Plough: Our culture is rapidly shedding its Christian trappings. In this situation, how does the Sermon on the Mount apply to the church today?
Russell Moore: The Sermon on the Mount is becoming increasingly relevant, because Christianity is getting stranger and stranger in our society, at least in North America. Jesus’ teachings make no rational sense to the natural person, as the Apostle Paul would put it. In a Darwinistic, naturalistic account of the universe, for instance, it seems only natural to strike back when one has been hit.
The Sermon on the Mount has to do with the kingdom of God. The church is the initial manifestation of God’s kingdom in this era, pointing to what the kingdom will be like in fullness in the age to come.
Where are we in greatest danger of compromise?
In my conservative evangelical wing of the church I often tell churches that too many of us are alarmed by passages in the scripture that are meant to be comforting, and are comforted by passages that are meant to be alarming. For instance, the doctrine of election alarms a great many in my community – people are fearful of what it might mean – when in reality, it is meant to assure us that God is for us and isn’t going to leave us.
On the other hand, many people treat the Sermon on the Mount as if it were only to comfort us – a list of sayings to be crocheted and put on the wall. But if we really pay attention to what Jesus is saying here, he is dismantling everything about our world and creating an entirely new one for us. If we really understand the Sermon on the Mount, our response as sinners should first be dismay followed by repentance.
I remember one time when I was preaching from the Sermon on the Mount, I found myself unwittingly putting an asterisk after one passage – “Well, obviously, it can’t mean that!” It hit me that this is exactly what a Protestant liberal does with the virgin birth. I had to turn around and submit myself to what Jesus was actually saying, rather than demand that his words submit to me.
In Matthew 5, Jesus teaches the indissolubility of marriage between a man and a woman. How can Christians do a better job of testifying to God’s will for sexuality and marriage?
For the past generation or so the North American church has assumed that the broader culture shares its conception of marriage, and that all we have to do is add the gospel in order to make our marriages better. Today, however, we need to return to a New Testament model of patiently explaining the theological underpinnings of marriage and sexuality.
Marriage and sexuality are not simply about how to get along better in this life. They are icons pointing to something that is pre-historical and pre-cosmic: the union of Christ and his church. Because of this, it’s critical to spend time teaching God’s people how their marriages and their sexual lives point either toward or away from this central truth.
It is also necessary to fight the devil. Contemporary people tend to cringe when they hear believers speaking of the devil in a personal way, but I think we must. The devil works in two ways: either by deceiving people with the message, “The Word of God doesn’t apply to you – you shall not surely die,” or by accusing them: “You are too sinful – you will never be acceptable to God.”
As ambassadors of reconciliation, we have to fight these lies in both directions. We must expose the devil’s deceit by saying, “The sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God.” However, we must also attack the devil’s accusation by declaring, “The blood of Christ is able to cleanse us from any sin. Jesus offers each person reconciliation on the condition of repentance and faith.” Both truths need to be spoken in a world filled with sexual brokenness.
Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.…You cannot serve God and mammon.” Are we in the United States, the richest country on earth, being too soft on economic injustice and materialism?
Yes. All of us, whatever our disagreements over public policy, must learn to listen to the prophets who speak about systemic economic injustice, and listen to the message of our Lord’s brother James, who taught that the way we treat the poor is indicative of how we are treating Christ. That has to be constantly preached, even though it’s often uncomfortable. When Jesus warns against mammon he is not just speaking about very wealthy people. In a New Testament context, the most economically struggling North American believer of today is wealthier than the “wealthy” mentioned in Scripture.
How can we better share and bear one another’s economic burdens within our church communities?
For that to happen we need to know what’s going on with one another. It’s impossible to bear one another’s burdens if we don’t know what those burdens are.
I have seen positive developments in recent years when it comes to this issue. After the economic collapse in 2008, churches stepped up to bear the economic burdens of those who were suffering. Also, many evangelical Christians have become active in adopting and fostering children, acting on their responsibilities according to James 1:27 to care for orphans and widows. The rest of the church community has worked very hard to help these families economically, understanding that this is not simply the family’s issue but the entire church body’s issue. More of that needs to happen within our churches.
It is often noted that the Sermon on the Mount provides instruction not just to individuals but to the church community itself. What is the role of church discipline in giving a more powerful gospel witness?
The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:12, “I do not judge those who are on the outside. It is those on the inside that I judge.” Obviously the apostle is not speaking of moral discernment, because he does have a moral discernment about the outside culture. What he is talking about is accountability. Contemporary North American Christians often reverse the Pauline formula. We judge those who are on the outside and demand accountability from them, while tending to pay no attention to the sins that are happening on the inside, within our own congregations.
We must recognize that membership in the church points to becoming the future kings and queens of the universe. We are showcasing the kingdom of God. Accordingly, a congregation that is unwilling to discipline is a congregation that represents a false gospel. The reason we hold people accountable through church discipline is not to be punitive but to be redemptive – in the words of Jesus in Matthew 18, “to gain a brother.”
You have called for a transformed evangelical engagement with politics. How can this happen without falling back into the trap of serving the agendas of the political left or right?
This can happen by working with people of good will who are our allies on specific issues. This doesn’t mean we’ll agree with our allies all across the board. We cannot accept any political agenda in toto. Our aim should be to address those issues that are central to the Scriptures: neighbor-love and justice and righteousness in the public arena. But we must do so with a healthy skepticism of political structures and leaders. Political leaders are not spiritual leaders, so we must never baptize their concerns as such.
We must recognize the good, but also the limits, of political engagement. Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” I agree with Nicholas Wolterstorff that righteousness is not just internal piety but justice. We seek the kingdom of God and God’s justice. But it must be in that order: we’re informed by the gospel and must make the kingdom of God our priority.
Many Christians are worried that their faith is being marginalized in Western countries. What’s your response?
As I see it, the marginalization of Christianity in society is bad for America but good for the church. For far too long we have sought to normalize Christianity. We’ve wanted to say to our neighbors, “We’re really just like you. We’re values voters. We’re a moral majority. We can add Jesus to your life and give you everything to help you be a good American citizen.”
Those days are vanishing, and we are seeing a “rapture” of the nominal cultural church. Those who go to church in order to earn their God-and-country badges are vanishing away in front of our eyes. Thankfully, we are being left with more and more Christians who really believe in the strangeness of the gospel message. Now we have an opportunity for clarity – an opportunity for revival.
Interview by Peter Mommsen on March 26, 2014.