Southern Baptists extend olive branch to Russell Moore
Religion | Denomination leaders seek reconciliation amid internal strife
by Evan Wilt
Posted 3/14/17, 01:19 pm
Southern Baptist leaders dispelled speculation Monday that Russell Moore would resign as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) but acknowledged work ahead to repair an emerging rift within the denomination.
“We deepened our friendship and developed mutual understanding on ways we believe will move us forward as a network of churches,” Moore and Frank Page, the president of Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, wrote in a joint statement. “We fully support one another and look forward to working together on behalf of Southern Baptists in the years to come.”
Page and Moore met privately in Nashville on Monday in response to a growing list of congregations that are withholding donations to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over concerns about some of the positions Moore and the ERLC have taken. Moore pointedly criticized President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and said publicly he did not plan to vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton. The ERLC also raised eyebrows by signing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting a New Jersey Islamic society’s right to build a mosque.
The Washington Post reported about the meeting ahead of time under a headline that questioned whether Moore would lose his job. But denomination leaders said after the meeting they plan instead to work together to try to get Southern Baptists back on the same page.
With 15.8 million members in the United States, the SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the nation. More than 100 of the 46,000 Southern Baptist congregations have threatened to withhold donations to the SBC’s umbrella fund, which helps finance the ERLC in addition to the denomination’s six seminaries and two evangelism agencies, the Post reported.
Most notably, Jack Graham, former SBC president and senior pastor of the Dallas-area megachurch Prestonwood Baptist , announced his congregration planned to escrow $1 million earmarked for the SBC because of statements Moore made.
“This year, religious conservatism stands naked and exposed before the world, while Trump smugly surveys what he has come to own,” Moore wrote.
Graham told The Wall Street Journal in December after Trump won the election that Moore’s comments showed “disrespectfulness towards Southern Baptists and other evangelical leaders.”
Earlier in the campaign season, Trump and Moore quarreled on social media.
“Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for,” Trump tweeted. “A nasty guy with no heart!”
Moore has been less vocal with criticisms of Trump since Election Day, and many who support Moore have rallied behind him.
SBC leaders recently launched an ad hoc committee to study why churches are escrowing money to the umbrella fund. The committee plans to present a full report on its findings this September.
According to Baptist Press, Page did not schedule the meeting with Moore with the intent of dismissing him, but rather to collaborate on bridge-building strategies to unite the network of churches.
Moore took over the ERLC in 2013 during a time when many minority Southern Baptist congregations felt ostracized after Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, accused African-American leaders of turning the Trayvon Martin case into political fodder.
Last week, Byron Day, president of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in an open letter that Moore is a key figure in Southern Baptists’ reconciling with each other.
“Russell Moore has done nothing worthy of discipline or firing. He has not violated The Baptist Faith and Message and, in fact, has been outstanding as president of the ERLC,” Day wrote. “Southern Baptist have been uniquely gifted and called to have a great impact for the Kingdom of God. We must not be ignorant of the schemes of the enemy to divide us. Now is not the time for division but unity and we must be diligent to preserve the unity we have in Christ.”
Evan is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD reporter.