Society: Person of Interest
Russell Moore is President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral concerns and public policy entity of America's largest Protestant denomination. Prior to his election in 2013 he was provost and dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also taught theology and ethics. He is the author of several books, including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He and his wife are the parents of five sons.
Dr. Moore shared his thoughts on why he believes what's happening in the culture may be bad for America but good for the Church, raising a generation of Christians prepared to be marginalized, and what the loss of religious liberty will look like.
The issue of religious liberty was a major topic of discussion at the most recent Southern Baptist Convention. What are your specific concerns when it comes to that issue?
I'm concerned that many people believe that religious liberty threats come with the shock and awe of tanks, when in reality most religious liberty threats start with a bureaucrat's pen. I think we need to raise up a generation of people who understand what it means to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's but also will refuse to render to Caesar what does not belong to him, which is the free conscience created by God. That means recognizing what's going on in the government and in the culture around us. We have so many threats coming at the same time—the HHS mandate is one of them, but it's of a piece with many other threats to freedom of conscience and religious liberty. We have to talk about those things within our churches and raise up a new generation of Christians who are going to be faithful to Christ even though they will probably be marginalized in the workplace and in their communities.
Let's talk about raising children. What can the Church be doing to help parents raise children who are surrounded by a culture that teaches them exactly the opposite of what the Church teaches?
I think the first thing is to be aware of what sort of ecosystem one's children are living in. That means being wise not only to the culture but also to technology. I'm astounded when I see children 9 and 10 years old with iPhones and iPads with unrestricted access to the internet in Christian families. I think that a parent who doesn't recognize the danger that comes with that sort of connectivity at that level of maturity is a parent who doesn't realize what's going on.
Then we need churches that are able to equip parents to have conversations with their children without being afraid of addressing particular issues. My 7-year-old son asked me just the other day about seeing on television when he was in the dentist's office a news clip about a little girl who was transitioning into a little boy. He said he didn't know that could happen—that a girl could become a boy. On the one hand, I almost wanted to reverse time and protect him from that conversation, but I can't do that. I have to model for him that I'm not afraid of those questions and equip him to live out a life in which he's going to be seen as strange in following Christ.
That's going to take a culture shift, especially within Evangelical churches in America, to recognize that we're raising up children who will be a distinct minority in the ambient culture around them. But that's not all that unusual in the history of the Church. The gospel didn't come to us from Mayberry. It came to us from the Greco-Roman Empire that was hostile at every level to the Christian message.
On your 20th wedding anniversary, you wrote a piece on your blog [russellmoore.com] in which you recalled people advising you to wait before getting married until you could afford it. You cite your grandmother's words to "just marry and make it work" as being pivotal for you. It's common to delay marriage these days. What are your thoughts about this, and what can the Church be doing about it?
I remember several years ago I was in a church preaching through First Corinthians and I came to chapter 7, where the Apostle Paul talks about it being better to marry than to burn with passion. So I warned against long engagements and delaying marriage. After the service, a middle-aged couple came forward and introduced me to their son and his fiancée—let's call them Chad and Tina—and said they had been engaged for years and had been dating for years longer than that. The parents wanted Chad and Tina to get all the way through graduate school, get their careers in order, have a disposable income, and then marry. My response was to say that there's an exception to every rule and that in this case we should just thank God that he had given Chad and Tina the strength to overcome the temptation of fornication. And then I said, "Right, Chad?" There was silence for an awkward couple of minutes before everyone sort of slunk off.
It hit me at that moment that for these Christian parents it was a more horrifying thought that their son might not be financially successful than that their son might be involved in immorality. And I don't think that's an unusual mindset even within the Church. One of the things that need to change is talking about what marriage is, why marriage is significantly important. It's not simply the culmination of two lives and loves coming together. This is a picture of the union of Christ and his Church. Marriage is a gospel issue.
You address the issue of homosexuality on your blog in a piece called "What If Your Child Is Gay?" You unequivocally advise parents in that situation that they should affirm their love for that child and not exile him or her from their lives. How do Christians apply that when dealing with homosexuality in society?
I think we have to model the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, which means being people who are full of truth and full of grace. And we can't sacrifice truth for grace and we can't sacrifice grace for truth. We need to recognize that on this issue, as on so many others, there are really two devilish temptations. One is the temptation not to call to repentance. But if we do that, then we're not speaking honestly and we're not speaking truthfully and, ultimately, we're not speaking graciously.
But there's another temptation that's equally devilish, which is to speak merely with condemnation or even outrage. I think that leaves people with the assumption that there are some sins that are too far gone for redemption. Any sin can be atoned for, and any sinner can be brought near through the blood of Christ. I think we need to make that very clear and model for people in our congregations what it means to love someone with whom we disagree.
When one Southern Baptist church in California recently decided to affirm same-sex sexuality and relationships, it was made clear to them that there is no "third way." It's one thing to keep the Church on track on this issue, but it's another matter when it comes to the public. With what seems to be a growing wave of public and government support, should Christians continue to oppose same-sex marriage in the public square, or has this become a Church matter?
No, this cannot be merely private because marriage is a public good. Marriage—and the definition of marriage—affects all of society. What we must do, though, is have a realistic understanding of where the courts are moving and where the culture is moving. If we don't, then we're going to be caught as flat-footed as we were with Roe v. Wade. And when I say "we," I'm talking about Evangelical Protestants who hadn't given very much thought to the issue of abortion because it seemed to be something that wasn't even a real issue—until suddenly it was.
We have to speak and articulate why we believe marriage is the union between a man and a woman. We need to model that belief in our own congregations, and we need to take a long-term view. I really believe that marriage as God created it is resilient. And I really believe that the sexual revolution will not be able to keep its promises. And we need a Church that is able to show a more -excellent way. So I think we engage in the public square and we work internally to create the sort of marriage culture that models what we're talking about.
Where should the Church be focusing its energies?
I think the primary place where the Church should be giving attention right now is in shaking off this prosperity gospel that has held the American Church in its grip for far too long. And by that I don't mean simply the explicit prosperity gospel that we see in some sectors of Christian television. I mean the more insidious forms of a "light" prosperity gospel, where Christianity becomes the American dream with heaven at the end, and Jesus is the way for people to live meaningful, happy, well-adjusted lives.
I think we need to re--emphasize the truth that following Christ is the way of the cross and a way of suffering which ought to connect the American Church with the larger, global body of Christ throughout time and space. What I think we ought to work towards is a Church in which a 15-year-old Christian boy recognizes that he has more in common with an 87-year-old Egyptian Christian woman than he does with a 15-year-old American teenager who doesn't know Christ. That's the burden that we have before us.
It seems that Christians are in a difficult period in history, considering that there was a time when American culture more closely reflected Christian values. Given that, are you optimistic about the world your children and future grandchildren will grow up in?
I'm very optimistic because I don't think the Church's survival is dependent upon the culture. I think the cultural shifts happening around us right now may be very bad for America but very good for the Church. We have had in certain regions of this country an American civil religion with an "almost-gospel" that I think is now falling away. And what is left is the Church. And I think that's a very good thing. What we need is an authentic Christianity with an explicit gospel witness, not the sort of nominal affiliation in which people become identified with Christianity because that's the American thing to do. I think that God quite routinely in history shakes his Church out of complacency and out of cultural captivity, and I think that's what's happening now. •
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