Address to the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention
Hello, my name is Russell Moore.
In the weeks to come, a small gathering of influential people will decide the future of life and culture as we know it. I’m not talking about the Supreme Court. I’m not talking about the White House cabinet table. I’m not talking about the congressional leadership. I’m talking about Vacation Bible School.
And that’s why I’m here today.
I can still feel myself marching through the front doors of Woolmarket Baptist Church in Biloxi, Mississippi, flag in hand, for the Vacation Bible School opening program. It was the closest thing we had to a liturgy or a calendar of the Christian year, and the air was always full of a sense of gravity.
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Those other children and I could hardly have known in that—the first decade after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision—that the same moral concerns agency of the denomination of churches that loved us and nurtured us, was at that very moment advocating legalized abortion, an evil that vacated who knows how many Bible schools full of children over the next generation.
When the history of this era of Baptist Christianity is written, there will be much to commend Richard Land and his revolutionary leadership, but there is nothing greater than this: no one stood more courageously, toe-to-toe with the spirit of the abortion culture than Richard Land, and no one did more to lead Southern Baptists out of the wilderness of the spirit of death and back to the biblical truth that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world—born and unborn. Thank you, President Land.
I’m here today because of what that VBS opening program in that little Mississippi church pictured, even without words. We marched in to the piano and organ streaming “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and lined up with those flags. But hanging over the American flag, hanging over the Christian flag, hanging over all of us, up there above the baptistery, was a cross.
That piney-wood cross pictured the truth that no government, no emperor, no president, no court, no army, no church, no denomination can stand above or beside the kingship of the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.
Over the next several weeks, a new generation of Baptist children will line up. They’ll sing different songs and play different games. They’ll be served the same cookies and Kool-Aid. Most importantly, they’ll hear the same gospel.
But they will grow up to face a different age than the Bible Belt culture many of you once knew. They’ll be posed with questions Roger Williams and Charles Spurgeon and Herschel Hobbs never had to ask or answer.
Did Jesus die for human clones? Should we baptize an artificially intelligent cyborg? Should we discipline a Sunday school teacher who rents out her womb as a surrogate mother for an infertile family? What does discipleship look like, in action, for the post-op transsexual who comes to Christ? Does it matter that the benediction offered at the local city council meeting is by a Hindu priest?
Or maybe those Vacation Bible School children will grow up to face questions their forefathers and foremothers did face, but that you never had to, such as how do you plant a church or preach the Word when the government demands to see a license for a state-approved gospel.
I don’t know.
But those children are the reason your Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is here. We’re not a political action committee, seeking to set Bible verses to the political interests of Bible Belt America. Fiercely independent, prophetically near, we exist to equip free churches in a free state to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. We’re about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission of his kingdom.
This means, yes, that we will push back against the fallenness and injustice around us. We live in a world where too many children are disposed of as medical waste, and where too many languish in orphanages and foster care systems. Where too many are living in the wreckage of the divorce culture, where too many are trafficked and molested, and where too many are in shallow graves as a result of famine or AIDS or malaria or genocide.
When the old zombie of Jim Crow starts to rise from its crypt, we’ll wrestle him back. After all, we bear the shame that we’re a denomination formed initially to protect the sin of slaveholding racial supremacists. To our shame, previous generations, even of baptized church members, would have found all sorts of unspeakable words to dehumanize those they sought to oppress on account of their ethnicity or their background. By the grace of God, we can look at an African-American Southern Baptist on this platform and call him not just “brother” and “pastor,” but “Mr. President.”
But that’s not enough.
We’ll work toward justice in the public arena and leadership in the denominational arena, but even more importantly, we’ll work for churches that aren’t divided up by skin color or by social class but are united and reconciled, by the blood of Christ and the bond of the Spirit.
We will fight, as our forefathers did, for religious liberty. We’ll stand with our chaplains who show right honor to Caesar, but, when they’re told they can’t pray in Jesus’ name, have the courage to say to a commanding officer, “Sir, I wasn’t talking to you, sir.” We will seek to model a healthy marriage culture, and we will continue to say that a government bureaucracy didn’t invent marriage and it can’t reinvent it either.
We’ll tell the United States military, the Department of Health and Human Services, and every regime on this planet that because Jesus won’t allow a government bureaucrat to stand in for a sinner at the Judgment Seat, no government has authority over a free conscience. If the state ever tries to co-opt us with money, or with the coercion of other religions, we will tell them, “No, we believe the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the gospel doesn’t need government subsidies or government supervision.” The gospel is big enough to fight for itself.
We will serve the churches by posing questions and providing resources, from publications and broadcasts to rapid fire alerts and conferences. Whether on Capitol Hill or in Tiananmen Square or in Muskogee, Oklahoma, we’ll stand ready to speak to and for Baptist Christians on the issues of the day.
We will stand with conviction, and we’ll contend in the public square, as the prophets and apostles did, against injustice, but we’ll do so with a tone shaped by the gospel, with a convictional kindness that recognizes that our enemies aren’t persons of flesh and blood. Our enemies are invisible principalities and powers. We oppose demons; we don’t demonize opponents. We follow a Christ who did not come into the world to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved. We see then even our most passionate critic not as an argument to be vaporized but as a person loved by God, for whom Christ died, a person we may one day call “brother” or “sister.”
We can boycott and protest and register our outrage, but Satan is undisturbed by all that bluster. Satan isn’t afraid of culture warriors or values votes; Satan is afraid of a crucified Galilean who has a great deal of trouble staying dead for very long. We can’t fight like the devil to please The Lord.
We have no reason, after all, to be fearful or sullen or mean. We’re not the losers of history. The worst thing that can possibly happen to us has happened; we’re dead. We were crucified at Skull Place, under the wrath of God. And the best thing that could happen has happened, we’re alive, in Christ, and our future is seated at the right hand of God, and he’s feeling fine. Jesus is marching onward, with us or without us, and if the gates of hell can’t hold him back, why on earth would we be panicked by the Supreme Court? The times may grow dark, may grow dark indeed between now and Vacation Bible School of the year 2038. But the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, the darkness cannot, the darkness will not overcome it. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward Jesus.
Let’s target the right enemy, and let’s overcome, not because we’re a moral majority or a righteous remnant, but because we’re blood-covered sinners who know that if the gospel can change us, it can change anyone. We speak with kindness and persuasion not because we’re weak or because we’re afraid but because the gospel is strong. The kingdom of God, after all, is not a matter of talk but of power.
The Bible Belt culture of nominal Christianity is collapsing. Good riddance. Let’s not seek to resuscitate it. Let’s work instead for something new, and something old: the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, gathered in churches of transformed people, reconciled to one another, on mission with one another, holding together the authentic gospel of a living Christ.
The torch is passed to a new generation of resurgently conservative Baptist Christians. Let’s prepare to pass it on to yet another. Let’s fight for the whole gospel for the whole world, equipping churches for tough questions in troubled times. Let’s stand together in the public square and speak for peace and for justice and for liberty of conscience. And, as we do so, let’s march forward as joyful warriors. Let’s say to one another, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” And let’s do it all under the cross.
Y’all taught us that, after all . . . in Vacation Bible School.
Thank you, Mr. President.
Download a PDF of Dr. Moore’s address. (51 KB)