In this stimulating conversation with Dr. Russell Moore, Talbot Professor Dr. Scott Rae explores how to navigate the difficult terrain of meaningful cultural engagement while staying faithful to the Bible. Dr. Moore is the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy and ethics think tank for the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. Dr. Moore is featured regularly in various news media and has become one of the leading spokespersons for Christian faith in public life. Join us for this insightful discussion.
Scott Rae: Welcome to our podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Professor of Christian Ethics and Dean of Faculty at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
We're here today with a very special guest, Dr. Russell Moore, one of the leading voices today at the intersection of Christian faith and culture. Dr. Moore's also President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, the public policy arm for the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. He's also the author of several books, one on adoption that I highly recommend, but also his most recent book called Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel. Dr. Moore, thanks so much for being with us today.
Russell Moore: Oh, thanks so much for having me.
Scott Rae: We really appreciate your time with us. I wanna start on a more personal note if we could. In a lecture you gave about a year ago called the Erasmus lecture, which I would encourage all of our listeners to get. If you just Google “Russell Moore first things,” it will come up first things. You describe your own spiritual journey, what you've called your own spiritual crisis, and how that shaped you in both positive and negative ways. Tell us a little bit about that spiritual background and how it's energized the things that you're passionate about today.
Russell Moore: Well I grew up in a very Christian ... well, in what Flannery O'Connor would call Christ haunted Bible belt community. My grandfather had been pastor of the church I grew up in. So I had a very good time of Christian nurture as a young believer in my congregation. Had some wise leadership there. But when I turned 15 or so, I had a major spiritual crisis wondering, as I looked around, and I saw many of the things going on under the name of Christ, including racism and other things. I wondered is this all just some sort of a hood ornament on top of a Southern culture or American culture, rather than an actual word from God.
Thankfully, I had read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid, and so I recognized the name C. S. Lewis when I saw it on the spine of Mere Christianity. I really think that the Lord used that, not only to save my faith, but probably to save my life because I found someone who it didn't seem he was trying to sell me anything. He was speaking as somebody who genuinely was bearing witness to something that was much, much older than what I was encountering and also much broader. I think I got a bigger vision of the church and thus a bigger vision of Christ at that time.
And so one of the major burdens I have now on my life is speaking to other 15 year old Russell Moores or those who are facing that same sort of crisis.
Scott Rae: Tell us just a little bit about your organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I suspect many of our listeners maybe have heard of it but don't know exactly what you do. Why is the mission of that organization so important?
Russell Moore: We do two things. One of those things is to equip churches and families and Christians to think through ethical issues, so everything from in vitro fertilization, to racial reconciliation in a local church, to end of life questions. This is a full range questions that someone would need to think through.
Secondly, we speak from the churches to the outside world, so in terms of media or government or other aspects of culture, with what it is that Christians believe and care about and why.
Scott Rae: You were trained in theology and ethics, correct? So that gives you a really good platform to speak to these. These are issues that you've addressed with graduate students and seminary students and in your own graduate work too?
Russell Moore: Right, and in many cases what we exist to do is to serve as a kind of Paul Revere, letting people know here are some things that you need to be ready for, whether that's with parents trying to think through technology as it applies to their children. And as I'm sure you've seen, in many cases you have really biblically shaped, informed parents who just aren't aware of some of the technological changes and innovations out there. Or, more broadly, with churches thinking through.
For instance, when I was serving as pastor of a local church, one of the things I noticed was that when the factory down the street from us would furlough or have layoffs, even just the threat of that, I would immediately start seeing all kinds of fractures taking place, especially in the lives of the men, in that congregation. I'm trying to say to churches right now think through what is going to take place in terms of automation, not in some Luddite we don't want to go there mentality, but in terms of saying what is going to happen if within the next 5 to 10 years we have driverless cars that are routine. What happens when so many of the men in our congregations are truck drivers or Uber drivers or cab drivers and suddenly that's gone? How are we going to be able support the people going through that time of uncertainty and so forth. So we try to inform people about what they're not thinking about yet.
