News reports are filled with stories and analysis about Josh Duggar, the reality television star-turned-conservative activist, who is alleged to have committed sexually abusive acts against young girls when he was a teenager. Duggar has admitted that he “acted inexcusably” and has resigned from his position at a pro-family political organization. Meanwhile, TLC network has reportedly pulled the Duggar family reality show, 19 Kids and Counting, from the air while they determine the future of the show. This is after TLC cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo because the show’s mother, “Mama June” is dating a registered sex offender. The controversy here is, sadly, yet another reminder to the church of our responsibility to be a witness for justice and righteousness on the issue of sexual abuse.

I’m not interested in litigating the specifics of this case—the civil authorities and the relevant employers are now alerted to the situation. I’m more concerned that we see that this story is one more in what has been an endless cycle of stories of sexual abuse in “churched” contexts. We cannot assume that we can avoid this topic simply by making sure our doctrines are right, our values conservative, and our people sheltered from the world. If we are not addressing this issue, it is only because we are ignoring what is going on in our communities, and all too often in our pews. This requires that churches come with conviction to this question preemptively, before any specific situation arises, with a word from God.

The first step is to recognize that sexual abuse is not merely sexual immorality. Sexual immorality, any sexual contact outside the bounds of covenantal marriage, is sin and comes under the just condemnation of God’s law. Immorality is a matter of a sin against God and, usually, sin against others—a spouse, the other party, and so forth. Immorality, by itself, is dealt with in terms of a call to repentance and the sort of discipleship it takes to overcome sinful patterns by the power of the Spirit and, where possible, to restore broken relationships.

Sexual abuse is immoral, but it is far more than just sexual. Sexual abuse is an act of violence, in which one leverages power to sexually violate the helpless. The resulting aftermath is not just a guilty conscience awaiting judgment on the part of the perpetrator, but a victim who has been assaulted. Sexual abuse is not just a sin but also a crime, not just a matter of personal unrighteousness on the part of the perpetrator but also a matter of public injustice.

This means that sexual abuse in the context of the church must be handled in terms of both authorities responsible—both the church and the state. The state has been given the sword of justice to wield against those who commit crimes (Rom. 13:1-7). The church has no such sword (Matt. 26:51-53). This means that the immediate response to allegations of sexual abuse is to call the civil authorities, to render unto Caesar the responsibility that belongs to Caesar to investigate the crime. The church may or may not know the truth of the allegations, but it is the God-ordained prerogative of the civil authorities to discover such matters and to prosecute accordingly. When faced with a question of potential sexual abuse, call the authorities without delay.

The church’s role is not to replace the police power of the state, but to deal with the spiritual issues involved. Excommunication is no replacement for incarceration. The sins and crimes here involve two different spheres, and both should be engaged in stopping such. If an offender is a member of a congregation, the church must investigate the situation and follow through with biblical discipline but this does not replace the responsibility to alert the civil authorities. The church can speak to the soul of the offender and to the outside world about how seriously the church takes the horrific evil of sexual abuse, but the church cannot restrain evil through coercive power; only the civil realm can do that. If the church does not cooperate with the law, and with the police power of the law, in protecting the vulnerable, the church is in defiance against the ordinances of God himself.

The church has a responsibility, beyond alerting proper authority, in several areas. The first is to preach and teach on issues of sexual abuse. Many abused people hide in the shadows because they believe, sometimes even subliminally, that they were somehow at fault for their abuse. Sometimes abused people are fearful to come forward because they think that people within the church will think they are now “damaged” because of the abuse. The church’s witness should be clear that victims of sexual abuse are not to blame—nor are they defined by the atrocities committed against them. You may think that such truths are obvious, but they need to be said if we are to offer freedom for the captives, as Jesus did (Lk. 4:18). One of the chief ways people are held in captivity is through misplaced shame, for what has been done to them.

