Thanks to our friends at WORLD Radio, here is a transcript of Dr. Russell Moore’s address at the Fifth Annual Diane Knippers Lecture, hosted by IRD on October 14, 2015. A video of the lecture is also available below.
Well, as a Baptist, I can’t do anything without reading a passage of Scripture first. So I’d like to call our attention to John, Chapter 18, beginning with verse 28. John 18, beginning with verse 28.
The Scripture says this:
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters so that they would not be defiled but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them and said, what accusation do you bring against this man? They answered him, if this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you. And Pilate said to them, take him yourselves and judge him by your own law. The Jews said to him, it is not lawful for us to put anyone to death. This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die. So Pilate entered his headquarters again and said to him, are you the King of the Jews. Jesus answered, do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me? Pilate answered, am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done? And Jesus answered, my kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting that I might not be delivered over, but my kingdom is not from the world. Then Pilate said to him, so you are a King? Jesus answered, you say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born, for this purpose I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice. And Pilate said to him, what is truth? And after he said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So you want me to release to you the King of the Jews? And they cried again, not this man but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber.
When I think of Diane Knippers I always think of a conversation that she and I had walking along the seashore in Maine where a group of us were gathered to have a conference and a conversation on Evangelical social witness in the 21st century. And we were talking about how my denomination — the Southern Baptist Convention — moved dramatically from a leftward lurch into a conservative Evangelical position and how the Episcopal Church USA had the exact opposite trajectory.
We were talking about what the reasons for that would be. And she said to me something that I think I will never forget. She said, “One of the reasons that the Episcopal Church is in the abysmal shape that it is in today is architecture.” And I stopped and said, “Architecture? Your architecture is fantastic.” She said, “That’s precisely the problem.”
She said, “We have magnificent and beautiful cathedrals in virtually every urban area in this country and when white flight happened in those major cities, the Episcopal churches were unable or unwilling to minister to minority communities in those urban areas, and so rather than – in order to prop up the property they had they catered to the affluent white people who were left behind in those urban areas who happened to hold to very avant-garde views of morality, particularly of sexual morality, which led to the revisioning of all sorts of questions of orthodoxy.”
I thought that was a profound analysis, sociologically and psychologically of what was happening in her denomination.
And it occurs to me that the very same question is one that we must continually ask. And I think it’s a question that is pertinent for all of us as we think about the future of religious conservatism in the United States of America. There can be a temptation simply to guard our cathedrals and to keep our cathedrals maintained without being a Gospel witness and a Gospel testimony in the instances where God has put us in a way that can transform us culturally, theologically and in every other way.
And so when we’re thinking about religious conservatism, I think the primary question we must ask is, “What is it we are conserving?” Conservatism is not hoarding. Hoarding is simply maintaining everything that has gone before. Conservatism is conserving with an intention of testing, as the scripture says, and holding fast that which is good. And conservatism has an end in mind which is preserving something for future generations. That’s the questions we must have, which means we must ask where we stand. And I think that draws our attention back to the Pastor’s Scripture that we just read.
In this scripture we see the counter of Jesus with political power – Jesus with the one who is representing the empire of his day. And it gives us a picture of two poles that I think are necessary for religious conservatism in the 21st century.
The first is standing here with Jesus with the priority of the Kingdom. Pilate’s problem with Jesus is, first of all, political. He has an issue of his subjects who are creating a disruption. He is afraid that there is going to be an issue with this claim to kingship which would lead to problems with Rome. He’s afraid that that is going to cause difficulties with his position of governor over Judea. And Jesus’ response is one that is quite familiar to those who are Christians. My kingdom is not from this world.
Now, obviously what Jesus is not saying is that his kingdom is not directed toward the world or his kingdom does not have the world in view. The Gospel of John says the light has come into the world. God so loves the world that he gave his only son. He says, my kingdom is not from this world.
There is a question here of priority that is liberating. A question of priority that causes every generation of Christians to realize that our first allegiance is to the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. And that this kingdom is being seen right now in the little communities of churches where the kingdom is showcased.
That is crucially important for us in the years to come, because there is a kind of religious conservatism that can simply be another form of nostalgia. There is a kind of religious conservatism that can easily present itself as time travelers from the past. Those who are seeking to bring forward the values of the 1950s. We are not time travelers from the past. We are pilgrims from the future.
