The Executive Committee (EC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has voted to investigate the actions of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), led by Dr. Russell Moore. The move is in response to “ongoing concerns” expressed “both publicly and privately” to members of the EC and other SBC leaders.
“I’m fully aware that we may find, as we did in 2017, that what we are hearing is not as significant in fact as it is in perception. What we want to find is where the facts lead us,” said EC chairman Mike Stone, who will lead a seven-member study task force on its fact-finding mission.
ERLC’s ‘past and present activities’ to be Investigated
The EC voted on Tuesday, February 18th, to open an investigation into the ERLC’s “past and present activities.” The Committee met in Nashville, Tennessee to discuss some matters of business pertinent in the denomination at the moment, including the 2020 Pastors Conference and its controversial lineup of speakers and performers and the ongoing crisis of sexual abuse.
The motion to investigate the actions of the ERLC originated from the SBC’s Cooperative Program, which is the pool of money collected by the SBC from cooperating churches across the country. This money is then used to fund organizations such as the ERLC, and also missions work domestically and internationally.
Stone emphasized that the investigation is a “budget issue” in essence. Stone explained, “We continue to hear reports that are largely anecdotal but increasing in number where churches are either decreasing or withholding Cooperative Program funds related to concerns with the ERLC. We have a responsibility that we are granted under the bylaws of the SBC to look at this.” In October 2019, the SBC reported it had exceeded its budgeted goal for the Cooperative Program by $2.7 million for the 2018-2019 year. In fact, despite a decline in membership and baptisms, the Cooperative Program has exceeded its budgeted goals for the last five consecutive years.
Many see this investigation as an attempt to give Moore a slap on the wrist for some of the controversial things he has said and done. For instance, this is not the first time the SBC has been concerned about churches withholding funds over the actions of the ERLC. In 2017, Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church withheld $1 million in funds they would have normally given to the Cooperative Program due to Moore’s criticism of President Trump and his supporters and a controversial amicus brief the ERLC joined to help in a religious liberty case involving the construction of a mosque. Additionally, Moore’s efficacy as a leader was called into question when a group of pastors from the Louisiana Baptist Convention called for an investigation into the ERLC in 2017. At that time, several African American ministers stood up for Moore.
Others, like sexual abuse advocate Rachael Denhollander, see the investigation as trivial and petty in light of more pressing issues the denomination needs to face.
The @SBCExecComm voted to investigate… not sex abuse.
Not the Baptist Press, which defamed two sexual assault survivors and let two violent abusers remain in ministry by reporting an affair instead of abuse.
Not former leaders who let predators walk free.
Deeply grieved. https://t.co/maIy64mpmL
— Rachael Denhollander (@R_Denhollander) February 19, 2020
In Nashville, Stone reminded attendees at the meeting that the EC does not have governance over Moore’s position or the actions the ERLC takes. That task of oversight falls upon the ERLC’s board of trustees. Rather, it will be the goal of the EC task force to determine whether the ERLC is using Cooperative Program funds in a manner that fulfills their “mission and ministry assignment.” Reiterating, Stone said the investigation “is not an attempt to remove Dr. Moore.”
What Is the ERLC?
The ERLC is a spiritual sounding board, designed to help members of the SBC weigh public policy issues in light of Scripture and the Baptist faith. They are also tasked with promoting religious liberty on behalf of the SBC. In a written statement given to Baptist Press, Elizabeth Bristow articulated the day-to-day focus of the ERLC:
Every day the men and women serving at the ERLC stand for the unborn, advocate for religious liberty, work to address the crisis of sexual abuse, and labor to equip men and women to answer ever-changing questions in light of the everlasting promises of our Lord.
Bristow also expressed the ERLC could not function “without the sacrificial giving of churches.”
The task force will report to the EC on its findings on or before its September 2020 meeting.