ERLC’s current structure in addressing public policy concerns.”
The report was released to the full EC board, as well as to the chairman of the ERLC’s board of trustees and ERLC President Russell Moore. Its findings were considered during the regularly scheduled EC meeting Feb. 22-23 in Nashville.
“The task force sought to find objective verifiable facts,” said Mike Stone, chairman of the task force and former EC chairman. “Based on the statistical information we received, the direction of the ERLC is a significant source of division and creates a very real challenge to reversing CP decline.”
Stone said the report “is not based on anecdotes or third-hand reports. It is based, almost exclusively, on documented facts received from the chief executive officers of various state conventions.”
David Prince, chairman of the ERLC’s board of trustees, expressed hope that with release of the report, Southern Baptists could move forward.
“I think Southern Baptists can see this report for exactly what it is and are ready to move on from this moment and focus on our mission together,” Prince said in a statement to Baptist Press. “The ERLC has served Southern Baptists faithfully during a time of political, cultural, and, in some cases, denominational chaos. Much of this chaos remains with us, including widespread news of many of our black and brown brothers and sisters leaving the SBC. That should be alarming to all of us.
“Regardless, all this and more is why I am grateful the ERLC serves our churches with a vibrant and bold gospel witness day in and day out.”
The task force report cited feedback from a questionnaire sent to the SBC’s 41 state conventions; 15 responded. Without identifying them, the report described those state conventions as serving 60 percent of the SBC’s 47,000-plus churches and giving 74 percent of the total Cooperative Program funds received by the SBC Executive Committee.
Several of the state executives who responded “reported little to no negative effect from the ministry of the ERLC,” according to the report. But several others reported multiple instances of churches reducing giving or withdrawing from the state and/or national conventions. According to the state executives, those churches reported several reasons for their decisions, but often included concerns about the ERLC. Collectively, according to the report, the state executives reported that the negative impact on CP giving totaled millions of dollars.
The task force noted that it was challenged by the way CP giving is reported. A drop in churches giving through CP to the states, coupled with reports of increased national CP gifts, has introduced “confusion” into the state of overall CP giving trends, the task force said.
The report notes that the downward trend in overall giving began many years before the current ERLC leadership.
The allocation forwarded by the states to the national convention has increased from an average of 37 percent in 2009 to 42 percent in 2018-2019, the report said, but it added: “[T]otal dollars received by our state/regional convention partners has been in steady decline. Percentage giving by churches has fallen by more than half over the last three decades.”
The state executives who responded to the task force’s questionnaire said they regularly heard a variety of concerns from pastors. Along with Moore’s opposition to Trump, the issues included: complaints that the ERLC is not responsive and that its leadership has been “disrespectful and condescending” to questions from Southern Baptists; frustration over an amicus brief filed in support of the building of a mosque in New Jersey in 2016; disappointment over perceived inaction on religious liberty issues during the COVID-19 pandemic; disagreement with the ERLC’s stance on immigration.
Also listed was the allegation that the ERLC received funding from an organization with ties to liberal financier George Soros — a charge that has been refuted but continues to circulate.
Although the task force’s report listed the concerns “without commentary,” it urged Southern Baptists to be “aware of the dubious nature of many claims on the internet.”
The report added: “In the present case, however, most of the concerns mentioned by our state convention partners are not caused by disagreement over the facts. Rather, they are caused by disagreement with the leadership and direction of the ERLC.”
But with several state conventions reporting “little to no negative effect of the ERLC on their state convention ministries,” the task force said the report reflects “the sharp differences of sentiment that exist across the SBC regarding the work of the ERLC.” The task force reported that social media indicates “both support and concern for the direction of the SBC,” with rumors and anecdotal reports abounding in both categories.
The task force report noted reaction in January from “multiple churches” in “some of our largest state conventions” to comments by Moore “related to the unlawful incident at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6,” saying the churches weren’t concerned by “Moore’s condemnation of the U.S. president or by the renunciation” of the incursion at the Capitol.
“Rather,” the report said, “the churches were troubled by Dr. Moore’s comments in light of the silence of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” related to “violent and destructive protests” in the nation during summer 2020.
The task force offered six recommendations, including asking the full Executive Committee to request that the ERLC board of trustees “encourage the president and staff to refrain from opposing specific candidates for public office.” Among the task force’s other recommendations to the EC:
- Provide greater clarity on convention-wide giving trends.
- Request that the ERLC’s trustee board encourage staff “to focus, where possible, on speaking where the SBC has already spoken through resolutions and the Baptist Faith and Message.”
- Request that the ERLC’s trustee board encourage staff to be more responsive to Southern Baptists’ questions about “certain news items.”
- Request the ERLC’s trustee board to help its staff “develop an intentional plan to demonstrate a greater appreciation for how its positions, including social media usage, affect the spirit of cooperation among Southern Baptists.”
- Request that the trustee boards of SBC entities institute a policy of submitting legal briefs on topics related to Southern Baptist polity for review by the SBC’s attorneys before being filed.
Along with Stone, the task force members are: Rolland Slade (elected EC chairman last June), Hoyt Savage, Ron Hale, Mike Lawson, Monte Shinkle and Cheryl Samples.
— Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press, and George Schroeder is associate vice president for convention news with the SBC Executive Committee. Jonathan Howe, vice president for communications with the SBC Executive Committee, contributed to this report.