Scott Rae: What would you say are some of the ... if you had to list maybe the three or four most pressing things that the folks that you minister to need to be on the alert for? What are the things that Paul Revere is sounding the loudest alarm about today?
Russell Moore: Well one of those things is racial reconciliation and justice, which I think there are many Christians who assume history will take care of this and maybe we have some lingering sorts of flashpoints, but those will be resolved. That's not the case. I think we're going to come into a time of even greater racial tension and racial injustice around the world than we are right now. That would be one of them.
The others, frankly most of them have to do with technology. For instance, there are a lot of churches that are doing admirable work when it comes to pornography. A lot of churches aren't. They're not even addressing it, not even mentioning it, but some churches really are, equipping people to be able to recognize what's going on and to avoid it.
But we're about to move into a time of virtual reality, of artificial intelligence, of all sorts of technological innovations that are going to bring, in many of them, great good, but also are going to have some really negative potential.
There was an elderly Eastern Orthodox priest who said to me one time, talking about the confessions that he heard, and he said, "Most of the confessions that I hear would not have been technologically possible when I started my ministry."
I think those are things we have to be watching.
Scott Rae: Yeah, my own field is in bioethics, and some of the biotechnological things that are coming that treat--they're good things--that treat disease but also can be used, these off label uses, to enhance otherwise normal traits. Sort of the steroids for the mind. I think those are ... we're gonna have to start wrestling with that too.
Russell Moore: Often what I find is it's not so much that Christians are making a decision to move in a particular direction, especially on bioethics, it's that they don't even think that this is an issue. I ran into-
Scott Rae: That's insightful.
Russell Moore: ... a woman in a really conservative Southern Baptist church in the deep south who was a doctor transitioning people in terms of transgender surgeries and hormone therapy, and it wasn't that she had worked through here's what my ethical position is; she just didn't dream that there was any ethical intersection here. I think that's really widespread.
Scott Rae: You mentioned race as being one of the big issues that's coming. You've, I think, been correctly critical of the church in the past for its silence, basically, on issues of race and racial reconciliation. How should the church be addressing these issues today?
Russell Moore: Well, I think the main thing is to have a church that recognizes, first of all, what's wrong. I think the biggest problem that we have right now is that we have become accustomed to racial injustice as normal, and so we just don't even think about it. To stand up and say this is what is happening in the world around us, this is what's happening in our own hearts, and Jesus Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, John tell us in 1 John. We have to identify what that is.
Sometimes especially with white evangelicals, there's an understanding when they hear racism, they think personal hostility, personal and evident hostility. [crosstalk 00:10:25] Yeah. Somebody may say, "As long as I'm not screaming racial epithets at someone, then we don't have a problem", which is of course much deeper than that. It's not only what the church has to say, but what the church is.
When you look at the New Testament and you have Jesus putting together in one body Jews and Gentiles, why is it that our churches are so indicative of cultural identities or economic identities rather than that reconciling work of the Spirit? Which is a sign, Paul says, to the principalities and powers of the gospel, but also because this is the way that consciences are formed. If Galatians 6, we bear one another's burdens, if I don't know what my brother or sister's burdens are, I'm not going to be able to help bear them, and vice versa. That's an important part of it as well.
Scott Rae: I think sometimes we forget that the early church dealt with, what I would call, the mother of all racial divisions, and it was not just Jews and Gentiles being a separate ethnicity. Gentiles was a mixture of all sorts of ethnicities that Jews had to be reconciled with. Some of the book of Acts where the wrestle with that is not very pretty.
Russell Moore: No, it's not. No, it's not.
Scott Rae: But thankfully they came, I think, to a good resolution on some of those things. You mentioned white evangelicals. How do you understand the notion of white privilege and how that impacts the discussion of how the church should be involved here?
