By Lonnie Wilkey
FRANKLIN — A state convention leader has publicly challenged the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for stating that there is a denominational hierarchy in an amicus brief filed by the SBC entity in August.
“There is absolutely no denominational hierarchy when it comes to the Southern Baptist Convention,” Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board in a column released Dec. 2 on the Baptist and Reflector website.
Davis also wrote a letter to Russell Moore, president of the ERLC. Referring to an amicus brief, written on behalf of the Thomas More Society and the ERLC, Davis wrote that he “was deeply distressed that our Southern Baptist polity, our historical practice, and our SBC constitutionally-protected relationships were so blatantly misstated and misrepresented.”
ERLC filed the amicus brief on behalf of the North American Mission Board which is involved in a lawsuit with Will McRaney, former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.
According to an article written by Will Hall, editor of the Baptist Message in Louisiana, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 3-0 against NAMB, ruling that McRaney’s lawsuit was wrongly dismissed by the lower federal court. That was when NAMB asked the full federal appeals court to uphold the dismissal — now denied by the 9-8 vote.
Consequently, the district court will receive, again, McRaney’s case that alleges NAMB President Kevin Ezell played a role in McRaney’s termination from the state convention, and subsequently in his being “uninvited” from speaking at a conference in Mississippi, the article noted.
The ruling , according to the Louisiana paper, also instructs the lower federal court “to determine (1) whether NAMB intentionally and maliciously damaged McRaney’s business relationships by falsely claiming that he refused to meet with Ezell, … (2) whether NAMB’s statements about McRaney were false, defamatory, and at least negligently made, …; and (3) whether NAMB intentionally caused McRaney to suffer foreseeable and severe emotional distress by displaying his picture at its headquarters … .”
In his letter to Moore, Davis wrote that “from 1845 to the present, neither the Southern Baptist Convention nor any of its entities has sought or claimed to exercise authority over any other Baptist body. In fact, the language of the SBC Constitution is clear: ‘While independent and sovereign in its own sphere, the Convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention.’ ”
Davis noted in the letter that the ERLC made the exact opposite claim when it falsely identified the Southern Baptist Convention “as the umbrella Southern Baptist governing body over all of the various groups of churches.”
Davis also wrote that the brief contains other “deceptive claims that cannot stand unchallenged and uncorrected.
“You cannot allow this egregious misrepresentation of the voluntary relationships of multiple autonomous Baptist bodies remain in the legal record. I fear future litigants will cite this as if it accurately reflects our beliefs, our practice, and our structure,” Davis wrote.
Davis exhorted Moore and the ERLC to “get in front of this publicly by owning it, acknowledging the errors of the document, withdrawing your name and support of this amicus brief, and publicly repudiating its many false claims.”
He encouraged Moore to issue a legal document to repudiate the misleading amicus brief. “The SBC has no authority over any local Southern Baptist church or group of churches. The SBC has no authority over any state convention. The SBC has no members, and specifically, no member state conventions. No state convention has authority over its cooperating churches. These are bedrock principles for Southern Baptists,” Davis wrote.
In his column, which was written primarily for Tennessee Baptists, Davis wrote that he wanted them to know that as a “former pastor and forever church member, I take very seriously the preeminence and autonomy of the local church at the center of our denominational ecosystem.”
As he closed his column, Davis reiterated that “there is no denominational hierarchy and it’s important that we cooperate to ensure there never will be.”
ERLC vice president for public policy and general counsel Travis Wussow told Baptist Press that ERLC joined the case due to its importance “because of the underlying principle that courts have no jurisdiction over churches.”
The Baptist and Reflector tried to reach Moore twice. ERLC eventually sent the B&R the same response that Wussow issued through Baptist Press.
Wussow recognized the confusion brought about by the language in the brief and said: “As Southern Baptists, we believe that every church is fully autonomous, and that means autonomous from any other church, entity, or hierarchy, and also autonomous from the state. The ERLC has defended the underlying legal doctrines in this case for many years, and we will continue to defend them because of their importance to all Southern Baptists.”
The ERLC response did not indicate that the SBC entity planned to retract or rephrase the amicus brief.
The Baptist Press report acknowledged the brief’s arguments contradicted long-held Southern Baptist polity, referred to the Southern Baptist Convention as the “umbrella Southern Baptist governing body” and described the convention of autonomous churches and groups as a “hierarchy.” Both descriptors incorrectly reflect Southern Baptist polity, according to a statement from the SBC Executive Committee.
Executive Committee president Ronnie Floyd corrected the error made by the brief’s authors in the Baptist Press story, saying: “It is of highest importance that we are always clear about why we are organized and how we function as Southern Baptists. Our polity is driven by what we believe about Scripture as proclaimed in The Baptist Faith and Message, Article 6, ‘A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers.’
“Since all Southern Baptist churches are autonomous and self-determining, they are not subject to any other church or organization, but only to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, our churches choose to cooperate together to reach every person for Jesus Christ in every town, every city, every state and every nation.
“The Baptist bodies serving our churches who undertake this great missional vision, such as associations, state conventions and national entities, do so knowing there is no relation of superiority or inferiority among our Baptist general bodies. There is no ‘hierarchy’ in any form or fashion in Southern Baptist polity. While each body is equal and autonomous, they serve the churches and operate with mutual respect for one another for the sake of cooperating together to advance the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world.”
Lonnie Wilkey is the editor of The Baptist and Reflector. This article includes reporting by Jonathan Howe of Baptist Press.