Russell Moore

Dean of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

What My Grandmother Taught Me about the Church

On the way to my grandmother’s funeral, I found myself noticing, in a gas station checkout line, a pack of Dentyne gum. I don’t think I had thought about the little red bits of cinnamon in years, but the package stood out to me. My grandmother, Agnes Moore, would give me half a piece of that gum every time we would sit down in church. It was always a half piece, because she couldn’t stand the sight of someone visibly smacking gum. All sorts of memories filed forward. I suppose that’s because I can only think of that gum in the context of church, and, in a very real sense, I can only think of the church in the context of her.
My family was always at Sunday school and Sunday morning worship, but my grandmother, who lived next door to us, expected more from me. She was widowed early in my life, losing my grandfather who had been pastor of my home church, Woolmarket Baptist in Biloxi, Mississippi. She was lonely, and I knew it, so I would spend many evenings in her house, snapping beans or shelling peas in front of the fire. And on Sunday evenings I would go with her to Training Union (kind of a Baptist Sunday school at night) followed by Sunday evening services. On Wednesday night, she would take me to Royal Ambassadors (kind of a Southern Baptist Boy Scouts, where we would learn about international missions) and Wednesday night prayer meeting. She would take me to all the fifth Sunday dinners on the grounds and every revival meeting.
There was only one event in the church calendar we would always miss: business meeting.
The business meeting was the congregational gathering to discuss and vote on questions such as the church budget and any problems in the congregation. Once a month, she would always say, “No church tonight; it’s business meeting.” I always assumed growing up that “business meeting” was the ecclesial equivalent of “federal holiday.” Only later did I learn that people actually showed up for these meetings.
When I was older, I asked my grandmother, “Why did we never go to church on business meeting night?” She replied, “Because I wanted you to be a Christian.” She knew that those meetings would often turn into arguments, petty power plays, and proxy wars for people who had grudges about other matters.
I would always tell that story as an adult and laugh, but I realize now that she wasn’t really joking, at least not completely. I didn’t know it, but my grandmother was shaping and forming me to see the church in ways that took seriously both grace and nature, both creation and fall. She knew that I needed to see the church as home, as family, as my tribe of belonging. She knew that doesn’t happen with just a once-a-week stop-in. She helped build a churchly ecosystem around my life, established with the rhythms of familiar hymns, weekly patterns, even that stick of gum from her purse every time. And it worked. My childhood was embedded in the life of that little church, and from that I was connected to the larger, broader Body of Christ across time and space. Hearing the Bible, singing the Bible and enacting the Bible meant that when I heard, personally, the voice of Christ in the gospel, it was a sound I’d learned to expect to hear one day. That saved my life.
At the same time, her savvy about the business meetings kept me from idealizing the church. By showing her disapproval of this one aspect of church life, she modeled for me that she was aware that the church was often an arena for sin and brutality. That saved my life too. If I had grown up completely sheltered from that reality, I might have reached a point of disillusionment and disappointment when the church I encountered in adulthood seemed, as it often does, such a place of apathy, lawlessness, and brutality.
Sometimes people will ask me how difficult it must be to work in such a Christless place as the government arenas of Washington, D.C. I will usually respond that I find Washington far kinder and less vicious than many people who claim the name of Christ. My grandmother didn’t expose me to that reality too early, but she prepared me for it. That saved my life too.
Her pulling me toward the church taught me to love it. Her pullback from some aspects of the church helped me to see that Jesus is Lord, and that the foibles and follies of human beings do not extend to Him. I have needed both lessons often, starting when God was calling me to ministry and I saw many models of ministry that were far from anything commended in the Holy Scripture or consonant with the gospel I’d embraced. I was able, thanks to her, to love the church enough to see beyond its present form to the great cloud of witnesses of the kingdom of God, in which there is no need for business meetings.
It is often said in my baptistic tradition that “God has no grandchildren.” We are either sons and daughters or we are not. One is not justified by family connection. To that I say yes and Amen. But God’s children sometimes are blessed to have grandmothers. And sometimes they are what we need to learn what it means to be the children of a Father.
Her funeral wasn’t held in a church, but in some funeral home. But all I could think of was the church, and how much I owe to her to be part of it. All I could think was “thank you,” as I chewed a bit of Dentyne gum. But it was only half of a piece, so you would never know.
 