Russell Moore: I think of a friend of mine, who actually, is a pastor in California. African American pastor who ... We were just talking one day about sharing prayer requests, and he said to me, "Would you pray for me? My son is filling out applications for college, and there are certain colleges I don't want him to get into because I don't think that the areas where they are, are going to be safe for him as young African American man." And I realized I've never had to think about that at all and would never have to think about that with my own children.
And so I think that what happens with white privilege is not just that we have a society where white European people started off way ahead and were actually enshackling and enslaving others, but also just the way that there are dynamics going on around us that often white people just don't even know about. So I can walk into a store here and walk around. No one, likely, is going to follow me assuming that I'm shoplifting. I have a colleague who's a young African American man who almost guarantee were he to walk into a particular store and walk around people are going to watch him and follow him. I think sometimes white Americans just don't even recognize that that's going on.
Scott Rae: I asked my friend Chris Brooks, who's a pastor in the inner city of Detroit, I said, "Tell me, have you ever been stopped by the police for no apparent reason?" He just laughed and said, "Every African American man I know has been stopped for no apparent reason." And that's something, I think, that given probably where you and I grew up, that's a hard thing to relate to.
Russell Moore: Yeah. There's a pastor of an African American church in my city, one of the most prominent figures in the city. His face is literally on the wall when you come out of the airport with advertisements for his church, massive church, who gets, he says, pulled over every time he goes into a suburban area because he's an African American male driving a nice car. People assume he's a drug dealer. Every time. And that's something that's just never going to happen to you or to me.
Scott Rae: Chris had said that when African American families talk about having the talk with their kids, white families refer to that as the talk about sex and sexuality. For African American families, the talk is about what to do if you get pulled over by the police, which would never have been on my radar screen until having that conversation.
You've spent a lot of time with millennials and Generation Z. Where do you think they are headed on the issues of marriage and sexuality?
Russell Moore: I know there's sort of a popular conception that millennial Christians and Generation Z are moving left on issues of marriage and sexuality. In terms of the public arena, in terms of the civil sphere, that's probably true. Not so much because millennials and Generation Z have had a change of mind as much as they simply are aware that this is the reality in America right now.
I don't think, though, that you're seeing any move theologically and morally when it comes to sexuality issues among millennials and Generation Z if you look at those who actually are going to church. What I find is that often I will find millennials particularly who wrestle with these issues for a time. And one of the reasons they wrestle with them is because sometimes the only thing that they have heard speaking a contrary word to the culture are from people who just simply aren't familiar with gay or lesbian people at all, and so they're thinking that these are the only alternatives I have; that's not the direction I wanna go. And so they wrestle with it; they grapple with it.
But I think sooner or later, what I've found in most cases is that they realize the issue here is ultimately one of biblical authority. It's just impossible to evacuate the Scripture, what the Scripture teaches, when it comes to marriage and marriage definition and sexual morality. And so many of the people who do make those arguments notice what the arguments are. Well, the apostle Paul didn't know what we know now. That's really not a sexuality debate, that's a biblical authority debate.
I even had one person arguing with me on this who I said, "Well, let's not even talk about Paul right now, although I think Paul's inspired by the Spirit, Jesus and when he's talking about marriage in terms of male and female from the beginning." And this person said, "I think if Jesus were alive today, he would hold my view." To which my response is, "Jesus is alive today." This is the one who's claiming to be an evangelical but really has already surrendered on a really key part of biblical authority.
I've found a lot of people who wrestle with this for a time but ultimately are saying Jesus is right when it comes to questions of sexuality. And so how do we hold to that while still loving our mission field and also caring for people in our congregations who have same sex attraction or who have gender dysphoria? If we aren't able to do that, then we're not really serious about holding to what the Word of God says.
Scott Rae: How would you counsel a pastor who has someone who comes to him or her and says, "I'm wrestling with gender dysphoria. I feel like I'm a different gender than what my body tells me I am." How would you counsel that pastor to deal with people who wrestle with that particular thing?
