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Mike Stone Files Lawsuit Against SBC Rival Russell Moore

By Bob Smietana
Mike Stone Russell Moore
Russell Moore in 2019, left, and Mike Stone in 2021. (Moore: Butch Dill/RNS; Stone: Adam Covington/Baptist Press)

An ongoing feud between a pair of former Southern Baptist leaders is headed to court.

Lawyers for Georgia pastor Mike Stone filed a complaint Monday  in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee accusing former Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore of defamation, false light, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist in Blackshear, Georgia, seeks at least $750,000 in damages.

The complaint centers on a pair of letters written by Moore, describing his conflicts with other Baptist leaders while he was serving as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

In those letters, Moore claims that the Executive Committee exonerated a church that had covered up sexual abuse and that he was pressured to silence an abuse survivor who spoke at an ERLC conference on sexual abuse. His opponents, wrote Moore in a February 2020 letter to the Executive Committee, wanted him to “live in psychological terror.”

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That letter was eventually leaked to the press and was published June 2, 2021, two weeks before the SBC’s annual meeting. While Stone was not mentioned by name, the letter does refer to him in his former role as chair of the Executive Committee.  

Stone also was the driving force behind a 2021 report to the Executive Committee that labeled Moore and the ERLC as a “significant distraction” from the SBC’s mission.

“The ERLC has been a stumbling block not worth the mission dollar investment,” the report quoted a Southern Baptist official as saying.   

Russell Moore
In this June 14, 2017, file photo, Russell Moore, then-president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Moore had previously faced an investigation by the Executive Committee prompted by his criticism of Donald Trump, which led some Southern Baptist churches to withhold donations from the denomination. 

The complaint also cites a second letter, dated May 31, 2021, written by Moore to then-SBC President J.D. Greear, a North Carolina megachurch pastor. That letter accused Stone and other leaders of blocking efforts to address sexual abuse in the denomination.

“You and I both know how leadership in the Executive Committee, at the trustee level with Mike Stone and his allies, and at the staff level by former Executive Vice-President Augie Boto, have stonewalled many attempts at reform for the sake of the sexually abused,” Moore wrote in that letter, which was later made public.

Those letters helped fuel a grassroots effort for an independent investigation into the Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse in recent decades. That investigation was approved at the SBC’s annual meeting and is currently underway.

Stone says that the letters contained false allegations that damaged his reputation and diminished his future earnings. The complaint also blames Moore’s letters for Stone’s loss in a hotly contested race for president of the SBC and says Moore’s statements cost Stone money.

“Plaintiff’s business operations have already been negatively impacted by Defendant’s untruthful statements due to a decreased trust and confidence in Plaintiff in the religious community, and the Plaintiff’s pastoral efforts will undoubtedly suffer decreased church attendance and a reduction in donations and honorariums because of Defendant’s statements which are untruthful and have cast Plaintiff in a false light.”

The complaint states that Stone denies any allegation that he opposed sexual abuse reforms in the SBC and says that Stone, who has identified himself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, suffered “extreme mental anguish and emotion distress” due to Moore’s actions.

“As a direct and proximate result of Defendant’s false and defamatory statements, Plaintiff has suffered a tremendous loss in professional cultivation and reputational standing, decreased earning power, the presidency of the SBC, and serious mental and emotional injury in the form of extreme public embarrassment, stress, anxiety, and fear.”

Moore did not respond to a request for comment.

Mike Stone
Pastor Mike Stone. Photo by Brauda Studios, courtesy of Mike Stone

In the past, Stone has discouraged his congregation from suing other Christians.

“Let’s say somebody defames your character with unfounded gossip,” he said in a January 2018 sermon titled “Stop Airing Your Dirty Laundry Part 1.”

“The legal thing to do and I’m not just talking about a lawsuit, I mean the understandable natural thing to do might be to defend your name. The godly thing might be let it go.”

Stone is a leading figure in the Conservative Baptist Convention, which has accused Moore, who resigned as ERLC president in May, Greear and other SBC leaders of being “liberals” who have led the SBC away from its conservative values — in particular, because of their statements on combating racism and addressing abuse.

