On Feb. 4, the Baptist Standard reported the task force appointed to review the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission had issued its report. Texas Baptists should be concerned about the report because of our relationship with Southern Baptists.
A “significant distraction?”
The report calls the ERLC “a source of significant distraction from the Great Commission work of Southern Baptists.” It also approves a comment from a state convention leader who said, “The ERLC has been a stumbling block and not worth the mission dollar investment.” These statements are signs of a serious theological error.
First, they show us a misunderstanding of the Great Commission itself. “Making disciples” is much more than sending preachers overseas seeking converts. Clearly, it includes the work of sharing the good news with people who haven’t heard it, but it doesn’t stop there.
Becoming a disciple and being a disciple involves change and growth. “Helping [churches] understand the moral demands of the gospel”—part of the ERLC’s mission statement—falls squarely within the realm of “making disciples.”
Notice also that our Lord based the Great Commission on the good news of the kingdom: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples …” (Matthew 28:18-19 NRSV).
Part of becoming a disciple is learning to live like that first statement is true. Jesus’ claim of all authority slams the door on any possibility of separating “Great Commission work” from “politics.” A body like the ERLC, therefore, can help disciples navigate the demands of the Great Commission itself.
A flattened gospel
The theological problem runs deeper. I’m afraid these statements reveal a distortion of the gospel itself, and one that has existed for centuries in the United States. The idea that ethics and politics are a distraction from the spread of the gospel only makes sense if you’ve flattened the gospel.
Too often, we American Christians have been satisfied with a version of the gospel that has been compressed into an “ABCs of salvation” or a “Romans road to heaven.” We have exchanged the message about God’s victory over evil and the renewal of all things for a “flat gospel” of how to go to heaven when we die.
When we miss the kingdom of God and the new creation, when we don’t talk about the transformation of this life Jesus offers us, when we overlook the communal way of life—the politics—of the Spirit-filled people of God, the church’s mission is reduced to making converts, and we cease to be a living witness to the One who called us.
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Only under this “flat gospel” will “understanding the moral demands of the gospel” be seen as a distraction from “Great Commission work.”
“Ye cannot serve God and Mammon”
The second major problem with the report is related less directly to the work of the ERLC, but it might be even more disturbing. You might have noticed I’ve only quoted two lines from the report so far. That’s because the report doesn’t go on at length about the “distraction” caused by the ERLC. Instead, the report gives most of its attention to money.
Page after page, the report goes on about “the fiscal well-being of the Convention,” “contributions to the Cooperative Program” and “decreased giving.” Little to nothing is said about whether the ERLC is succeeding at its goals or whether its goals are faithful to our Lord and the gospel. The questions of truth and faithfulness are thrown aside.
The task force reports the amount given by various state conventions to hint that their voices should carry a lot of weight. By looking hard at these financial matters, the task force is fulfilling its assignment to “assess whether the actions of the Commission and its leadership are affecting Cooperative Program giving.”
It’s almost as if the Executive Committee had said: “Forget the question of whether their work is good; is it costing us money?” Remember our Lord’s words: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The source of the problem
Finally, the report reveals the partisan captivity of a large portion of the SBC. Especially in the list of complaints on page 7, the report shows us the objections to the ERLC have less to do with missions and more to do with party alignment. The ERLC may have stayed within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, but they haven’t toed the line of Republican orthodoxy.
This might not be so troubling if it were coming from a fringe of the SBC, but the report is careful to show just how widespread and mainstream the complaints are. By citing leaders of state conventions, sharing statistics about the complaints, and emphasizing the unanimity of decisions, they have shown their position—and the accompanying partisan captivity—has a hold on a large portion of the convention.
Even though these complaints don’t represent the whole SBC, this wing has enough power—numerical and financial—that the SBC will struggle to divorce itself from Republican politics for the foreseeable future.
That, and not the ERLC, will prove to be “a stumbling block” and “a distraction from the Great Commission.”
Jamey L. Yadon is a graduate of Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary and is the interim pastor at Axtell Baptist Church. His sermons are available on his YouTube channel “Brother Jamey.” The views expressed are those solely of the author.