A Prophetic Minority: Kingdom, Culture, and Mission in a New Era

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The Inaugural Address of Russell D. Moore as President of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC

September 10, 2013


As I look out in the room I see this cloud of witnesses, people who have meant so much in my life, every stage in my life, and I give thanks for every one of you and what you mean to me.

The Word of God says this:

And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away (Luke 4:14-30).

This is the Word of God.

I hold in my hand today a shard of glass, small, jagged, rugged. I picked it up when I was a kid outside the front of my home church, Woolmarket Baptist Church in Biloxi, Mississippi. A group of us kids had been out playing in front of the church before a Sunday evening service. Somebody threw a ball—it wasn’t me, it was the pastor’s son—it hit the window, and it shattered. There was something in my young self that knelt down and picked up that shard of glass and took it with me. And I’ve kept it with me through every stage of my life to remind me of what I owe to those people in that little church in that little town in Mississippi who taught me everything. Who taught me to sing, “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,” who taught me that “there is a fountain filled with blood,” who taught me the “old, old story.” Subjects and verbs didn’t always agree. Sometimes Sunday School lessons were given through a mouthful of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco.

But behind all of those south Mississippi accents I heard a northern Galilean accent speaking to me. I think it’s appropriate as we stand here within steps of the United States Supreme Court, the United States Capitol, as we stand here in the capital of the greatest power that the world has ever known, that we recognize where the power of God is—in local congregations and local churches, made up of people who have been redeemed by the gospel of Jesus Christ and who are holding to a faith that has been handed down for thousands of years and will endure forever.

Baptist Christians have given me a responsibility that I gladly accept and receive on this day. But it comes at a time when, brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors, we can no longer pretend that we are a moral majority in this country.

We are a prophetic minority who must speak into a world that is not different than any other era of this world’s history, but is exactly what Jesus promised us the world must be. And in order to do that, I commit to you three aspects of this ministry that I think are summed up in what our Lord Jesus himself exemplified and gave to us in this text. And those three things are kingdom, culture, and mission.

When our Lord Jesus stood up and read the text, he spoke of the kingdom of God. And notice what He did. He spoke of a word of judgment upon the kingdoms of this world, but He also spoke of a word of hope. He spoke of the reality of the day in which the losers in history would be the winners, in which the last would be first, and the first would be last. He spoke a word of freedom—freedom for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, freedom for the captives, freedom for the guilty, freedom for those who are bound.

And as Jesus spoke this word, he spoke these words without fear. And why did He do so? Because Jesus is announcing a kingdom, and has said to all of us, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

As we march forward into the days that are before us, the worst thing that we can possibly do in changing times is to come with a sour and dour and gloomy pessimism about the culture around us. We cannot stand and speak, “You kids get off my lawn.” The word that Jesus has given to His church is a word that is filled with optimism and joy. We are not slouching toward Gomorrah, we are marching to Zion.

And as we do so in a world that is so accustomed to political cycles, in which the winner or the loser is seen in a matter of months. The emerging Democratic majority or the permanent Republican majority—and it switches back and forth in this town—we are called instead to be a faithful witness that is focused on the next trillion years.

We are not the losers in the arc of history. We are, according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the future servant kings and queens of the universe. And as we plead with, and as we speak with our neighbors, including those who disagree with us, let’s act like it.

The Bible Belt is collapsing. The world of nominal, cultural Christianity that took the American dream and added Jesus to it in order to say “You can have everything you’ve ever wanted and heaven too” is soon to be gone. Good riddance.

Instead, we have the opportunity now to move away from the stale, old cultural nominalism that we have had for too long. We have an opportunity to move away from the liberation theologies of the right and the left that said to us, “Give us Barabbas, and let him be crucified.”

And we have instead the opportunity to be the church of Jesus Christ, to be the kingdom of those who are as optimistic as our Baptist forebears were when they stood sometimes in prisons and announced the gates of hell will not prevail against the church that Jesus has founded.

Secondly, there must be culture. Jesus here announces and He speaks this Kingdom, and everyone is responding well to it. But Jesus has this particularly irritating feature about His ministry, that if I were one of His disciples I would have been as frustrated as His disciples actually were. Every time that Jesus speaks, and the crowd starts to respond well to it, He turns around and says, “No, you don’t understand what I’m saying to you.” And then presses it further until there’s a sense of rage.

That’s exactly what is happening here. The crowd would have loved to have heard Jesus rail against the culture of the Roman Empire. The crowd would have loved to have heard Jesus take on the Roman Empire.

But instead, what Jesus does is to turn and to show His hearers how they had themselves been conformed to the pattern of the age around them. He started first with the household of God in order to say, “I speak to you about the fact that God has been working with people outside of your own midst as a judgment against you.”

Brothers and sisters, if we are going to engage a culture like this, we must start by recognizing that as sinners, we are the people Jesus warned us about. We must be those who recognize as we speak to the outside world, and especially those of us who are a part of this great denomination, a denomination that is summed up in its very name—the fact that we were founded, at least partly, to justify man stealing, and kidnapping, and slavery, and lynching. We stand here only by God’s grace and mercy.

And as we do that what we need to see is the way that as God’s grace is working and as God is shaping us, we need to see the ways in which we have already capitulated to the culture that we rail against.

