Russell Moore to Lead Southern Baptists’ Social Witness: A New Era?

Russell D. Moore has been elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), replacing the outgoing Richard Land. Of course, in so many ways Land, perhaps the leading voice of the Christian Right in recent decades, is irreplaceable. It’s hard to imagine Moore maintaining the same political clout as his forbear, who firmly believed that if American Christians would simply repent and pour themselves out in faith towards God, he would revive and bless the United States.

Moore is no less conservative than Land, but he is a much better theologian. Under Moore, the ERLC is likely to be humbler, more nuanced, and less ideological about the implications of Christianity for American politics. He understands that the fundamental social implications of the gospel are expressed primarily in the church and only secondarily (and indirectly) through the state. He realizes that the church must now take up its social witness as a minority voice in a secular culture rather than seek hegemonic power as some sort of ‘Moral Majority.’

I was first introduced to Russell Moore through his excellent book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective. A must-read for anyone interested in covenant theology, kingdom theology, or Christian ethics, Moore carefully explains the growing convergence between the two great strands of Evangelical theology – Reformed covenant theology and dispensationalism – based on an emerging consensus about the nature of the kingdom of God. The convergence is not the result of ecumenical compromise, he demonstrates, but of hard exegetical work and clear theological progress. Untenable versions of dispensationalism and covenant theology – more shaped by dogmatic rationality than by the New Testament – are being replaced by models with deeper roots in Scripture, a process that is leading Evangelical theologians closer to one another, rather than further apart.

Moore’s own convictions about the nature of the kingdom of Christ are broadly in line with Reformed two kingdoms theology. In particular, Moore believes that the kingdom’s primary expression in this age is the church, not the political order, even as its implications for the Christian life extend to all of life.

The move toward a Kingdom ecclesiology maintains rightly that the definition of the ‘already’ reign of Christ is the church. This means that the righteousness and justice of the messianic order cannot be found, in the present age, in the arenas of the political, social, economic, or academic orders. Instead, the reign of Christ is focused in this age solely on His reign as Messiah over the people called into the Kingdom, namely, those who make up the church (Kingdom of Christ, 152).

To be sure, the kingdom is much greater than the church, and when Jesus returns it will encompass all things. But in the meantime, Christians need to avoid the temptation of the social gospel of identifying the kingdom with a broader movement of social transformation. Yet as Moore points out, even prominent Evangelicals like Carl F. H. Henry, who shaped an era of Evangelical social engagement, failed to resist such temptations. Comparing Henry, Harold J. Ockenga, and other Evangelical theologians with Walter Rauschenbusch, Moore writes,

While evangelicals would never have equated the church with the ‘industrial organization’ and so forth, they committed a very similar error by subsuming the emphasis on the church and its biblical prerogatives and distinctives to an amorphous ‘movement,’ which was clearly of first importance to them. Despite all their best efforts to oppose the Social Gospel liberals, at the point of ecclesiology Henry and the postwar evangelical movement fell into precisely the same error as Rauschenbusch – namely, the tendency to replace the church with ‘Kingdom priorities'” (Kingdom of Christ, 159).

The kingdom of God is manifest in the church rather than in the secular order, Moore insists, and the primary audience for the social imperative of the gospel found in Scripture is the church, not America. To be sure, this does not mean that the gospel is not fundamentally social, or that the church has nothing to say to the state. Rather,

As the church deals internally with matters of justice, it witnesses to the political powers-that-be of the kind of Kingdom righteousness the gospel demands, not only of individuals but also of communities… The development of a Kingdom theology therefore can inform evangelical public theology not only by reminding evangelicals that the call for sociopolitical righteousness is biblical, but also by reminding the church that such righteousness begins in the internal structures and relationships of the people of God (1 Pet. 4:17) (Kingdom of Christ, 169).

What does it mean for politics? Moore doesn’t put it in these terms, but it would seem that it means that Evangelicals should avoid the sort of politicization of the church that took place when the Southern Baptist Convention publicly aligned itself with Jerry Falwell.

When the primary outlet of evangelical engagement with social and political matters is a political action committee rather than the community of the church, the shaping authority on matters of social and political outlook all too often becomes polling data or party platforms, rather than an authoritative text. Political solutions are then grounded in the social contract of a ‘moral majority’ rather than by the righteousness of the coming Kingdom of God in Christ. In such a situation, when the ‘silent majority’ is culturally marginalized, so is the witness of evangelical Christianity” (Kingdom of Christ, 166).

These are welcome words, coming from the successor of Richard Land. Christians should follow Moore’s work on behalf of Southern Baptists at the ERLC with interest. His task is by no means an easy one, and it is doubtful that it will become much easier in coming years. Both Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention will need our prayers.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on March 27, 2013, in Richard Land, Social Gospel, Southern Baptist Convention, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Russell Moore to Lead Southern Baptists’ Social Witness: A New Era?.

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