At the ADF conference last week, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission delivered the closing address. It was powerful, a clarion call to Christian repentance and resistance. I asked for and received his permission to write about the speech — well, sermon — here. It was extraordinary, and I would hate for the only people to have received its message to be we who were in the room to hear it.
Moore began by describing the difference between conserving and hoarding. To conserve something means to preserve it with the coming generations in mind. To hoard, said Moore, is to hold on to whatever you have, without discerning whether or not it’s worth keeping.
Moore said that for Christians, the thing that must be preserved above all is the Gospel. Today, as in the early church, we are confronted by the question of Scriptural authority: Is the Bible truly the binding word of God?
“The debates we are having about human sexuality now are really not about sexuality. They are about whether the word we have is from God,” said Moore. “If the Word of God has been delivered by God through his apostles to us, and says you must submit your creatureliness, even your sexuality, to the Lordship of Christ.”
That’s one claim, he said. Another is that we know so much more about sexuality than the authors of Scripture did, and we therefore don’t have to take their teachings on it seriously.
Moore, citing St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, said we had all better fear the judgment of God, not other men.
“You will not have the courage and confidence to stand in whatever moment you face simply because you have better ideas and arguments,” he said. “I’m all for talking about the common good, and human flourishing [but] those are all secondary means to get to the main conversation. And the main conversation is, has God spoken, and what has God said?”
Moore declared that we will not be able to defend religious liberty if we are embarrassed by Jesus Christ. We have to be willing to suffer mockery and scorn for the sake of our faith. This is not a matter of intellectual conviction. This is about the heart. And that is why it is folly to think that we will best prepare the next generation to stand firm in the faith solely by giving them solid intellectual arguments.
“The way you prepared the next generation is to shape and form moral intuitions,” Moore said.
We do that by immersing young people so deeply in Scripture that they learn how to respond as authentic Christians to challenges in the world today. That is, they don’t look to the Bible as a rulebook, but rather they allow the Bible to be sedimented into their bones.
(Moore, as most of you surely know, is a Southern Baptist preacher — and oh, how Southern Baptists can preach! Catholics and Orthodox will have somewhat different answers to the question of how to form the moral imagination. Ours is shaped also by the liturgy, by the tradition, and by the authoritative teaching of the Church. But that’s why we are Orthodox and Catholic, not Protestant. There is nothing Moore said about Scripture that we would reject. In fact, I found myself wondering that night if he knows anything about the traditional Benedictine practice of lectio divina, a way of praying Scripture.)
Moore said we must teach our children to recognize themselves in the Biblical narrative, so that when they encounter a contradictory narrative, they will know in their hearts that the false story must be resisted. And not just children — we have to train ourselves as well. We may face the loss of a job, of opportunities for professional advancement, of personal and career standing, of family relationships — all because of our faith. The only way to be steadfast is if you truly believe that God has spoken, and that you know what He has said.
In short, one of our key tasks is to train up a community capable of still perceiving Gospel truths.
To do so, we have to remember that we are fighting for what we were given so that future generations will be able to receive it as we did. Moore:
If you’re fighting for religious liberty simply to win arguments for secular progressives, there are better things to do,” Moore said. “If you’re doing it to carve out special places for your own rights and privileges, there are better things to do. We fight for religious liberty only so the Gospel can go forth freely.
We are not simply standing up for our own people and our own tribe. We are standing up for potential future Christians, for people who are not part of the church right now.
Nice. He went on to say that Christians have to be very clear about what they believe and why they believe it. They have to know what sin is, and what it means to turn away from it. And they have to know what it means to hate sin but to love sinners.
And Christians cannot be the people who “pride themselves on not being around gays, transgenders, Muslims, Hindus and everybody else, when their own churches are convulsing with sin, including pornography.” Christians betray the Gospel, he said, when they fall all over themselves to denounce secular leftists, but stay silent about “prosperity gospel heretics” in their own midst.
“Are we willing to be associated with our brothers and sisters in Christian in prison?” he said. “Are we willing to be associated with our brothers and sisters who are grappling with addictions? Are we willing to be associated with those who are same-sex attracted and who are wondering what it means to live within the church if I don’t have a family like the other people on this pew do?”
Moore laid into the idea that if Christians can only capture the ear of the powerful, they can change the culture. Mentioning no names (though most people knew who and what he was talking about), Moore said that Christians who chase the rich, famous, and powerful are running after false idols.
“We know that those things are temporary, and so temporary that they are pathetic,” he said.
By contrast, those who can see Christ in the faces of the poor know that they are dealing with those who are likely to hold eternal power. He said, “That woman who can barely speak English, who cleans toilets in a hotel throughout the week, but who knows the Gospel, is a future ruler of the universe and a joint heir with Jesus.”
If Christians don’t care what the world thinks, and cease to believe that the way to change the world is to speak soothing words to power instead of speaking truth to it, then “we will not be the people that give in to fear or panic. We will not be the people that are cowed into silence for fear of the disturbance it will cause.”
Moore brought up a pastor he once spoke to who declined to talk about human sexuality from the pulpit because it would cause too much discord in church. Moore says he told the man that for one, he didn’t get to choose which parts of the Gospel to preach, and for another, it wouldn’t work. In the eyes of the world, if you don’t perform same-sex weddings, you are a bigot, full stop. If they’re going to hate you anyway, you might as well tell them the Gospel truth.
Then Moore arrived at the crescendo of his sermon. He said that if Christians come across as shrill and panicked in the face of these challenges, that reflects a loss of confidence too:
You and I are not on the wrong side of history.The worst thing that has happened to us has already happened to us. We were crucified [with Christ] outside of Jerusalem. But the best thing has happened to us too. That’s not a Supreme Court victory. That is walking out of a hole in the ground in Jerusalem and being seated at the right hand of God in heaven. … If we truly believe that, we can patiently bear with those who disagree with us, because we have intel on them. We know they are made in the image of God … and we know that they are once like we were, that deep down, they are cowering inside themselves, hiding from the voice that says ‘Adam, where are you?’
The Gospel that you preserve is not meant to end with you. It’s meant to go forward. If we recognize that and know that, we work for the common good, we work for human flourishing, and all good things. But we hold them with a certain looseness, because we know that the United States of America is temporary, but the Gospel goes on.
If Christians truly believe that Jesus was who He said he was, said Moore, then they will be willing to lose their friends, their jobs, their families, their freedom, and even their lives if that’s what it takes to bear witness to the truth.
This, he concluded, is what it means to conserve the Gospel. To save it for yourself, for the world, and for future generations, you have to be willing to lose everything else.
It’s almost as if Russell Moore was saying that those who wish to save their lives will lose them, and those who are willing to lose their lives will save them. Who speaks in such paradoxes, anyway?
Seriously, now is a time for choosing. To refuse the choice, to deny that it is upon us, to insist that the burden of the choice will pass us by if we keep smiling, saying nice things, and being satisfied with the state of our souls — that is also to choose. So choose well now, in small things, so that you will be strong enough and clear-headed enough to choose rightly when it will cost you plenty. Don’t lie to yourself, that day is coming, and coming soon, for every single one of us who calls ourselves Christian.
Russell Moore — my idea of a Benedict Option Baptist — can read the signs of the times. Can you?