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Russell Moore’s Warnings Should Bring a Reckoning
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Russell Moore’s Warnings Should Bring a Reckoning

How much more evidence do we need that the church needs reform?

This week two letters leaked into the public domain that should cause Christians both inside and outside the Southern Baptist Convention to repent and to demand change. No, it’s not that these letters should be viewed as the straws (or two-by-fours) that broke the camel’s back. In fact, the camel’s back broke long ago. The only question is whether a critical mass of Christians will finally recognize that sad and terrible fact. 

The letters come from my friend Russell Moore. Until last month Moore served as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He’s one of America’s most prominent advocates for life and religious freedom, and he’s been in the eye of America’s political and religious storm since he became president of the ERLC in 2013. 

But now he’s leaving the ERLC and the SBC. On May 18, we learned he resigned from the commission to launch a Public Theology Project at Christianity Today. Last Tuesday, we learned that he left the SBC entirely, joining Beth Moore (no relation to Russell) as prominent Baptists who were chased out of the church they love.  

Moore’s letters contain terrible allegations of racism, enabling abuse, and cruelty at the highest levels of America’s largest Protestant denomination. The first letter is addressed to the ERLC board of trustees. It’s dated February 24, 2020, and describes what Moore called a campaign of “psychological terror” against him, a campaign conducted not because of Moore’s well-known opposition to Donald Trump but because of his efforts to root out and expose sexual abuse and racism within the SBC. 

For example, regarding race, Moore wrote this:

My family and I have faced constant threats from white nationalists and white supremacists, including within our convention. Some of them have been involved in neo-Confederate activities going back for years. Some are involved with groups funded by white nationalist nativist organizations. Some of them have just expressed raw racist sentiment, behind closed doors. 

And this:

From the very beginning of my service, I have been attacked with the most vicious guerilla tactics on such matters, and have been told to be quiet about this by others. One SBC leader who was at the forefront of these behind-closed-doors assaults had already ripped me to shreds verbally for saying, in 2011, that the Southern Baptist Convention should elect an African-American president. This same leader told a gathering that “The Conservative Resurgence is like the Civil War, except this time unlike the last one, the right side won.” I walked out of that gathering, as did one of you.

And this:

[Another leader] let me have it when I said that white Christians should join our black Christian brothers and sisters in lamenting when young black men are shot, and that the moments of Ferguson and Eric Garner and the Emmanuel AME Church murders should motivate the church to address these questions with the gospel embodied in reconciled churches bearing one another’s burdens, that only those with guns would prevent black people from burning down all of our cities.

His first letter also detailed deeply troublesome claims that senior leaders failed to respond appropriately to sexual abuse claims, including sexual abuse claims at senior levels within the SBC. For example, Moore writes:

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. 

He describes the rage of some SBC Executive Committee members when lawyer and activist Rachael Denhollander spoke at the ERLC National Conference and described “the disparagement and poor treatment of a sexual abuse survivor by Executive Committee staff.” In his letter, Moore bolded and italicized his concerns:

I am trying to say this as clearly as I can to you, brothers and sisters: These are the tactics that have been used to create a culture where countless children have been torn to shreds, where women have been raped and then “broken down.”

Moore’s second letter is dated May 31, 2021, and it’s addressed to current SBC President J.D. Greear. In the letter Moore is complimentary of Greear’s leadership and reflects on their shared commitment to addressing sexual abuse in the church, but Moore also provides further details regarding the concerns he expressed in his letter last year. 

In the most scathing passages, Moore describes other SBC leaders mocking and insulting sex abuse survivors behind closed doors–including calling one victim a “whore,” describing others as “crazy” and comparing them to “Potiphar’s wife.” As Sarah Pulliam Bailey observes in the Washington Post, “In the ancient biblical story, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph and falsely accuses him of having assaulted her.”

