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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Russell Moore's Blog
May is graduation season. All across the country, thousands of high school seniors are getting ready to leave high school and hometown behind as they go off to college. This includes many Christian students, for whom a move to a new city means being away not just from the comforts of home, but from their home church. Away from the gathering of Christians they’ve known for years, many students will look to their school campus ministry to fill the void.
A campus ministry can be unmatched in helping students connect with other like-minded believers, especially in an ideologically hostile academic or social setting. Campus ministries can help equip Christian students to defend the faith, to serve the poor, to be held accountable to one another.
A good campus ministry is a gift from our Christ. But it is no church.
The reason many college students identify primarily with a campus ministry rather than with a church is not because of any flaw in most campus ministry organizations. It is because, too often, we evangelical Christians have a deficient view of the church. We assume that it is any gathering of people who believe in Jesus and who do churchly things. Many Christians assume the church exists simply to help us learn more about Christ and pool our resources for missions.
If that’s all a church is, a campus ministry can do all those things, and more. But the Scriptures tell us the church is much more than that.
In the Bible, a local church–with all its ridiculous flaws–is an unveiling of the mystery of the universe (Eph 3:6). The church is in a one-flesh union with Jesus so that, as in a marriage, everything that belongs to Him belongs to her (Eph 5:22-33). A congregation, in covenant with one another as an assembly of Christ’s people, is a colony of the coming global reign of Christ (Eph 1:22-23), a preview of what the Kingdom of Jesus will look like in the end (1 Cor 6:1-8). Where there is a covenant among believers, a disciplined community of faith, the spirit of Jesus is present among them, just as God was present among the people of Israel in the temple of old (Matt 18:15-20).
When the church judges a repentant sinner to be a genuine believer, the congregation is speaking with the authority of Jesus when they plunge him beneath the waters (Matt 28:18-19). When the church judges an unrepentant sinner to be persistent in his rebellion, it is with the authority of Jesus that the congregation pronounces him to be a stranger to the people of God (1 Cor 5:4-5; Matt 18:15-20). When we gather for worship as a congregation in covenant with one another, we are not simply fueling our individual quiet times with praise choruses. We are instead actually ascending to the heavenly places together, standing before Christ and all of his angels on Mount Zion (Heb 12:18-29).
The Scriptures reveal to us what we would never discern on our own. The church–not an ideal congregation but the real one you go to every week, with the lady who smacks her gum and the man with the pitiful comb-over hair and the 1970s-era audio system and the kids banging Tonka trucks on the back of the pew in front of you–is the flesh and bones of Jesus. It is His Body, he tells us–inseparable from Him as your heart and lungs and kidneys and fingers are from you (Eph. 5:29-30; 1 Cor. 12:12-31).
Saying “I love Jesus but not the church” is as irrational as saying to your best friend, “I like you–I just can’t stand being around you.” Your attitude toward the church reveals your attitude toward Jesus.
It is easy for a campus ministry to seem more “spiritual” than a local congregation. Sometimes a campus ministry is filled with people more zealous for the mission of Christ than some church members. Sometimes young Christians mistake youthful idealism and, frankly, erotic charge for the spiritual gravity of a moment. A church made up of people from all different life-stations, economic classes, and racial backgrounds is bound to have friction. And a church that is not aiming to “reach” a particular age group is bound to seem, as often as not, to be sluggish, dull, or misdirected to people in that age group–whatever age group it is.
Does the centrality of the church mean that campus ministry is irrelevant or redundant? No indeed. Should you be involved with a campus ministry at your college or university? Yes indeed. So how do you avoid the spiritual dangers of an unchurched spirituality?
First of all, resist the temptation to keep your membership in your home church. Join a church in your college town, as soon as you find one with a commitment to Christ and the Scripture.
Second, find a church where some people will know your name, and will know if you are not present. Find a place where someone will ask you, “Where were you?” if you miss a week.
Third, spend some time with people in your congregation who are not in the same place in life as you–a lonely senior adult, a harried thirty-something Mom, a sarcastic fourteen year-old kid.
Fourth, pester the church leaders of the church for some way for you to exercise your gifts in the congregation–and let the leaders recognize and encourage your gifts. This means submitting yourself to serve the Body in whatever way the church deems necessary. Most often, this will be something more Christ-like than glorious, such as cleaning toilets or restocking cookies and juice-boxes for Vacation Bible School.
