What is the Christian church’s first task in in a rapidly secularizing culture? “We need to let Jesus speak through us,” says Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore, whose article “The Upside-Down Church” appears in Plough’s autumn 2015 issue, is the author of the new book Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel.
Plough: For Christians concerned about the church’s witness to the wider society, it’s been a tumultuous year. In June 2015, a dramatic U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage, igniting fierce debate about religious liberty and the role of religious convictions in a pluralistic society. What advice to you have for fellow Christians as we approach a presidential election year during which this debate will continue to play out?
Russell Moore: It’s time for us Christians to end our illusions that somehow American culture is just a presidential election or two away from returning to some mythical Christian America that we supposedly had in the past. It’s also an opportunity to recognize what our mission field actually is. On the marriage issue, for instance, there was a time when marriage and family issues in the culture served as a kind of pre-evangelism. We could connect with people because we assumed they aspired to the same vision of marriage and family. Many evangelical churches had sermon series on healthier marriages, and unbelievers came because they had marriage problems, and then realized that the best way is through life in Christ.
Today, our neighbors not only don’t necessarily aspire to the same vision of marriage, and, when they see a Christian articulation of marriage, their first thought is: this must be hostility or bigotry toward other people. That actually gives us an opportunity to articulate a rich, robust Christian vision of what marriage is.
Learning to Be Uncomfortable
This issue is making a lot of Christians worry about their children and the culture they will have to grow up in. How do we build communities that do mission and show by example to our own children what good is?
Sometimes Christians assume that now we suddenly have this culture issue with our kids, but actually that’s always been the case. The most dangerous cultural issues for raising children aren’t necessarily the hot-button issues. They’re the things we don’t argue about because we’ve already assumed them.
The most dangerous cultural issues for raising children aren’t necessarily the hot-button issues.
A few years ago, I was preaching in a Bible Belt church on 1 Corinthians 7: “It is better to marry than to burn with passion.” I said: There’s no reason to have these long, extended periods of dating and engagement. Once you’ve found the person to marry, then marry. Afterwards, a middle-aged couple came up with their son and his fiancée. They said, “We disagree with you because Chad and Tina have been engaged for years and dated for years before that.” Then they explained why that was a good thing, because they wanted Chad and Tina to both finish graduate school, start their careers, and be able to afford a house. Then they would get married. I told them: well, there’s an exception to every rule. Let’s just be glad that, by the grace of God, Chad and Tina have been able to avoid sexual immorality, right Chad? And it was awkward silence for several minutes and then everyone kind of dispersed. I realized that this middle-aged Christian couple was more afraid that their children would not be economically successful than that their children would be sexually immoral. The pressure for economic success had culturally changed them – and all of us – so that they don’t question anymore.
We all have multiple identities – family, community, church, our country – but our primary identity should be as citizens of the kingdom of God. We need to talk to our children about what it means to belong to the body of Christ, connected to the global body of Christ. Our churches should be more uncomfortable in American culture. This could lead American churches to connect with their brothers and sisters in China and Nigeria, and beyond that to the great cloud of witnesses in heaven.
Beyond the Culture Wars
Many people resent Christianity because too often churches have failed in pastoral care and outreach, including to those struggling with issues of sexuality. How do we overcome the us-vs.-them barrier?
Our primary problem lies in thinking about these issues first in terms of culture war instead in terms of mission. If we think in terms of culture war, we adopt a cable-news-program mentality in which the children of light and the children of darkness are in perpetual war with each other. But in terms of mission, we know that Jesus called us not to come to the righteous but to sinners and to seek out that which was lost. We have to speak to people who are in places of great temptation or great failure.
... there’s been an inadequately Christian vision of temptation.
Sometimes I think we’ve done that badly, because when it comes to the issues that we’re the most afraid of, we speak about them as if they were only on the outside of the church. And so you can have that young person who’s sitting in the congregation, and when he hears us say that the gospel is for sinners, there’s a sort of asterisk there that says “a certain sort of sinner, whose testimony would be welcome here.” Someone could stand up in an evangelical congregation and say, “I’m really struggling with my temper,” or “I’m really struggling with lust,” and everyone understands it. But then when you start talking about issues that people in the congregation would see as more “out there,” and more “the other,” we’re not talking about that as much. I think that pushes people away, into really dangerous places.