Leaders of the CBN were key players in recent debates in the Executive Committee over the third-party abuse investigation that was approved at the SBC annual meeting in June. As part of that investigation, local church delegates, known as messengers, had instructed the committee to make its private conversations with its lawyers available to investigations.

Rod Martin, a Florida businessman and member of both the Executive Committee and the steering committee of the CBN, was an outspoken opponent of waiving that attorney-client privilege. After weeks of debate, the committee voted to waive privilege.  

Martin and other CBN leaders have blamed Moore for stirring up controversy over sexual abuse in the denomination and causing trouble for the Executive Committee. In a recent podcast from Founders Ministries, another conservative SBC group that backed Stone’s presidential bid, Martin was asked about the controversies in the Executive Committee, which made headlines in recent weeks.

“What happened is Russell Moore,” said Martin. “As you know, Russell Moore, who used to be the chief ethicist of the Southern Baptist Convention, was head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the last several years, suddenly resigned at the end of May and on his way out, in typical disgruntled employee fashion, carpet-bombed his employer.” 

While Martin said he supported the investigation, he also said that it was designed to attack enemies of Moore.

The feud between Moore and Stone is part of a set of larger challenges facing the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has lost more than 2 million members since 2006. A debate over critical race theory has led a number of Black pastors to leave the denomination. And a series of high-profile leaders have stepped down since 2018 due to controversy, including Ronnie Floyd, president of the Executive Committee, who will leave office at the end of this month.

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service. 



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19 Responses

  1. Just what Jesus and St. Paul ordered!! Shame on my hermeneutic. I thought people like Mike Stone were to rejoice and throw a party, when defamed. Gotta go read Matthew 5 again! And to hell with Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 6! Stupid Apostle Paul!

    James Lutzweiler
    Archivist (1999-2013), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

    1. Just curious because of the flippancy of your answer…could I copy and paste and attach your name to this same comment in reply to those who are suing the EC over their handling of abuse allegations? Seems to all fit….

      1. well, you could, if you equate a lawsuit over ignoring children who are raped and molested, whose lives are destroyed forever, with a lawsuit because “you’re mean!”

  2. “Plaintiff’s business operations have already been negatively impacted by Defendant’s untruthful statements due to a decreased trust and confidence in Plaintiff in the religious community, and the Plaintiff’s pastoral efforts will undoubtedly suffer decreased church attendance and a reduction in donations and honorariums because of Defendant’s statements”

    Reduction in donations? To whom…to God or to Stone? Decreased church attendance? Whose church is it Jesus or Stone’s? Potential future loss of honorariums? Good grief how much is the man making from such “income streams” that he feels he need to sue over it?

    What a sad statement of Mr Stones understanding of his position as a “minister of the gospel”.

    1. Well said.

      It’s both tragic and terrifying that the lawsuit refers to the Bride of Christ as the “”Plaintiff’s business operations.”

      I suppose it’s possible that term could refer to something else. But the context implies that his “business operations” are the revenue that he receives from donations and honorariums.

      We are living in shameless times.

  3. Will Pat Robertson run the goings-on of the SBC as an afternoon soap on CBN? What a pathetic gong-show by the old white boys club!

  4. Stone is doing a great job of bolstering his image as a power-hungry money-grubber, in the vein of the infamous suing-abuser James MacDonald.

    His crying about “false light” is interesting. It seems he doesn’t like the fact that “when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible,” as happens when we “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Eph. 5:13, 11)

  5. Next, Moore may counterclaim for the damage caused to his reputation by the bringing of Stone’s suit. Then, will the SBC will file suit against Stone for the economic damage the filing of his defamation suit has done to the reputation of ongoing SBC leadership? What a sad anti-Biblical mess, my guess is the Court will punt on this one as it sounds like an exchange of perhaps truthful opinions by quasi-public figures in a privately governed ecclesiastical setting where the actual monetary damages incurred are speculative at best. Stone’s congregational growth or his own income could be affected by the pandemic or any number of other factors. It could be argued that Stone’s public disagreement with Moore in some SBC conservative circles actually added to his popularity, widening his platform exposure, and was actually to his financial benefit. Open conflict can do that, it certainly does in politics. The filing of the lawsuit itself may be more damaging to Stone’s reputation in the non-messenger realm of ordinary SBC church attenders. The litigating lawyers may end up being the only financial gainers in this case. So very grievous it has come to this, ugly lawsuits between brothers in Christ do little to advance His Kingdom or evangelize the watching skeptical world.

