Again, Russell Moore warns us against a false sense of cultural success:
The idea of the respectability of Christian witness in a Christian America that is defined by morality and success, not by the gospel of crucifixion and resurrection, is just another example of importing Jesus to maintain one’s best life now.
…If we see the universe as the Bible sees it, we will not try to ‘reclaim’ some lost golden age. We will see an invisible conflict of the kingdoms, a satanic horror show being invaded by the reign of Christ. This will drive us to see who our real enemies are, and they are not the cultural and sexual prisoners-of-war all around us. If we seek the Kingdom we will see the devil. And this makes us much less sophisticated, much less at home in modern America.
… If the kingdom is where Christ is, then we dare not assume the power of the state for the purposes of the church, and we dare not subordinate the ministries of the church to the authority of the state, The kingdom is defined by the gospel and the gospel is defined by the kingdom. If the gospel is abstracted from kingdom, then our mission is simply about the initial evangelism of new believers If we abstract the kingdom from the gospel, though, then the kingdom be about mere morality, and, thus, an easy client from the pretend Messiah of state power. The gospel is a gospel of the Kingdom of Christ.
-Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, 65
Power words from Russell Moore:
As American culture changes, the scandal of Christianity is increasingly right up front, exactly where it was in the first century. The shaking of American culture will get us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am? As the Bible Belt recedes, those left standing up for Jesus will be those who, like Simon Peter of old, know how to answer that question. Once Christianity is no longer seen as part and parcel of patriotism, the church must offer more than ‘What would Jesus do?’ moralism and the “I vote values” populism to which we’ve grown accustomed. Good.
A church that assumes the gospel is church that soon loses the gospel. The church now must articulate, at very phase, the reason for our existence, because it is no longer an obvious part of the cultural ecosystem. That articulation of the gospel will mean engagement because the most pressing issues are not ancillary to the gospel, in the way some other cultural and political issues are. The temptation will be, as always, to overract to the sins and foibles of the last generation, with a pullback altogether in an attempt to avoid culture wars and social gospels. A recalibration is called for, to be sure. We are a different people facing a different context. But if we see the cosmic contours of the gospel, we must not swing into a kind of libertarian spirituality that reduces the gospel simply to matters of personal salvation and personal morality. First of all, the culture increasingly finds personal salvation and personal morality to be themselves politically problematic. There is no cordoning them off from a culture in which the personal is the political.
More importantly, an attempt at wholesale withdrawal might exempt us from some of the hucksterism and moralism of some figures in our parent’s and grandparent’s generations but it will take us back to the opposite errors of some in our great grandparents generation, back to divorcing the gospel from the kingdom, the love of God from the love of neighbor. We could shrug off our social witness altogether, as a defense against legalism. But we would be wrong, and we would, ironically, fall into a pharisaism of the other side, building hedges around a temptation to avoid falling into it. More than that, we would be abandoning a post to which we were assigned and from which we have no permission for leave. The test will be we can engage the culture without losing the gospel.
-Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, 25, 26
One thing I’ve long admired about Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) is his winsome example of what a Christ-centered, gospel-saturated Christian looks like when they enter the public square. In his latest book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, defining our calling to one of engaged alienated.
Our call is to an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, friends, and citizens.
This means our priority is a theological vision of what it means to be the church in the world, of what it means to be human in the cosmos. We must put priority where Jesus put it, on the kingdom of God. But while we are a citizens Kingdom First people, we are not a Kingdom Only people. Jesus told us to seek both the kingdom of God “and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). We pursue justice and mercy and well being for those around us, including the social and political arenas. This means that we will be considered “culture warriors.” Maybe so, but let’s be Christ-shaped culture warriors. Let’s be those who contend for culture, but not those who are at war with the culture. We will see ourselves in a much deeper, much more intractable, much more ancient war not against flesh and blood or even against cultural forces, but against unseen principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
We will recognize the necessity of engagement in social and political action, even as we see the limits of such action, this side of the New but Jerusalem. But we will engage not with the end goal of winning with the end goal of reconciliation. This means that morality and social justice, while good, are not enough. We witness to a gospel that seeks nor only to reconcile people to one another but to God, by doing away with the obstacle to such communion: our sin and our guilt. hat comes not by voter blocs or by policy papers but by a bloody cross and an empty tomb.
Over the past century or so, the “culture wars” could be categorized as disputes over human dignity (the pro-life movement, for example), family stability (the sexual and marriage and child-rearing debates, for example) and religious liberty. The intuitions of American Christians on these fronts have often been right, I believe, even if too often unanchored from a larger gospel vision and from a larger framework of justice. We should learn from the best impulses of such engagement, and use our articulation of our views at these points as part of an even bigger argument. These should point us back to a vision of kingdom, of culture, and of mission, rooted in the gospel and in church, even as we work with those who disagree with us in the many ways toward an approximation of justice in the public arena. As we do this, we shouldn’t be ashamed of Jesus, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be out of step with America. We are marching onward, toward a different kind of reign.
In our present cultural moment, Moore’s presentation is exciting and needs to find a wide hearing.