Also, at least in my evangelical community, there’s been an inadequately Christian vision of temptation. We assume that testimonies about triumph and victory are encouraging, for example a recovering addict saying: “I met Christ and I haven’t wanted any of that ever since.” In that case, praise God. But it also sends a message to the person who is thinking: “I’m trying to follow Christ and every single day I’m fighting and wrestling against the temptation to go back to heroin or alcohol.” That’s victory too. We need to talk about what it means to fight and to struggle through the power of the Spirit in a way that helps us to bear one another up.
Galatians 6 talks about the strong bearing up the weak. That is not, I think, a classification of: well, you have some Christians who are uniformly strong and some Christians who are uniformly weak. We’re all strong in some places and we’re all weak in some places. So we need to be together as the body of Christ doing that.
Too often in American Christianity, we take a kind of therapeutic sort of mentality where we put everyone who is grappling with a particular problem together. So the people who are grappling with sexual immorality together in a support group, or the people who are grappling with substance abuse together in a support group. We separate out singles from families. We need one another and we need those who are strong in some points to be there with those who are weak in other points, not only to minister but then to be ministered too.
Where do you see examples of Christians committing to support each other in daily life?
As cultural Christianity weakens, we have an opportunity for clear, distinct witness.
I see it happening in churches made up of people who see themselves as refugees from American culture. These people have been wounded and hurt, and don’t have time for Christianity as some sort of social good. They want the crucifixion of the self and newness of life in following Christ. I think that’s happening more and more. In my book I talk about the good news of the decline of the Bible Belt. It’s bad news in some ways because cultural Christianity kept some bad things from happening that hurt people. So there were people in Bible Belt America who didn’t divorce because if they had they would have lost their place in the community and they would have been seen to be bad people. That’s good for the kids in many of those situations and good for the community in many of those situations, but it led to a kind of Christianity that doesn’t actually transform. It also turned the church into an extension of American culture rather than a contradiction to American culture. As cultural Christianity weakens, we have an opportunity for clear, distinct witness.
Do you see churches working together more across old boundaries to make this witness?
Well, I don’t think what we should do is to erase distinctives and to pretend that we’re part of one vague blob of generic Christianity. We should work together with our distinctive strengths. So I think that’s one of the things that God in his providence has allowed with the sort of denominational, for lack of a better word, breakdowns. Some people see that as a sign of fracture and a sign of division – and it can be, if you wind up with people who silo themselves in their distinctive traditions and who do a kind of 1 Corinthians 1, “I am of Paul, I am of Cephas.” It doesn’t have to be that way. I think what actually happens is that God has allowed certain strengths to come out of certain traditions in a way that can then help others.
Mere Christianity is not the lowest common denominator of Christianity.
So the Baptist tradition brings a very strong view of freedom of conscience and of the need for personal regeneration. Presbyterian tradition brings a very robust understanding of the life of the mind and of the importance of systematic theology. The Anabaptist tradition brings with it a very clear view of the distinction between the church and the world and about the necessity of an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount. You could multiply that in all sorts of ways. And so we can benefit from one another by hearing those distinctive emphases. They don’t contradict one another, but they cause us to be reminded of that.
Those conversations help to keep us all within the stream of orthodox Christianity. So when we work together with our distinctions, I think we’ll wind up with what C. S. Lewis was talking about, with mere Christianity. Mere Christianity is not the lowest common denominator of Christianity. It’s instead a sense of reminding us: I’m a Baptist Christian, but the Baptist is a modifier, it’s not the final word of who I am. I’m a Christian and I’m in Christ and so I’m part of a big bustling kingdom that gives us a foretaste of the end.
Individualization as Idolatry
Evangelicalism is often based on an individual experience of salvation, conversion. How can we embody a more communal vision of the church without losing the vital evangelical impulse?
Both the personal and the communal aspects of Christianity are necessary. The message of the gospel is: You must be born again. There must be a new creation, a new birth. If you lose that, then you end up with a church filled with unregenerate people who are not right with God. If we don’t understand the personal relationship with God we tend to start seeing people as units rather than as created in the image of God, and we lose a sense of human dignity.
On the other hand, if we don’t have that communal understanding of the church as the family of God, we end up with a sort of deification of self. In his book Andy Catlett, Wendell Berry talks about a character who wanted to get away from his family and go off by himself, where he could pretend, as Mr. Berry puts it, that he was “as ancestorless as the first man.” That’s a form of idolatry. Sometimes we see this hyper-individualization even in large gatherings of Christians. I’ve heard many worship leaders say, “Close your eyes and imagine that you’re the only person here. You’re just singing your praise to God.” But Ephesians 5 tells us that through worship we teach one another: “Admonish one another with songs, hymns, and spiritual songs.”
