Russell Moore

Dean of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The United States Supreme Court today handed down a unanimous ruling, remanding the case of Little Sisters of the Poor and other petitioners, back to the lower courts to pursue an accommodation. What this means is that the government cannot fine and penalize these groups for objecting to the Administration’s demand that they authorize contraceptive coverage for their ministry’s employees. This is an encouraging development, but it also tells us how much work there is to do in rebuilding a culture of religious freedom in this country. Here are four lessons we can learn from this case.
1. Religious Liberty Is Alive and Well
On the one hand, the ruling is a tremendous win for religious liberty. I, for one, was worried about this case after the death this year of Justice Antonin Scalia. The Court ruled unanimously that an accommodation for these conscientious objectors must be pursued. This is after the attorneys for the Little Sisters and their allies produced evidence that there are all sorts of ways to get a win-win, where the government can carry out its objectives without paving over the consciences of religious objectors (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of directors of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters).
This ruling puts a stop, for now, to the government’s bullying of these organizations, threatening to wipe them out of existence for holding to their theological and moral principles. The Court didn’t share the government’s cavalier disregard for these principles. That’s good news.
2. Religious Liberty, Even in Victory, Is Imperiled
While this ruling is a good one, the fact that the case had to be even argued at all is a bad omen of the times. Who would have predicted a few years ago that the Supreme Court would have to weigh in on whether the government could forcibly use nuns to deliver contraceptive drugs and devices? In this sense, this case is similar to another unanimous decision a few years ago, Hosanna Tabor, which ruled that churches and ministries set their own qualifications for ministers. The ruling was welcome, but the fact that the debate has to be had at all is troubling.
3. Religious Liberty Requires an Explanation of Religion Itself
Throughout this case, the government has insisted that its proposed “accommodations” solve the conscience problem. In this, the government has tried to instruct nuns and others on their own religion, with the catechism of state power. Behind this is a larger problem. Increasingly, secular progressive people have diminishing contact with orthodox religious people (and vice-versa), through the sorting of American society and even American media into self-contained silos. If one doesn’t know people who believe they are going to give an account before God for their use of their lives and their resources, one is not going to see religious freedom as all that important. That’s why so many dismissed this case with a roll of the eyes and a “just sign the form” They don’t understand why the petitioners couldn’t have their consciences implicated in what they believe to be sin.
Our defense of religious liberty, then, cannot simply be about explicating the meaning of the First Amendment or even the way that religious freedom helps the common good (although both of these are important). We must explain to our more secular neighbors why we believe the things we do. For those of us who are orthodox Christians, that means explaining to an often incredulous world why we believe the turning-point of history is the Judgment Seat of Christ.
4. Religious Liberty Means Standing Up for Others’ Rights of Conscience
The plaintiffs in this case all agreed that the Obama Administration’s mandate is burdensome, but they disagreed at points as to why. I, and many other evangelical Christians, object in every case to abortion-causing drugs or devices but not necessarily to contraception itself. The Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic groups conscientiously object to all artificial contraception. We don’t have to agree with one another on all these things in order to agree that the government shouldn’t be in the business of violating the free exercise of one’s deepest held religious beliefs.
Advocacy for religious liberty is not about special pleading for one’s own religion. Religious liberty means that even if one were to work out a “deal” with one’s government protecting one’s own beliefs and practices, that’s not enough. Religious liberty is not a government favor but a right granted by God. That’s why Christians should be the ones standing up for our Jewish neighbors’ right to circumcise their sons or our Muslim neighbors’ right to construct their houses of worship or our Sikh neighbors’ right to wear their religiously-mandated beards and head-coverings. This isn’t moral or theological relativism but the reverse. We believe that these spiritual disagreements we have with one another must be resolved by spiritual means (that is, through the gospel’s open proclamation of the truth), not by the coercive power of the government. We believe, after all, that external conformity does nothing. Only through new birth can one enter the kingdom of God, and that cannot be legislated or dictated by bureaucrats.
Today’s Supreme Court ruling means that this issue lives to fight another day. We should be both encouraged and steeled in our resolve to stand up, always and everywhere, for soul freedom.
 
Publication date: May 17, 2016

light

Not long ago I got an email from a Christian man who asked me, “What can I do to become knowledgable in Christian ethics?” Obviously, I think that’s a good question. Ethics is not, after all, something that only academic types or pastors have to think about. Every Christian has a mandate to be able to articulate the truth of the gospel and to apply it in every season of life.

