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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Moore to the Point

Four years ago, our current President said he personally opposed same-sex marriage. Today, the Supreme Court has found a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage, contra all recorded sociopolitical, religious, and human history.

Few today are surprised at the Court’s ruling. This has been the prediction of most politicos and social commentators for a while. But simply because we are not surprised does not mean we are also not appalled. On the contrary, the Court’s ruling is indeed a moral and historical disaster. The Court has interpreted the United States Constitution as guaranteeing American adults the kind of autonomy that denies children the stability and flourishing that comes from having a mother and a father. We ought not be coy about the generation’s worth of confusion that this decision will facilitate.

As Christians, we believe in marriage. We believe that it is from above, not below. We believe that it matters supremely to agree with God about the definition and purpose of marriage and family. So today we grieve for our country and solemnly pray that soon God would grant the leaders of our nation new hearts to see the beauty of biblically defined marriage law.

And yet, because we are Christians, we don’t just believe that great harm has been done. We also believe that Jesus Christ is the one and only sovereign over history. We believe that the Supreme Court, powerful and important as it is, cannot put the resurrected King of Kings back in his graveyard plot. Because we are Christians, we believe that not even the gates of hell can overcome the Bride for whom Christ died. Ours is a quiet confidence, rooted not in Gallup but in the Gospel.

So, “how now shall we live?” How shall we teach and preach and counsel and love in such a way to point people towards the truth about marriage, even as we do so in contradiction to the legal systems of our nation? Thankfully, we have a paradigm to follow: The pro-life movement.

For over 40 years, the pro-life movement in this country has overwhelmingly modeled what compassionate, counter-cultural, and quietly confident public engagement should look like. Even in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Roe v Wade, courageous public voices came forward to challenge popular opinion and advocate for human dignity. Many churches became mobilizing and stalwart forces for the pro-life cause, not just by legal advocation but by actually ministering to the needs of women, men, and babies in crisis.

Indeed, it was these churches that held to a holistic vision of human dignity and the value of all life that have been most effective in the fight against abortion culture. Whether through establishing crisis pregnancy centers, offering free health clinics, modeling the Gospel through adoption and adoption advocacy, or welcoming the wounded, abused, and frightened into the friendship of the local congregation, pro-life churches that don’t just preach pro-life as a political talking point but as a spiritual reality are the ones that we should thank for the remarkable victories we’ve seen.

That means that we in 2015, under the shadow of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage, have both an encouragement and a warning from the pro-life movement. The warning is that political victory does not equal cultural persuasion. It is possible to win the White House but lose the neighborhood. Churches that put their energy in electing the right candidate or repealing the wrong law, to the exclusion of actually living out mercy and justice in their communities, should not expect meaningful victories for traditional marriage.

We also have an encouragement. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973, by God’s grace, we are seeing small but crucial turns in our national and political culture towards valuing unborn life. We are a long way from where we need to be, but we are certainly not where many predicted we would be. There is strong pro-life sentiment in this country that was unimaginable 30 years ago. This should be a sober reminder to us today about the power of prayer and the sovereign grace and goodness of Jesus Christ.

The pro-life movement’s victories were only possible because its champions understood that legal consensus is never the final word. Imagine how much different the cause for life and dignity would look today if that first generation of pro-life advocates decided that being on the wrong side of the Supreme Court and the wrong side of history was just too high a price to pay. Thank God that was not them, and God forbid it should be us. Let’s follow their lead onward.

Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway)

What Baltimore Needs

Our television screens glow with images of criminal rioting and assault on police officers in the streets of Baltimore. This is in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, despite the pleas from Gray’s family for calm. The horrific scene seems to bring out the worst ideological responses from divergent corners. Some, wrongly, excuse the rioting, pointing out the issues leading up to it as justifying such criminality. On the other side, some suggest, wrongly, that such rioting is part and parcel of what peaceful protesters are about, distracting from the very real systemic issues that must be addressed. But behind all of this is a question the church must ask: what does Baltimore need in a time such as this?