That sort of individualization has become really problematic in evangelicalism because, especially as it relates to worship music, we wind up with churches with different services that are divided generationally. We see worship as being primarily about building up myself and my personal devotional walk with Christ, rather than seeing: I’m part of this body . . . I’m instructing and teaching this eighty-year-old widow, and she’s teaching and instructing me. If we don’t keep the personal and the communal aspects together all the time, we’re going to lose something essential.
The Benedict Option?
In your book, you refer to the church as “the prophetic minority.” That reminds me of the proposal made by Rod Dreher, the conservative commentator, of “the Benedict option” – Christians retreating from mainstream culture to build strong communities in the manner of the Benedictine monks of the Middle Ages. Is your vision similar to the Benedict option?
Rod Dreher is a good friend and I benefit greatly from his writings. I don’t disagree with the Benedict option as far as it goes in terms of making sure that we have intact communities that are, as Kierkegaard would say, signs of contradiction to the larger culture. One example is the homeschooling movement. But I think that the monastic analogy doesn’t work for the whole body of Christ. The monastic movement was never a call to a universal monasticism. It was a specific group of people vocationally called to withdraw into the desert or into isolated places in order to preserve Christianity for another day. But as that’s going on, you also have many other aspects of the church taking place. As an evangelical Christian I believe we’re on mission, which means that we must be present in the world and we must be engaged in the world.
...we should be looking forward, to the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Having said that, building intact subcultures within our communities is absolutely necessary. In my book I spend a great deal of time talking about how the kingdom of God translates into communities of the kingdom – embassies of the coming kingdom – within local churches. But beyond that I don’t think that withdrawing from the culture is possible, nor do I think it is moral in many ways. In the North American system, people are citizens, which means that we have a responsibility to God in the same way that the tax collectors and military officers who came to John the Baptist and said, Well, what do we do now? If Christians who are citizens are saying: We simply withdraw and we don’t engage, then I think we’re not following Jesus as much as we’re following Pontius Pilate, who wants to wash his hands of the situation. This leads to then, I think, a hyper-politicization of Christianity, where the status quo simply becomes baptized and cordoned off from what the gospel is.
The shift that you’re calling for – from Christianity as a civil religion to the church as an embassy of the kingdom is – is going to be a painful one for many.
On one hand, we see a kind of siege mentality within Christian communities, mixed with nostalgia that is looking back toward the past. But we should be looking forward, to the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
With growing secularization, on the other hand, there is a lack of understanding of what religious conviction is. So when it comes to questions of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, what I find with secular progressives is an inability to understand what it means for people to be motivated by religious conviction. They understand economic and political motivations, but they don’t have a sense of having to give an account before a judgment seat. They assume: “If we just give these people a nudge with the power of the state, then they’ll get over these antiquated views that they have.”
That’s a real loss in American culture. There was something very healthy in a country recognizing the guarantees of the First Amendment enough to say: we are not going to force Mennonite pacifists to pave over their consciences in order to be in combat in war, because that would do violence to them at their very deepest core. So now, when you see a loss of even being able to understand one another in that, I think that’s one of the peculiar dangers we face.
Toward a Communal Christianity
How can the early church’s example help us in confronting the willingness of the state to coerce conscience?
I think we should spend a lot of time these days in the Book of Acts, looking at how the church developed. Sometimes Christians tend to idealize the early church, and overlook what was actually happening: scandalous sexual immorality in Corinth, false teaching in Galatia, and all sorts of divisions and problems. But you do see a group of people convinced that Jesus is alive and that their primary allegiance is to him. They are willing, as the Book of Hebrews tells us, to be plundered, joyfully. We have to recover that.
And we have a model in the life of the apostle Paul, someone who engaged with civil and political authorities with a distinctly Christian message in order to both advance the gospel and to maintain freedom. When the magistrates send word for Paul and Silas to quietly leave town, Paul says, “I’m not going to quietly leave town. I’m a Roman citizen who has been unlawfully imprisoned and beaten. Come over here and bring your charges against us.” That’s not because Paul is idolizing his own rights. He says elsewhere that he throws such rights aside. But he knows that if he quietly leaves town he will put the mission in jeopardy there in Philippi. We can learn from that how to be strangers holding to a strange gospel, and at the same time engage with the people around us.