Here are the three most important things you can do to develop a solid Christian ethic:

1) Know the Bible.

Knowing the Bible goes beyond being able to recite individual verses. There are a lot of Christians who know specific proof texts, but they don’t know how to understand the whole fabric of the Scriptures. They’re unable to inhabit the world of the Bible and see how it applies to ethical and moral issues in their life, especially those that feel new and difficult.

We live in a time when, because of everything from technology to cultural change, there are all sorts of ethical issues that we haven’t had to think about before. But we know, as the Scriptures tell us, that there is nothing new under the sun, just new applications of old principles.

For instance, one question that I get a lot from parents is: What do I do about a smartphone for my pre-teen or young teenage son or daughter? That’s the sort of question that, if you had described twenty years ago what a smartphone is and what it does, would have sounded like science fiction. And we can speculate about the sorts of questions that people are going to have to address in the church in the next twenty years, questions like “What about artificial intelligence,” or, “How do we think about that child in Vacation Bible School who was cloned?” Those are questions that may seem outlandish to us right now, but they are really dealing with very old, ancient issues being brought to the forefront in a new way.

2) Know People

Developing a Christian ethic means understanding human nature. And that means listening and developing empathy for people, especially people who are in a different situation than you.

One of the things that I miss the most since I transitioned out of full time pastoral ministry is counseling. When I was serving as a pastor, people would come to me every day in crisis situations. Counseling them through these circumstances helped me to understand and to develop empathy for people in situations that I just don’t have to face—people who have different points of vulnerability or different points of suffering than the ones I have.

I may not have experienced what a widower who is lonely after the death of his wife is experiencing, but in talking to him and ministering to him, I can enter into his life and develop empathy for others whose loved ones have gone. When I am helping someone addicted to gambling or prescription drugs, even though those aren’t my specific areas of temptation, I can no longer caricature those struggles because I’m looking for how this person can find healing.

Getting this close to people can also help us see what’s at stake in our own lives. I remember talking one time with a married couple where the husband was having an extramarital affair. He was sitting across from me as he listed all these reasons why what he was doing wasn’t wrong after all. But right next to him, they had a little six week-old baby in a car seat on the floor. All I kept thinking was, “Do you not see what your sin is doing? Do you not see what it’s costing you?” Later I found myself thinking about those areas in my own life that I don’t see—those blind spots that those around me can point out but that I can’t see.

3) Know Great Stories

Reading good literature, especially fiction, is more important than keeping up with current events. That’s not to say that it’s unimportant to keep up with current events, but reading good fiction can help you to get inside the minds of people different from you in a way that is more significant than simply knowing what this or that group of talking heads are saying.

Fiction can sometimes, like Nathan the prophet’s story of the ewe lamb, awaken parts of us that we have calloused over, due to ignorance or laziness or inattention or sin. One night, in the car on my way home, I was talking by telephone to my eighty-six year-old grandmother. She was telling me a story about the last time she saw my grandfather alive. She told me about feeling the coldness of his feet as she changed his socks in his hospital bed, about how his eyes were focused on her, though he couldn’t speak. She talked about how, when the nurses told her she had to leave, she kissed him, told him she loved him, and that she could feel him watching her as she left the room, for the last time.

I knew she had lost my grandfather. I know that people die. I know “Husbands love your wives” (Ephesians 5). But that story awakened something in me. It prompted me to hold my wife with a special tenderness when I walked in the door. I had imagined what it would be like to say goodbye to her in that way, and, suddenly, all the daily pressures of kids and bills and house repairs and travel just seemed to fit in a bigger context. Fiction often does the same thing. When I read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych, I gain an imaginative sympathy with something I might avoid in the busyness of life: what it’s actually like to die. When I read Wendell Berry’s stories of Henry County, Kentucky, I can gain insight on what it would be like to face losing a family farm in the Great Depression. This fiction gives a richer, bigger vision of human life.

If you want to become more well-versed in Christian ethics, start with these three things.

Publication date: May 16, 2016

Last night the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration would issue a decree directing every public school in the nation to allow bathroom access on the basis of self-identity, not biological sex. I’m quite aware of the White House's place in our culture wars, and even I am surprised. If anyone had suggested in 2009 that the new President’s administration would seek to target children’s bathrooms for the sake of transgender ideology, the White house would have ridiculed it as a crazy conspiracy theory. So, for those suggesting that state legislatures seeking to define such questions were working on “solutions without a problem,” well, here’s your problem. So why is this important, and what should the church do?

