By David Roach
NASHVILLE — Controversy surrounding ethicist Russell Moore’s past comments on President-elect Donald Trump has led three Tennessee Baptists — all under the age of 40 — to issue an open letter calling “conservative resurgence generation and their protégés” to “be the statesmen we need them to be in this season of denominational tension.”
Jonathan Akin, Nathan Finn, and Micah Fries wrote in a Dec. 21 open letter provided to Baptist Press, “Now isn’t the time for acrimonious debates over secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters,” such as the extent of the atonement, church polity, methodology, and the appropriate means of cultural engagement.
They directed their comments especially toward Southern Baptists who led the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s as well as those mentored by that generation, noting, “Our real enemy is the Prince of Darkness.” The resurgence attempted to make biblical inerrancy a bedrock commitment of Southern Baptist Convention entities.
“Our hope is for men in key leadership roles in Southern Baptist life — elected officers, denominational leaders and pastors alike — to step forward and lead us in building a renewed consensus within the SBC,” Akin, Finn, and Fries wrote.
Akin is pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon; Finn is dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University in Jackson; and Fries is pastor of Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga.
The open letter was released two days after The Wall Street Journal published an article on Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, with the headline “Baptist figure faces backlash over his criticism of Donald Trump.”
The Dec. 19 Journal report cited critiques of Moore by four Southern Baptists of the generations referenced by the open letter and one by a pastor of the same generation as Akin, Finn, and Fries. The Journal suggested some churches could withhold gifts to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program — due, at least in part, to Moore’s statements.
The Cooperative Program is Southern Baptists’ unified channel of supporting missions and ministries in America and across the globe, including the ERLC.
Also on Dec. 19, Moore published a blog post apologizing for any miscommunication on his part and clarifying that he never intended to criticize all evangelical supporters of Trump.
“There’s a massive difference,” Moore wrote, “between someone who enthusiastically excused immorality and someone who felt conflicted, weighed the options based on biblical convictions, and voted their conscience.”
Among Moore’s comments that have drawn critique, he wrote in a Sept. 2015 New York Times op-ed that “evangelicals and other social conservatives” must “repudiate everything they believe” to support Trump.
Akin, Finn, and Fries acknowledged that “in our age of instant information and social media, our tensions have been put on display — and perhaps exaggerated.” Still, they argued “the recent back-and-forth over presidential politics represents the latest in a string of squabbles that have exposed fissures that threaten our Great Commission cooperation.”
Southern Baptists appear “as divided as we have been at any point in a quarter century,” Akin, Finn, and Fries asserted. “It’s a time of tension in Southern Baptist life. As younger Southern Baptist ministers who haven’t yet reached the age of 40, our concern — shared by many of our generational peers — is that these tensions could lead to division.”
The letter noted that Akin, Finn, and Fries are “heirs of the conservative resurgence” and “deeply respect” the generations of leaders to whom the letter is directed.
While Southern Baptists may differ on secondary matters, according to the open letter, the Baptist Faith and Message remains a sufficient basis for cooperation within the SBC.
“To be certain, we are at war. But our enemy isn’t fellow Southern Baptists with whom we differ in some ways (and agree on far more!),” the letter stated. “Our real enemy is the Prince of Darkness to whom the lost are enslaved, who delights in the suffering of the oppressed, and who revels in the persecution of the righteous.
“And our weapon isn’t absolute theological or methodological uniformity, or secular political power, or even maintaining our place as the largest Protestant denomination in America. Our weapon in this spiritual war is the good news of the saving work of Jesus Christ,” according to the letter.
At the time the open letter was published, an #IStandWithMoore hashtag on Twitter had been circulated on social media. Moore tweeted Dec. 19, apparently in response to the hashtag, “Appreciate all the kind words, y’all. If we’re going to hashtag, let’s #standwithSBC together. Our gospel mission is too important.”