By / Dec 9

Several weeks ago, the ERLC was presented with an invitation to join a brief written by lawyers at the Thomas More Society, in support of one of our SBC entities. We decided to join the brief because of the importance of the underlying religious liberty issues at stake. 

But there’s no avoiding the fact that there were problems with language in the brief, specifically, language and statements that inaccurately describe Baptist polity and church autonomy and that are inconsistent with the positions the ERLC has repeatedly taken. We wish, instead of joining Thomas More Society’s brief, that we had written our own. We fully recognize this brief created concern and unnecessary confusion. Before we say anything else, let us say—we apologize.

Last week, we issued a statement to Baptist Press, focused on the principal point of the autonomy of local churches. But over the last week we’ve asked ourselves how else we can serve Southern Baptists to the best of our ability. One thing that may be helpful is simply more information, particularly on the amicus brief itself and the legal doctrine at the heart of it. We’re happy to provide that information.

The autonomy of the local church

There are few issues nearer the center of what it means to be Southern Baptist than the autonomy of the local church. As Russell Moore has noted, “Some churches and denominations have decisions made at the top—by bishops or other leaders—and these decisions filter down to the churches. Our decisions go the other way. We think every church—no matter where or what its size—is governed by Jesus through his Word and by his gifts and is free from dictation by any other church or by some religious bureaucracy.” In fact, Moore argues, the issue of autonomy is the very reason “the SBC was able to turn around from its direction toward theological liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s toward orthodox, evangelical conviction. The people had the final say.”

This Baptist distinctive is something we point out regularly. For example, in the most recent brief we filed against the governor of New York concerning religious liberty violations, the brief describes the Southern Baptist Convention as “comprised of more than 46,000 autonomous churches and nearly 16 million members.” In a recent legal comment letter to the Internal Revenue Service, we noted that Southern Baptists “are congregationally governed. The key feature of congregational governance is the autonomy of the local church or church-associated organization.”

But autonomy is not only a Baptist theological distinctive but also an important legal category, commonly referred to as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine or “the doctrine of church autonomy.” This legal doctrine of church autonomy means that the inner workings of local churches are free, or autonomous, from interference from the state. We advanced this argument in another amicus brief we filed in Whole Woman’s Health v. Smith before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In that brief, we argued that the First Amendment rights held by churches “not only includes autonomy in their selection of religious leaders, but also ‘the freedom to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.’” We took a similar position in a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court alongside the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Christian Life Commission of the BGCT in Diocese of Lubbock v. Guerrero.

To the brief in question, the argument the brief was seeking to establish was not one about “hierarchy” or “umbrella organizations” (and, again, should not have used that language) but rather about the inherently religious character of Southern Baptist cooperative ministry. All Southern Baptist churches are autonomous, self-determining, and subject only to the Lordship of Christ. At the same time, we freely cooperate with each other for the sake of the gospel, and any associations, entities, or conventions are, as the Baptist Faith & Message puts it, “voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner.” But the fact that they are organized by and for our churches also means these bodies are inherently religious, and therefore protected by the First Amendment and fully autonomous from interference by the state. 

The ERLC, in service to the SBC, has always doggedly opposed state interference with the internal affairs of local churches and religious organizations. This is why we felt it was important to engage in this case in the first place. This does not dismiss concerns about the inaccurate language in the brief, but it does explain our underlying conviction, namely, the conviction that courts have no business interfering with the work of the church, whether deacon meetings or church discipline or even our cooperative gospel work together as Southern Baptists. 

What’s next?

When it comes to defending religious liberty in the judiciary and the Christian ideal of a “free church in a free state,” as the Baptist Faith & Message puts it, we will continue to be tireless in our witness. To that end, we have already filed briefs in a number of cases this year, advocating for religious freedom for houses of worship in the midst of the COVID–19 pandemic, for the religious freedom rights of faith-based adoption and child welfare providers, and in a range of other cases. That will continue.

Moving forward beyond this particular brief, we want to make absolutely sure that we live up to the high expectations we have for ourselves in service to Southern Baptist churches. That begins with a few internal procedural changes to ensure we don’t find ourselves here again. To be specific, the process of drafting and joining amicus briefs regularly involves short timelines, but moving forward we will require a standardized minimum timeline for review. Such a measure would have either corrected the issues with the original brief or prevented our involvement with it.

At the same time, some have wondered, understandably, whether the language in this individual brief could have harmful future consequences. Let us reassure Southern Baptists on this point: an amicus brief is not binding precedent and cannot override the clear, consistent statements Southern Baptists—including the ERLC—have made about the autonomy of the local church. And to be clear, the language about “hierarchy” in this brief is an aberration from the clear pattern of not just how Southern Baptists carry out cooperative ministry together but also from the arguments we have made consistently in a number of legal venues. Finally, know that in the days ahead we will take every opportunity available to us in the judiciary to defend autonomy rigorously and to ensure there is unmistakable clarity on Southern Baptist polity.

