ERLC President’s Address at SBC 2014
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Note: The following is a transcript of the President’s Address delivered on June 12, 2014 at the Southern Baptist Convention in Baltimore, Maryland.
Thank you Mr. President.
Several years ago I was serving in a church when I looked up from the pulpit and saw just a few pews back that there was a new attender in the congregation; a visitor who seemed to be a nervous wreck—kept turning around and looking at the doors and the back of the congregation, wiping sweat off of his forehead. I thought he is either under extreme conviction or sin or he is bored and he is looking for the way to get out of here. But after it was over he came up and said, no, he said, I’ve just served a really long sentence in jail, I came to know the Lord while I was in prison and I’m not used to being out of prison. He said, I don’t know what it’s like to live free and I don’t know what it’s like to live in a place when I’m not wondering all the time if anybody is chasing me and if anybody is after me.
I think about that man a lot these days because I think over the last two hundred years or so, Baptists in this country have gotten awfully used to being out of jail. And because of that, sometimes we take religious liberty for granted. Sometimes we forget to remember those around the world who are being persecuted. But we didn’t start that way. Baptists started in prison cells in England because they would gladly say, “God save the King,” but they knew the difference between the king and God. And Virginia Baptists just down the road from here where we are standing right now, were hauled off to jail because they wouldn’t sign up for a license to preach and the authority said, well, it’s not that much money, just sign this paperwork, just pay this little fee, and our Baptist forbearers said, it is not about the time it takes to fill out the paperwork, it is not about the amount of the money, it about who has the authority to be the Lord of the conscience and we did not get a license to preach the gospel from the government and we will not submit to a license to preach the gospel from the government, any government.
We are living in a time right now in which religious liberty is imperiled at home and around the world and it is time for us to remember that we have been here before. The gospel came to us in letters being written out by apostles from jail cells; the gospel came to us through the centuries from people who were constantly under threat of their liberty to preach and so when we stand in this time and say we will speak for religious liberty, we will speak for freedom of conscience for all people, we should say to the world around us, don’t call it a comeback, we have been here for centuries and we will continue to stand here for religious liberty for every one. Because of that, messengers to the 2014 Southern Baptist Convention, I would like for you to welcome a group of heroes of religious liberty standing with me today, the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby stores.
Steve Green has been the president of Hobby Lobby since 2014. That company started operation in 1972 and his father, David, founded a craft store in a 300-square foot retail space in Oklahoma City. Hobby Lobby employs approximately 26,000 people company-wide and operates over 573 stores in 46 states. Hobby Lobby is the largest, privately-owned, arts and crafts retailer in the world. Steve and his wife, Jackie, have been married for thirty years, they live in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. They are very actively involved in their Southern Baptist church and in many nation and international Christian ministries. The Green family, though, they find themselves right now in a years’ long struggle that is awaiting decision from the United States Supreme Court right now over whether or not business owners have the right of conscience against a federal government demanding that they, along with countless other for-profit businesses provide insurance for services that violate their core religious convictions and the government says to them, you will submit to us or we will impose crippling fines to put you out of business.
It would be really easy for the Green family simply to say, let’s just submit to that. But because of their strong faith in Jesus Christ, and because of their courage, they Greens have refused to comply with the Obama administrations’ Department of Health and Human Services mandate under the Affordable Care Act that they provide employees with insurance coverage for what they believe to be abortion-inducing drugs because they believe that God is the author of human life and that every human life from the moment of conception is sacred and they believe that the government is not the Lord of their consciences. So they have taken this all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which is set to rule this month; a ruling that probably will determine the next one hundred years of what it means to be a free people in this country; because of that, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is awarding to the Green Family, the John Leland Award for Religious Liberty, named after that great Virginia Baptist Evangelist who once said that the greatest threat to an imposition on conscience is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our award says this, “To the Greens. This is an award for demonstrating a stead-fast commitment to religious liberty by your unwillingness to separate your faith from the daily operation of your business. This is for your steadfast commitment to the sanctity of all human life. This is for your winsome and joyful gospel witness in the public square. This is for your example of faithful business practice for Christian business owners around the world and this is for not wavering from the convictions of your conscience in the marketplace, for raising by your public witness, the enduring cause of religious freedom. This is for showing that the conscience of the business owner belongs to God and not to any human government and this is for reminding us that religious freedom is a gift from God, our birthright and not a grant from the state.” Mr. and Mrs. Green, we stand with you.