Finally, find a campus ministry that seeks to work alongside the church. Look for a ministry that wants to enhance what is already happening in your life in discipleship and spiritual growth and mission in your congregation. Be very wary of a campus ministry that isn’t constantly asking you, “Where are you in church–and what’s happening there?” And be very, very wary of a campus ministry that seems to resent the time you spend with your church as “competing” with their ministry.
There are lots of campus ministries like this out there. Be sure you find one. Be sure you pour yourself into whatever ministry your campus group can empower you to lead or serve. Be sure you and your fellow campus ministry group members are out among your unsaved fellow students with dynamism and compassion. But make sure that you are, first of all, an active, identified, and accountable member of a local church. It may seem a little slower-paced than your campus ministry. It may not seem relevant to twenty-first century culture. But it is part of the unfolding mystery of the universe. And Jesus is there.
Publication date: May 4, 2016
Some time ago a journalist friend emailed to ask a question I think many Christian parents have asked. How does one explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to children?
I think the reason this question resonates with so many parents is precisely because we adults can’t adequately explain the doctrine ourselves. We can teach children the inerrancy of Scripture by simply saying, “The Bible Is True.” We can explain something of the atonement by saying, “Jesus paid for our sins and is alive forever.” The Trinity, though, is another matter.
I think much of our fear and stumbling here comes with a misunderstanding of what the Christian gospel is all about. Yes, Christianity is reasonable and intelligible (Carl Henry stands affirmed). But Christianity is not merely about reason and intelligence. The gospel points to a different kind of wisdom, one that silences human mouths (Isa. 55:8; Jer. 8:9; 1 Cor. 1:19-20).
God is one God, and God is three persons in an everlasting relationship with one another, a relationship into which we are invited. That’s not contradictory. God is not one in the same way he is three, or vice-versa. But who can reduce this to some sort of formula or easy analogy?
Sometimes we seek a quick analogy for children because we want to put our kids out of their mystery. If the Trinity is an easy explanation (it’s like a shamrock; it’s like water, ice, and steam), we can “move on.” We’re afraid if we say that the Trinity is in some ways beyond comprehension that our kids won’t trust us to tell them with confidence about the truth of the gospel.
But Jesus tells us there’s something about a child’s way of believing that ought to be true of all of us. We must, he tells us, become like them if we’re going to enter the kingdom of God at all. In one sense, it’s true, children are often hyper-literal. I remember thinking as a child that a “soul” was a little version of myself located in one of the chambers of my heart (and wearing a soldier’s uniform, for some reason).
But, in the more important ways, children are open to mystery and paradox in ways adults often aren’t. Children explore the world around them with a wide-eyed sense of wonder. They don’t comprehend it all, and they know they don’t comprehend it all.That’s the kind of blessed ignorance I believe Jesus commends. In order to believe, you must trust everything God has said to you, but you must also see him, not your own comprehension, as Lord. To see at all we must know that we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
With that the case, we ought to boldly say to our children, “God is One and God is three. I can’t fully explain all of that because that’s how big and mysterious God and his ways are. Isn’t that wonderful?” When your child says, “That boggles my mind,” don’t respond with a worried handwringing but with a twinkle in your eye. “I know!” you say. “Me too! Isn’t that wild, and great!” That doesn’t end the conversation, of course. It only begins it. But we’ve got several trillion years and beyond to explore the depths of the Trinitarian reality. A start is what we need.
And learning of God’s oneness and threeness in terms of wonder and awe is a good place, I think, to start vaccinating our children from the kind of sterile rationalism, Christian or atheist, that can lead to a boring, despairing, tragically normal sort of life.
Publication date: April 29, 2016
I heard not long ago from a man I haven’t seen since high school. When asked about his religious beliefs, he simply says he is “an atheist until proven otherwise.” I fear sometimes that, despite all my Sunday learning, I’m the same thing.
It’s not just that I want to be protected from whatever scares me; I want to be reassured now that this protection will always be there. I want Christ, but I too often want him as a kind of quantifiable spiritual asset, as something I can always check to be sure of just as I can check my bank account balance or my cholesterol level. I want what God has promised, but I want power of attorney to execute those promises when I’ve determined I need them. That’s not what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about.