Publication date: February 3, 2016
One of my earliest memories is of a substitute Sunday school teacher chastening me for putting a coin in my mouth. “That’s filthy,” she said. “Why, you don’t know if a colored man might have held that.” It might just be my imagination playing tricks on me, but it seems as though she immediately followed this up with, “Alright children, let’s sing ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World.’”
Now, this lady probably didn’t consciously think of herself as a white supremacist. She almost certainly didn’t think of herself as subversive of the gospel itself. She never thought about the hypocrisy of holding the two contradictory worldviews together in her mind. She probably didn’t see how her dehumanizing of African-Americans was a twisted form of Darwinism rather than biblical Christianity.
She wasn’t alone.
On the question of civil rights in the American Christian context, there is little question that, with few exceptions, the “progressives” were right, often heroically right, and the “conservatives” were wrong, often satanically wrong. In the narrative of the dismantling of Jim Crow, conservatives were often the villains and progressives were most often on the side of the angels, indeed on the side of Jesus.
The question is not whether the progressives won the argument or whether they should have won the argument; the question is why they were persuasive, ultimately, on this point (and almost no other) to their more conservative brothers and sisters. The turnaround is striking, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), where a generation ago most conservative leaders were segregationists.
Some, of course, will claim cynically that conservative evangelical leaders, like some national politicians, don’t play with racial demagogy anymore because such appeals don’t “work” anymore in 21st century America. Nobody wants to be seen as a racist. Well, okay, but, even if one accepts that argument, why is it true that a segregationist would be barred (and rightly so) from speaking at the SBC Pastors’ Conference of 2013 and wouldn’t be at the SBC Pastors’ Conference of 1950? Isn’t it because the people wouldn’t tolerate it? Well, why the change? It must be more than just changing American culture since conservative evangelicals have been in the throes of a much-hyped “culture war” on all sorts of issues since the 1960s?
Why is civil rights no longer a “culture war” issue? Why were the voices of the civil rights pioneers persuasive, not only to mainstream America but to conservative Christians as well? Some might argue it is because the culture has changed. But the culture has changed just as much (if not more so) on the question of gender and sexual issues, after three waves of feminism and a sexual revolution, but not so for traditionalist Catholics and confessional Protestants.
The reason SBC progressives, and the larger civil rights movement, were persuasive was because of the mode of their argument. The progressives, as scholar David Chappell shows in his book Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, appealed to biblical orthodoxy and missionary zeal in their arguments, not simply to the arc of historical progress.
This is true at the macro level—think of the King James Version of the Bible woven so intricately into the themes of Martin Luther King’s speeches and sermons. It is also true at the micro level. SBC civil rights advocates—from Foy Valentine to T.B. Maston to Henlee Barnette—argued from decidedly conservative biblical concepts.
The civil rights movement struggled on multiple fronts. In the political sphere, leaders such as King pointed out how the American system was inconsistent with Jeffersonian principles of the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Politically, Americans had to choose: be American (as defined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence) or be white supremacist; you can’t be both. King and his compatriots were right.
But the civil rights movement was, at core, also an ecclesial movement. King was, after all, “Rev. King” and many of those marching with him, singing before him, listening to him, were Christian clergy and laity. To the churches, especially the churches of the South, the civil rights pioneers sent a similar message to the one they sent to the governmental powers. You have to choose: be a Christian (as defined by the Scripture and the small “c” catholic apostolic tradition) or be a white supremacist; you can’t be both. They were right here too.
How can white supremacy be true, they would argue, if humanity is made from “one blood” in the creation of Adam? How can one segregate evangelistic crusades if the cross of Christ atones for all people, both white and black? If God personally regenerates repentant sinners, both white and black, how can we see people in terms of “race” rather than in terms of the person? If we send missionaries across the seas to evangelize Africa, how is it not hypocrisy not to admit African-Americans into church membership?
The biblical power of the argument is true, regardless of whether all the civil rights pioneers, in the SBC and out of it, believed in biblical orthodoxy.
But regardless of personal faith, the civil rights heroes indicted conservative hypocrites, prophetically, with the conservatives’ own convictional claims. And, as Jesus promised, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”
The arguments for racial reconciliation were persuasive, ultimately, to orthodox Christians because they appealed to a higher authority than the cultural captivity of white supremacy. These arguments appealed to the authority of Scripture and the historic Christian tradition.
This authority couldn’t easily be muted by a claim to a “different interpretation” because racial equality was built on premises conservatives already heartily endorsed: the universal love of God, the unity of the race in Adam, the Great Commission and the church as the household of God.
With this the case, the legitimacy of segregation crumbled just as the legitimacy of slavery had in the century before, and for precisely the same reasons. Segregation, like slavery, was shown to be what all human consciences already knew it to be: not just a political injustice or a social inequity (although certainly that) but also a sin against God and neighbor and a repudiation of the gospel. Regenerate hearts ultimately melted before such arguments because in them they heard the voice of their Christ, a voice they’d heard in the Scriptures themselves.
Conservative Christians, and especially Southern Baptists, must be careful to remember the ways in which our cultural anthropology perverted our soteriology and ecclesiology. It is to our shame that we ignored our own doctrines to advance something as clearly demonic as racial pride. And it is a shame that sometimes it took theological liberals to remind us of what we claimed to believe in an inerrant Bible, what we claimed to be doing in a Great Commission.
 
