Left to right, SBC EC President Ronnie Floyd, EC Chairman Mike Stone, and Credentials Committee Chairperson Stacy Bramlett answer questions during a press conference Feb. 18 in Nashville. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index
Texas church also disfellowshipped for pastor registered as sex offender
NASHVILLE — One of the more historical Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee meetings in recent memory has led to a week of discussion over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as well as a deadline extension for recommended changes in the Pastors’ Conference lineup at the June annual meeting.
On Tuesday, Feb. 18 SBC Executive Committee members voted to disfellowship a Texas church, issued a recommendation for review of the upcoming Pastors Conference lineup, and created a task force to study the impact of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on Cooperative Program giving.
The announcements followed the EC’s second executive session of the day – which lasted over an hour – where only Executive Committee members could be in the room for discussion. An earlier executive session lasted approximately 30 minutes.
The Executive Committee, reported chairman Mike Stone, originally approved making the convention hall available to the Pastors’ Conference with amendments to its proposed program to be submitted by Monday, Feb. 24. Concerns, read the recommendation, came about “due to our belief that multiple aspects of its proposed program as of Feb. 18, 2020, are sufficiently beyond the parameters of the faith and practice of Southern Baptists in accordance with ‘The Baptist Faith and Message.’”
Yesterday Baptist Press reported that an extension to March 30 had been granted after First Orlando pastor David Uth, president of the Pastors’ Conference, shared with the EC that he had called his church into a 40-day fast to pray over the matter.
The creation of a study task force for the ERLC, read a recommendation from the Cooperative Program committee, cited “ongoing concerns [that] have been expressed both publicly and privately to various members of the Executive Committee and other Southern Baptists regarding how the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s actions in relation to its ministry statements are affecting the Convention and its relationships with local churches, local associations, and state conventions.”
The EC also reported the disfellowshipping of Ranchland Heights Baptist Church in Midland, Texas. In 2003 the church’s pastor, Philip Rutledge, was convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 11 and 12, and registered for life as a sex offender, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Church leaders told a news station in 2016 that although they knew Rutledge was a registered sex offender, they believed that God had forgiven him.
Following the announcements toward the close of the Feb 17-18 Executive Committee meeting, a press conference was held for SBC EC President Ronnie Floyd, EC Chairman Mike Stone, and Executive Committee member Stacy Bramlett, who serves as chair of the Credentials Committee. Last summer messengers to the SBC annual meeting voted to repurpose the Committee to look into allegations of abuse, racism, or other issues of churches no longer in friendly cooperation with the Baptist Faith and Message.
Pastors’ Conference deliberations ongoing
“We’ve had lengthy deliberations going back a full week,” Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, said at the Feb. 18 press conference. “When the lineup was announced and began to get some publicity on social media, I called the conference president [to seek] some background information as to if he could explain his choices for the program.”
While it is the role of the Pastor’s Conference president to determine the lineup, Stone added, it’s up to the Executive Committee to manage who uses the space at the annual meeting. That includes vendors, seminaries gathering for their luncheon, or gatherings such as the Pastors’ Conference. The use of Cooperative Program funds becomes an issue as is whether the program is “in keeping with the identity of who we are as Southern Baptists.”
As the February Executive Committee meeting is the last one before the SBC in June, such discussions over who uses what space are always on the agenda. Stone offered a peek into the tone over the issue among Executive Committee deliberations.
“When this came up … we had a very united discussion. Although there was not unanimity about the best way to move forward, there was certainly unity,” he stated.
Stone regarded it as a “model for Southern Baptists on what it looked like to disagree but with a spirit of unity.”
“I was very pleased personally with the Executive Committee members’ sentiment about that,” he said. “[They] voted and we moved forward. The specifics of the matter are still in the conference president’s purview.”
Study task force on ERLC
The motion to create a study task force on the ERLC came about from “ongoing concerns that have been expressed both publicly and privately to various members of the Executive Committee and other Southern Baptists,” reads the recommendation. Stone, who as EC chairman will be a part of the task force, asserted that its formation was not intended as a move to change ERLC leadership.