And within our congregations we are demonstrating something that is not only other than the world around us but something that calls that into judgment; which is why the primary gift that we as religious conservatives can have to help the world around us is our distinctiveness. This is something that Diane Knippers saw – the mainline denominations losing, as they believed that the best way to connect with the generations around them is to assimilate into the sameness of the ambient culture.
That is a recipe for death. And it’s a recipe for death for precisely the same reasons that Jesus is speaking to Pilate about a kingdom that does not originate from the world. Christianity always thrives the best when we have a distinctive word and a distinctive word that is rooted in a specific view of authority. Jesus says, “I have come to bear witness to the truth.” Both parts of that are important: the truth and the bearing of witness. The arguments we see happening right now over issues of human sexuality are not really about human sexuality. These debates are issues of apostolic authority.
I will constantly have secular journalists call and say, “What do you think about all of the Evangelical churches that are caving on issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage?” And I’ve become so exasperated by that question that I’ve started saying, “Name me the congregations.”
And they will normally name me two congregations that have been in the news: one that is widely reported as a megachurch that is situated a mile from where I live. It’s a church of about 600 – which is not a mega-church, it is certainly not a mega-church in Nashville, Tennessee. And so, I have had to say, “That is actually the fourth largest church on that block. But give me another example.”
And so there will be two or three. And my response is always to say, “There are more points of Calvinism than there are Evangelical churches that you have given to me right now.”
The temptation and the pull is to assume somehow that Evangelical witness in whatever denomination will be better equipped to reach 21st century people if we do not have a distinctive message on sexuality or sexual ethics. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As a matter of fact, those who are within Evangelical life who are arguing for a revisionist view of sexuality are very clearly making a claim to authority. And the claim that they are making to authority is exactly the what the late Anglican leader John Stott said about Galatians 1 and Galatians 2 with the apostle Paul, arguing with the claims to apostleship in the Galatian churches. The question is not, what does the Bible say on issues of gender and sexuality. The question is whether or not the apostle Paul was wrong because he does not — did not — have the same understanding of sexual orientation or other matters that contemporary people have.
That is not a question of biblical interpretation. That is exactly the question that Paul is dealing with in his letters to the churches: Is the Spirit of Christ speaking through him or not? In more recent days, a self-proclaimed, young Evangelical has suggested that Jesus himself was wrong on issues on the definition of marriage, because Jesus did not understand what we as 21st century people understand about marriage and gender identity. Now, it takes quite a messiah complex to school the actual Messiah on what he did not know about sexuality and the creation order. But these are not debates about the interpretation of scripture. They are claims to apostolic authority. We are speaking with an authority that trumps the received authority that has been given to the Church.
The distinctive message that the Church has is one that brings respect simply because it is willing to bear witness to the truth. A hundred years ago, these same conversations were being had except the issue was the miraculous. The main line churches were deciding whether or not contemporary people could receive a Gospel that included such extraordinary things as people being raised from the death and virgin births, and concluded — many of them — that we should toss those things aside or minimize those things to reach the coming generations with a scientific enlightenment worldview.
The problem with that is the miraculous isn’t ancillary to the Christian message. It’s inextricably tied to it. And it has always been scandalous and offensive. When Mary came to Joseph and announced that she was pregnant, his response was not, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. His response was to assume that she had been unfaithful, because first century people knew how babies were conceived. First century people knew that dead people stayed dead. The miraculous was startling in the first century and in every other century, so the churches who discarded it found that they no longer had anything distinctive to say and withered and died into obscurity. The churches who were willing to speak with a voice of authority about the resurrection, about the coming of Christ, about supernatural regeneration by the Holy Spirit, are the churches who have had a witness to then be able to bring forward.
That is one of the reasons why I truly believe the great hope of virtually every wing of the Church right now is located in Africa. I just finished reading a series of interviews with Cardinal Sarah, Roman Catholic cardinal in Africa, who was wise enough to speak of the fact that western European and North American leaders of churches that are hollowed out are now attempting to tell African and Asian churches how to hollow out their churches with a message that is no longer distinctive. He also is wise enough to recognize that the future of the world is not western European and North American secularism. Secularism is not a stopping point. Secularism is simply a stop along the path. And human beings being incurably spiritual will seek out something spiritual and the future that the Church will have to make itself distinctive against will be animism and occultism and Islam and other strikingly supernatural visions of reality.
