Former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham was greeted by students wearing “I Love CP” t-shirts and an open letter voicing concern about his Texas megachurch’s decision to temporarily withhold funding for the denomination when he spoke in chapel March 7 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Scheduled months ago, Graham’s visit to the campus came two weeks after headlines in the Wall Street Journal and a Baptist newspaper in Louisiana reported that Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, was holding $1 million in funding for the Cooperative Program in escrow because of “various significant positions” taken by the leadership of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Last week the SBC Executive Committee launched a study into “the current reality in Southern Baptist life” of churches withholding or discontinuing support of the unified budget plan that has driven funding for state and national denominational bodies since its creation in 1925.
The student letter, published online after Graham received a copy, said registering protest by withholding funds sends a message that “money talks” and diminishes the voice of smaller churches unable to pony up amounts comparable to a 40,000-member multi-site church like Prestonwood.
“These actions set a precedent that puts the Cooperative Program at risk,” the students said. “If such a method of escrowing money proves popular, a dangerous precedent will have been set for our denomination.”
“Megachurches may withdraw their funds from the CP when they become disgruntled with the convention, spurring smaller churches to follow suit,” the letter continued. “Amidst such a climate, more missionaries may have to return home, church plants could close their doors, and young pastors may have to seek their theological training elsewhere, or even withdraw from classes.”
Graham, SBC president from 2002 to 2004, didn’t mention the controversy during his chapel sermon but afterward met 20 minutes with interested students in an off-the-record question-and-answer session before leaving for the airport. Graham reportedly offered to cancel his campus visit to avoid a confrontation, but seminary President Chuck Kelley encouraged him to come.
Kelley introduced Graham in chapel as “champion for Southern Baptists during the Conservative Resurgence, when we were really battling over the soul of our convention.”
The SBC Executive Committee study seeking “redemptive solutions” to the escrowing and discontinuation of Cooperative Program monies, is expected to get underway in the next couple of weeks.
Chairman Stephen Rummage told the SBC This Week podcast last Friday the study isn’t due solely to the action of Prestonwood Baptist Church.
“The truth is there are a lot of other churches who have concerns about some of the things that are happening in certain SBC entities,” said Rummage, pastor Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla.
“Specifically some of the actions of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have caused a lot of churches to respond and to register concerns,” Rummage said. “In fact our Executive Committee staff tells me that they’ve received more letters or calls or e-mails — people who are considering defunding or holding back CP monies — they’ve received more concerns about this issue and more volume of correspondence and calls about this than from any other issue in memory.”
“Certainly Prestonwood church’s action caused a lot of attention, but Prestonwood is not by itself,” Rummage said. “In fact I think Prestonwood is giving voice to what a lot of other churches that might not have as large a voice, they are giving voice to those same concerns.”
Much of the attention the ERLC is receiving centers on agency head Russell Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump and his evangelical supporters during last year’s presidential campaign. Graham, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory team, has said publicly that Prestonwood’s action isn’t about Trump and isn’t anything personal against Russell Moore, who has spoken at his church. Graham says he is confident the church will continue to support the SBC financially.
Dwight McKissic, an African-American pastor and longtime critic of the lack of ethnic diversity in SBC leadership, said he finds the focus on Trump — who reportedly was supported by 81 percent of white evangelical voters but opposed by a large majority of blacks — disconcerting.
“If Russell Moore cannot give a candid evaluation of Donald Trump without being publically humiliated and without white churches withdrawing and threatening to withdraw funds, … I pity the black SBC officeholder who would dare whisper a word of disagreement on a Trump statement or action,” McKissic said in a recent blog.
McKissic noted that predominantly white churches did not withhold funds when Moore’s predecessor accused civil-rights leaders of race baiting and using the 2013 shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., to “gin up the black vote for an African-American president” and justified racial profiling because a black man “is statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.”
“Dr. Russell Moore is essentially under investigation by the Southern Baptist Convention for his accurate, biblical, prophetic and outspoken views regarding race in America,” said McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
If Moore is marginalized or fired, McKissic, said it will send a message to him and other African-American Southern Baptists to “pack your bags and leave.”
The Baptist and Reflector, state newspaper of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, ran an article March 3 warning of the “ripple effect” that boycotting the Cooperative Program has on international and North American missions and the work of Baptist state conventions.
“We encourage churches that have concerns to prayerfully consider the consequences of withholding or escrowing Cooperative Program funds,” said Randy Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “If you have a concern about a specific entity, contact the president and trustee board chairman of that entity.”