A version of this article originally appeared in 2010. 
Publication date: January 20, 2016
Recently I was startled to realize that I had hit an important milestone in my life, the twentieth anniversary of my ordination to gospel ministry. As I’ve reflected back on that August night back in 1995 Biloxi, Mississippi, I’ve tried to recall some of the things I’ve learned since then. These are not necessarily the most important things I’ve learned—many of those, I’m sure, are subconscious, but these are 20 things that come to mind at the moment that I’ve learned in 20 years of ministry.
1. When it comes to preaching, Sunday School was more important to me than seminary. I value Greek and Hebrew and everything else but absorbing the stories and phrases and teachings of Scripture as a child was more important than even that. If I had to choose between the two, I’d choose Sunday School.
2. At my ordination, an elderly deacon referenced the Bible and my wife, saying, “Son, don’t ever get in the pulpit with any other book than that one, and don’t ever get into bed with any other woman but her.” Wise counsel. Another way of putting it: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine; I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the tie that binds; Because you’re mine, I walk the line”
3. Most of my regrets are failures to be kind or merciful. What haunts me most are not sermons that could have been preached better or ministries I could have led better, but rather people I loved who needed more mercy than I could or would give, or people I gave up on too soon. If I could advise my younger self, I would say, “Err on the side of kindness and mercy.”
4. I cannot overestimate the blessing of old friendships. I desperately need the people who knew me before I was “Dr. Moore.” They are the ones who can knock me down when I get prideful, and remind who I am and what God has called me to when I get down and depressed. As your life goes on and ministry gets more frantic, it’s easy to let those friendships grow dormant, more time elapses between phone calls or visits. Don’t let that happen.
5. There is no ministry without mentoring. I keep pictures around everywhere of mentors in my life, those who took chances on me at a young age and who taught me what I know. Most of what I learned from these men and women happened in non-programmed times, when these mentors would hardly have known they were “mentoring.” At the same time, I look around at the protégés God has given me in ministry—many of whom I still get to serve with in various ways as colleagues now. Mentoring will take a lot of your time, and sometimes your emotional energy, but it is worth it.
6. Personal counseling has been as important as study. I’m, by nature, more prophetic than priestly. I don’t particularly like one-on-one counseling. I’d much rather preach a sermon or write an article than sit with a bickering couple about who sent what text messages to whom. But I often found myself with a weekly load of lots of personal counseling. In that I gained insights into struggles I’ve never had, wounds I’ve never thought of, temptations I’ve never experienced. It helped me, I think, to pray better but also to preach better and to write better. It’s what I miss most about both being a pastor in a church and being dean at Southern Seminary.
7. Bible study is easy for me; prayer is hard. I’ve found that, like Israel in the desert, God often has to make me hunger to the point that I know that I do not live by bread alone, and must ask for the bread I do live by.
8. I’ve found that nothing can reach me at the most primal spiritual level like hymns I’ve known my whole life. New songs can teach me much, but “Just As I Am” can reduce me to tears of gratitude. Losing a hymnody that connects generations may be one of our greatest losses as a church.
