Russell Moore

Dean of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
It’s not often that I find myself wiping away tears in a denominational meeting, but I just did. The Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the display of the Confederate Battle Flag. This conservative evangelical denomination gathered together just miles from Ferguson, Missouri, to stand together against one lingering divisive symbol.
To understand the significance of this, one must note the “Southern” in “Southern Baptist Convention.” This doesn’t speak to geography; there are SBC churches in all fifty states. It speaks to history. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845, over a controversy about appointing slaveholders as missionaries. The SBC was wrong, and more than wrong. The SBC of 1845, and for many years after, was in open sin against a holy God, and against those who bear his image.
This afternoon, the Convention voted, from the floor, to amend the resolution about the flag as it was reported out of the Resolutions Committee. The proposed resolution spoke about the way that many people fly the flag out of a sense of family history or honor. The Convention voted to strike that language. The committee version called for Southern Baptists “to limit” the display of the flag and to “consider” stopping flying it altogether. The Convention decided stronger language was in order.
In an amendment, offered by former SBC president James Merritt, himself a descendant of slaveholder, the Convention voted to say this: “We call our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters.”
Does this change the game as it applies to the crushing issues of racial injustice around us? Of course it does not. But at the same time, we cannot dismiss this as just about symbols. Symbols matter.
The Convention recognized today what the flag represents, and what it says to our African American brothers and sisters in Christ. The flag hearkens back to a day when in order to justify idolatrous Mammonism, Southern religion wove a counter-biblical folk theology that stood on the other side of Jesus. The flag also points to years and years of domestic terrorism against African-Americans, often with threats of physical violence.
Like James Merritt, I’m a descendant of Confederate veterans too. But my family history is more complicated than just that. I’m a part of another family now, a bigger family that spans heaven and earth, a people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language. The gospel frees us from scrapping for our “heritage” at the expense of others. The gospel frees us, as the Bible says, to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). The gospel calls us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). What hurts one part of the Body hurts us all.
As I’ve said before, the Cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. Today, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, including many white Anglo southerners, decided the cross was more important than the flag. They decided our African-American brothers and sisters are more important than family heritage. We decided that we are defined not by a Lost Cause but by amazing grace. Let’s pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors.
And let’s take down that flag.
 
Publication date: June 15, 2016

We woke up Sunday morning to news of the worst mass shooting in American history, as a terrorist murdered and injured over a hundred people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. In the aftermath, we’ve seen some of the best aspects of America: people lining up, for example, to give blood for the victims. We’ve also seen some of the worst—as the aftermath turned into an excuse for social media wars over everything from gun control to presidential politics. What I wonder is whether the country still has the capacity to grieve, together, in moments of national crisis.

When we’re accustomed to seeing news in real time on our television screens and on our phones, it is sometimes easy to forget that the news we are viewing is real. At least fifty people—created in the image of God—were slaughtered in cold blood. Families who were waiting to see their loved ones are finding out today that they will never see them again in this life. That ought to drive us to mourn.

Our nation has shared moments of crisis and tragedy before. Think of Pearl Harbor, when the country rallied around President Roosevelt and toward a common purpose of defeating the Axis Powers. Think of the John Kennedy assassination when the country—even the Kennedy family’s enemies—seemed to grieve together. Think of September 11—before the fracturing of the Iraq War—when the country looked to common cultural expressions from the service at the National Cathedral to the cold open of Saturday Night Live for a sense of lament together.

It seems now, though, that there’s rarely a time of grieving together. The time of lament morphs almost immediately into arguments over what the President should have said or whether this validates or annihilates someone’s views on guns or immigration or whatever. Some of that, of course, is just the speed of social media. People are able to discuss, rather publicly, issues much quicker than they could before. But there seems to be more than that.

Our national divisions increasingly make it difficult for us not just to work together, but even to pause and weep together. We become more concerned about protecting ourselves from one another’s political pronouncements than we do with mourning with those who mourn.

In some ways, then, national crises like this one feel less like the 1963 John Kennedy assassination than like the attempted George Wallace assassination of 1972. Reports are that some within the Nixon Administration, arguably even the President himself, contemplated planting George McGovern campaign literature in the would-be-assailant Arthur Bremer’s apartment. The shooting in Laurel, Maryland, was about, for them, the campaign itself. That sort of cynicism is, ultimately, dehumanizing.

How then do we weep with those who weep?

Let’s call our congregations to pray together. Let’s realize that, in this case, our gay and lesbian neighbors are likely quite scared. Who wouldn’t be? Demonstrate the sacrificial love of Jesus to them. We don’t have to agree on the meaning of marriage and sexuality to love one another and to see the murderous sin of terrorism. Let’s also pray for our leaders who have challenging decisions to make in the midst of crisis. Let’s mobilize our congregations and others to give blood for the victims. Let’s call for governing authorities to do their primary duty of keeping its people safe from evildoers.

