The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention has set in motion to study its policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a move the ERLC says creates division and is disrespectful.
Some within the nation's largest Protestant denomination have "ongoing concerns" that the ERLC is "not adequately fulfilling its Convention-approved ministry assignments," Baptist Press reported Tuesday.
"We are looking for the facts," said SBC Executive Committee Chairman Mike Stone, who is chairing the study. "We are hearing from state leadership and other pastors across the country. We are making a statement about effectiveness."
But such action is outside of the purview of the denomination's Executive Committee and it solely belongs to the ERLC Trustees, the ERLC Executive Committee said in a Thursday letter in response to the SBC Executive Committee's announcement. The President of the ERLC is Russell Moore, who has been in office since 2013.
"[T]his task force seizes the work and responsibility of the trustees of the ERLC. Evaluating the effectiveness of Dr. Moore and the ERLC team is uniquely the work of the trustees of the ERLC. The appointment of this task force can be taken in no other sense than a vote of no confidence in the ERLC Board of Trustees, which is both insulting and, in our view, inappropriate and out of step with Southern Baptist cooperation," the ERLC Executive Committee said.
The ERLC Executive Committee also stressed that the SBC Executive Committee did not handle established communication procedures properly, failing to consult the ERLC's trustees, which is forbidden by the organization's bylaws.
Additionally, the ERLC Executive Committee's letter argued that the task force was formed during a session that was not public and that it overruled the expressed wishes of the messengers of the SBC during the Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas, in 2018, where a motion to defund the ERLC was nearly unanimously rejected.
"All told, we find the action of the Executive Committee in appointing this ERLC study task force disappointing, unnecessary, and harmful to our cooperative work in the SBC. The Executive Committee, of course, has a financial stewardship, particularly in terms of allocating the resources of the Cooperative Program," the letter continued.
"But that should not result in a disregard of the clearly-expressed will of the denomination it purports to serve. It should not include a disregard of the very bylaws the Executive Committee is claiming as justification for its action. It should not include a culture of secrecy leading to a committee that unmistakably creates suspicion regarding one of our own entities. It should not include ignoring the directive to 'maintain open channels” and instead create hostile channels with what should clearly be first a matter for the ERLC Board of Trustees to consider."
In 2017, the ERLC was scrutinized by the Executive Committee following a tumultuous 2016 political season and as some Southern Baptists expressed displeasure related to Moore's pointed criticisms of then-candidate Donald Trump in the lead-up to the presidential election, arguing that his statements were not broadly representative of the SBC's views as it pertains to cultural engagement and politics.
A number of influential churches at the time put contributions in an escrow account, withholding them from the denomination's Cooperative Program, in order to steer resources away from the ERLC.
Yet Stone maintains this new task force is not an attempt to oust Moore, and neither was the 2017 review.
"The ERLC is governed by their board of trustees," Stone said.
"This is not a governance issue. This is a budget issue related to their fulfillment of their mission and ministry assignment. 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 a statement to Baptist Press, Elizabeth Bristow, press secretary for the ERLC, said the agency "could not do what it does without the sacrificial giving of churches. We hear from our churches every single day with questions about some of the most complicated issues imaginable. In every case, we work to serve our churches with gospel-focused answers."
"Occasionally, we receive questions from Southern Baptists about the work we do. Thankfully those questions are easier to answer. That's because, 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.
Writing in SBC Voices Thursday, Mercer University professor Susan Codone called the SBC Executive Committee's move "abhorrent" and noted the antics of other Southern Baptists on social media as she dared to speak out about sexual abuse and other topics.
"I hope this new taskforce studying the ERLC asks for my opinion. I will tell them that Dr. Moore brought a wandering, deeply hurt Christian back to God and empowered me to serve Him publicly. I will tell them that the ERLC is imperative to the Southern Baptist Convention. I will tell them that the staff of the ERLC showed me how to be Christlike in the midst of hate and attacks," she said.
The SBC Executive Committee's study comes on the heels of the launch of the Conservative Baptist Network, a new grassroots effort comprised of Southern Baptists who are concerned about certain theological trends within the SBC and desire to reinvigorate the denomination's historic emphasis on evangelism and the sufficiency of Scripture.
The Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention will occur in Orlando, Florida, in June.