Southern Baptists have a long and storied history of speaking to the culture from a biblical perspective.
In 1907, the Southern Baptist Convention established the Committee on Civic Righteousness, "to consider and counsel together as to what may best be done by Christian men and ministers, especially Baptists, for creating a more wholesome public opinion; for making the criminal laws more certain, more prompt, and more effective; so as to take away the reproach resting on civilization and religion by the prevalence of crimes and lynchings."
That initial endeavor to engage the culture has evolved, if we dare use that word, into the Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which today addresses a wide range of social, moral, and public policy issues — from human needs to the need for racial reconciliation to the necessity to safeguard our right of religious expression.
Messengers to the 1907 Southern Baptist Convention in Richmond, Virginia, could not have imagined the extent and the reach of the Convention's work when it formally launched its work in applied Christianity over one hundred years ago.
Being "Salt" and "Light" in the Culture
The work of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is built on the biblical mandate to Christians to be purifying agents in the world (Matthew 5:13-14). The Gospel commands us — both individually and collectively — to seek to change the culture for good by reaching one heart and one mind at a time for Jesus.
With offices in Nashville, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C., the ERLC is helping Southern Baptists make a difference for Christ in the world by communicating Southern Baptists' concerns to those in power and by corresponding with Southern Baptists on issues that impact their faith and families.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission seeks, through its communications and on-line resources, to aid Christians in speaking clearly, living faithfully, and acting wisely for the cause of Christ. Each of us can make a life-changing difference in the world by applying the ethical and moral teachings of the Bible in our lives and in our communities.
Yet the state of our culture can be traced, in large part, to the fact that as the people of God, we have too often overlooked His teaching to let our light shine before men (Matthew 5:14-16). Society suffers the consequences of our declining to stand against the darkness and keeping our values to ourselves.
A Witness to the Power of God's Truth Unleashed
Christianity's countless contributions to civilization would never have come to pass if the first-century church had kept its "values" locked up. Down through the ages, men and women, inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God, have proclaimed boldly the transforming truths of God's Word. Even apart from all that was secured by the atoning work of Christ on the cross, the world is a better place because of His earthly ministry and because His followers refused to let the world dampen their zeal to share the Gospel.
While the ERLC is dedicated to changing the world for the better, in the end it is the people called Southern Baptists who will make the real difference as catalysts for the biblically based transformation of their families, churches, communities, and the nation.
The ERLC has a two-fold assignment — to help create and preserve a climate in which a Christian witness will be most effective and to help believers better appreciate the moral demands of God's Word on critical social issues.
In its service to Southern Baptists in Washington, D.C., the ERLC is vigilant in protecting the right of Americans to freely exercise their faith and interjecting biblical wisdom into the public policy process.
From Capitol Hill to Your Town's Public Square
The Commission's footprint is hardly larger anywhere than in our nation's capital, where recent attention has been focused on genocide in Darfur, gross human rights violations in North Korea, the issue of sex trafficking, calls for FDA regulation of tobacco, and a biblical response to concerns about the environment.
The ERLC has been an outspoken defender of the sanctity of all human life, from conception onward. For instance, the Commission is a consistent voice against embryonic stem cell research, where human embryos are destroyed, and in promoting the Psalm 139 Project, through which sonogram machines are placed in women's care centers, so unborn babies may live and mothers in crisis pregnancies can be introduced to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The ERLC also produces informational pamphlets, issue-specific bulletin inserts, and instructive audio and video media online. The entity also publishes a weekly e-mail news digest, Faith & Family Values (FFV), highlighting news and commentary that presents a biblical perspective on the issues of the day.
The Commission has several Web sites: iLiveValues.com, which emphasizes the need for Christians to "live out their values" in every area of their lives, featuring portals to informative audio content available for download and podcasting; iVoteValues.com, an initiative focusing on the need for voters to consider their values when deciding which candidates to support; and erlc.com, which serves as the Commission's primary online site to feature news and information on public policy and moral issues of interest to Southern Baptists, as well as offering direct connections to constituents' elected officials.
Moral and Spiritual Revival
Yet the ministry of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has little impact without the efforts of the local church and individual Southern Baptists.
"We must recover a comprehensive understanding of Christian truth and of its applicability to every area of our life through the renewing of our minds," said Richard Land in his installation address as the chief executive of the Christian Life Commission, (since 1997 the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission). Land, who has served as head of the ERLC now for twenty years, looked to the instruction of Scripture in making the call (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:23; Romans 8:5-10; Colossians 3:1-2).
To change lives in the pagan culture in which we live, we must first be changed. Scripture leaves no room for "monastic withdrawal or syncretistic cultural accommodation," Land noted in his remarks at his March 1989 installation. We must surrender to His lordship and contend in the marketplace of ideas for "true truth," a concept the evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer introduced in his highly regarded book, Escape from Reason.
While we do not have "exhaustive knowledge" of all things, we are blessed beyond measure that "we have true and unified knowledge" from God's Word upon which we can stand, wrote Schaeffer. This reality informs the future hope of Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — an American society affirming and practicing Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority.
To learn more about Southern Baptists history of engagement with the culture, look for Jerry Sutton's latest book A Matter of Conviction, which will be released by Broadman & Holman at the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis.
Dwayne Hastings is vice president of editorial and print communications for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.