Interview with

Public Theologian at Christianity Today

Audio Transcript

This week we welcome to the Ask Pastor John podcast Dr. Russell Moore, a good friend of ours who serves as the eighth president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. There are so many questions related to the church and culture in our inbox, and Dr. Moore will help us out this week on the podcast, filling in for John Piper.

I want to begin the week by asking you, Dr. Moore, about that very thing called “religious liberty.” In 1 Timothy 2:2, we see that religious liberty is a very good thing for the church, obviously, but you believe religious liberty is, at root, not merely a political freedom but a divine right to be defended. According to the Christian worldview, what are some transcendent principles behind religious liberty?

Bulletproof Gospel

Yeah, Tony. One of the problems that I think many Christians have is that we don’t know who the villain is when we start thinking about issues of religious liberty. I think there are a lot of Christians today who would say, “Let’s just shrug off religious liberty concerns,” because they assume that they are in the place of Jesus, and the government is in the place of Pilate. And so let’s just do what Jesus did, and not speak in our own defense and let the government impose whatever sorts of restrictions it wants to impose.

“The gospel goes forward regardless of what any government or any king or any dictator attempts to do.”

Now on the one hand, there is a good impulse behind that, and that impulse is that the gospel goes forward regardless of what any government or any king or any dictator attempts to do. There is no stopping the advance of the church, because Jesus promised this at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:18–19). Jesus keeps his promises, and he is going to build his church. There has also been an impulse in the sense that the writer of Hebrew says we ought to be ready to be joyful even in the plundering of our property (Hebrews 10:34). And so, there are good impulses there.

Who Will We Be?

But I think that that is wrongheaded, and here is why it is wrongheaded. The Bible says that God holds Caesar, holds governments, accountable for the wielding of the sword (Romans 13:4). And so, when we live in a democratic republic, the people ultimately are Caesar. The people ultimately have accountability.

The question is not simply, Are we going to be persecuted? Although, that is in important question. It is also, Are we going to be persecutors? Because if the government, in our context, is restricting people’s religious freedom, we are restricting people’s religious freedom. And there are a number of theological and biblical principles that come into play.

Limits to Lordship

The first is a matter of lordship. The Bible says that God has given the sword to Caesar to be used in a very specific context: to punish evildoers and to encourage the good. But the Bible makes very clear also that there are limits upon that power. That is why in Revelation 13:1 we see a government that is a beast-state, a government that has overstepped its bounds.

So, there is a matter of lordship here. Is the government over the conscience, in order to direct worship and to direct the practice that comes out of that worship? That is what Peter and John were encountering when they said, “We are going to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, but we are not going to render our consciences up,” when it comes to being forced, for instance, not to proclaim the name of Jesus (see Acts 4:19–20).

Respect for Worship

This is also a matter of gospel, because the gospel cannot be enforced by the government. You can’t at the point of a sword have people become Christians, because that is not the way the Spirit works. Nor can you restrict the advance of the gospel by the power of the government.

How does the gospel go forward? It goes forward, the apostle Paul says, by openly appealing — not by peddling the word of God, but by openly appealing to the conscience (2 Corinthians 2:17). So, the government doesn’t have the right to coerce, and the government doesn’t have the right to restrict, the worship that comes from the heart.

Advancing the Church

It is also a matter of the kingdom, our understanding of the kingdom of God. The Scripture tells us that Jesus has been given head over all things, over his body, which is the church (Ephesians 1:22–23). That church is to advance, the Scripture says, according to spiritual means.

So, there is a lot of confusion that happens these days about, for instance, the phrase separation of church and state, because people have used separation of church and state to mean a separation of any religious motivation or conviction from the public square. That is not what the separation of church and state means.

“You can’t at the point of a sword have people become Christians, because that is not the way the Spirit works.”

Ultimately, it’s something very biblical, which is to say that the state has a responsibility — and is held accountable before God to that responsibility — but the church also has a responsibility and a mission. That mission is to be advanced with spiritual means. That means we have responsibilities as churches, and we have responsibilities as citizens.

The apostle Paul appealed for his freedom. He appealed to his Roman citizenship for his liberty, because the apostle Paul knew this isn’t simply about his rights (Acts 25:10–11). He is willing, in all sorts of other places, to surrender his rights. He is appealing for those things because he does not believe that the courts are over his conscience when it comes to worship and because he believes that this has implications for the advance of the gospel for other people.

Pluralism in the Public Square

So, I think what we need to be advocating for is the sort of pluralism in the public square that doesn’t cause there to be less conversation, but that causes there to be more conversation — so that we are appealing to Muslims and to Hindus and to secularists about why we believe that the gospel is true, why we believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

We don’t expect the government to do that for us, and we don’t expect a government that is big enough to restrict us from doing that. And at the same time, we listen to those voices on the outside, and our ultimate hope is not that they would be silenced by the state — we don’t want that. We want, instead, to persuade people through the power of the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, which comes only to free consciences. We want liberty and Jesus for all.

(@drmoore) is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and minister-in-residence at Immanuel Nashville. He served as President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2013 until 2021. He and his wife, Maria, have five sons.