There’s no question that Baltimore needs order and restraint of violence. There’s no question that Baltimore needs investigation and justice in the untimely death of Freddie Gray. There’s no question that Baltimore suffers from poverty, racial injustice, family breakdown, illegal drugs, gang activity, and a thousand other ailments. Government, civil society, law enforcement, and community organizations must confront all of these. But I would argue that the primary need Baltimore has is for the church.

By saying this, I am not suggesting that systemic problems can be wiped out simply by more and more people becoming Christians and leading transformed lives. We needed, after all, a Civil War and some constitutional amendments to end the scourge of human slavery in this country. We need governing authorities to do their God-assigned responsibilities, and as citizens we should see to it that systems are reformed in ways conducive to justice and the common good. But, as a Christian, I believe the primary vehicle for shaping consciences to prioritize life and justice and peace and order is the community of the church, under the reign of Christ.

What we are seeing in the streets of Baltimore, after all, is not an anomaly. Systemic injustice, arson, theft, murder, brutality, fighting—these are remarkable to us only because of the restraining grace of God in the world. Left to ourselves, we are all “slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Sin causes us not only to be alienated from God, but also to be alienated from one another. We respond to injury and insult with more injury, more insult. We fight idols with idols, Mammon with Mammon, violence with violence.

The church, though, is to show a different path. This is not because the church is made up of people more intelligent and more morally put-together than other organizations. It is instead because the church is the place where Jesus now reigns (Eph. 1:22-23). The church is the outpost of the future, the colony of the kingdom, in the midst of this fallen, violent, devil-haunted universe. Jesus rules in the church by reconciling sinners to himself through the gospel, (Eph. 2:1-10), and then reconciling them to one another, through the gospel (Eph. 2:11-22). The unity of the church isn’t the result of some program. It’s the result of the invading reign of Christ Jesus, tearing down carnal divisions and creating peace where there once was chaos.

The gospel polarizes the church from the world, separating out a holy people. But within the church, the gospel ends the polarization of people from one another. As we are filled with the Spirit, we throw aside the primacy of our tribal allegiances, whatever they are, and we seek the interests of the others, of our brothers and sisters. As we do so, we learn what it is to follow Christ by making peace (Rom. 12:9-21).

This sort of gospel order doesn’t silo the church off from the world. The kingdom in our midst shows us that the lies of the haters are just that: lies. The hateful will always insist that violence is normal—whether the violence of the killing of an unarmed black male or the violence of rioting in response. The witness of the church models for us that what we are told is normal isn’t normal at all; violence and hatred are satanic, parasitic on a universe that God created for shalom. When our consciences are formed, together, around the Lord’s Table, serving one another, worshipping with one another, we are transformed to see the sort of universe God has in mind. We then work for justice and for peace, together.

Baltimore is hurting. Let’s pray for the wisdom of the governor, the mayor, the Justice Department, the police. But let’s pray also for Baltimore to see a preview of the future—of peace and righteousness and unity—in the only place we can see it in the now: the church.

Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway)

MLK speakingIt's been over fifty years since the 1963 March on Washington. The most famous moment of that historic event is, of course, the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., now one of the most iconic speeches in American history. The refrain of that speech is one that is so embedded in the American memory that most people know the speech simply as the “I have a dream” speech. There are some things about that speech that I think could inform Christian preaching today.

The primary lesson we need to learn from this speech is the way it spoke to the conscience. Part of the gravity of this speech came from its location, before the monument to the Great Emancipator. Part of the gravity came from the surroundings, a mighty throng of men and women and children gathered in the nation’s capital to ask for the cashing of that metaphorical “check” of equality guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. But a great deal of the power behind this speech came from the way that King was pressing a claim onto consciences.