By / Apr 13

Is it even possible that my generation, which sends 6 billion text messages per day and 6,000 thousand tweets per second, is fatally lonely? Not only is that possible, it’s increasingly the consensus of social and behavioral scientists. Carolyn Gregoire at Huffington Post has highlighted a report from the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science that discusses the serious effects that chronic loneliness can have on health. One study concludes that the connection between loneliness and decreased physical well-being (including lifespan) is so well-established that loneliness should be considered alongside things like obesity a “public health concern.”

The loneliest generation

The irony is obvious. Millennials sit perched atop the most dazzling machines of communication in the history of human race. Of all the emotional ills that could possibly afflict someone, chronic loneliness seems like something that should be thoroughly vaccinated against by now. Yet not only are we still lonely, we are lonely in an intensity and frequency that very well may exceed any generation in our country’s history.

Secular commentators usually explain our condition one of two ways. The first and most popular explanation is that economic inequality creates this interpersonal isolation by perpetuating the class divide and rewarding self-seeking behavior. This kind of worldview tends to reduce human dynamics to personal power structures. While it is true that poverty can keep people from investing the time and resources in meaningful relationships, it’s also true that many non-Western cultures are intensely communal even at the lowest economic levels.

The second common interpretation is closer to the mark. According to this view, the astonishing mobility of the modern information age has displaced us. No longer tied by necessity to hometowns, jobs, or even spouses and families, we lack the social anchoring that creates community between people united by geo-social realities. Instead, our lives are highly atomized. Our jobs are just jobs, our neighborhoods are just streets with houses and our friends are not necessarily connected to either. We can create custom lives to suit our desires, but this often comes at the expense of a sense of place and belonging.

Personal autonomy: An enemy of friendship

This explanation is interesting because it suggests that personal autonomy–the right and ability to live one’s life absolutely according to personal desire and being ultimately accountable only to oneself–is actually an enemy of friendship. Personal autonomy, especially sexual autonomy, is practically America’s real religion of choice. Personal autonomy is the religion that undergirds no-fault divorce, abortion rights, the decline and redefinition of marriage and moral relativism. The autonomous self is the self that proudly declares “Only God can judge me” and lives as if “God” and “me” are the same person.

It’s important to note that “personal autonomy” and “selfishness” are not the same thing. It is possible to spend one’s life unselfishly advocating for the autonomy of others, and seeking to “stamp out” those who publicly critique autonomy doctrine. That’s precisely where many social progressives currently find themselves.

People convinced of their autonomy are more confident to upheave social expectations on their lives. If you live your life outside the moral universe of religion, tradition and human flourishing, then you are indeed more likely to craft a custom built code of ethics that may make you feel like a “revolutionary.” Yet such revolutionaries often tell of a sense of isolation, unmet emotional fulfillment and personal stagnation.

One example is the liberation promised by the sexual revolution, which has instead turned out to be a legacy of broken homes and deeply dysfunctional lives. Though Westerners are less likely than ever to filter out their sexual desires through transcendent moral norms, they are more likely to be emotionally isolated, sexually frustrated and depressed.

Love: Self-sacrifice for the happiness of others

Why are autonomous selves so lonely? Because the doctrine of personal autonomy is a deathblow to the foundation of genuine relationship and community. Love, the opposite of loneliness, requires the surrender of the self to the good of the other. The key to self-surrender is the seeking of our own happiness in the happiness of others. That is the true fuel of love. The doctrine of the autonomous self teaches us that only by looking inside ourselves and actualizing our felt identities can we be happy. That is the opposite of love. Even if in our quest for self-authentication we behave altruistically or advocate for others, in the end we will only do so in hopes of achieving self-actualization, not the happiness of others.

Social media plays into the religion of self autonomy by allowing us to project custom-built versions of our identities into space and await others to “Like” or “Favorite” it. This isn’t to say that social media is bad or cannot be used in relationally meaningful ways, but it is to say that the reason social media cannot cure our loneliness is because it is not intended to. Social media exists in the end to serve us, not others.

We were not created for loneliness. At the dawn of the universe’s existence, only one thing was not good: Adam was alone. God’s answer to Adam’s aloneness was not to reinforce his sense of self autonomy; quite the opposite. He created Eve, and in so doing proved that the image bearers of God are meant to live with one another, with the highest relationship being marriage between a man and his wife.  

Thousands of years later, Jesus would tell his disciples that whoever would be great among them should serve like the least, and that the love of Jesus’s followers for one another would be the distinguishing mark of their faith. The cure for loneliness is the love of God, expressed in the life of his church. As the Lord said, whoever saves his life loses it, and whoever loses his life will save it.

This was originally published at