As it says in Acts 2 and 4, the first Christians were of one heart and one soul, shared everything also economically, were active in mission, and met together regularly. How can we develop better habits of really sharing and caring for each other and for the poor?
Right now in American evangelicalism, we experience church as people driving in together, having this common experience, and then dispersing back into their individual silos. There’s also been a sense of seeing the poor as an issue or as a charity. Think of James 2. With all the problems going on in the churches of the dispersion, persecution, and false teaching, James is talking about fashion and seating arrangements. Well it’s because he says you seat the rich, which are those who are not just economically better off but they have power, in a place of honor, and then you say to the poor man in shabby attire, you stand back here in the back.
What James does not say here is that you need to be kinder to the poor because he’s had a difficult life already; that would turn this poor man into a project. He said: don’t you know that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. The first thing we have to do is to recognize that we have an artificial sense of power and authority that’s being defined by American culture rather than by the gospel.
We need to get rid of this implicit prosperity gospel that we have, where we really believe that what it means to thrive is to meet the economic standards of American life. This prosperity gospel is unfortunately not limited to the heretical television evangelists – it extends in a discount-rate sort of way among almost all American evangelicals. Instead of this short-sighted idea of prosperity, we need to have a trillion-year view of our lives, which then enables us to have lives of generosity and hospitality with one another in a more communal way.
I was just speaking with a friend of mine who is now a Christian, a pastor’s wife, but who had been a lesbian feminist activist for years, then came to Christ. The lesbian community had a real sense of hospitality. Every night of the week someone’s house was open and everyone was gathered in that home. When she became a Christian and left that lifestyle, she experienced a sense of loss. That’s a tragedy. Christian communities ought to be the very definition of hospitality and generosity and living life together. We’re a household, brothers and sisters. The divisions in our congregations – between blue collar and white collar, economically successful and unsuccessful – are very temporary categories.
America Is a Mission Field
In your book you write that “the next Billy Graham might be drunk right now.” Could you explain why that’s a reason for hope?
That realization came out of a rebuke that I received from an elderly Christian named Carl Henry. At the time I was young and cynical about American Christianity, especially American evangelicalism. I asked him: Do you think there’s any future for evangelicalism with everything we have going on? And Dr. Henry said: “You act as though Christianity is genetic. It’s not.” He pointed out that the gospel takes unlikely people and puts them into leadership. No one in the early church would have expected Saul of Tarsus to be the mobilizing force for the mission. This was a terrorist who was seeking to destroy the church in Syria. Jesus saves him, but he doesn’t save him just to put him in the back row of the church – “ I’m the guy who was the former terrorist and I’m just glad to be here.” No. He transforms him and puts him into leadership with an apostolic authority and message.
We’ve seen that happen multiple times throughout Christian history. Augustine was a sexually immoral cult member who then becomes the driving theological force of western Christianity. C. S. Lewis, a hardened, cynical atheist, became the great apologist of the twentieth century. Chuck Colson is someone that anyone encountering him in the early 1970s would have said: This is not the sort of person that we would expect to be the great force of evangelizing the prisons throughout North America.
We have to get out of the culture-war mentality that the people who disagree with us or hate us are our permanent enemies. We know that everybody’s created in the image of God. We know that everybody has a conscience embedded with the law of God – Romans 2, that conscience is pointing them toward judgment, so everybody is scared. Our message is not a set of propositional arguments. It is the vehicle through which the voice of Jesus speaks to people. The experience of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus is not an unusual experience. He sees a light and hears a voice calling his name. That’s exactly what happens in every situation. Nobody is the sort of person who is likely to be a Christian.
And what if American Christianity as we know it collapses in the meantime?
We sometimes think that American Christianity is the center, ministering to all the other nations. That is not a biblical understanding of the body of Christ. Most of the body of Christ on earth is not American, doesn’t speak English, and never will. And that’s not even counting the number that no man can number of the body of Christ in heaven right now. So some of the handwringing that we have about American Christianity is: what happens if American Christianity collapses? But even if it would, the church would not collapse. America is a mission field, and God is raising up missionaries from Nigeria, Thailand, Korea, or Australia, to come in and bring the message of the gospel. So we ought to have enough confidence in Jesus’ message that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.
Interview for Plough by Peter Mommsen on August 14, 2015.