He started with a contrast between the promised end to the injustice of slavery and the ongoing injustice of Jim Crow. This contrast is similar in content, though different somewhat in rhetoric, to the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Against the so-called “white moderates” who counseled “patience,” King pointed out “an appalling condition” that Americans were still, in large numbers, exiles in their own land. With such injustice, there was no room for the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

What was King doing here? He was doing precisely what the Old Testament prophets did with Israel and Judah, pointing out sin and judgment, warning implicitly of the justice of God. We often hear caricatures of evangelical “hellfire and brimstone” preaching. But I don’t think I’ve heard a hellfire and brimstone sermon in years. Most evangelical churches breezily converse about sin in terms of consequences to be avoided. In fact, most of the preaching I hear on sin and judgment sounds an awful lot like my dentist telling me I should really floss more. I feel guilty, and I know he’s right, but it hardly feels like a transcendent word—because it isn’t.

King’s words though, intentionally were resonant with the cadence of the King James Bible, because he was speaking a word of judgment to a Bible Belt who knew that Bible. He wanted to confront consciences with what they said they believed. Whatever King’s personal doctrinal commitments were or weren’t, he didn’t preach Fosdick or Tillich or Niebuhr. He preached to Americans Jefferson and Madison and Lincoln, and he preached to Christians Amos and Isaiah and Jesus. And when the regenerate conscience is confronted with Jesus, remember what the Shepherd of Galilee said, “My sheep hear my voice…”

But King didn’t simply preach judgment. After all, Malcolm X could preach judgment, and did, in harshly nationalist Islamic terms. King knew that his argument wouldn’t resonate with Christian consciences unless it appealed to the Christ-haunted imagination. That’s why he spoke of a dream.

What King did was to enable his hearers to imagine what it would be like if the appalling condition were reversed. If freedom were to ring “from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.” He also didn’t picture this future as simply liberation for African-Americans. He recognized that hatred is a heavy burden on the heart and the conscience. Those singing “Free at last!” aren’t just black men and women, but all people. His future is one in which “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”

Where did King learn to speak with fiery denunciation and with welcoming invitation, in the same speech? Well, I would suggest he learned it in church pews, listening to the preaching of the gospel. He saw there a vision that doesn’t leave sin undisturbed. Jesus, as with the prophets before him and the apostles after, consistently called out sin, and not merely in generic abstract terms but in all the ways sinners creatively find to consider our sins acceptable. The Pharisees, after all, weren’t dishonoring parents; they were giving that money as offering to God, and so on. Jesus often stops people who want to follow him by pointing out that he isn’t sure they understood how his gospel contradicts their lives.

But in the Bible gospel preaching never left off with condemnation. Jesus presents a kingdom that he pictures consistently as including those who would never feel themselves welcomed. He asks us to picture what it would be like to join his little flock of future galactic servant-rulers. He asks us to imagine what left to ourselves we would never imagine, that the gospel is really good news for us. It’s meant to leave us with the sort of shock that I remember from an old gospel song we used to sing in my boyhood church, “Whosoever surely meaneth me!”

I wonder how much weightier our preaching would be if we remembered to thunder God’s justice, while always following with God’s welcome, through the proclamation of a God who in the crucified Christ is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).

As we commemorate Dr. King, let’s remind ourselves of how far we have to go as Americans to see the promise of racial justice realized. Let’s remember how far we have to go as Christians to see gospel unity in our own congregations. But let’s also think about the fact that there’s a reason this speech is still on our minds after fifty years, and maybe we could learn something in our gospel preaching about what it takes to address both the conscience and the imagination.

Most of us will never address thousands of people before a statue of Lincoln. But many of us will stand in front of our little gatherings, before an unseen multitude of angels and the great cloud of witnesses. Let’s preach to the conscience. Let’s preach to the imagination. Let’s preach the bad news with thunder, and the good news with laughter. Let’s identify where we’re trying to hide from God’s judgment, and where we’re trying to hide from his invitation.

Let’s be hellfire-and-kingdom preachers who know how both to warn and to welcome, how both to weep and to dream.

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