We should also make clear to the whole congregation the steps we are taking to make sure that children and the vulnerable are safe in our churches from sexual abuse. Tell the congregation why you have background checks, why safeguards for parent pick-up in nursery or Sunday school are in place, and so forth. Moreover, tell the congregation what the leaders will do when there is an allegation of sexual abuse. Make it clear that sexual abusers will not be enabled in your church, and victims will not be blamed or shamed.

We must maintain this witness until sexual abuse is not only gone from reality television, but, more importantly, gone from reality altogether.

Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway)

Is Christianity Dying?

Christianity is dying. At least, that’s what major newspapers are telling us today, culling research from a new Pew Center study on what almost all sociologists are observing these days—the number of Americans who identify as Christians has reached an all-time low, and is falling. I think this is perhaps bad news for America, but it is good news for the church.

The lead editor of the report tells The New York Times that secularization—mainly in terms of those who identify as “nones” or with no specific religious affiliation—isn’t isolated to the progressive Northeast and Pacific Northwest. He notes, “The change is taking place all over, including the Bible Belt.”

This is precisely what several of us have been saying for years. Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering. I say let it fall. For much of the twentieth century, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be “normal.” During the Cold War, that meant distinguishing oneself from atheistic Communism. At other times, it has meant seeing churchgoing as a way to be seen as a good parent, a good neighbor, and a regular person. It took courage to be an atheist, because explicit unbelief meant social marginalization. Rising rates of secularization, along with individualism, means that those days are over—and good riddance to them.

Again, this means some bad things for the American social compact. In the Bible Belt of, say, the 1940s, there were people who didn’t, for example, divorce, even though they wanted out of their marriages. In many of these cases, the motive wasn’t obedience to Jesus’ command on marriage but instead because they knew that a divorce would marginalize them from their communities. In that sense, their “traditional family values” were motivated by the same thing that motivated the religious leaders who rejected Jesus—fear of being “put out of the synagogue.” Now, to be sure, that kept some children in intact families. But that’s hardly revival.

Secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists. Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office. This is good news because the kind of “Christianity” that is a means to an end—even if that end is “traditional family values”—is what J. Gresham Machen rightly called “liberalism,” and it is an entirely different religion from the apostolic faith handed down by Jesus Christ.

Now, what some will say is that the decline in self-identified Christians is a sign that the church should jettison its more unpopular teachings. And in our day, these teachings are almost always those dealing with pelvic autonomy. First of all, even if this were the key to success, we couldn’t—and wouldn’t—do it. Christianity isn’t a political party, dependent on crafting ideologies to suit the masses. We received this gospel (Gal. 1:11-12); we didn’t invent it. But, that said, such is not the means to “success”—even the way the sociologists define it.

The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction. Why?

We learned this answer 100 years ago, and it reminds us of what we learned 2,000 years ago. Two or three generations ago, Christians who held to the Virgin birth of Christ were warned that their children would flee the faith unless the parents redefined Christianity. “If you want to win the next generation,” they were told, “you have to make Christianity relevant, and that means dispending with miracles in favor of modern science.” The churches that followed that path aren’t just dying; they are dead, sustained by endowments and dwindling gatherings of nostalgic senior adults with a smattering of community organizers here and there.

People who don’t want Christianity, don’t want almost-Christianity. Almost-Christianity looks in the mainline like something from Nelson Rockefeller to Che Guevara at prayer. Almost Christianity, in the Bible Belt, looks like a God-and-Country civil religion that prizes cultural conservatism more than theological fidelity. Either way, a Christianity that reflects its culture, whether that culture is Smith College or NASCAR, only lasts as long as it is useful to its host. That’s because it’s, at root, idolatry, and people turn from their idols when they stop sending rain.

Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news. The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that the Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction. Only a strange gospel can differentiate itself from the worlds we construct. But the strange, freakish, foolish old gospel is what God uses to save people and to resurrect churches (1 Cor. 1:20-22).