First of all, we should recognize what’s really happening here, and it's much bigger than the symbol of the bathrooms. The Department of Education’s actions here mean that "gender" itself in terms of admission for all colleges accepting federal funds is ultimately a matter of identification, not biological sex. The state here wishes to use its coercive power not simply to stop mistreatment of people but to rescript the most basic human intuitions about humanity as male and female. How, after all, does one win a culture war against one of the most basic facts of science and life: that there are two sexes? One does so by withholding the funds and recognition necessary to operate in public space, unless institutions get in line. Children, then, become pawns of the state for the state to teach what is ultimately a theological lesson, not a scientific one.

This, ultimately, won’t work. There are good reasons to put boys and girls in different bathrooms and locker rooms and sometimes sports teams, reasons that don’t impugn the dignity of people but uphold it. Sex-differentiated bathrooms and sports teams and dormitories for men and women aren’t the equivalent of, say, a terrorist Jim Crow state unnaturally forcing people apart based on a fiction, useful to the powerful, that skin color is about superiority and inferiority. Every human being knows that there are important, and necessary, differences between men and women. Without such recognition, women are harmed and men are coarsened.

Moreover, the move here toward severing self-identity from biological reality will hardly stop at “gender.” If anything, there’s much more of a case to be made that one can feel to be a different age than one’s doctor’s exam or birth certificate would show. That’s relatively indifferent if all that this means is “You’re only as old as you feel” or “I’m a Millennial trapped in a Gen-X body.” It’s something else entirely if chronological self-identity is mandated for military service or the drinking age or the age of consent. People and neighborhoods and nations and cultures cannot live this way.

In the meantime, what should the church do?

First, we must bear witness to the goodness of what it means to live as creatures, not as self-defining gods and goddesses. God created us as human, and within humanity as male and female (Gen. 1:27). We are all sinners, so we chafe against having ourselves defined by a Creator, and not by ourselves or our ideologies. Our nakedness shames us, because our physical difference reminds us that we are not self-contained. Man needs woman, and woman needs man. I really do not contain multitudes. My maleness and your femaleness aren't about us at all. They fit us within a much larger stream—of a species by nature and of a communion by grace.

The church must teach God’s good creation design of male and female, yes. But, beyond that, the church should teach a Christian anthropology that shows us that living within creation limits is never easy for anyone. We are all seeking to transcend our limits in various ways. The way of discipleship is to settle on the fact that we serve a God who knows more about humanity, and more about us personally, than we know about ourselves.

At the same time, the church should not see everything through the grid of gender. The Sexual Revolution, chaotically, wants to tell us that gender means nothing and that gender means everything. Neither is true. We should recognize that unbiblical caricatures of masculinity and femininity were always harmful, but now are potentially deadly. The little girl in your church who doesn’t like princess movies or dolls, and who would rather spend a Saturday in the deer stand, increasingly now is told by the culture around her that maybe she’s not a woman at all. Only a church that defines its vision of masculinity and femininity from the Word of God, not from cultural tropes, can speak to her. If you don’t have a category for a rough-and-tumble woman, like Jael, or a harp-playing man, like David, your church is handing over your children to the gender ideologies of the moment.

The truth is that the male/female sex difference is objectively real. Biological science is built off of this reality. More importantly, the mystery of Christ tells us that the male/female binary points us beyond nature to the gospel itself (Eph. 5). We must tell the truth about this. John the Baptist lost his head for saying that Herod could not have his brother’s wife. Some now will be targeted as culturally unacceptable because they tell Herod he can’t be his brother’s wife. That will take courage and compassion and, above all, it will take Christ.