9. Of all the families I’ve counseled through the wreckage of adultery, I don’t know of one where the issue was about sex. Usually it’s about the guilty parties trying to recapture the excitement of high school or college dating and the hormonal rush that comes with it. Our cultural definitions, often mediated through music, of what “love” is and should feel like, contribute to this.
10. Most of the theological errors I find in myself or in others are rooted in putting an “either/or” where biblically there’s a “both/and”—and vice-versa.
11. It’s important to tell the difference between a Simon Magus who needs to be rebuked (Acts 8:18-23), and an Apollos who just needs more patient instruction (Acts 18:25-26), between the Philippian Christians who need gentle reminders and Galatian heretics who must be decisively repudiated.
12. We are to be separate from sin, never separate from sinners. It is far easier to do the reverse. And the charge “He eats with tax collectors and sinners” still works. Courage means not fearing those who will seek to intimidate you from following Christ toward those who are sick and in need of a physician.
13. The Scripture calls us to judge those on the inside, who bear the name of brother, and not those on the outside (1 Cor. 5:9-12). Doing the reverse can make for a much easier ministry, as a hack.
14. You can’t avoid criticism. Decide ahead of time what sorts of criticism you would want said about you, remembered at your graveside. When that sort of criticism comes, take time to thank God for it. Make sure the criticism comes the way it does for Jesus—in stereo. (Lk. 7:33-34).
15. Cultural Christianity is a great comfort for some people. These are people who don’t have a strong doctrine of hell. If there is no judgment, then nominal Christianity is great since it prompts people to behave and live good lives. If there is a hell (and I agree with Jesus that there is) then cultural, nominal Christianity is worse than secularism or hedonism or atheism or paganism because it says “You shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4), but pretends those words are coming from Jesus himself. This leads to death, and to taking the Lord’s name in vain, all at the same time.
16. I’ve found that most of the things I considered cul-de-sacs in my ministry turned out to be, in light of later years, no such things. God was using friendships made, books read, conversations had, jobs held, catastrophes experienced, in ways I never could have predicted. And those are just the things I know about.
17. I can’t think of one thing that I worried about early in ministry that ever turned out to be a worry later on. For instance, I agonized for long sleepless nights when first called to ministry about my fear of talking in front of people. You would think that this realization would make it easier to “be anxious for nothing,” but I still must struggle to trust God.
18. My worst sermons have been those that were targeted first at the intellect or the will. My best sermons have been those that were targeted first at the imagination (“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”).
19. I keep notes of encouragement that have come through over the years—from everyone from my wife to random strangers. My Bible is filled with these, and some of them are even framed. This ought to, and sadly doesn’t as much as it should, remind me not to assume encouragement and appreciation but to express it. Sometimes I think I don’t because I fear it will sound awkward. But it’s never once been awkward for me to receive it, and I should remember that.
20. When I preached every week at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, I would end every service with the same benediction. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:1-5, 14). I read that passage because I believe it sums up the whole of the Bible. But, more than that, I read it because I needed to hear those words, aloud, every single week. My life depends on them.
 