We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America. Again, that’s good news. The gospel comes to sinners, not to the righteous. It is easier to speak a gospel to the lost than it is to speak a gospel to the kind-of-saved. And what those honest atheists grapple with, is what every sinner grapples with, burdened consciences that point to judgment. Our calling is to bear witness.

We don’t have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did. Good. Mayberry leads to hell just as surely as Gomorrah does. But Christianity didn’t come from Mayberry in the first place, but from a Roman Empire hostile to the core to the idea of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. We’ve been on the wrong side of history since Rome, and it was enough to turn the world upside down.

The future of Christianity is bright. I don’t know that from surveys and polls, but from a word Someone spoke one day back at Caesarea Philippi. The gates of hell haven’t gotten any stronger, and the Light that drives out the darkness is enough to counter every rival gospel, even those gospels that describe themselves as “none.”

Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway)

On Friday, I kept my promise to take my little flock of sons to see the movie they’ve been waiting for all year, Avengers: Age of Ultron. I was expecting to have to explain some things, as I do with almost every movie, and I did. There were a few profanities. The villain had a messiah complex, complete with some cribbed lines from the actual Messiah. But what surprised me the most was the jarring centrality of the family in this film. And by family, I don’t mean the elastic, redefined concept of “families” but an undercurrent of pining for the stability of the natural, nuclear family.

Let me stop here and say “spoiler alert” for those of you who haven’t seen the film, but let me also say there’s nothing here that will spoil the film for you. In truth, the fact that what I’m about to talk about includes a “surprise” plot twist is exactly part of the point I’m making.

In the film, the superhero group find themselves tracked and targeted, with no place of refuge from a virtually omniscient (there’s that Messiah complex, again) Ultron. Until they find one spot on the map where they can’t be mapped. It’s Hawkeye’s house, out in a rural area. The surprise is that waiting for Hawkeye is his wife and children. The arrow-slinger didn’t tell his colleagues, or his superiors, about his family, in order to keep them protected from his dangerous life.

The idea of a family seems to be a shock to everyone. No one had ever considered it as a possibility. Earlier in the movie, when Hawkeye’s injury is repaired with regenerated skin (again, spoiler alert; sorry), the doctor says, “Not even your girlfriend can tell the difference.” In one of the most touching scenes in the film, Hawkeye’s wife runs her hand along his abdomen and says, “I can tell the difference.” This is no girlfriend. This is one-flesh, head and body, a wife and her husband.

Moreover, the house is a refuge. With all of the chaos going on in the world around them, this house, filled with running children and Lego parts scattered across the floor, is a place of calm. It is, as Christopher Lasch put it, “a haven in a heartless world.” Even Bruce Banner seems tranquil in this place (and we would know it immediately if he were stressed). Unlike Superman, this hero’s fortress is no place of solitude.

Hawkeye’s life as a husband and a father isn’t seen as something that detracts from his super-heroism. It is something presented as almost a luxury, something to be envied if not aspired to. Later in the film another character, Black Widow, reveals that she has been sterilized as part of her training. This is seen as a profound loss. Captain America looks at Hawkeye’s life and wonders if it’s a possibility that died for him when he was buried in the ice back during World War II.

It’s interesting to me that Hawkeye’s “traditional” family life is seen as countercultural, in the best sense of that word. For the past two or three generations, the heroes in popular culture were often trying to escape the stifling “conformity” of the nuclear family. In this movie, though, conformity seems to be girlfriends and boyfriends and, implicitly, sex and romance, but not marriage and family. A family of husband and wife with children, that is more surprising than artificially intelligent robots, suspended animation, or Gamma-radiated monsters.