We must have a distinctive word in terms of a claim to authority and we must be willing to bear witness – which is why we can not only be a creedal people, we must be a conversionist people. Which means that if we truly believe that the spirit of God is able to transform someone from sinner to saint, we will be the people who will not hesitate to speak the truth and to speak what often will be unpopular truths. So when we, for instance, are not able to simply accommodate to the ambient culture on sexuality or a thousand other things, our response is to bear witness and to make it very clear to the outside world, we didn’t make these things up and we can’t remake them. So we can simply – with apologies to lady Gaga – say we’re reborn this way – you know.
But that also means that it changes the way that we see our opponents. Jesus said, my kingdom is not of this world or else my servants would be fighting the way that you are fighting. And understanding of the priority of the kingdom brings a kind of confidence that enables the people of Christ not to be angry purveyors of perpetual outrage in a world that often confuses loudness for depth of conviction. Jesus does not flinch before Pilate because he does not fear Pilate. And often the Yosemite Sam-like antics of some of us within the religious community is seen — and rightly seen — by the outside world as evidence of fear. As though we have bought into the idea that somehow we are on the losing side of history.
We are not on the losing side of history. The worst thing that can possibly happen to us has happened to us. We have been crucified with Christ under the curse of the law. And the best thing that can possibly happen to us has happened to us. We have been raised with Christ and are seated at the right hand of the Father. That ought to bring a kind of quiet confidence and tranquility AND an understanding that those we are contending against may not be our permanent opponents. That it may well be that the people who are most hostile to us right now will one day be the people who will lead our children or grandchildren or great grandchildren to Christ.
If we really believe in a Gospel that converts then we will be people who speak with conviction, but we will also be people who speak with the Christian accent that understands that the power of the Spirit is able not only to win arguments but to transform people and to raise them to newness of life. That distinctive message is one we must hold onto and that we must convey.
It also means, though, that we don’t simply stand where Jesus stood. We also stand where Pilate stood. There are many Evangelicals, especially those who are under 40, who rightly understand Jesus’ words about the distance of the people of God from the powers that be. They rightly understand that, my kingdom is not of this world.
Many people assume that younger Evangelicals are more liberal than their parents or grandparents. That is not my experience at all. As a matter of fact, most younger Evangelicals are more conservative than their parents and grandparents are. They are more committed to creedal orthodoxy, more committed to congregational discipline, more committed to standing athwart the culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But there can be a tendency to simply fall back on, thank you God that I am not Pat Robertson. Or whatever they saw in the last generation that they don’t want to become that can lead itself to a kind of withdrawal to public activism in order to avoid utopianism and political captivity that can lead to a kind of ironic captivity to the other side.
Pilate here is dealing with a group of people who are trying to avoid Pilate’s house so they would not be spiritually defiled on the Passover, and as they are doing that they are not becoming less political. They are becoming more political than the gentile governor. They’re even using cunning political arguments. You would be no friend of Caesar if you were to let this go on, recognizing that this is plumb political decision that he would desire. The same thing can happen very easily to the next generation of religious conservatives.
We can assume that somehow we can retreat back into our institutions, not be engaged in the public arena and avoid then a kind of hyper politicization that we have often seen. And thereby become even more politicized than generations before. The churches in 1845 Georgia that did not speak to slavery were speaking to slavery. If you stand in the pulpit and call people to repentance for drunkenness and sexual immorality, but you do not call them to repentance for man-stealing and kidnapping and pretending to own another human being, then you have spoken to that issue by saying that will not be something for which one must give an account at the judgment seat.
The churches in 1925 Mississippi that spoke about drunkenness and adultery but did not speak about lynching were speaking to lynching. They were baptizing the status quo by not calling people to repentance for a grave is against God and against neighbor. And the churches in 21st century America that do not speak to the personhood of the unborn are speaking to the personhood of the unborn by baptizing the status quo and leaving consciences that are wounded and in need of Gospel liberation exactly where they are, under accusation, rather than freeing them with a witness that speaks to an issue that is thought to be political.
