The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

I’m a fan of the SBC’s moral concerns agency. The ways in which we are salt and light in our communities are more important than we often think, particularly in a context where we are privileged to elect our leaders and can even hold office.

These rights are too rare in our day and even more rare in history. The influence of Christians on the moral condition of our towns and cities can be like salt—preservative and healing. A national moral concerns entity that speaks prophetically to our churches and to our elected leaders has great potential for good. Our ERLC has been a helpful voice since its start after World War II on issues like race, the holiness of human life, immigration, adoption and religious liberty. It has also been a lightening rod in the convention for most of its existence. 

Other entities have a prophetic role among our churches. Our mission boards talk about missions and evangelism, calling out the called, and generosity. SBC seminary presidents talk about everything a church does, in addition to the key themes of our mission boards. Although the boards and seminaries have walked some rocky roads in recent decades, the efforts of the ERLC to speak prophetically have been more controversial. There are some political aspects to the traditional message for the ERLC (named the Christian Life Commission before that, and the Social Service Commission before that) that are not present when a mission board president calls us to be more evangelistic than we are. By “political,” I mean things more nuanced in our minds than the call to send missionaries to every tribe. We may affirm “liberty and justice for all” but not appreciate being told exactly what that means in terms of taxation, entitlement programs or criminal justice reform. We bridle at being told that this solution to an objectively significant problem is the biblical one—thus compelling us to agree, to vote for it.   

We need the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I believe we need its president to be humble but edgy, pushing us toward more perfect expressions of the second commandment (Matthew 22:39). Doing this, the Commission needs to clearly speak for and to Southern Baptists above all others. We should always know that the prophetic word comes from a heart of love, a heart that is one of us. There have been times when the entity joined coalitions and sounded as though they’d started speaking for them rather than for us. An early example was when Hugh Alexander Brimm, the Commission’s first executive director, led the Southern Baptist Social Service Commission to join a multi-denominational body that would become the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. The Commission, influenced by T.B. Maston, thereby grew to disagree with most Southern Baptists about separation of church and state—adopting a strict separationist viewpoint that caused them to think of Southern Baptists as “them” rather than “us.” One observer called this “elitism.” It was. My prophet, like my pastor, will be ineffective in the role if I believe he looks down on me. 

I believe the ERLC has a unique challenge among our national agencies. In my lifetime, every president of the SBC moral concerns entity has been called a liberal—sometimes unfairly. Foy Valentine was called liberal because he was pro-abortion. Richard Land was called liberal because he favored comprehensive immigration reform. Russell Moore was called liberal because he spoke harshly against those who supported Donald Trump for president. It was prior to Foy Valentine’s presidency, 1957, when the Commission was first threatened with dissolution by the SBC Executive Committee. Southwestern Seminary professor T.B. Maston, a consistent supporter of the Commission in that day, suggested that the pushback in the 1950s was due to “… the moral weakness of Southern Baptists.” Maston described this weakness as tied to our “aversion” to the social gospel and that we “early identified the social gospel with liberal theology.”  

The bitter fruit of the social gospel has proved Dr. Maston wrong, but it’s not yet clear if Southern Baptists are even willing to be spoken to prophetically about timely cultural issues. 

This has been a decade of tumultuous transitions at our entities. My friend Bart asked in social media, speaking of one of these transitions, “Would you like to work for you?” It should be a convicting question. People have joked that “leading” Southern Baptists is like herding cats. I think it’s harder than that these days. I’m not saying that every leadership transition is a tragedy; I am saying that we, corporately, can be hard to get along with. That reality bears on the success of anyone who tries to lead us. 

This is an especially crucial transition for an SBC entity that has been on the firing line for most of its history. The next president of the ERLC will be an inerrantist like the last two and he will be intelligent like his predecessors; that doesn’t guarantee he’ll be effective. Pray for him, for the ERLC and for their search committee as they seek a uniquely gifted leader for perhaps the hardest job in the SBC.    

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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