Perhaps this is a signal of a bit of longing for something different. As I’ve said many times before, the Sexual Revolution can’t keep its promises. The breakdown of families doesn’t bring the liberation some think. Those of us who believe in the old ways need to nourish these habits and practices, not only in obedience to God and not only for our own flourishing, but for the sake of generations to come. Families, designed according to the pattern held together in Christ, will seem odd and strange and freakish, but sometimes odd and strange and freakish is exactly what people are looking for. In fact, love and marriage and family, sometimes even superheroes need what they never knew they wanted.

Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway)

What Baltimore Needs

Our television screens glow with images of criminal rioting and assault on police officers in the streets of Baltimore. This is in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, despite the pleas from Gray’s family for calm. The horrific scene seems to bring out the worst ideological responses from divergent corners. Some, wrongly, excuse the rioting, pointing out the issues leading up to it as justifying such criminality. On the other side, some suggest, wrongly, that such rioting is part and parcel of what peaceful protesters are about, distracting from the very real systemic issues that must be addressed. But behind all of this is a question the church must ask: what does Baltimore need in a time such as this?

There’s no question that Baltimore needs order and restraint of violence. There’s no question that Baltimore needs investigation and justice in the untimely death of Freddie Gray. There’s no question that Baltimore suffers from poverty, racial injustice, family breakdown, illegal drugs, gang activity, and a thousand other ailments. Government, civil society, law enforcement, and community organizations must confront all of these. But I would argue that the primary need Baltimore has is for the church.

By saying this, I am not suggesting that systemic problems can be wiped out simply by more and more people becoming Christians and leading transformed lives. We needed, after all, a Civil War and some constitutional amendments to end the scourge of human slavery in this country. We need governing authorities to do their God-assigned responsibilities, and as citizens we should see to it that systems are reformed in ways conducive to justice and the common good. But, as a Christian, I believe the primary vehicle for shaping consciences to prioritize life and justice and peace and order is the community of the church, under the reign of Christ.

What we are seeing in the streets of Baltimore, after all, is not an anomaly. Systemic injustice, arson, theft, murder, brutality, fighting—these are remarkable to us only because of the restraining grace of God in the world. Left to ourselves, we are all “slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Sin causes us not only to be alienated from God, but also to be alienated from one another. We respond to injury and insult with more injury, more insult. We fight idols with idols, Mammon with Mammon, violence with violence.

The church, though, is to show a different path. This is not because the church is made up of people more intelligent and more morally put-together than other organizations. It is instead because the church is the place where Jesus now reigns (Eph. 1:22-23). The church is the outpost of the future, the colony of the kingdom, in the midst of this fallen, violent, devil-haunted universe. Jesus rules in the church by reconciling sinners to himself through the gospel, (Eph. 2:1-10), and then reconciling them to one another, through the gospel (Eph. 2:11-22). The unity of the church isn’t the result of some program. It’s the result of the invading reign of Christ Jesus, tearing down carnal divisions and creating peace where there once was chaos.

The gospel polarizes the church from the world, separating out a holy people. But within the church, the gospel ends the polarization of people from one another. As we are filled with the Spirit, we throw aside the primacy of our tribal allegiances, whatever they are, and we seek the interests of the others, of our brothers and sisters. As we do so, we learn what it is to follow Christ by making peace (Rom. 12:9-21).

This sort of gospel order doesn’t silo the church off from the world. The kingdom in our midst shows us that the lies of the haters are just that: lies. The hateful will always insist that violence is normal—whether the violence of the killing of an unarmed black male or the violence of rioting in response. The witness of the church models for us that what we are told is normal isn’t normal at all; violence and hatred are satanic, parasitic on a universe that God created for shalom. When our consciences are formed, together, around the Lord’s Table, serving one another, worshipping with one another, we are transformed to see the sort of universe God has in mind. We then work for justice and for peace, together.

Baltimore is hurting. Let’s pray for the wisdom of the governor, the mayor, the Justice Department, the police. But let’s pray also for Baltimore to see a preview of the future—of peace and righteousness and unity—in the only place we can see it in the now: the church.

Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway)

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