Too many of our churches are slow motion sexual revolutionaries, adopting the cultural mores of the outside culture 20 years after the culture has already done so.

We believe now what the Woodstock generation believed about divorce. We believe now what a previous generation believed about fornication and cohabitation. And even now as we speak on issues of sexual ethics, the red line that we set keeps moving further and further and further and further down. That cannot stand.

In order for God to bless us, we must recognize and know that God is forming first and foremost colonies of the kingdom that are accountable to the word that says “Thus saith the Lord.” And if we are going to be a voice to speak to the outside world, we must first be transformed as that colony of the kingdom from the inside.

The way that we will see success is not in next year’s legislative scorecards necessarily. The way we will see success is in congregations first and foremost, that start to look freakishly strange. Congregations that don’t simply vote pro-life, although they do, but congregations that welcome and delight in the Down Syndrome child in that congregation, not as an act of charity, but because this Down Syndrome child is an heir of the kingdom and a future ruler of the universe.

The cultures that we talk about are cultures that start within our congregations, and for too long we have assumed that the church is a means to an end to save America. America is important. America is significant. Because of the blessings of American freedom, the church has been able to advance the gospel in extraordinary ways.

But the end goal of the gospel is not a Christian America. The end goal of the gospel is redeemed from every tribe and tongue and nation and language in a New Jerusalem. If we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, we will understand that and recognize as important as our vote for president of the United States is—and it is—the vote that we take week by week by week in our congregations to recognize members of those congregations is more significant still. Because in those congregations we say to the outside world, “If you want to know what the kingdom of God looks like, if you want to know who inherits the kingdom of God, look at us.”

And then finally, we see mission. The text ends in an anticlimactic sort of way. Jesus leaves, passes away from the crowd and leaves. It’s not the way I would write it. I would have had Jesus call down shock and awe pyrotechnics from heaven and say “How do you like me now?”

Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead, Jesus simply passes through their midst, and He goes away. And why is that the case? It’s the case because Jesus is headed somewhere else. He is headed to the cross.

The mission that we have been given as the people of God and the mission that we have been given as an Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is not simply to speak about what the law of God has revealed. It is not simply to speak of the ethical norms that the Scripture has given to us. It is to speak primarily with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus arrives here after just leaving His desert temptations with the devil. And the devil is more than happy to have a world in which there is no pornography, in which there is no abortion, in which there is no malaria, in which there is no trafficking, in which there is no poverty—as long as there is no cross.

We must speak not only of morality, and we must. We must speak with John the Baptist, including when it costs us our head, in order to say, “It is not lawful for you to have her. It is not lawful for you to have him. It is not lawful for you to do this.”

But we cannot be longing for Mayberry. We must have a voice that speaks to the conscience, a voice that is spattered with blood.

We are ministers, brothers and sisters, not of condemnation. The devil can do that. We are ministers of reconciliation. Which means that we will speak hard words, and we will speak truthful words, and we will address the conscience, even when that costs us everything.

But we will never end there. We will always end with the word that our Lord Jesus has given to us, the invitation if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Our voice must not only be a voice of morality, it must be a voice of welcome that says, “Just as I am without one plea, except the blood of the Son of God was shed for me.” That must be in our voices, with tears in our eyes, so we speak with those who disagree with us with a convictional kindness—not because we are weak, but because the gospel is strong, and because we have been given a mission that is anchored to the cross.

We’re going to face days in which Caesar will ask us to choose between Christ and him. We’re going to enter days in which the consciences of many are going to be paved over. We may enter days in which some of the children in this room have to choose between living a quiet life, and hell, and like some of our forefathers, serving Jesus from behind bars. I don’t know.

What I do know is this: the kingdom of God is not made up of the moral; the kingdom of God is made up of the crucified. And our mission is to speak to a world of people who often are going to come to the end of that mess of potage that is sexual revolution, that is pursuit of self, and will ask, “What else is there?”

The final word that we must have for those repentant souls, who throw themselves upon Christ after abortion, after murder, after family dissolution, should be, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).

It’s good to be here in this place and to see around us all of the monuments to American power. But it’s also good to remember, that like Augustine’s Rome, one day, perhaps in 1,000 years, or perhaps in 3,000 years, perhaps in a million years, that shining Capitol over there will be in ruins. That Washington Monument will be torn down. The Jefferson Memorial will perhaps be covered in vines. But the kingdom of God is not shaken.

We will stand as good American citizens, and we will fight for justice, and we will fight for liberty, and we will fight with our forefathers for all of those things that have been given to us, guaranteed by our Constitution as Americans.

But we will also remember that we are not Americans first. We belong to another kingdom. And we will stand and speak for that kingdom, recognizing that between now and then there are little congregations raising up little boys and girls to recognize what is permanent, what stands, what remains: a kingdom, a culture, a mission.

I commit to you, that however many years the Lord gives me with you, I’ll be seeing as we all do through a glass darkly, but I’ll be looking through shattered glass. I’ll be indebted to a congregation of people who recognized and knew that there is a King to whom they will give an account.

And I pray that we will be able, with all of our sins and with all of our foibles, to be able to march joyfully into that future as those who are offering a broken body and poured out blood.

Thank you.

You can view the video of this address at www.erlc.com.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).