The questions that we will face when it comes to religious liberty are not simply questions of whether or not we will be persecuted. They’re questions of whether or not we will be persecutors. If we do not stand up and speak to issues of freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all people, we are setting precedence that will then bind future generations and squander an inheritance that in North America has allowed the Gospel to go forward not only through this country but around the world. And we, ultimately, will be held accountable.
Pilate tries to avoid some sort of moral complicity in what is going on even to the point of washing his hands. But he is accountable because he is handing down the sentence.
In a democratic republic, the ultimate ground of authority is the people. Every one of us as citizens are holding an office. No less than a centurion coming to John the Baptist would be. No less than a tax collector coming to Jesus at Zacchaeus’ house was going to be.
And the question is whether or not we are utilizing that citizenship with a conscience that is informed by the justice of God, or whether or not we are utilizing that citizenship in a way that is restricting and violating and harming consciences that are to come.
We do not have … We do not have the luxury of withdraw. And it is easy to spiritualize such withdrawal and find ourselves exactly in the place of Pilate and assume that somehow God is our co-pilot in this … in a way that will harm and impede future generations of missionaries, of church-planters, and of people of every religion in the free marketplace of ideas in this country and around the world.
Politics is dangerous. Social witness is dangerous. It is easy to become captive to idolatries. Sex is dangerous. Family is dangerous. Caring for neighbors is dangerous. But the most dangerous things facing us are the questions that we do not ask. We bear responsibility to stand as people in a free society and to bring forward a kind of religious conservatism that is shaped and formed by the Gospel in an era that is no longer pretending to be Mayberry. That is no cause for panic for people who are the people of Christ. Mayberry without Christ leads to hell, just as surely Gomorrah without Christ leads to hell.
And the power of the Gospel shines and works within the darkness even more than it does in pretend light. And so we must be the people who are neither caving nor panicking as we face the years to come. And recognizing and knowing that we cannot simply do the same thing that we’ve always done, except louder and angrier.
We cannot assume that the culture around us understands what we believe. We cannot assume that they hold to the same values to which we hold, and we cannot assume that they understand what we are talking about when we talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I often tell people that one of the most illuminating conversations that I’ve had in the past several years was on a lesbian talk-show in San Francisco where the host wanted me to come on and explain why we as Evangelical Christians believe the things we believe about sexuality and marriage. I’ll take no callers because that would be very bad for you.
But she asked me, “Why do you believe this? And why do you believe that?” And she said, “You know, I don’t think you understand just how odd the things that you are saying sound to me.” She said, “I don’t know anybody who believes that sexuality can only be expressed within marriage and that marriage is defined only as this permanent union between a man and a woman.” She said, “As a matter of fact, if anyone in my peer group that they’d been on more than 2 or 3 dates without sexual activity, I would not assume that there was some sort of moral conviction. I would assume that there’s some sort of psychological problem. So I don’t think you know how odd this sounds to me. And strange.”
And my response was to say, “Well, I think I do, because a Christian sexual ethic has never been easy and it has never been well-received. It is always contrary to what we as sinners want to do, and I also need to tell you, however strange you think our Christian sexual ethic might be, we believe even stranger things than that.” We believe that a previously dead man is going to show up in the sky on a horse. Every time that that message is proclaimed in the first century, the response is not,
“Well, of course, that’s Christian.” The response is, “That sounds insane to me.” And when the response is NOT a seeing of the strangeness of this, Jesus and the apostles always press the question until that IS the reaction from those who are standing around.
And so as we move forward into the future, religious conservatism should not attempt to hide the strangeness or distinctiveness of the Gospel. We should lean into that and be strange, but not crazy. People who are speaking rational words, building collaborative majorities with those around us where we can, who don’t agree with us but always remembering what it is that we are conserving, which is ultimately a Gospel that is being offered to the entire world on the condition of repentance and faith.
If we don’t do that, if we simply see ourselves as those who are using Christianity in order to bring about our agenda and to defeat our opponents, then we’re not conservative, we’re not conserving. We’re simply hoarding.