Explainer: A history of the ERLC

March 21, 2023

May 8, 2020, marks one of the anniversaries of the founding of what would become the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (more on those others below). The ERLC is the Southern Baptist entity tasked with speaking for Southern Baptists in the public square and speaking to Southern Baptists on matters of moral importance. Below are some highlights from the history of the ERLC and all its previous versions.

What’s in a name?

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is just the latest name in the history of this entity. Previously, it has been called the Christian Life Commission (1953-1997) and Social Service Commission (1947-1952). Also, depending on how you want to date the founding of ERLC (information below), you could include a previous Social Service Commission (1913-1942) and a standing Committee on Temperance (1908-1913).

Each of these names has focused the organization at that particular time. The initial commissions were sporadic and worked on individual assignments rather than having a comprehensive agenda, focusing more on prohibition than other goals. As time progressed, the organization came to address more and more needs, prompting the change in the name. For example, the Committee on Temperance and Social Service had little to say about the 1918 flu epidemic, whereas the ERLC has written extensively about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

The name change from the Christian Life Commission (the previous name of the organization) to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission represented the absorption of other committees and a commitment to the importance of this first freedom.

When did it begin?

As I mentioned above, there is some debate about when the organization that would become the ERLC began. Southern Baptists have been organizing and weighing in on social issues since their founding. However, the formalization of an entity to address the moral and spiritual concerns of Southern Baptists in the public square represented a new attempt to work together for the goal of bringing the gospel to bear on social issues.

If you were to date the organization based on formalization and a line of discernible work, then the earliest date of the commission’s founding would be 1908 with the creation of the Standing Committee on Temperance led by Arthur James Barton, which was the precursor to the Social Service Commission. In 1913, the Social Service Commission was founded. Barton would lead the group until 1942 (through various name changes) without pay.

However, if you were to date the commission based on when it first received official funding from the Southern Baptist Convention, then you would begin in 1942 under the leadership of Jesse Weatherspoon. A.J. Barton had occupied his position as head of the organization without pay for more than 30 years. In 1942, the SBC first formally apportioned money ($1,000) from the convention for the commission. Previously, the Sunday School Board (the precursor to LifeWay) had helped to financially support the organization and work of Barton.

The ERLC recognizes the need for thoughtful engagement in every realm of society and seeks to provide Christians with resources for engaging the culture with the truths of the gospel.

But it was not until 1947 (hence the current anniversary) that the leader of the organization was recognized with a title that was equivalent to an entity head and received Cooperative Program funding on a continual basis. Hugh Brimm was the first person to lead the organization when it was formally receiving funding from the SBC, and he was also given the title of “Secretary-Treasurer of the Social Services Commission.” This position was a title equivalent to other entity heads and corresponds (loosely) with the current position of president for SBC entities.

Regardless of whether you date it to initial work (1908), funding (1942), or a recognized title (1947), there has been a concerted effort on the part of Southern Baptists to bring the gospel to bear on issues of moral importance in culture for over a century.

Significant leaders

There have been a number of leaders (and again, the founding makes it tricky to decide who is in or out) throughout the agency’s tenure. Though there is not space to describe all of them below, I have chosen to highlight some who have proved significant in the latter trajectory of the organization. A full list of the past leaders is also below with their dates of service.

Arthur James Barton: As the first leader of the organization that would eventually become the ERLC, Barton stands unparalleled for his work for the organization. He worked, without convention pay, for over three decades. Though initially commissioned to lead the Committee on Temperance, he would also lead the Social Service Commission to address a host of other issues. He was noted for his work in crafting the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, and remained committed to that cause until his death in 1942. It was not until after his death that the commission received funding ($1000 in 1943, and a percentage of Cooperative Program funds in 1947). This makes the work he and the standing committee accomplished all the more remarkable.