Thank you so much, brother, thank you. Thank you very much. At the same time while we stand here right now, Iranian pastor, Saeed Abedini, our brother, is in prison in Iran for his faith in Jesus Christ. Saeed was converted from Islam where he was a leader in the house church movement after his conversion in Iran when the movement was tolerated by the Iranian government but then there was a crack down by the government on these house churches. Saeed and his wife, Naghmeh, moved to the United States in 2005 but Pastor Abedini went back in 2012 where he was imprisoned and he has been there working in an orphanage that his wife started a few years earlier.
During a trip to Iran, Iranian authorities seized him, placed him under house arrest before unjustly sentencing him to a prison in Iran in Tehran known for its brutal condition. Saeed has been held in solitary confinement, subject to brutal conditions, to beatings that resulted in internal bleeding. He has had medical treatment withheld because of his Christian faith. He has been cut off from his wife and from his young children and, most recently, he has been subjected to extended solitary confinement, cut off from any visitation, even from his family in Iran. At every point, the Iranian government seems to think that Saeed Abedini will get tired of all of this treatment and renounce his faith in Jesus Christ and at every step no matter the beatings, no matter the imprisonment, no matter the exile, Saeed Abedini has confessed with that great cloud of witnesses, “Jesus Christ is Lord,”
With us today, the Southern Baptist Convention standing on the platform with me is Naghmeh Abedini, Saeed’s wife who was born in Iran and converted from Islam to the gospel of Jesus Christ at a young age after her family moved to the United States and she has been a courageous and tenacious voice for her husband and for the persecuted church around the world. She has displaced a heroic response to the heartbreaking tragedy of the imprisonment of her husband and in advocating for her husband’s freedom, she has raised the issue of the on-going religious persecution of religious minorities and the persecuted church around the world. She has stirred the church in the United States to stand up and to speak out for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. She has spoken to government officials, pleaded with them to take action, and she has exalted the name of Jesus through it all.
So for that reason, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention presents today the Richard Land Award for Distinguished Service to Saeed Abedini who cannot be here to receive it, but his heroic wife, Naghmeh, can. And the award says that we are giving this to you, Saeed, if one day you see this, because you are faithfully serving the Lord Jesus Christ as a leader in the Iranian house church movement despite the risk that was involved, you were a servant exemplifying James 1:27 through the establishing of an orphanage in Iran and continuing that ministry there you are a steadfast follower of Jesus Christ, even under the worst physical conditions in imprisonment.
You are a joyful cross bearer who has died to self for the glory of God; you are a devoted husband and father whose continued personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and extraordinary witness of faithfulness in Christ will leave a legacy for generations to come. You are an example to Christians around the world whose witness testifies to the all-surpassing worth of knowing and following Jesus Christ no matter the cost. You are an encouragement to other Christians to do what the Bible tells us to do to remember those who are in chains around the globe persecuted for the faith. You are a challenge to us to the body of Christ, to the Southern Baptist Convention to spread the gospel around the world and if Saeed Abedini can take his faith and take his gospel witness into the worst conditions in prison in Iran, surely we can mobilize the North American church to reach the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, would you please show your support for Saeed Abedini and for his wife, Naghmeh?
At this point, I’d like to ask those of you who can, if you can kneel before our God, and I’d like to ask our President, Fred Luter, our President Elect Ronnie Floyd, President of our SBC Executive Committee Frank Page, if you would join us here on the platform and if we could pray for the Greens, for the Supreme Court, for our leaders in this country on religious liberty, for the freedom of Saeed Abedini and for the persecuted church, let’s pray together for our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of His Holy Spirit to act. Brother President, would you come and lead us in prayer please?
FRED LUTER: In the name of Jesus Christ, the Living Son of God, we come before you Father, we appeal to the God of Heaven, the only One who can ultimately determine everything. Your Word tells us in the Book of Daniel that God alone is in charge. Today we agree together that You are the one who can open doors and You alone are the one who can shut doors. God, we ask for a favorable, favorable ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States for the cause of religious liberty. God, we ask, we call upon all of our Southern Baptist brothers and even beyond and sisters beyond to approach the God of Heaven over this serious issue. Lord, would you turn the hearts of people favorable so that we might be able to continue to stand strong without any persecution in our own land so the gospel of Christ can be advanced even to the nations within the United States?
God, we pray today for this pastor, this great evangelist who thus far has not and we declare will not renounce his faith. Wherever he is today and whatever he is facing, give him courage, give him strength, and whatever persecution he is facing, heal him. May he be a living testimony of the power of the gospel. God, I pray for his wife; would you support her, encourage her? Those little children, would you lift them up to know that there is a God in Heaven who is loving their daddy, taking care of their daddy, and is with their daddy? And we pray for his release. We pray for his release. We ask you again in the name of Jesus, let him go. And would you turn the hearts of that government towards permitting him to be let go for the cause of bringing glory to God, and Lord whether it be the Green family case or whether it be this Iranian pastor and his commitment to the gospel, would you call upon this Southern Baptist Convention gathering to know just as Dr. Moore said a moment ago, if these people can pay the price, certainly you can raise up your church to charge the gates of hell to take the gospel to the nations.
