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Russell Moore and a Christian Witness Beyond Culture Wars

From Collin Garbarino at First Thoughts:

Last week, Russell Moore, president-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, gave C-Span an interview … [T]he host asks Moore if he thinks that he’s on the losing side of the culture war. His answer sums up his approach:

I don’t like to think in terms of culture wars. I don’t think we are at war with one another in this country. I think we have very deep disagreements on issues that matter, but we come to that with civility and in conversation.

Moore recognizes that social conservatives who let the Bible shape their worldview are a decided minority in America. He claims that this minority needs to realize their position and speak prophetically. During the course of the interview, Moore fields questions from callers on both sides of the political divide. Callers from the left are angry with him because of his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Callers from the right can’t understand his position on immigration and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to use the rhetoric of “culture war.” I suppose that these callers have a right to be confused because they probably haven’t heard someone talk like this before. Moore offers an intelligent, cool-headed position, and most Americans have never experienced intelligence and cool-headedness in the context of discussing religion’s role in politics.

Amid all the hand-wringing and the endearing “woe is us – persecution is coming” rhetoric coming from conservative Christians these days, Moore’s approach is principled and refreshing. Read Garbarino’s post, or watch the interview, here.

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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.

Richard Land – leader of the Christian Right – steps down

Richard Land is resigning as head of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). The official announcement is here. Land has been the president of the ERLC for 25 years and is one of the most important – perhaps the most important – leaders of the Christian Right. He is particularly important for those concerned about the role of the church in politics because unlike most leaders of the Christian Right, he actually represents and speaks for a denomination. Under Land the ERLC advocated all sorts of policy proposals and particular pieces of legislation in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, pertaining to issues ranging from abortion and immigration to global warming and sex trafficking.

I have written about Land a few times in the past (here and here), and I have commented on the scandal that lies behind his current resignation. I won’t repeat all of that now, but I do want to make a few comments about Land’s approach to the church’s involvement in politics. As the announcement reports,

Land made it clear in his letter he is retiring only from the ERLC, “not from the ministry, or from what is popularly called the ‘culture war.’”

“When God called me into the ministry a half century ago, the burden He placed on my heart was for America,” wrote Land, who recently began his 50th year in the gospel ministry. “That call and that burning burden are still there. I believe the ‘culture war’ is a titanic struggle for our nation’s soul and as a minister of Christ’s Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle.”

As Land makes quite clear here, he believes the task of a minister of the church is to fight for the soul of the country, not simply to proclaim a gospel that saves individuals or the church. Readers might be puzzled by what he means by the nation’s “soul”, but in his many books Land explains that he thinks that if enough people in a country serve the Lord faithfully that country will reach a tipping point of divine blessing. At that point, in fulfillment to Old Testament prophecies like 2 Chronicles 7:14, God will exalt the entire country, morally, economically, and politically.

Part of what that means for Land is that Christians need to vote their values, serving the Lord by working hard to make sure that national policy is Christian. To be sure, Land consistently defends the separation of church and state; he is no theocrat or theonomist. But he is most certainly a transformationalist of the most energetic sort. As those paying attention to the recent primary cycle will recall, he does not hesitate to communicate his support for the Republican Party, or even for one primary candidate over another.

There are some who argue that Land has never really spoken for the majority of Southern Baptists, and that the SBC is not as solidly in line with the Christian Right as Land’s reputation would make it seem. There are others who believe the Christian Right is in decline, and I’m sure they’ll point to Land’s resignation as another example of this trend. I’m not sure about either of them. Pundits and intellectuals constantly claim the Christian Right is in decline and that it fails to represent the concerns of most Christians. Yet the Right keeps coming back, significantly influencing election after election. It also remains to be seen what Land’s new role in the Christian Right will be.

For conservative Christians Land should certainly be respected for his role in bringing the Southern Baptist Convention from the brink of Mainline liberalism and for his effectiveness of ensuring that the SBC would be a pro-life denomination.

Land’s hiring in 1988 came amid the ongoing effort by Southern Baptist supporters of biblical inerrancy to restore the convention to its theological roots. Conservative trustees of what was then known as the Christian Life Commission (CLC) had a majority after nearly a decade of appointments to the entity’s board.

The CLC had never had a truly pro-life head since abortion had become a culture-cleaving issue in the 1960s, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions legalizing the procedure for effectively any reason throughout pregnancy. Foy Valentine, a courageous voice on race relations, was firmly entrenched in the pro-choice camp and fought pro-life efforts within the convention. Larry Baker, Valentine’s successor after more than a quarter of a century of service, did not promote a pro-choice agenda when he took office in 1987, but he also was not a committed pro-lifer. Baker’s tenure lasted only 19 months before he left for a pastorate.

Land took office and began turning the entity in a pro-life-–and more conservative–-direction while stabilizing an agency that was in serious financial straits.

Now Land is stepping down. What this will do in terms of the public voice and image of Southern Baptists remains to be seen.

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