This weekend I read, perhaps like you, Jonathan Merritt’s piece in The Washington Post titled, “Southern Baptists who marginalize Russell Moore are making a grave mistake.” I take the thesis of the piece to be that Russell Moore (and, by extension, the ERLC he leads) bring a helpful, unique, and needed perspective into Southern Baptist life as well as speaking profitably as representatives of Southern Baptists to the broad culture. To put my cards on the table up front, I agree with that thesis. However, Merritt’s tone in the article came across, at least to me, to be the voice of rebuke and, while I will leave it to you to conclude whether or not that rebuke is needed, I believe Southern Baptists would be wise to consider – in a positive sense – the need for a multitude of counselors, particularly those within our camp (i.e. those who are with us on the essentials but who offer us a potentially profitable angle on a secondary issue which is nonetheless important).
Since this point of contention in Merritt’s piece center on Trump I think a few personal descriptors are important before you (hopefully) read the rest of this. As for me, I totally get the Christians who did the math and said “I’ve got to vote for Trump.” I also get how other Christians did the math and said, “I won’t be voting for Trump.” Both groups are within the freedom of our faith to do so and neither position has a monopoly on faithfulness to the principles of our faith. Just so I’m not misunderstood – if you voted for Trump from Christian convictions you have my respect and appreciation. Also, if you voted against Trump from Christian convictions you have my respect and appreciation. Most elections present few easy conclusions and our most recent Presidential election is no exception.
Having said that, if the Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t have room for Russell Moore and the ERLC, one of the clearest voices in presenting the gospel in winsome fashion to the broader culture, helping believers understand the public implications of their faith and work through practical issues of life, and serving local churches so that they will better do the same, because he was critical of Donald Trump we are, with no hyperbole, in dark, dark days as a denomination.
In Dr. Moore (and the ERLC) you specifically have leadership built on maximizing the gospel and gospel essentials with clarity, charity, and conviction. To not criticize him but actually withdraw support of his leadership on the single point of differing with his political conclusions is to elevate U.S. politics, as important as that subject is, to the level of gospel faithfulness – an elevation that is deeply, deeply inappropriate. It is also, ironically, to repeat the very error you are accusing Dr. Moore of.
I get that you might not like Dr. Moore pointing out Trump’s flaws. I also get you might not like Franklin Graham choosing not to address those flaws. The Kingdom has room for both precisely because our ultimate allegiance to the Kingdom ensures that we are ultimately beholden to no earthly political structure, even as we make use of them for Kingdom purposes as the opportunity presents itself. Therefore we are at our strongest when there is room for passionate appeal and even argument about the best practices in areas – like politics – that do not rise to the level of importance of gospel clarity. We should be thankful for those voices squarely within the bounds of the Christian faith calling for us to thinking carefully, deeply, and self-critically about important secondary issues rather than despising them.
If the Southern Baptist Convention, in particular, is rent asunder on the subject of the best political candidate we reveal a fatal flaw in our appreciation of gospel priorities. If we now must confess not only Christ as Lord but also a specific political personality as the definitive and only Christian option we have confused the eternal and perfect with the temporal and flawed. And if our missions funding is affected upward or downward because some one said something we don’t like on any issue outside Christian orthodoxy and Baptist theological convictions we reveal the same flaw.
We must – and really do – have unity on the essentials of our faith. As Southern Baptists we have this articulated in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. And because we have this unity we have room for charity in those areas outside of the essentials. Any instinct or voice calling us to consider non-essentials to be essential is not serving us well and attempts to lead us from health into sickness.
Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by Jeff Wright. He is the pastor of Midway Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He also writes at his own site, jeffwright.exaltchrist.com.