Russell Moore-led ERLC a threat to SBC funding, unity report finds

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, speaks at the MLK50 conference in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 2018. | ERLC/Karen McCutcheon

Nearly two years after a motion to defund the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore-led Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was rejected by messengers, a new report from a task force commissioned to study the denomination’s public policy arm has found it to be a major threat to the funding of the $15 billion Protestant Christian organization’s Cooperative Program.

The ERLC, which currently has an operating budget of $4.3 million, is funded through the SBC’s Cooperative Program, which also provides funding for the North American Mission Board, International Mission Board, and the six Southern Baptist seminaries in America — Southern, Southeastern, Midwestern, Southwestern, Golden Gate, and New Orleans.

Members of the task force, which includes Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia, who is vying to become the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, painted a grim picture of the threat Moore’s controversial leadership poses to the Cooperative Fund.

“While much of the work of the ERLC is praised and appreciated by Southern Baptists, the ERLC is also a source of significant distraction from the Great Commission work of Southern Baptists. The leader of a large state convention reported, ‘The ERLC has been a stumbling block not worth the mission dollar investment.’ The task force finds merit in this statement,” wrote members of the task force.

Among the concerns state executive directors of the SBC reported hearing about Moore from pastors were: Moore’s open opposition of President Donald Trump; an allegation that he received funding from an organization with ties to George Soros; an Amicus brief from the ERLC in support of a New Jersey mosque; a perception that he criticizes conservative political figures more frequently and more harshly than moderate to liberal figures; his stance on immigration; his stated support of attending homosexual wedding showers and receptions; plus giving disrespectful and condescending responses to the questions of messengers. Repeatedly noted was the response given to Pastor John Wofford of Armorel Baptist Church at the 2016 annual meeting about Muslims.

The report, which was released Monday, noted that while giving to the SBC’s Cooperative Program has been trending downward for years, Moore’s leadership and perceived liberal politics has led to hundreds of churches withholding funds to the program, threatening to withhold funding or even cutting ties with the denomination.

“In early January as the task force was finalizing this report, some of our largest state conventions initiated contact with the task force. Multiple churches in those states have more recently defunded or are now considering defunding the ERLC. The contacts included one of the largest contributors in the Southern Baptist Convention. Two additional churches described as significant Cooperative Program churches in one state convention have recently defunded. There were calls for the resignation of Dr. Moore,” the task force said.

“These January actions followed comments made by Dr. Moore related to the unlawful incident at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. The unrest in these churches toward the ERLC was not caused by Dr. Moore’s condemnation of the U.S. President or by the renunciation of the tragic event at the Capitol. Rather, the churches were troubled by Dr. Moore’s comments in light of the silence of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission during the violent and destructive protests that swept the entire nation for months beginning in the summer of 2020,” they wrote.

The Cooperative Program is the SBC’s unified plan of giving through which cooperating SBC churches give a percentage of their undesignated receipts in support of their respective state convention and SBC missions and ministries.

While state conventions couldn't provide any verifiable data that they were giving to the Cooperative Program as a result of the work of the ERLC, there was significant evidence that the ERLC’s work was affecting funding, the report said.

“One state convention reported that more than 250 churches are considering withholding or negatively designating funds or have already done so. This number represents a significant percentage of the churches currently in friendly cooperation with that state convention,” the task force members wrote.

“Some churches are considering a complete withdrawal from the SBC because of the belief that the national convention is moving in a liberal direction. The ERLC is listed as one of those concerns. The state convention reported that serious concerns about the ERLC exist with 10 of the top 30 CP-giving churches, potentially impacting a total of $2,448,000 from those 10 churches alone,” they said.

One state convention verified that $1,147,000 had been withheld due to the ERLC and estimated another $1,500,000 of Cooperative Program giving is in jeopardy.

“Another state reported that 94 churches have either decreased or completely eliminated Cooperative Program support this year at a total budget cost of approximately $500,000. Based on actual conversations with these pastors, the state executive estimated that 50% have done so because of a ‘lack of confidence in many national SBC issues.’ These issues included but were not limited to the ERLC,” they wrote.

The Christian Post reached out to the ERLC for comment Tuesday and David Prince, chairman of the organization's board of trustees, said they have "served Southern Baptists faithfully" during difficult times.

“I think Southern Baptists can see this report for exactly what it is and are ready to move on from this moment and focus on our mission together. The ERLC has served Southern Baptists faithfully during a time of political, cultural, and in some cases, denominational chaos. Much of this chaos remains with us, including widespread news of many of our black and brown brothers and sisters leaving the SBC. That should be alarming to all of us. Regardless, all this and more is why I am grateful the ERLC serves our churches with a vibrant and bold gospel witness day in and day out," he wrote in a statement.

A decision made last year by the Council of Seminary Presidents, which is comprised of the SBC’s six seminaries, has sparked an exodus of black leaders from the denomination after they voted to reject critical race theory and deemed it as incompatible with their faith while condemning “racism in any form.”

There appears to be an impasse over the issue that could likely contribute to more black pastors and their congregations cutting ties with the SBC if Resolution 9, which describes CRT as an analytical tool that can “aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences,” is rescinded at the SBC’s annual meeting this summer.

“To be honest, I’m not optimistic that things will change. Again, for political reasons, economic reasons, the Convention is likely to reverse the decision they made in 2019. If they don’t reverse it by rescinding it … they’ll maybe adopt a new resolution that’s radically different from Resolution 9 in 2019,” Dwight McKissic Sr., one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s most outspoken black pastors, said in a recent interview.

“They may in some way formally adopt the seminary presidents’ statement on critical race theory. I suspect that things will get worse than better. I think the statement that’s being made to us is that there will never be [human] equality and inclusion in SBC life,” he added. 

It is still unclear what impact this situation will have on SBC funding, but The National African American Fellowship alone represents a network of more than 4,000 predominantly African American pastors and churches affiliated with the SBC.

Task force members also argued that “one of the greatest challenges connected to the recent work of the ERLC is an amicus brief filed by the organization in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of McRaney v. North American Mission Board.”

The brief was filed on Aug. 21, 2020, and described the SBC as a “hierarchy” that serves as an “umbrella Southern Baptist governing body over all of the various groups of churches.”

The report states that even though this description of SBC polity was “grossly erroneous” as noted by SBC lawyers, and Moore was aware of this, he allowed the brief to be filed anyway. It was only after outcry about the brief that the ERLC released a statement apologizing and clarifying the error.

After much back and forth, the ERLC and the Thomas More Society filed a letter with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to inform the court of the errors in the amicus brief on Dec. 14 without informing the SBC.

“That the current perception of the leadership and direction of the ERLC by many Southern Baptists is a substantial impediment to the growth of the Cooperative Program. Without quick and significant changes in that perception, the findings suggest the potential for a measurable decline in the near future and beyond,” the task force argued.

The group recommended that the SBC’s  Executive Committee request that the ERLC Board of Trustees work with the ERLC staff to develop an intentional plan to demonstrate a greater appreciation for how its positions, including social media use, affect the spirit of cooperation among Southern Baptists.

They also asked that the Executive Committee request that the boards of trustees of each of the entities of the SBC adopt and implement a policy of submitting legal briefs, where those briefs address the nature and work of Southern Baptists, to Convention attorneys, prior to their being filed, for the purpose of receiving input regarding the effect of those briefs on the ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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