“We’ve made it clear that those entities are governed by their Board of Trustees. This is not a governance issue. In recent days we continue to hear reports that are largely anecdotal – though increasing in number – of churches decreasing or potentially withholding CP funds in relation to the ERLC. At that point the CP budget committee has the responsibility … to look into [the matter].”
Stone added that the task force would be devoted to uncovering facts. As it is, many pastors and leaders from across the country – because of the positions they hold – aren’t willing to go on the record for something that is an informal process. “This is creating the formal process so we can receive that information and determine the level [to which] this is affecting the Cooperative Program,” he said.
Stone referenced a 2017 controversy around ERLC President Russell Moore’s leadership that led to reports of many churches withholding CP giving to the entity.
“I’m fully aware that we may find, as we did in 2017, that what we’ve been hearing is not as significant in fact as it is in perception. … What I hope to find is that those facts lead us as Southern Baptists to joyfully and in a unified manner resolve this question so it does not continue to be a potential source of discussion that distracts us from our mission, which is to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.”
ERLC Executive Committee issues letter in response
On Feb. 20 the Executive Committee of the ERLC issued a public letter directed at Stone and the SBC Executive Committee, expressing its “strong opposition” to the formation of the study task force.
The letter disputed the notion that the task force is relegated to studying an impact on the Cooperative Program. “The appointment of this task force can be taken in no other sense than a vote of no confidence in the ERLC Board of Trustees, which is both insulting and, in our view, inappropriate and out of step with Southern Baptist cooperation,” it read.
In May 2017 a study by the Louisiana Baptist Convention ultimately led to a commendation of Moore’s work at the ERLC and encouragement for churches to continue giving through the Cooperative Program to the entity. A separate report the following month by an ad hoc Cooperative Program Study Committee through the EC agreed that reports of “escrowing, withholding [and] reducing” CP gifts were “not as widespread” as originally thought.
Other criticisms in the letter include the SBC Executive Committee’s failure to consult with ERLC trustees, the task force’s formation in executive session, and the charge that the task force’s very existence is a sign of overruling the will of SBC messengers.
“Is there any reason to think present-day anecdotal reports are any more accurate when anecdotal reports just a few years ago (1) proved not to align with reality, according to the Executive Committee’s own report; and (2) when the messengers have spoken at the Annual Meeting with overwhelming support,” said the letter.
Church disfellowship first since repurposing of Credentials Committee
The motion for disfellowship by the Credentials Committee was the first since messengers at last year’s SBC annual meeting voted to have the responsibility for looking into reports of churches no longer in friendly cooperation with Southern Baptists according to Article 3 of the SBC Constitution.
In the press conference, Bramlett responded to a question by The Christian Index on the procedure for disfellowshipping Ranchland Heights.
“We meet once a month and during that time look at what has been sent through the portal and make decisions based on that information,” she said.
Correspondence with churches comes by letter and phone, Bramlett added, with the timeline depending on the amount of time it takes the church to respond.
“There is no defined time frame,” she said.
As it is a new committee, establishing policies and procedures also factor into the process. Early indications, Bramlett shared, are that the portal has served as an easy way to submit reports. She declined to share the number of reports submitted thus far.
Unity around what matters
At the Feb. 18 press conference, Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd addressed the seemingly ever-increasing divisions in the SBC.
“Obviously, our convention from time to time goes through challenges,” he said. “We’ve been in a season of some of those challenges being personified or more demonstrably than other times in our history.”
However, Floyd added, that image doesn’t match the unity he witnessed the night before in the EC’s embrace of Vision 2025.
“The one thing that always unites us is missions and evangelism. … We’re going to adhere to a call from the Lord to reach every person for Jesus Christ in every town, every city, every state, and every nation. So for the next several months before the Southern Baptist convention in June, we would do our best to forward that vision as much as possible.
“If the SBC goes forward on that vision … it will hopefully be so strong that if we have disagreement about various matters we don’t stay down there very long. Hopefully we can always unite with what we’re really all about.”
Scott Barkley serves as editor of The Christian Index.