Revive our churches, give us great awakening in this nation so that the great commission can be completed even in our generation and for Jesus’ sake and in Jesus’ name, we agree together and all of God’s people said Amen. And Amen.
RUSSELL MOORE: Thank you, Mr. President. Our report from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, when I reflect on this first year as President of your Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, one conversation nags at my memory. I was talking with a woman who described herself as an agnostic and she wanted to find out why people like us believe the things we do. She asked a series of questions about why we believe the things that we believe on several different moral issues. Every one of these questions as soon as I finished, she would say, “Do you realize that I don’t know anybody in my community who believes those things?” She said, “As a matter of fact, I don’t think you realize just how strange all of these ideas sound to me, these ideas about life and about marriage and about family.” She said, “all of these moral questions that you all hold to, these ethical issues that you all stand by, I don’t know anybody who believes the things that you have just said. Do you have any idea how strange this sounds?”
I said, “I think I do know something of how strange it sounds, but I want to tell you one thing, we believe in even stranger things that that. We believe that a previously dead man is alive and is going to show up in the Eastern skies, on a horse.”
I’m honored to bring this report to this Convention today, because that is precisely the sort of culture that we must engage if we are going to be a great commission people in the 21st century. It is no accident that we are here at this time. It is no accident that you were born at the moment that you were born. It is no accident that we are serving at the time that we are serving. We serve at the pleasure of a Messiah who has appointed us, every one in this room, to be born, and then to be born again, in a time and in a place, when sometimes even the most basic principles of Christianity are going to sound increasingly strange and freakish and sometimes even subversive to the culture around us. That should not drive us to fists clenched in anger, that should not drive us to hands wringing in fear; that should drive us to hands lifted in prayer.
Your ERLC has labored hard this year in the public square on a range of issues. We’ve stood in the court system, filing briefs and working on behalf of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, against a court system that is moving very, very fast in other direction. We have worked for the freedom to pray without government oversight, we have worked for the right of freedom of conscience against this Administration’s contraceptive mandate, not only for Hobby Lobby and the Green family but for Guidestone, for many of our Baptist colleges and universities; for the Little Sisters of the Poor, for everybody. We’ve worked in the United States Congress and across the country to speak out for all human life, including the unborn, for protection for these little ones endangered by a culture of death.
As I told you last night and last year at this Convention, the primary vehicle for hope isn’t found on Air Force One regardless of who is riding in Air Force One. The vehicle of hope is not found in the United States Capitol, regardless of who is holding the gavel in the United States Capital. The vehicle of hope is found in lines and lines of children in Vacation Bible School. That’s why your ERLC has given great emphasis on equipping churches to seek the kingdom in such a time as this.
When the Supreme Court stepped toward taking a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage, two weeks after this convention last year, we mobilized to equip our churches to think biblically about how to articulate what marriage means, about how to evangelize our neighbors, abut how to protect religious liberty, and about how to rear children in a world when even the words “marriage” and “family” are contested. We’ve sponsored major events, a Washington D.C. symposium on religious liberty and a national summit on the church and the family and sexuality, addressing issues ranging from equipping teenagers for sexual purity to fighting the scourge of Internet pornography that is destroying even our own churches. And, this fall, we will convene a national conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage,” equipping churches to be able to answer questions that maybe they haven’t been asked before.
The ERLC has provided resources daily for equipping churches and Christians for real-life issues from the right to life to the question for racial justice to orphan care, to mental health to divorce and a thousand other places where the Bible intersects with the world in which we have been called to walk. And through all of that we’ve tried to speak, not only of God’s principles of justice but to do exactly what the Apostle Paul did before King Agrippa, to always, always, always include the invitation of the gospel to whosoever will believe
The culture is changing, that’s true. There are things that we were able to assume in the past that we must articulate now. We must equip those children in Vacation Bible School for a world where following Christ will be seen as strange, will be seen as possibly dangerous, will be seen as subversive. But that is no new situation. The gospel did not come to us from Mayberry. The gospel rocketed out of a Roman Empire where the strangest idea in the world was a community of people who cared for the vulnerable, for the widowed, for the orphaned, for the unborn, a community of people who were willing to lose their jobs; they were willing to lose their social standing. They were willing to lose the respect of the people around them. They were even willing to go to execution and death because they confessed and believed that a crucified man has presented himself alive. So that community of people who delivered that gospel all the way down to us, confessed something that sounded to everybody around them as insane, that for those who are hiding in guilt and in shame and in fear of death, there are words not just addressed about them, there are words addressed to them: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”
Your ERLC stands here to help equip our churches to answer our neighbors with the gospel, to arm our children for spiritual warfare, with the gospel, to reflect in our churches the peace that comes from the gospel. And, as we do, we are ready to answer a questioning culture about what we believe about moral principles. But we don’t stop there. We also say, “Yes, and we believe even stranger things that.”
