By Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press
Baptist Press—Christians should seek to preach with clarity the gospel in its strangeness while advocating for religious freedom at the same time, Russell D. Moore told seminary students at his alma mater, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“[T]he worst thing we can do in defending religious liberty is to seek and to try to make Christianity normal,” said Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“We don’t seek to make Christianity normal. We seek instead to make Christianity clear,” he said. “We seek to make [clear] the question of crucifixion and resurrection from the dead and the freedom of the conscience” before God.
Moore’s remarks came in an Oct. 29 chapel address at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Chapel, where he received his master of divinity degree. It was his first time to speak at the seminary since becoming the ERLC’s president in June.
The apostle Paul provides a model for how pastors and other Christians are to maintain “the centrality of the gospel and the defense of religious liberty at the same time,” Moore told the seminarians.
Preaching from Acts 26:24-32, Moore said Paul both defended his religious freedom and proclaimed the gospel in an appearance before King Agrippa and the governor, Festus. The governor accused Paul of being insane by preaching the gospel, but Paul defended his message as “true and rational.” Paul acknowledged during the appearance, which was a step in his legal appeal to Caesar, he was seeking that day to persuade all who heard him to become Christians.
“Paul here understands that freedom itself is not enough,” Moore said. The freedom Paul sought — and Christians today should seek — “is a freedom to do something … the pushing and the pressing and the pleading of the gospel,” he said.
“The mission isn’t what we do after we’ve achieved religious liberty. The mission is what we’re doing while we are appealing for religious liberty,” Moore told the seminary audience.
“We don’t stop there,” he said. “We are instead, the Scripture says, ambassadors of reconciliation who are pleading with those around us” to be reconciled to God.
At a time when nominal Christianity is collapsing because it is no longer perceived as useful, the declaration of true Christianity will clash with culture, Moore said.
“If we settle for an ‘almost-gospel,’ if we settle for an ‘almost-kingdom,’ religious liberty is easy, because Uncle Caesar isn’t troubled by what we’re saying,” Moore said. “But if we stand up and clearly say there is another King, Jesus, and He isn’t dead any more, then the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the government will all be in an uproar together, and we must stand there with grace, with mercy, with grit, with conviction, with truthfulness, with kindness, and preach freedom and preach the gospel with liberty and Jesus for all.”
Moore told future chaplains in the audience they would be “on the front lines of these sorts of questions.” The ERLC has worked with the North American Mission Board, which commissions Southern Baptist chaplains, in the effort to defend the freedom of military chaplains. In August, NAMB issued revised guidelines making clear its chaplains would not participate in same-sex weddings or counseling sessions with same-sex couples.
Chaplains will be told to pray generic prayers, not ones in Jesus’ name, Moore said. The problem with agreeing to do so is “you have allowed the government to set up a generic religion that you are a minster of,” he said. “When it comes to prayer, the government does not have jurisdiction there.”
Moore told the audience, “If the state is able to assert its lordship over the conscience, the state has become a god. When Paul says to the state, ‘I am going to appeal all the way up the chain here; I’m going to speak in my own defense,’ he is recognizing that he is not appealing for a favor from the state.
“When you and I say to our government, ‘We must live freely and exercise our beliefs freely and we believe everybody around us ought to exercise their beliefs and consciences freely,’ we are not asking for a favor from the government as though we were a business looking for a bailout,” he said. “We are saying to the government, ‘Because no bureaucrat is going to be standing next to us at judgment, you do not have authority over the free human conscience.'”
Christians should defend religious liberty for people of all faiths, Moore said.
A government “that is able to run over their consciences will be able in the fullness of time to run over the conscience of those who hold to the gospel,” he said.