Foy Valentine: Valentine represents an important figure in the life of the ERLC for several reasons. First, he, and Weatherspoon before him, supported efforts that today would fall under the umbrella of racial reconciliation. Valentine worked diligently to lead the convention to recognize the dignity of all peoples, especially African Americans. In his 1960 address, he encouraged the convention to help African Americans “to secure [equal rights] through peaceful and legal means and to thoughtfully oppose any customs which may tend to humiliate them in any way.” Valentine’s work, and many others as well, was crucial in setting a foundation for what would eventually be the Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention. Though Valentine was correct in his views on race, he also represented the drift left of the convention and was a member of the moderate wing which prompted the Conservative Resurgence in the 1970s and 80s within the Southern Baptist Convention.

Richard Land: Richard Land was the first president elected to the Christian Life Commission after conservatives were able to appoint a leader. Land moved the commission back to its historic biblical roots and was a force for theological conservatism. Land helped to move the commission into new media avenues, including regular television appearances and a daily radio show. He, building on the work of Valentine, was essential in the crafting and passage of the 1995 Resolution on Racial Reconciliation. He also emphasized the role that the commission had for protecting religious liberty. Land also was the first person to serve as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (the name was changed in 1997). His service ended in 2013 after 25 years, making him one of the longest serving heads of the organization.

Russell Moore: Russell Moore was appointed president of the ERLC in 2013 following Land’s retirement. During his presidency, the ERLC was instrumental in launching the first Evangelicals for Life conference, a whole-life, pro-life gathering centered around the March for Life. This conference aimed to help evangelicals see the connection between a theology of the image of God and issues beyond just abortion, recognizing the inherent dignity of all people as those made in God’s image. Additionally, in 2018, the ERLC, along with The Gospel Coalition, convened the MLK50 conference, which marked 50 years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It also pointed to the ongoing work being done and needed within evangelicalism and the wider culture of gospel justice and reconciliation for racial minorities. His tenure was marked by an unwavering commitment to the defense of religious liberty for all peoples, including non-Christians such as the Uyghurs of China, as well as taking steps to ensure that the SBC would be a place where victims of sexual abuse were safe and cared for.

Significant areas of work

The ERLC continues to work in a long line of cultural engagement on a number of social issues. Although it is impossible to cover all of them, there are several that stand out as major themes in the work of the organization.

Religious liberty: First, religious liberty was not an initial concern because it was the area of the other committees. However, with the absorption of the Public Affairs Committee, the organization took on the role of being the denomination’s strongest advocate for religious liberty. This is reflected in the name of the organization, and its ongoing work at both the state and federal level. The ERLC has worked to protect this right because of its intrinsic connection to the Baptist tradition and the belief that each person has the right to worship as they please without fear of government interference.

As early American Baptist John Leland often argued, because the government will not answer for a person’s soul at judgement, it should not direct that soul in matters of religion. The ERLC continues this work.

Human dignity: Another area of work is that of human dignity. This inclusive term includes a holistic approach to questions of life, dignity, and worth. The ERLC has not always carried out the truths of the gospel perfectly in this area. Valentine did not oppose the 1971 resolution on abortion which was supportive in some cases, and Barton was supportive of segregation practices. However, even in those areas there have been at least small hints that Southern Baptists were seeking to uphold the truth that each person was created in the image of God. Barton supported segregation, but he also supported theological education for African Americans and urged the convention to support this work (even as he urged them to not integrate). In contrast to Valentine, Richard Land and Russell Moore have been tireless advocates of the preborn. Both Land and Moore worked on issues of race and helped to pass the 1995 Resolution (Land) and organize the MLK50 event which brought together African American and white Christians to think on the legacy of Martin Luther King (Moore).

The current staff of the ERLC stand in a long line of Southern Baptists who recognize the worth of every person and seek to uphold and proclaim their dignity as people of God.

Cultural engagement: The final area of importance is that of cultural engagement. The work of the ERLC (and its previous versions) has always been to engage on the issues of importance to Southern Baptists. This has included work on poverty, gambling, morality in public office, hunger, public policy, and popular culture. Southern Baptists have long recognized that Christians have a duty to speak into the culture with the truths of the gospel. This is not limited to one area. Rather, it encompasses every place where a Christian goes in their life. To quote the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

The ERLC recognizes the need for thoughtful engagement in every realm of society and seeks to provide Christians with resources for engaging the culture with the truths of the gospel.

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24