Thank you Mr. President. I am happy to take questions.
FRED LUTER: Thank you, Dr. Moore, for the presentation and for your report. Are there any questions concerning the report from Dr. Moore? Microphone number four.
JOHN KILLIAN: Yes, sir, Dr. Moore, John Killian, messenger from Maytown Baptist Church in Alabama, before I ask my question, I want to thank you for one of the most stirring presentations on religious liberty I have ever heard and may that truth burn in our hearts as we go home. Three hundred and seventy-one Southern Baptists this week signed a statement on the biblical principles on immigration. One of these principles is an immigration policy that faithfully advanced justice should give primary concern to the welfare of citizens.
Dr. Moore, you and a number of other Southern Baptist leaders are urging Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform which raises immigration levels and legalizes those who broke our laws in coming here. My question is, how does increasing immigration affect the least of these among our nations’ citizens, including high school dropouts, the disabled, older working-age adults, native-born African-Americans, and Hispanics and veterans?
RUSSELL MOORE: Thank you, Brother Killian. I’ll tell you how it does. I was in church just a few weeks ago where I was watching a series of baptisms take place, one after the other after the other after the other after the other and one of the things I was struck by was that most of those baptisms were not being done in English. This was a Southern Baptist congregation that was reaching every body in its community, including a large number of people who did not, who were not born in this country.
Well, Dr. Richard Land, my predecessor and I have called for is a country that actually lives up to what it has said it is going to do. Right now we have a broken immigration system in this country that is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. As Dr. Land has said, “we have two signs at the border, help wanted and keep out.”
What we are not advocating is for any kind of blanket amnesty for people who are here illegally in this country, but we are saying we have eleven to twelve million people in this country who are not documented, some of those people are breaking our laws, shouldn’t be here, they are hiding in invisibility, we need to know who they are, and send them back.
But there are other people who are here, some of them were brought by their parents of no fault of their own, some of them were here and they broke our laws but they are saying, “How do I make it right?” Some of them are in families that are in danger of being torn apart and ripped apart, some of them are in churches where entire families are going to be ripped apart. I, as I travel around this country, I do not meet almost anybody who says we want a government big enough and powerful enough to go in and deport eleven to fourteen million people in this country.
So, what do we do? Well, I think what we do is this. We say we need a government that actually secures the border and does what it is supposed to do and then we need to say, how do those people who have broken the law, but who are law-abiding, loving, giving to their communities, many of them members of our churches, how do they then make it right? That’s what we are advocating.
FRED LUTER: Thank you, Dr. Moore. Question on microphone number five and this will be the last question, our time has expired, but to microphone number five.
JAY STEWART: Yes, thank you, Dr. Luter. Recent news coverage shows us that we have a humanitarian crisis on our southern border with nearly a hundred thousand children expected to cross the border in the next year alone. Dr. Moore, is all of this discussion of dreamer kids and the promise of a coming mass legislation for illegal immigrants causing a rush on the borders and won’t that continue if the comprehensive immigration reform is passed by Congress? By the way, my name is Jay Stewart and I am a messenger from Dwight Baptist Church in Gadsden, Alabama.
RUSSELL MOORE: That’s a really good question. No, it won’t. As a matter of fact, if we get sensible immigration policies in this country that will stop, because one of the problems that we have right now is that we have a United States economy that is built on a government kind of turning the other eye to the border.
What we need right now is a government that says, how do we fix the problem that we have as it exists right now and along with that in any legislation is policies not only to secure the border, but also to hold businesses accountable for hiring people who are not documented and able to be in this country. All of those things come together; so when we are talking about immigration reform, we are talking about justice, about rule of law, and we are talking about compassion for those who are in a very vulnerable situation in our country right now.
There is a pastor, a Southern Baptist pastor who said to me not long ago, he said, “I have a man in my community that I am trying to lead to Christ, he was injured and harmed, I wanted to take him to the hospital and he refused to have me do that because he was afraid that if he went, that his relative who is here undocumented would be deported and sent back.” That is an insane policy and justice demands that it changes.
FRED LUTER: Thank you, brothers for your questions. Thank you, Dr. Moore, for your answers. The time has expired for questions. Let’s give it up for our President for ERLC. Thank you, Dr. Moore. God bless you.