Bailey also reports that three current SBC employees corroborated key details in Moore’s letter, and so did a “former employee, an abuse survivor and a prominent abuse advocate.”

Christians, let me ask you a question. When the #MeToo movement launched, and you learned that Harvery Weinstein was a predatory monster, what was your response? When you heard allegations rolling in against Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bryan Singer, and so many others, did you think, “Stop obsessing over scandal. Most members of the media and most folks in Hollywood are good people”? Or did you think that multiple powerful American institutions were beset with deep cultural and spiritual problems? 

I know that I wrote thousands of words condemning corruption and exploitation at the highest levels of the American cultural elite. I argued that the comprehensive corruption undermined the moral authority of the progressive elite. I critiqued modern sexual morality, with a specific focus on a consent-only sexual ethic that perversely facilitates the sexualization of everyday life. Conservatives cheered those words, and I stand by those words. #MeToo did reveal moral rot.

But let’s flip it all around. When you heard about corruption and sexual misconduct at America’s largest Christian university, what did you think? What did you think when you read about the sexual scandal at Hillsong or when you learned about Ravi Zacharias’ record of abuse and his ministry’s terrible mistreatment of whistleblowers? Did you pause to consider the larger implications of a decade of sexual predation at one of America’s largest Christian camps or the camp’s efforts to intimidate and coerce victims into silence?

What do you think now, when you read Moore’s words–and when you read that they’ve been corroborated by multiple SBC insiders?

Do you consider that these incidents are now piled on top of a mountain of other church scandals, involving ministries from every single walk of Evangelical Christian life? Do you have at least the same response that you did to #MeToo? Are you at least as alarmed about moral rot in the culture and institutions of the church as you are about the culture and institutions of “the left”? Better yet, are you more alarmed by the challenges in the church—because, after all, we do claim a high calling on our lives? 

Or have you decided that one of the real problems is that the media pays too much attention to church scandals and not enough attention to church virtues? Or have you decided that you’re going to care more about Hollywood or the media because Hollywood and the media are “more powerful” than the church? 

Neither approach is biblical. The bottom line is simple—if the “real” SBC or the “real” church of any denomination is full of faithful pastors and faithful congregants doing virtuous things, then now would be an ideal time to assert that “real” identity. 

For example, Christians should take it upon themselves to show, not just tell, their commitment to the dignity of women and children in their pews, in their ministries, or in their camps. They should show their commitment to demonstrating the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—and their resolve to shun cruelty as a tactic in public discourse, including a resolve to reject those who are cruel in their name and in their defense. 

Late last month, Religion News reported that the SBC has lost a stunning 435,632 members since its 2020 annual report. Some of those individuals have left for other churches. Some have left the faith entirely. 

Why? It’s not hard to analyze. A tolerance for predation and corruption demonstrates no fear of God. A pervasive fear of the world (or “the left”) demonstrates no faith in God.  Brazen abusers disregard God’s justice. Fearful believers behave as if the Maker of the heavens and earth needs corrupt politicians or corrupt pastors to preserve his people’s presence in this land.

I can’t put it better than Russell Moore. Writing in April, shortly before his departure from the SBC, Moore said young Evangelicals are “walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what the church teaches.” In other words, young Americans are saying to church leaders, “Why should I believe when you so obviously do not?”

One last point. It’s hard to overemphasize how much the church’s defensiveness is at odds with the imperative of repentance. Standing in front of the world, when undeniable scandals rock so many of our most important institutions, and declaring, “We’re better than you think” is the opposite of a penitent spirit. 

The humble response is something else entirely. We know. We see. We’re grieved. We repent. And by God’s grace and through the power of His spirit we resolve to do what we can to repair His church.

One more thing … 

Every now and then you come across two great minutes on Twitter. This, from Pastor Derwin Gray, is outstanding:

One last thing …

It’s been a while since I posted a song by Ellie Holcomb. This song is marvelous, and I know that I need the assurance that “His mercy will not end.”

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.