And let’s bear patiently with those who jump the gun, in arguing about the politics on social media. For many of them, the jump to talk about gun control or Islam or military preparedness or any other issue isn’t so much about pontificating as it is about frustration. They, like all of us, want this horror to end, and they want to do something—even if that’s just expressing themselves on Twitter.

As the Body of Christ, though, we can love and serve and weep and mourn. And we can remind ourselves and our neighbors that this is not the way it is supposed to be. We mourn, but we mourn in the hope of a kingdom where blood is not shed and where bullets never fly.

Publication date: June 13, 2016

Does religious liberty apply to non-Christian religions? Someone told me this week that he had seen a Baptist writer question whether Muslim Americans qualify for religious liberty “benefits.” Hearing that was honestly surprising, in that it would represent a direct contradiction of our confessional document and all of its predecessors. But beyond this there’s a broader question that’s important to consider: must a person who believes Jesus Christ is the only way to God defend religious freedom for Christians and non-Christians alike?
One thing we need to be very clear about is that religious liberty is not a government “benefit,” but a natural and inalienable right granted by God. At issue is whether or not the civil state has the power to zone mosques or Islamic cemeteries or synagogues or houses of worship of whatever kind out of existence because of what those groups believe. When someone makes such a claim, that person is not standing up for Jesus and his gospel, but standing against them. To empower the state to command or to forbid worship is not fidelity to the Bible.
When we say—as Baptists and many other Christians always have—that freedom of religion applies to all people, whether Christian or not, we are not suggesting that there are many paths to God, or that truth claims are relative. We are fighting for the opposite. We are saying that religion should be free from state control because we believe that every person must give an account before the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The government’s power is limited to the coercive power of the sword (Rom. 13:1-7). The state can do all sorts of things with that sword, some lawful and some wrong. What the state cannot do is regenerate a soul. A religion of external conformity can happen by state decree or by cultural pressure. That’s the kind of religion we see among some of those who heard Jesus. They found him credible but they would not follow him “so that they would not be put out of the synagogue, for they loved the glory that came from man more than the glory that comes from God” (Jn. 12:42-43).
If that’s all the religion you want—people who will mouth words they don’t believe—then, yes, the state can serve up whatever religion you can cobble together the votes for, just like any other government program. Just don’t call that the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3). And the Bible tells us how people come to conviction of sin and new life in Christ, not through government power but by the “open proclamation of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2).
By shutting down houses of worship, or by any other act, the state cannot make a person a Christian. All the state can do is make people pretend-Christians, one birth short of salvation. Again, if all you are concerned about is a form of godliness, then perhaps this is the option for you. If you want to see people come to Christ, though, you do it by openly preaching and debating the claims of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, not by forcing people into hiding through the brute force of Uncle Sam.
Religious liberty is never an excuse for violence and crime, nor has religious liberty been so construed in American history. The United States government should fight, and fight hard, against radical Islamic jihadism. But the government should not penalize law-abiding people, especially those who are American citizens, simply for holding their religious convictions, however consistent or inconsistent, true or false, those convictions are.
Some would say, based on their reading of the Koran, that non-violent Muslims are inconsistent Muslims, the equivalent of cafeteria Catholics. The government’s job, though, is to punish evildoers for evil-doing, not to decide who is most theologically consistent with their professed religions.
The state must also protect citizens from the state itself. A government that can regulate worship and conscience is a government that can do anything. One can’t claim to be for “limited government,” while at the same time proposing that the government be in the business of regulating worship and conscience.
Like other freedoms, there are limits to how our freedoms can be exercised, and government has an obligation to protect its citizens from violence and harm. It should carry out this obligation faithfully. But the state also has an obligation to protect citizens from the state itself. Stripping a religious community of civil liberties is an act of aggression by the state against its citizens.
Moreover, the idea that religious freedom should apply only to Christians, or only to religious groups that aren’t unpopular, is not only morally wrong but also self-defeating. A government that can tell you a mosque or synagogue cannot be built because it is a mosque or a synagogue is a government that, in the fullness of time, will tell an evangelical church it cannot be constructed because of our claims to the exclusivity of Christ. Those voices (though a distinct minority, to be sure) that claim to be Christian but seek to restrict religious freedom for others are perhaps unknowingly on a campaign to destroy religious liberty. They would set the precedents that will be used to destroy churches, and they will give the opponents of religious liberty the charge that the issue isn’t about freedom at all but about seeking government approval of one’s religion.
If Jesus is right about his gospel, we do not need the power of bureaucrats to carry out the spiritual mission of the advance of the gospel. Roger Williams stood up for the right of an unpopular minority in early New England, the Baptists, not to christen their babies. But he explicitly said such freedom ought to extend to “the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish” consciences as well since we are not to extend God’s kingdom by the sword of steel but by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
There is precedent in the Bible, of course, for a religion using the state to force people to externally conform to it. Those examples, though, are those of Nebuchadnezzar, and of the Beast that John saw rising out of the sea (Rev. 13), not the church of Jesus Christ. Religious freedom means religious freedom for everyone, including those who reject our gospel. We plead with our neighbors to be reconciled with God, as long as it is still the day of salvation (2 Cor. 5-6). We want that change to happen the only way it can: by the Spirit’s enlivening power, not by some city council’s roll call vote.
External conformity, backed up by government power, is easier to achieve than Great Commission gospel advance. It also leads nowhere but to death.
 
