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Seeking unity in the Southern Baptist Convention

From the ERLC Executive Committee

Our country has come through one of the more challenging political cycles in recent history. Evangelical Christians, and Southern Baptists in particular, faced difficult issues and decisions, which, at times, frayed and threatened even to tear the fabric of our civic and denominational unity.

It is in this difficult context that Dr. Russell Moore has exercised leadership with integrity and with boldness. We affirm Dr. Moore in his leadership of the ERLC. He has spoken with clarity and conviction on ethical matters that have been identified in our Baptist Faith and Message and various Convention resolutions. These included issues related to religious liberty, racial reconciliation, character in public office, and a Christian understanding of sexuality. Most importantly, he has endeavored clearly and graciously to articulate the Christian gospel and its implications. For us not to stand in affirmation of the principles that Dr. Moore has espoused would be unfaithful to the mission entrusted to us by the Convention.

Speaking to these issues is rarely convenient and often unpopular. While the manner, tone, and extent to which we speak to these issues is a matter of wisdom and timeliness, the fact that we must speak to these issues is clear. Christians, however, can disagree on delivery, tactics, and approach, and we find that many of the criticisms levied against Dr. Moore fall into these categories. Even still, some of the criticisms in this vein Dr. Moore himself has received and apologized for. Meanwhile, some other criticisms we have heard have voiced objection to stands Dr. Moore has taken in affirmation of our Convention’s stated doctrine, resolutions, and the mission established by the Convention for the ERLC. We believe we would be in error to accept these criticisms.

Over the last few months, Dr. Moore has engaged in numerous private conversations with many of those who had criticisms of him. As an Executive Committee, who historically have worked most closely in advising and evaluating the performance of the president, we have encouraged these conversations and received updates. We have also encouraged private efforts rather than public comments. These conversations will remain private, but we are convinced that Dr. Moore has sought to be attentive and responsive to those who have brought concerns to him. At the same time, as he has pursued these conversations and listened to others, Dr. Moore has expressed a desire to make a public comment beyond these private conversations, which we have shared with our entire Board and happily affirm.

In many respects, it was the trustee system that allowed for the Conservative Resurgence in our denomination. As committed Southern Baptists with a great appreciation for our Convention, we take our fiduciary responsibility as trustees of the ERLC as a sober and serious stewardship. As an Executive Committee, we believe that Dr. Moore has taken appropriate measures to address this situation. We realize that divisions do not heal overnight, and as needs arise our Board will be happy to address them. But in terms of leadership and support, Dr. Moore is the man to whom it has been entrusted to lead this entity—speaking prophetically both to our culture and to our Convention. He will continue doing so with the confidence of our support.

From Russell Moore

Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday mornings, putting quarters in offering envelopes, to tuck in my Bible. Those envelopes would go with me to my little Southern Baptist church to fuel missionary advance all around the world. On Sunday nights, I was right there in Baptist Training Union, learning what it meant to be distinctively Baptist—including a believers’ church and of a free church in a free state. On Wednesday nights, I was right back there, in Royal Ambassadors, learning the names of our missionaries and why it matters that we cooperate together to hold the rope for them.  

As the son of both the long Baptist tradition of missionary cooperation and of the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence, I consider it a privilege to carry out my assignment as a servant to our Southern Baptist churches, for the sake of our mission together, so that the kingdom of God would be seen in gospel churches of those from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language.

As I look back over the last year, I am grieved by the tensions in our denomination over the state of American politics and the role of religion in it. I want to do everything in my power to be an agent of unity, because I still believe in what those offering envelopes represent: the joy of cooperation together to see the world won to faith in Jesus Christ.

As I thought about my own role in this division, I attempted in December to write a reflection on how I sought to go about the task of attempting to speak to issues of conviction for me during the tumult of an election year. Some who saw things differently than I did received those words, and we’ve gladly joined arms in unity. Others didn’t receive them, not because of any deficiency of grace on their part, but due to my own fault. So I want to share my heart in trying both to foster unity and to explain what I was trying—and sometimes failing—to do.

First, let me say that my concerns last year were not primarily about the election as the election. My main objective is not normally the questions of who is up and who is down in political races (though some are called to do just that, and do so well). I see my calling as seeking to offer resources to help churches form consciences of Christians to connect the gospel to ethical and moral and social questions. Citizenship is one part of that, though not by far the most important part for those of us who belong to a kingdom that is not of this world (Jn. 18:36).  

The 2016 presidential election was different than any in our lifetime. Good and godly people had to make very hard decisions. Even when Southern Baptists differed about how best to talk about the potential difficulties facing us, we all were united in biblical convictions we share about such matters as the sanctity of all human life, the scriptural definition of marriage and family, and the importance of religious liberty. I give thanks for these shared convictions even when we were led sometimes to different conscience conclusions about the best way to get to our common goal.