Publication date: January 8, 2015

Is Gun Control a Christian Issue?

President Obama has announced his intention to tighten the nation’s gun control laws through executive action. This action, of course, comes in the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, as well as numerous mass shootings over the past several years. I am often asked, “Is gun control a Christian issue?” After all, some might ask, if we are truly pro-life should we not also be as adamant about gun control as we are about abortion control? Is the gun control debate simply one that we should ignore?
First, let me in full disclosure say that I hold to traditionally conservative views on the Second Amendment as a personal and individual right. Like every other constitutional right, this right is not unlimited or all expansive, to be sure. We rightly do not allow private citizens to own surface-to-air missiles, for example. But I’m suspicious of gun control measures as naïve and ineffective, if not counter-productive, preferring to combat gun violence with strict enforcement of laws against gun crime and murder rather than with measures to impede the ability of law-abiding citizens to own weapons.
That said, I recognize that there are many, including orthodox evangelical Christians, who disagree with me on my general opposition to more gun control. This should not divide us.
I hold my Second Amendment views for different reasons and with different conviction than I hold my First or Second Commandment views. My views on the issue are informed, I hope, by my conscience as a Christian, which is to be shaped by Scripture and the church. But it is not a “Thus saith the Lord” command with the authority of Scripture.
I do not think that our debates over gun control are debates over whether or not we will be pro-life. The question of gun control is a different question than the question of gun violence itself. The gun control debate isn’t between people who support the right to shoot innocent people and those who don’t. It’s instead a debate about what’s prudent, and what’s not, in solving the common goal of ending criminally violent behavior. That’s why orange-vested National Rifle Association members and Birkenstock-wearing vegan gun-control advocates can exist, as the Body of Christ, in the same church without excommunicating one another.
Wherever one stands on gun control, no one is denying the personhood of gun victims or their right to be protected from violence. Whatever one thinks about gun control, no one in the American debate today supports selling guns to those who intend to kill. The question instead is how to prevent guns from being used criminally. Some think gun control measures are a necessary way to do this; others think such laws are averting the real issue. This is quite different from the abortion debate where one side denies the personhood of those subject to lethal violence.
Just because the gun control debate is different from, for instance, the abortion debate, and just because Christians disagree on guns for law-abiding people, this doesn’t mean the debate itself doesn’t pose real lessons for the church. Consider why, for instance, gun control continues to be so divisive as a culture war issue.
The parts of the country that are most like the context of most of revolutionary America, rural and agrarian, are also the parts of the country most resistant to gun control legislation. That’s certainly not just a “southern” thing. Metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Seattle tend to support rigorous gun control. But rural Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Washington state are almost as pro-gun rights as rural Alabama. Even socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders often opposed gun control legislation in his career, because his rural Vermont constituency wouldn’t have it any other way.
If one lives in a community where people know one another, trust one another, and can call a neighbor (armed, if necessary) to help where needed, crime rates tend to be lower. This is not, I suspect, a case of “more guns, less crime” as much as it is “more community, less crime.” This is quite different from some of the big cities in this country, and increasingly our suburbs, where we do not know the people around us, and have no one to turn to but to the government to protect us from criminal enterprises that are often guarded with (usually illegal) guns.
We should listen, I think, to the rhetoric behind the rhetoric of the gun control debate. Both sides are often scared. They are scared of violence, often with good reason. The gun control advocate wants the government to protect him from gun-wielding criminals. The gun-rights supporter wants his gun to protect him from gun-wielding criminals. The gun control supporter trusts an armed government; the gun control opponent trusts an armed community.
Both sides of the debate are longing for the kind of civic community that is slipping away in a globalizing, urbanizing America. There are some things that government can do to address this, but not much. It is driven more by cultural and economic factors than by political ones.
Into this void must step churches that foster and build real communities built on real love and real truth. These kinds of churches can flourish in rural Oregon and urban Atlanta, in blue states and red states. These kind of churches can seek to create not just individual disciples, but an alternative order in which the citizens of heaven know one another, trust one another, and are able to call on one another when one hears a strange sound at the window. This will not end the gun control debate, but it can start to bear witness to one of the aspects of this debate we are too afraid to have.
 
Publication date: January 6, 2015
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