A leaked letter from Russell Moore, the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm, details what he says is a "toxic" culture of protecting sexual abusers in churches and allowing racial prejudice. But Mike Stone, a leading candidate running for SBC president, believes the letter's release is an attempt to sway the upcoming election.
Moore, who recently left SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission to take a job with Christianity Today, explained in a February 2020 letter to ERLC trustees leaked to Religion News Service that his time at the helm of the organization has been one of deep anguish due to dynamics at work within the upper echelons of the convention.
In addition to leaving the denomination professionally, Moore appears to have left it personally, having recently accepted a ministerial position at Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, an Acts 29 network congregation not affiliated with the SBC.
At the time he wrote the letter, the SBC Executive Committee scrutinized the ERLC amid ongoing concerns from within the denomination about Moore's leadership, with some threatening to withhold donations from the SBC Cooperative Program, which in part funds the commission.
Though Moore was a frequent critic of Donald Trump, the 45th president was not the source of Moore's distress. Instead, it was the opposition by some to the stance he took on sexual abuse within the SBC and the promotion of racial reconciliation.
Moore recounted in the letter how SBC leaders and entities were protecting sexual abusers within churches, racist comments against fellow Christians were uttered and how he was subjected to unfair attacks, manipulative threats and investigations by the SBC Executive Committee.
Although he was not explicitly named in the letter, some of Moore's grievances seemed to be aimed at the then-president of the Executive Committee and former head of the Georgia Baptist Convention, Mike Stone.
Stone is the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia, and one of the leading candidates for president of the SBC. This election will be decided later this month in Nashville.
In a statement emailed to The Christian Post Thursday, Stone said he does not recognize the SBC that Moore describes and that he had mischaracterized Southern Baptists.
"The accusation that a special 2020 ERLC Task Force was a unilateral action on my part is blatantly and provably false," Stone, who was a member of the task force that found the ERLC under Moore to be a threat to SBC funding, said. "This attack is a deflection from the fact that Russell’s leadership of the ERLC has been an ongoing source of division and distraction for Southern Baptists."
An area of contentiousness Moore described as "unrelenting and draining" was racial reconciliation, particularly related to the emergence of critical race theory within the denomination, which was brought to the fore with the adoption of Resolution 9 at the 2019 annual meeting.
The resolution recognized the theory as an analytical tool that can be useful though incomplete as a worldview framework. It has been a source of significant division in the convention ever since.
"From the very beginning of my service, I have been attacked with the most vicious guerilla tactics on such matters, and have been told to be quiet about this by others,'" Moore reportedly wrote in the leaked letter. "One SBC leader who was at the forefront of these behind-closed-doors assaults had already ripped me to shreds verbally for saying, in 2011, that the Southern Baptist Convention should elect an African-American president. This same leader told a gathering that 'The Conservative Resurgence is like the Civil War, except this time unlike the last one, the right side won.'"
"Another SBC leader used constant pressure against me in protest of our hiring of Dan Darling and Trillia Newbell, in 2013. At the time, this was, he said, because they did not have adequate Southern Baptist backgrounds. When I answered his concerns to his face, he said, 'I was really just concerned about that black girl, whether she’s an egalitarian.' When I asked what possibly could lead him to think that a woman who has written complementarian articles for complementarian websites was an 'egalitarian,' he responded: 'A lot of those black girls are.'”
In a tweet, Newbell said that she has experienced racism her entire life and its not going to stop her from "doing the good work the Lord planned for me."
The long-running debate over complementarian and egalitarian theology has surged within the SBC in recent months after Bible teacher Beth Moore announced her departure from the denomination and Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California ordained several women in defiance of convention policy.
While nuances abound regarding what theological complementarians and egalitarians believe, in general, complementarians hold that women are restricted from certain offices within the church, such as the lead pastor. Egalitarians believe Scripture does not warrant such restrictions.
Moore additionally claimed he was constantly accused of being a liberal, despite his repeated assertions that he adheres to theological orthodoxy and that some wanted him to live in terror of and under the "rule of a toxic and abusive gerontocracy."
Moore added that he meets faithful Christians who were raised or are former Southern Baptists everywhere he goes. The reason they left the denomination is that they have seen and experienced similar things. He said former Southern Baptist young people who are now nondenominational Christians "just look at the rage and the bigotry and the cover-ups and the buffoonery and they shrug their shoulders and say, 'I guess they don’t want people like me.'"
Regarding sexual abuse, Moore shared with the ERLC trustees that the organization intended to host an honest conversation about the issues at a 2019 national conference and that nobody would be policed from speaking what they had experienced or thought.
"At least one speaker harshly criticized us for not doing enough, or not handling things the way he thought we should. I welcomed that criticism. I learned from it, and was glad that the speaker felt the freedom to do so," he explained.
At that conference, advocate Rachael Denhollender participated with Moore in an exchange where she voiced strong feelings about how poorly the SBC Executive Committee staff had treated a sexual abuse survivor, an account Moore said was accurate.
"This enraged some Executive Committee trustee leadership, who communicated that they were incensed that we would allow such a story to be told," he recalled, noting it was communicated with "special outrage" because the Executive Committee had financially contributed to the conference and a story like that should not have been shared from the platform.
In his statement, later published online, Stone accused the letter of being a "back-door press release" that is "clearly an attempt to influence the upcoming presidential election in the SBC."
"And I think Southern Baptists can see this letter for exactly what it is," he argued. "His letter contains numerous misrepresentations of me and of the leadership of our beloved Convention. More broadly, it illustrates that he holds a markedly different view of the Southern Baptist Convention than the one held by the overwhelming majority of our 14 million members who have generously paid his salary."
"His view is apparently of an SBC filled with 'white nationalists and white supremacists,'" Stone continued. "His view is of an SBC that contains 'neoconfederate activities' and 'raw racist sentiment.' That is not the SBC that I know."
Stone refuted the notion that SBC national leaders employed "'psychological terror" against Moore to "prevent him from speaking the truth about sexual abuse and racism."
"In my entire service at the Executive Committee and as a pastor, I have never heard a single Southern Baptist be angry over opposition to sexual abuse or racism," Stone stressed. "That is not the SBC that I know. Today, at our 47,000 churches, devoted Southern Baptists are preparing for Vacation Bible School, children’s camps, student mission trips, and more. That’s the SBC that I know."
He concluded that Moore's terse accusations against the SBC and its leadership were supposedly made in private correspondence in February of 2020, and it is strange that they were sat on for nearly a year and a half, given their seriousness.
"I regret that Russell’s service as president of one of our agencies has led him to such a disillusioned opinion of who we are. My prayer is that his new place of service outside the SBC will lead him to a better and more peaceful place personally and professionally," he said.
Others running for SBC president this year include Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler and Alabama Pastor Ed Litton, who is endorsed by the SBC's first and only black president, Fred Luter.