The second temptation that Satan presented to Jesus was one based on the human need to feel secure. “Throw yourself down,” Satan said, so that God would send his angels and prove how protective he was of his Son (Matt. 4:6). Jesus would hear this temptation again from his own follower and friend, Peter, who vowed to fight anyone who tried to take Jesus to crucifixion. Indeed, when the authorities came to arrest Jesus, Peter unsheathed his sword and lopped off the ear of one of the arresting guards. Jesus turned and rebuked his friend, pointing out exactly what he knew there on the pinnacle’s point: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:54) With the question of protecting self over against the cross, Jesus identified the spirit behind Peter’s pugnacity: Satan himself (Matt. 16:23).
At first glance, the second temptation might seem to be a temptation to risky behavior. After all, what could be riskier than throwing yourself off a tower in hopes that some angels will catch you? But this action would have instead been an evasion of risk. Jesus could have cleared away all the ambiguity, and faced his enemies with the clear, proven truth that his Father was on his side. It was, then, Jesus’ refusal to jump that was courageous. As the Spirit of Christ forms the kingdom, and clears away the strongholds, in your life, you’ll find yourself drawn toward courage over against fearful self-protection as well.
What ultimately undoes the pull to self-protection is the cross. Jesus refused to seek the proof of his own protection because he was seeking more than his own protection. He was looking for you, and you weren’t on the pinnacle of the temple. You were outside the camp, cut off from the presence of God. Jesus didn’t throw himself from the high place for the same reason a faithful husband doesn’t run out of from a burning building to call a lawyer to sue the arsonist, if he knows his wife is trapped inside. Jesus didn’t come to protect himself. He came for the world. He came for the church. He came for you. He bore your reproach, strapped on your curse, carried your exile. This other-directedness freed Jesus to live out a very different life from the cringing, anxiety-filled lives so many of us carry on.
My friend Patrick Henry Reardon notes that “courage” is an elusive virtue in the contemporary context. Because we imagine ourselves to need “safety” and “security” in every aspect of life (even sex!), we’ve lost something of the feel of what it means to learn faith through valor. “Meanwhile, bravery has been replaced by sheer stupidity,” Reardon writes. “Examples of such replacement include things like sky-diving and bungee-jumping, which serve no purpose except the thrill of supposed danger. A largely illusory peril is cultivated for purely emotional purposes.”
Indeed when genuine bravery is sacrificed to an ethic of self-protection, the result is not avoidance of risk but, as in the devil’s suggestion to Jesus, an embrace of meaningless risk. If, for example, one of the critical responsibilities of fatherhood is protection, then what happens to a society when fathers are often absent or neglectful or abusive? The result is not always a kind of cringing passivity in the next generation (although that’s often part of it). The result is often too a kind of hyper-masculine predatory male. Unable to see the model of a self-sacrificial, self-risking kind of protective fatherhood, he replaces bravery with a kind of violent swagger. The Spirit of Christ, though, calls us to a different kind of security, and a different kind of risk.
Hannah can hardly stand to look at old family pictures, seeing her parents smiling, with their arms around each other. She had respected her dad for his Christian conviction, his spiritual leadership, and she always said she wanted to marry someone just like him when she grew up. When Hannah was seventeen, she found out her father had been carrying on an affair with a woman not all that much older than she. Her parents divorced soon after, and nothing much was the same after that. Hannah is a little older now and is herself married, a newlywed. She is tormented by the thought that her new husband might one day do to her what her father did to her mother.
She is constantly interrogating her husband, jealous of any woman who even speaks to him. Despite the fact that her husband seems to love her and to be a man of integrity, Hannah can’t help but think that her father seemed that way too. In some ways, what Hannah is going through is just normal adjustment for someone who has been hurt badly. But in order for her to open herself up to love, she’s going to have to accept that she will never be able to uproot any possibility of risk from their marriage. She’s going to have to love even without “proof” that she’ll never be hurt.
But risk is inherent in every kind of other-directed life. Marriage could result in infidelity. Having children means you may well experience the anguish of seeing one of those children killed in a car accident or shipped home in a casket from a foreign war or sentenced to life without parole in a federal penitentiary. Courage isn’t protecting yourself in a cocoon from these possibilities. Courage is walking forward, and embracing others in love, even though you may suffer greatly in ways you could never imagine now. Jesus walked that way before you, and walks that way now with you. That’s the way of the cross.
Publication date: April 28, 2016