  6. Thank God for those that stand against the
    Insular, smug world of most evangelicals. Russel Moore has shown courage and conviction.

    1. I have to respectfully disagree. Stone is shameful. Moore sat on his supposed evidence for almost a year before publishing it in those letters. He is just as politically motivated and slimy as the rest. This whole situation is a case study in why we need to eliminate the “big-eva” machine and go back to true local church autonomy.

  7. May justice find Russ! He made some big claims about others while he covered up wrongs in his silence. Now we may see if he bore the truth or false witness like he did to 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

    Let’s see if Moore covered up abuse as he alleged knowing about without reporting to authorities or whether instead he falsely made it up as Stone claimed. Seems like those are the only two options.

    Before 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Moore submitted false, absolutely wrong, information to the court justices. He was either intentionally deceiving for Ezell his former pastor (& NAMB President) or he was completely incompetent and negligent in doing his job where his name and the name of the ERLC was used to “help” the justices discover truth.

    Bob should know or at least it would help him to know that Baptist churches do not send delegate as he stated. Messengers are not delegates like Methodists etc. As well the SBC and the various voluntary supporting Baptist bodies are not a denomination like Presbyterian etc . He knows or should that the SBC EC is not responsible for any Baptist church or their leaders.

    Everyone for truth should want Moore and Stone to get justice and decry the lies told by either.

  8. The bottom line question is whether or not, a trial under secular law, would clarify the disagreements to which the SBC is currently subject.
    Partisan groupings, on all sides of disagreement, are proceeding with claims and suggestions, which are simply not being tested. That nexus of claim and suggestion then feeding on its own divisive product; so a vicious downward spiral, and ever greater space in the Christian universe being made a battleground.
    That Christian universe, rather than lending itself to testing, instead lends itself to intensification of disagreement. So can a secular forum do any better.
    The worst possible outcome, as we have seen with the Trump phenomenon, is faith-force proving strong enough to perversely buckle the secular space.

  9. So, a peer says some words about you and you take him to court but, for decades, when a child is molested or raped by a church employee, the parents are encouraged to forgive and not gossip about the situation and are admonished not to go to court lest the testimony of the church be harmed? The inconsistency of it all is shocking.

  10. Pastors might say the following from the pulpit:

    – Believe in Jesus
    – Be Kind
    – Be Forgiving
    – Do not sue Brothers
    – Do not Drink or Take Drugs

    Well according to this article this is what comes of the list:

    – Be Kind
    – Be Forgiving
    – Do not sue Brothers

    Based on the conduct of the Pastors maybe this should be off the list …. Believe in Jesus….

    Oh yea… Do not Drink or take drugs was off the list a long time ago… my error

  11. As a former member of a Southern Baptist church for over 40 years, I’m sorry to see what’s happening in the convention. It is a denomination that has a long record of having been used by God to bring millions of people to Christ and provide a testimony to his grace all around the world in places where it would not be preached if not for the mission work which is the main reason for its existence. But it has an awkward, somewhat provincial and backward power structure that has allowed a small, elite group to control much of the convention’s business and claim the big-salary executive jobs for themselves. This is just more fallout from the taking of sides that has been going on in a new fight for who is going to run the show. One good thing that has resulted from all this is that the messengers at the last convention almost unanimously issued a rebuke of the Exec committee and the churches have upped their direct giving to the two mission boards, and slowed down the flow of cash to the bureacracy. So they are sustaining the over 5,500 missionaries in North America and around the world. Maybe that message is penetrating the bureaucrats.

  12. I once preached a Sermon entitled: “BEING RIGHT DOES NOT ALWAYS GIVE YOU THE RIGHT” from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. And I think the same principle applies here. What kind of Christian witness and testimony can two Pastors get from a lawsuit in the World’s Court? This issue ought to be resolved by a body of trained Believers who know something about the law and arbitration. In short, it is a shame and another black eye on the Christian Church and on our Lord Jesus Christ!

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