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First Thoughts

SBC Survival Guide | Part 2: The ERLC

Christians, Politics, and Division

Politics is tough for Christians.

On a good day, it can be surprisingly challenging for Christians to know how to apply biblical truth to political issues. For example, there is no doubt about the biblical commands for generosity (Luke 3:11). But how does this command to generosity impact our political engagement? Some Christians apply this by enthusiastically participating in the government-funded welfare state. Others apply it by objecting to that welfare state so that their resources can be preserved from the government and freed up for private generosity in their church and other ministries.

My point is not that there is no right answer to that dilemma, but that this is just one political issue where Christians have regularly disagreed.

Christian political disagreements began to be accentuated in 2016 with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Do you remember the dilemma that the Trump candidacy presented to Christians back then? I do.

I was pastoring and preaching through it all and regularly talked to Christians who were painfully torn. On the one hand, the people in my church were encouraged that Trump was running as an obvious political conservative. On the other hand, my folks were also really concerned about Trump’s rhetoric and sinful lifestyle.

I preached several times that year about the importance of Christian faithfulness at the ballot box, and after every sermon, I talked to two separate groups of Christians. The first group was composed of faithful brothers and sisters who felt they could not vote for Trump because they were concerned about his sinful lifestyle choices. The second group was composed of faithful brothers and sisters who, despite Trump’s sinful lifestyle choices, felt they must vote for him because not voting for him would work to ensure that Hilary Clinton would become president.

Both groups were making a calculation. The first group was calculating that it was best to stand on the principle of character and trust God about who was elected. The second group was calculating that it was best to do whatever we could to ensure faithfulness in the public square, and trust God with a man’s character. In their calculations, both groups meant well.

It was a great demonstration of how faithful Christians who intend the best can often struggle with the application of their principles. And it is the kind of difficult challenge that I think Christians are going to see more of in the future, not less.


That brings us to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

For decades the ERLC has been an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention charged with helping Southern Baptists to think through political and ethical issues, and representing our interests in places like Washington D.C.

At this point, we are at a crossroads with the ERLC. Many Southern Baptists are divided about what the future of that entity should look like as the ERLC board searches for a new leader. The decision that the ERLC makes about its new leader will not be a neutral one. The decision will either add further division to a denomination already in tumult, or it will be a decision that can strengthen our unity in these crucial days.

I offer my thoughts on the future of the ERLC as a pastor and lifelong Southern Baptist who wants the future of the SBC to be stronger, more effective, more united, and growing in our Christian faithfulness and witness.

I see two options moving forward.

The First Option

Southern Baptists could eliminate the ERLC. We could, with due appreciation for all the good work they have done in the past and with profound gratitude for the many wonderful employees that have served and continue to serve, say that the entity is no longer necessary to the mission of the SBC.

We could say that, right now, Southern Baptists need to get first things first. And the very first thing must be our faithful cooperation to take the gospel to the nations. Anything that distracts us from that is dangerous and unnecessary. Taking the option of eliminating the ERLC would thus be an exercise in putting the gospel first.

I want to be clear that what I am talking about here is something very different than “defunding the ERLC.” Calls to defund are reactionary and have been issued in a situational and temporary way. I am not talking about that. I am suggesting that it may be in the best interests of Southern Baptists to consider that just because something has been helpful in the past does not mean that it is necessary going forward. Eliminating the ERLC would mean that Southern Baptists would make a careful and deliberate determination that the ERLC is no longer necessary.

Eliminating the ERLC would not mean that anyone believes the SBC should have no voice on the crucial issues of politics, ethics, and religious liberty. In fact, the SBC already has these voices. We have brilliant seminary presidents, an army of ethics professors, and countless godly, insightful, and respected pastors speaking to these issues. Southern Baptists have the freedom to listen to and follow these incredible leaders as they see fit.

Eliminating the ERLC would not eliminate our political voice. Such a decision would express that, at this point in our convention, it is unnecessary, unwise, and counterproductive to select one person that would speak for all Southern Baptists on these issues.

The Second Option

Eliminating the ERLC is unlikely. It would take a massive amount of will to eliminate an entire entity, and it is unlikely that such will would ever originate from the board of the ERLC. What is more likely is that Southern Baptists will be presented with the person the board believes is the best possible option to guide us into the future.

In that event, I think three realities must characterize that man. First, he must be a theological conservative who believes the Baptist Faith and Message and will champion it to the convention and the culture. Second, he must be a political conservative. I’ll save most of what I could say here for another time and simply observe that there is no united path forward for a political moderate as head of the ERLC. Finally, any leader of the ERLC must have a pastor’s heart.

That last one is really important. We need a leader who has bold convictions and a tender spirit. We need someone who can speak about the most controversial issues of the day in a way that unites rather than divides and heals rather than wounds. The divisive nature of politics in our day requires that Southern Baptists have a leader who can lead with the tender boldness of a shepherd, rather than the toxic boldness of a warrior.

If we are going to keep the ERLC, a man like the one I just described is the only person who will have a shot at helping us move forward. I will be honest and admit that I do not envy this man. He will have a heavy burden, but many of us would do our best to support him in his work of faithfulness.

This one is a massive area of tumult in our convention. I am praying for it like few other issues in Southern Baptist life. I hope we can all pray together, trusting God to do a great work that will strengthen our convention in the days ahead.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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