NASHVILLE (BP) – The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s primary goal is to help Southern Baptist churches and, “from that service, speak to a watching world,” Brent Leatherwood said Monday night (March 20) during his installation as the entity’s ninth president.
“We must always take care to listen to our churches and assist them,” Leatherwood told the audience gathered at Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville. “When we are aligned like this, it ensures that this commission will continue to bring a deep, abiding, consistent and thoroughly Baptist voice to the public square.”
Leatherwood’s installation came about six months after the ERLC’s trustees unanimously elected him to the post in September after he had served for a year as acting president. He heard charges from representatives of the SBC, the commission’s board and his church during a service of about 70 minutes and before an audience that included family members, convention entity heads, ERLC trustees and former and current staff members.
As a follower of Jesus, he always has hope despite the current reality of “a dark public square, a distressed convention and division all around us,” Leatherwood said.
“While our convention is certainly being tested right now, both from within and out, my discussions with pastors over the last several months lead me to believe we can get through this hour – and be the better for it,” he told the gathering. “There is an appetite for association, a very real call for cooperation and a renewed belief in the Baptist view of the world.”
The ERLC, he said, has “a unique role to play” as an entity that helps Southern Baptist churches while acting “as an ambassador to the state,” aids pastors “while engaging the culture” and “operates and speaks with both conviction and kindness.”
The commission “stands at the beginning of a new era,” Leatherwood said.
“We will build and reconstitute this team to meet the demands of the times we find ourselves in; fulfill the assignment given to us by our churches, initiated over a century ago; and do all we can to bring honor and glory to the name and saving grace of Jesus Christ by telling a very dark public square about the ‘light of life’ that we read about in John 8.”
The word “and” in the ERLC’s name is the bridge that demonstrates the concepts of ethics and religious liberty “are inextricably linked in our minds,” he said. “We don’t sacrifice one for the other. And I believe this framing is essential to the very work carried out by our team.
“It means we tell the state you have a God-ordained responsibility to protect the most vulnerable from the abortionist’s knife or the drug maker’s chemicals.
“It means we remind the church you have always been a refuge for the abused and the marginalized,” Leatherwood told the audience. “It means we are to be that equally for those preyed upon by the sexual revolution in our culture – and those preyed upon within our walls.
“In fact, we should rush to link arms with the foremost experts in this field to rid us of the plague of abuse in our midst, to cast out those who would target the vulnerable in our pews and playrooms, and make our churches places of safety and sanctuary for everyone,” he said in confronting the problem of sexual abuse in SBC churches. “Woe to those who would stand in the way of this God-honoring work that we are called to do.
“It means we hold the state accountable by reminding it of its proper limits of authority. When it tramples the consciences of citizens or seeks to overturn the fundamental and biological truths of what is a man or what is a woman or, very soon now, what is a human?
“And it means we continue to walk alongside our churches and encourage them as we pursue true racial unity,” Leatherwood said. “This convention has come so far, and yet our work is far from finished. But I have hope because I know our churches possess a Revelation 7 heart that says not until every tribe, tongue and nation is reflected in our convention will we relent from this important mission.”
Leatherwood, as well as the two most recent ERLC presidents, acknowledged the difficult challenges of the commission’s work. “But I firmly believe we have been called to work in the hard places,” Leatherwood told the ERLC’s staff members.
Richard Land, ERLC president from 1988 to 2013, told Leatherwood, “[I]f you do your job right, sooner or later you’re going to make everybody unhappy. Because if there’s a controversial issue, it’s probably an issue that you’re assigned by the convention to address.
“I can think of no time in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention when it has been more important for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission to come alongside our churches and help them stand for the dignity and value of every human life in an increasingly pagan culture, stand for soul freedom in a culture that increasingly wants to censor speech and censor beliefs that they don’t like to hear,” Land said.
He also assured Leatherwood “that whatever the challenges are, being president of the [ERLC] is a tremendous privilege, and it brings with it some remarkable opportunities.”
Russell Moore, the commission’s president from 2013 to 2021, said Land told him after he was elected to lead the ERLC, “There won’t be a time when you don’t have 30 percent of the people enraged at you no matter what you do. And he’s right, because of the nature of what it is that you have to deal with. You’re dealing with issues that are deeply visceral, sometimes deeply complicated.
“The number one thing that Southern Baptists and other Christians need from you, Brent, is that you have a conscience and intuitions and affections that are Jesus-shaped,” Moore told Leatherwood. “[I]f you start to see your inner self and your outer self becoming disconnected, take that as a warning sign to go back to the well, to go back to the Word of God.
“[You] are the perfect person to serve as ERLC president because you are Brent Leatherwood and you demonstrated the kind of integrity and character and giftedness that we all know.”
Land and Moore were unable to attend but delivered their comments by video.
Representing the SBC, Victor Chayasirisobhon, the convention’s first vice president, commended Leatherwood as a Psalm 1 man and offered a five-fold charge. He charged him: (1) To “be bold and “to make us sometimes look at things that we don’t want to look at but are important;” (2) “to be quick to listen, to be slow to speak and to be slow to anger;” (3) remember whom he is serving. “You are not serving me; you are not serving the churches; you are serving the living God;” (4) remember his family “is your first ministry;” and (5) “remember we are family, that you do not have to walk this path alone, that we walk together.”
In her charge from the ERLC trustees, board chair Lori Bova told the audience Leatherwood empowered the staff and “reignited key partnerships across the convention from churches and state conventions to other SBC entities” during his year as acting president.
She read Jesus’ words in John 15 in which He describes Himself as the “true vine” and urges His disciples to abide in Him. “[W]e all look forward with great anticipation to the kingdom fruit that will result from the Leatherwood administration as you remain in the vine,” she told Leatherwood. “May the joy of Jesus shine through you that your joy may be full in Him as you steward the ERLC in the days ahead.”
Aaron Bryant, pastor of The Church at Avenue South, told Leatherwood his church is “grateful to Jesus for Him calling you to this role.”
“[Y]our church prays for you,” Bryant told Leatherwood. “Your church prays for your spiritual protection, for you to be able to hear the voice of the Lord, for you to be able to be in lockstep with” the Holy Spirit.
Nine years ago, Leatherwood and his wife Meredith helped plant The Church at Avenue South, which is a regional campus of Brentwood Baptist Church. He serves as a deacon in the church. They were married 11 years ago this month in Brentwood’s Baskin Chapel, the site of Monday’s installation. They have three children.
Among those attending the installation service were Willie McLaurin, interim president of the SBC Executive Committee; Jeff Iorg, president of Gateway Seminary; Sandy Wisdom-Martin, executive director of the Woman’s Missionary Union; former SBC President Ed Litton; and representatives of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana.
Mike Glenn, Brentwood’s senior pastor, prayed at the start of the service that God would give Leatherwood “discernment, wisdom and courage” that Southern Baptists “will trust him” and “back him when he takes hard stands.”
Leatherwood joined the ERLC staff in 2017 as the entity’s director of strategic partnerships. He later became chief of staff and vice president of external affairs before accepting the acting president’s responsibilities.