Russell Moore: Well the first thing I would do is to thank God that this person felt comfortable to come to me, because there are many churches where that would not be the case, where someone would feel as thought the pastor would see him or her as a freak or something along those lines, which is not the case at all. I think one of the most important things for pastors to do is simply to acknowledge that there are people in the room who are experiencing, probably, gender dysphoria or all sorts of sexual issues.
In order to say to both the people who are grappling with those things and to everyone else, this is not something that evil people grapple with and deal with, this is something that is part of the entire world, and what it means to be a Christian is not to be exempt from temptation, it means to have the power of the Spirit and the body of Christ in order to walk through that time together. And so that would be the main thing is see this person as a person.
One of the things I think we tend to do is to do exactly the same thing the sexual revolutionaries do when they want to say you are simply who you are in terms of your gender identity or your sexual identity. We as Christians have a much more complex view of what a person is. And we're seeing somebody as both created and fallen, and to say yes, you have this particular burden that you're grappling with right now, this particular point of vulnerability. I have another set of vulnerabilities, and we bear each other up.
And then to have patience with what it takes to come in and realize, ok this person is alienated from who he or she is created to be in the area of gender. All of us, though, are alienated from what we were created to be at some point or other. That's what Genesis 3 is all about. And so to have patience working with someone and not to expect, well, if this person's a Christian, that's just going to immediately go away.
To say let's assume that this is going to be a struggle that you're gonna have for the rest of your life. May not be, but typically is. Even if it's not, if that's removed, they're gonna be 10 more [crosstalk 00:21:13] there. We're gonna support each other and bear each other up and help each other.
Scott Rae: Do you see the church as becoming a more welcoming place for people who are wrestling hard with issues of sexuality?
Russell Moore: I think so. I think the church is starting to acknowledge that we have many people who are bearing a particular burden here and trying to find ways to minister not only to those people but also to parents and loved ones, which I think we've fallen down on quite a bit.
I was in a church service one time. It was a Wednesday night service. I was teaching through James, and at the end of it I would always say, "Does anyone have any prayer requests?" People would give prayer requests, and we would pray. This woman came up to me after, and she looked around, and then she whispered, "Would you pray for my daughter? She's an atheist. She's away at college." And I said, "Why are you whispering?" And she said, "Well, I don't want anyone to know that we're the ones with the atheist daughter." And I realized, ok if she's protecting herself from her church-
Scott Rae: That's painful.
Russell Moore: Yeah. On an experience that every family in Scripture--including God's--has, then something's really gone wrong in the church. And I think that's the case, too, with a lot of parents of gay or lesbian children who sometimes, because of the way the church has wanted to come in and psychoanalyze every bit of sexuality in a way that we don't do with other points of vulnerability, often causes parents to feel like, well if we even talk to someone about this, they'll assume, boy you should have done this that or the other, which is just not the case.
And so I think having churches that are willing to equipment people and to say, "Also, this is what it looks like to hold to your conviction and to love your child." We kind of know how to do that when it comes to sins that we're more accustomed to-
Scott Rae: Lots of other things.
Russell Moore: Lots of other things. But when it comes to this issue, I think sometimes there are parents who think if every conversation isn't a debate over Romans 1, then that means that I'm ashamed of the gospel. No. This is your child. Love your child and everything that that means, and also stand by your convictions.
I think a lot of times that means equipping people on what ... on the parable of the prodigal son, how that actually happens. It's usually not at the end of a 20 minute debate. Usually, it's a pattern very similar to prodigal son. Someone has a crisis and then says, "Where can I turn?", and they have that relationship, and they know to do that.
And so often, I'll say, "Don't give up on your kids or your parents or your whomever it is.” Recognize that this may take years for that to embed in their hearts. If you're the sort of people who say, "I'm so afraid of you that I'll give up biblical conviction", you won't be able to reach them. And if you're the person who says, "I'm gonna scream at you and hate you", you're not gonna be able to reach them for Christ.
Scott Rae: You wonder what would've happened to the prodigal son had the father not welcomed him back with open arms. That might not have been very pretty.
