Leaked letters from former ERLC head Russell Moore prompt social media firestorm

Two letters written by former ERLC head Russell Moore continue to provoke debate on social media in the week leading up to the SBC annual meeting in Nashville.

The letters allege intimidation and bullying tactics were employed by members of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and other SBC leaders against Moore and others at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission over the ERLC’s work to expose sexual abuse and racist behaviors in the SBC.

Letter to ERLC trustees

In a letter from Moore to trustees of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission dated Feb. 24, 2020, and published by Religion News Service on June 2, 2021, Moore addresses action taken by the EC in February 2019 to form a task force to study the effectiveness of the ERLC.

Moore asserts that the ERLC’s work on the issue of sexual abuse was the driving force behind the formation of the task force. Moore wrote:

“The presenting issue here is that, first and foremost, of sexual abuse. This Executive Committee, through their bylaws workgroup, “exonerated” churches, in a spur-of-the-moment meeting, from serious charges of sexual abuse cover-up. One of those churches actively had on staff at the time a sex offender.

“J.D. Greear, our SBC president, and I were critical of this move, believing that it jeopardized not only the gospel witness of the SBC, but, more importantly, the lives of vulnerable children in Southern Baptist churches. Against constant backroom attempts to stop forward momentum, we were able to get across the finish line some modest steps toward addressing the crisis in our convention — the Caring Well Challenge, for instance, and the formation of a credentials committee.”

Comments made by sexual abuse survivor and victims advocate Rachael Denhollander at the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference in October 2019 regarding the treatment of a sexual abuse survivor by Executive Committee staff “enraged some Executive Committee trustee leadership,” Moore wrote in the letter.

Moore also related a 2013 incident in which an SBC leader questioned the ERLC’s hiring of Trillia Newbell and Dan Darling. Moore said the leader protested the hirings “because they did not have adequate Southern Baptist backgrounds” but then spoke to Newbell’s hiring and larger societal issues in racist terms.

Subsequent news reports have identified that leader as Paige Patterson, who held many leadership roles in the SBC but was fired in 2018 as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for his mishandling of the investigation of the alleged rape of a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003, where he was president at the time.

The Executive Committee’s task force on the ERLC issued its report on Feb. 1, acknowledging support within the SBC for the ERLC while noting that some see it as “a source of significant distraction from the Great Commission work of Southern Baptists.”

The head of the Executive Committee at the time was Mike Stone, who served as EC chairman from 2018-2020. Stone is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia, and a candidate for SBC president.

Letter to J.D. Greear

A second letter made public was from Moore to SBC president J.D. Greear, dated May 31, 2021, just days after Moore announced he was leaving the ERLC to join the staff of Christianity Today in a new role as Public Theologian and Director of the Public Theology Project.

In that letter, Moore writes that he felt “conscience-bound to put down in print” what he views as a “crisis for the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Moore points to instances of racism and the “reprehensible treatment of my African-American employees and our African-American seminary professors by figures within the Southern Baptist ecosystem.”

He also reiterates concerns regarding the ERLC’s work on rooting out sexual abuse within the SBC, specifically attempts to disparage victims using what Moore calls “spurious biblical analogies.”

Moore also details exchanges with SBC leaders concerning the effort to put before messengers to the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham the formation of a credentials committee that would be tasked with assessing churches reported to be mishandling sexual abuse.

Leaders respond

In a series of tweets on June 7, Greear responded:

Screenshot from Twitter

In a June 5 statement, SBC Executive Committee Ronnie Floyd said he had received a copy of Moore’s letter to Greear. Floyd said:

“Some of the matters referenced occurred prior to my coming here in this role. For those matters of which I was present, I do not have the same recollection of these occurrences as stated. I do take seriously allegations in this letter which may raise concern for Southern Baptists. I have been very committed to always operate with the highest integrity and skillful hands. I am right now considering ways in which we can develop the best path forward for the sake of Southern Baptists and our God-called commitment to our unified Great Commission vision.”

Mike Stone, previous past chairman of the Executive Committee, also issued a press release, the full text of which can be read here.

Southern Baptists will gather in Nashville for the 2021 Annual Meeting on June 15–16. More than 14,000 people have registered to attend the meeting so far, a dramatic increase in numbers from recent years.

The last time the SBC recorded more than 13,000 in attendance at an annual meeting was 1996 in New Orleans. The all-time high was 45,000 in Dallas in 1985.

 

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