What I was concerned about primarily last year were three things: gospel clarity (as it applies to telling the outside world and those inside the church what we consider it means to be saved and what it means to be an evangelical), the importance of affirming sexual morality and the effect that sexual immorality has on both personal character and on society, and racial divisiveness and injustice. Those are convictions at the core of my ministry for 25 years. Not everyone saw the same challenges to those convictions that I did, and for reasonable and defensible reasons. 

I was asked often during the election about evangelicalism as it related to moral issues and character, and in so doing I spoke, often quite sharply, about those Christians who said or implied that such concerns don’t matter or shouldn’t be talked about. I was not, in so doing, intending to talk about Southern Baptists and others—and there were many—who were open about all of these issues but believed in supporting candidates, however flawed, who would appoint good people and carry out good policies on some issues. Again, I understand that, and find it reasonable and defensible, even when my own conscience differs. The Bible teaches us to give latitude to one another’s consciences on matters not explicitly defined in Scripture since “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23), and my prayer is to be quick to extend this kind of charity towards others.

To be clear, I was also not meaning to suggest it was sinful for Southern Baptists or others to advise candidates or to serve on advisory boards in order to bear some influence there. I was almost never asked about that, and I didn’t see it as a point of confusion, either for lost people or for the church. What I was attempting to talk about were those—most often prosperity gospel teachers—who were willing to define the gospel in ways that I believe untrue to the plan of salvation, or to dismiss the moral concerns other Christians had.

As the year progressed, I felt convicted—both by my personal conscience and by my assignment by Southern Baptists—to speak out on issues of what the gospel is and is not, what sexual morality and sexual assault are and are not, and the crucial need for white Christians to listen to the concerns of our black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ. I stand by those convictions, but I did not separate out categories of people well—such that I wounded some, including close friends. Some of that was due to contextless or unhelpful posts on social media about the whirl of the news cycle. 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. 

I was aware that there were many—including many very close to me—who were quite vocal in critiquing on those areas even candidates they were able to support. These people made clear what they were supporting and what they were rejecting on the basis of the biblical witness, and did not celebrate or wave away the moral problems. I did not speak much about those people because I wasn’t being asked about them, and I didn’t think they were causing the confusion that frustrated me as I was talking even to people I was seeking to win to Christ. But I didn’t clearly enough separate them out. Again, that is a failure on my part, and I apologize.

One of the strongest convictions that I have is that I am a sinner. That’s been clear to me from when I first prayed the sinner’s prayer for mercy from Christ. That means that I am not a competent judge of my own heart or my own motives. Instead, I am a man under authority, and I happily have submitted and will continue to submit to both my board of trustees and to the elders of my local church to make those kinds of determinations.

What I do know is that I—or anyone in this job—will have to talk about all sorts of controversial things. There may be times when what I believe is an issue of biblical truth or Baptist distinctive is wrong. There may be other times when I might be right, but many—maybe even most—people disagree with me. I don’t expect people to agree with me. My job is to speak to consciences, and to endeavor to provide the resources to pose the right kinds of biblical questions—even if you come to different answers.

When my predecessor, Richard Land, spoke to issues, I often agreed with him and sometimes disagreed, either in content or in tone or in emphasis, but he always made me think and go back to God’s Word to sort out how to live the Christian life and how to disciple others on issues of thorny cultural or moral consequence. I endeavor to do the same. I also pray that you—and lost people overhearing or, most importantly to me, my children—will always know that whether right or wrong I am trying to tell you the truth as I honestly see it, not trying to evade issues I think will get me in trouble. I may fail at that, but I pray not to fail at that, by God’s grace.

My goal is to redouble my commitment to stand for what I believe in—on seeking first the kingdom of God, on the need for personal character and sexual holiness, on racial justice and reconciliation. I also commit to work together for our denomination’s cooperative consensus. 

When I look out across our denomination, we have too much at stake, and too much for which to be grateful, to be divided. The gospel wins over everything in the end. I pray that the gospel would win in our denomination, in our churches, and in my own heart. The same gospel that reconciles us to God is the same gospel that allows us to be reconciled to one another. I learned that from y’all. That’s why they gave me those Southern Baptist missions offering envelopes. I pray that our quarters, and more importantly our gospel unity and clarity, go out to our first-rate Southern Baptist missionaries and church planters and evangelists and seminary students for the sake of what will outlive our ministries and will outlast the Southern Baptist Convention—the glory of God and the souls of those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

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