Publication date: June 9, 2016
As we celebrate Memorial Day, millions of Americans will be reflecting on war. This weekend is, of course, a national time we’ve set aside for grateful contemplation for the liberties that have been won for us by those who sacrificed. As Christians, we too can be thankful for those who’ve defend life and freedom at the ultimate cost.
We should, though, use this national holiday to reflect as Christians on what the gospel teaches us about war. For some Christians, Memorial Day is a complicated experience. These Christians would argue that it is inconsistent at best for believers in the gospel to celebrate anything won by war. They think, “Didn’t Jesus settle this on the Sermon on the Mount? What’s hard to interpret about ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘love your enemies’?”
In one sense, pacifism has biblical warrant. The New Testament does command us to live peaceably with all people and not to seek vengeance from those who do us wrong (Rom 12:18-21). This means revenge of any sort-whether through physical violence or through office gossip-reveals that we truly don’t believe that God will avenge his people at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Rom 12:19). Jesus and then his apostles also forbid the church from exercising vengeance on anyone (Matt. 5:38-44), and even from exercising judgment over those on the outside (1 Cor. 5:12).
And yet, in Romans 13, right after the Apostle Paul has called Christians away from vengeance (Rom. 12:14-21), Paul speaks of the Roman state “bearing the sword” against “evildoers” by God’s own authority (Rom. 13:1-5).
Paul’s admonition is consistent with the rest of the Bible. The Old Testament is, among other things, the story of a warrior people triumphing over their enemies and finding rest in the land of promise. Moreover, Jesus never commanded those in the military-even though these soldiers were serving a pagan Roman Empire-to walk away from such service, though he was quite willing to command prostitutes to abandon their employments. This is the biblical foundation for the belief in “just war” that was articulated by Augustine and has been shared by most of the church since.
Pacifism is problematic because it is utopian. Yes, the Bible affirms the way of peace. And the ultimate vision of peace is that of a restored creation in which there is no more war (Isa 2:4). And yet, the Bible also tells us that this shalom comes when all Jesus’ enemies are subdued, when, as the old gospel song says, “every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed.” The Bible tells us that day is not yet here. We do not yet see all things under Jesus’ feet (Heb 2:8). In the meantime, governments must some times, though only carefully and as a last resort, go to war in order to protect the innocent and to restrain evil. Pacifists are right to tell us that war is always tragic. They are right to tell us to long for peace. But they are wrong to think that such peace can come by avoiding conflict. Passivity in the face of Hitler means a murderous Europe under a Nazi flag and, quite possibly, the extinction of the Jewish race. This is not peace, but horror.
But if pacifism is too utopian, so also is militarism. A Christian whose first response to news of unrest or persecution overseas is, “Just nuke them” is also speaking outside the way of Christ. Yes, military action is sometimes necessary. But Christians have always seen war of any kind as a tragedy-even when it is the least bad of the alternatives before us. Christians also recognize that a concept of “perpetual war for perpetual peace” is an illusion. Jesus rebuked Peter for believing the answer to Jesus’ arrest was the declaration of a violent counter-action (Matt 26:52). Sure, there will be a “war to end all wars,” but it will be fought at Armageddon-and it won’t be planned by the Pentagon.
In truth, questions of war and peace are never easy this side of the New Jerusalem. This is why Christians through the centuries have avoided both pacifism and militarism: holding to a “just war” concept that killing is never good but is sometimes best. This “just war” concept limits such action to duly constituted governments, and strictly contains the bounds of such warfare. The intentional killing of innocent non-combatants, for instance, is wrong and outside the parameters of just war.
We shouldn’t tie dye our shirts and pretend a United Nations-enforced peace can end bloodshed. But neither should we callously cheer the violence of war, as if it were a video game. Yes, we should visualize peace-but only a real peace, when the true Emperor of the universe rules over a world so truly pacified that we cannot even imagine the violence we once saw on CNN, or on Animal Planet. On that day, and maybe not until that day, there won’t be the sound of rattling swords, firing guns, or bombs bursting in air.
 
Publication date: May 31, 2016
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