Publication date: May 13, 2016

church
May is graduation season. All across the country, thousands of high school seniors are getting ready to leave high school and hometown behind as they go off to college. This includes many Christian students, for whom a move to a new city means being away not just from the comforts of home, but from their home church. Away from the gathering of Christians they’ve known for years, many students will look to their school campus ministry to fill the void.
A campus ministry can be unmatched in helping students connect with other like-minded believers, especially in an ideologically hostile academic or social setting. Campus ministries can help equip Christian students to defend the faith, to serve the poor, to be held accountable to one another.
A good campus ministry is a gift from our Christ. But it is no church.
The reason many college students identify primarily with a campus ministry rather than with a church is not because of any flaw in most campus ministry organizations. It is because, too often, we evangelical Christians have a deficient view of the church. We assume that it is any gathering of people who believe in Jesus and who do churchly things. Many Christians assume the church exists simply to help us learn more about Christ and pool our resources for missions.
If that’s all a church is, a campus ministry can do all those things, and more. But the Scriptures tell us the church is much more than that.
In the Bible, a local church–with all its ridiculous flaws–is an unveiling of the mystery of the universe (Eph 3:6). The church is in a one-flesh union with Jesus so that, as in a marriage, everything that belongs to Him belongs to her (Eph 5:22-33). A congregation, in covenant with one another as an assembly of Christ’s people, is a colony of the coming global reign of Christ (Eph 1:22-23), a preview of what the Kingdom of Jesus will look like in the end (1 Cor 6:1-8). Where there is a covenant among believers, a disciplined community of faith, the spirit of Jesus is present among them, just as God was present among the people of Israel in the temple of old (Matt 18:15-20).
When the church judges a repentant sinner to be a genuine believer, the congregation is speaking with the authority of Jesus when they plunge him beneath the waters (Matt 28:18-19). When the church judges an unrepentant sinner to be persistent in his rebellion, it is with the authority of Jesus that the congregation pronounces him to be a stranger to the people of God (1 Cor 5:4-5; Matt 18:15-20). When we gather for worship as a congregation in covenant with one another, we are not simply fueling our individual quiet times with praise choruses. We are instead actually ascending to the heavenly places together, standing before Christ and all of his angels on Mount Zion (Heb 12:18-29).
The Scriptures reveal to us what we would never discern on our own. The church–not an ideal congregation but the real one you go to every week, with the lady who smacks her gum and the man with the pitiful comb-over hair and the 1970s-era audio system and the kids banging Tonka trucks on the back of the pew in front of you–is the flesh and bones of Jesus. It is His Body, he tells us–inseparable from Him as your heart and lungs and kidneys and fingers are from you (Eph. 5:29-30; 1 Cor. 12:12-31).
Saying “I love Jesus but not the church” is as irrational as saying to your best friend, “I like you–I just can’t stand being around you.” Your attitude toward the church reveals your attitude toward Jesus.
It is easy for a campus ministry to seem more “spiritual” than a local congregation. Sometimes a campus ministry is filled with people more zealous for the mission of Christ than some church members. Sometimes young Christians mistake youthful idealism and, frankly, erotic charge for the spiritual gravity of a moment. A church made up of people from all different life-stations, economic classes, and racial backgrounds is bound to have friction. And a church that is not aiming to “reach” a particular age group is bound to seem, as often as not, to be sluggish, dull, or misdirected to people in that age group–whatever age group it is.
Does the centrality of the church mean that campus ministry is irrelevant or redundant? No indeed. Should you be involved with a campus ministry at your college or university? Yes indeed. So how do you avoid the spiritual dangers of an unchurched spirituality?
First of all, resist the temptation to keep your membership in your home church. Join a church in your college town, as soon as you find one with a commitment to Christ and the Scripture.
Second, find a church where some people will know your name, and will know if you are not present. Find a place where someone will ask you, “Where were you?” if you miss a week.
Third, spend some time with people in your congregation who are not in the same place in life as you–a lonely senior adult, a harried thirty-something Mom, a sarcastic fourteen year-old kid.
Fourth, pester the church leaders of the church for some way for you to exercise your gifts in the congregation–and let the leaders recognize and encourage your gifts. This means submitting yourself to serve the Body in whatever way the church deems necessary. Most often, this will be something more Christ-like than glorious, such as cleaning toilets or restocking cookies and juice-boxes for Vacation Bible School.
Finally, find a campus ministry that seeks to work alongside the church. Look for a ministry that wants to enhance what is already happening in your life in discipleship and spiritual growth and mission in your congregation. Be very wary of a campus ministry that isn’t constantly asking you, “Where are you in church–and what’s happening there?” And be very, very wary of a campus ministry that seems to resent the time you spend with your church as “competing” with their ministry.
There are lots of campus ministries like this out there. Be sure you find one. Be sure you pour yourself into whatever ministry your campus group can empower you to lead or serve. Be sure you and your fellow campus ministry group members are out among your unsaved fellow students with dynamism and compassion. But make sure that you are, first of all, an active, identified, and accountable member of a local church. It may seem a little slower-paced than your campus ministry. It may not seem relevant to twenty-first century culture. But it is part of the unfolding mystery of the universe. And Jesus is there.
 
Publication date: May 4, 2016
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