Russell Moore: That's exactly right.
Scott Rae: Your book "Onward", I've really enjoyed reading through that. The subtitle is "Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel". Tell us just a little bit about what that looks like. How do you do that? I know you try hard to model that personally, but tell us a little bit about what that looks like.
Russell Moore: I think one of the problems we have is we live in a time where cultural issues are so preeminent as fodder for personal identity and debate via social media, via old media, via everything else, that it can become very easy for Christians to do that as well, and so the cultural issues are ultimate. Rather than seeing anything that's going on in our cultural ecosystem around us is symptomatic of something else. We have to know what that is, and so we have to be the people who are holding fast to the gospel, which means that we understand the justice of God, the righteousness of God, the holiness of God, and then we speak to that. And we're the people who recognize that the gospel didn't come for the righteous but for sinners.
I think the model for me on this is Jesus with the woman at the well in John 4:16 where he says, "Go get your husband and come here." I think both parts of that are necessary. He talks about "Go get your husband" knowing what her situation was, that she's had five husbands and the man she was now with was not her husband. He knows that, and he goes there with her. But he doesn't stop there. "And come here", you're welcome here. I want you to come here in repentance and in faith.
And so I think that a lot of the time what we're dealing with when we're talking about various cultural issues is really dealing with the things that we hide behind in order to hide from the voice of God. And so what I want to do is to address whatever that cultural issue is, but only insofar as I can turn attention back to the good news of the gospel and say, "Here. Here's how the gospel informs both how we live in terms of God's justice and also in terms of God's mercy."
Sometimes we're gonna fail at that. We're gonna emphasize something too much in one direction or the other and need to recalibrate, but that ought to be the goal.
Scott Rae: That's helpful, because I think there's sometimes we view a tension between evangelism and seeking the welfare of the city, that we're in evangelism and the common good, or we're seeking justice. But you see those as intrinsically connected.
Russell Moore: I do. They're not the same thing. So I could work with people on issues of the common good where we don't hold the gospel in common. I might work with people on sex trafficking who would not hold at all to biblical Christianity, but I'm wanting to show up there as a gospel informed Christian who is recognizing that everybody I'm dealing with is potentially a future brother or sister in Christ. And even potentially the person who may evangelize my future grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
If we have that mindset, then that tends to correct us from this tendency to see everyone who disagrees with me right now on whatever is a particularly contentious issue as an enemy to be vaporized, rather than someone for whom we're saying here's the mercy of God and the blood of Christ.
Scott Rae: Dr. Moore, we so appreciate not only the courage of your convictions, but also the winsomeness with which you hold them, particularly in public. You're in the middle of some pretty interesting, if not outright hostile, audiences that test your winsomeness metal. How are a couple of ways that our listeners can pray for you in the months to come?
Russell Moore: THank you. Well, I think just praying for me to live out what it is that I believe, which is to be close to Jesus and to be seeking the power of the Spirit, to keep in step with the Spirit, and for balance. I think that's what probably every Christian needs is to have people praying that there would be a sense of wisdom as to knowing what projects to undertake and what not to undertake and so forth.
Scott Rae: This engaging the culture without losing the gospel feels to me a little bit more of a tightrope walk than it's been in the past.
Russell Moore: Yeah, I think so.
Scott Rae: I think that prayer for wisdom about how to continue to do that wisely and winsomely, we'll continue to pray for you in that regard.
Russell Moore: Thank you.
Scott Rae: Thanks so much for being with us.
Russell Moore: Thanks for having me.
Scott Rae: For your insight. This has been incredibly insightful stuff.
Russell Moore: Thank you.
Scott Rae: I'm sure our audience has benefited greatly from hearing from you. Thanks for taking the time to be with us.
Russell Moore: Thanks for having me.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of our podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Delighted to have heard from Dr. Russell Moore today. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, share it with a friend.
Thanks for listening, and remember to Think Biblically. About Everything.™