Interview with

Public Theologian at Christianity Today

Audio Transcript

We are back with Dr. Russell Moore of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, filling in this week for John Piper. Not surprisingly, Dr. Moore, we’re seeing a surge of evangelicals who have come out in support of so-called same-sex marriage, including Christian organizations, missions agencies, churches, denominations, prominent pastors, recording artists and musicians, and authors. I’m sure in the months ahead a pro-gay marriage book will be endorsed by a Christian leader who will surprise us. Tweets and interviews and YouTube clips will surface and surprise us with the words of some unlikely teachers that we thought we knew. In light of all this, what advice would you give ordinary Christians when these out-of-nowhere controversies in the church blow up in our twitter feeds?

Shepherds Versus Sheep

That is a really good question, and I think you are right. We are going to see more and more people within evangelical Christianity start to capitulate on some of these core issues. I think right now some people are gauging what the landscape is like. There is always the sort of figure in evangelical life who is out on the edge, questioning key Christian doctrines but doing so in an ambiguous way. Typically, at some point or other, that person has to forthrightly state what he or she believes. Once that happens, once they actually deny some biblical doctrine, that person then loses his or her audience. We have seen that over and over again. I think there are some people who are asking, “How far out there can I get on some of these issues before I lose my place in evangelicalism?” That is going to happen. I think we need to make sure we have different attitudes toward sheep and toward shepherds.

Jesus was never shocked by what he encountered among the sheep, among people, among the lost that he came to save. There was no sense of being offended and surprised. He encountered the woman at the well with her sin. He recounted it to her. There was a sense of broken-heartedness and a sense of gentleness toward those who were sheep without a shepherd, as the Bible says.

But there was a much sharper sort of tone that was used by Jesus and the apostles toward those who put themselves in the place of shepherds, who, as James would say, were held to a higher account because they are teachers (James 3:1). I think we have to do the same thing. We have to have a very different tone with that lost person in our community who we are sharing the gospel with than we would have when responding to someone who is sitting in a place of authority, teaching as though with the authority of Christ something that is not only untrue, but that can destroy people’s eternal salvation. We need to keep two different tones working.

Verify and Respond

The first thing we need to do when that sort of thing shows up in our Twitter or Facebook feed is to make sure it is true. One of the things that happens is that sometimes we tend to think that people are just ideas if they are sort of celebrities and we don’t know them. We tend to believe everything that is said. But sometimes there are reports that aren’t true. People twist something that someone said, or people put a different spin on it than what it actually is. We need to make sure that it is true, and so we investigate that.

Second, I think we ought not to be shocked. There are always going to be false teachers, and then there are always going to be people who aren’t false teachers but make errors. Judas Iscariot was not even a Christian, he didn’t even know the Lord, and he was a son of perdition, but pretended as though he were a Christian. He was there among Jesus’s disciples. There is a difference between Judas Iscariot and, say, Simon Peter, someone who also denied Christ, someone who, even after he was restored, made the critical error — a gospel-denying error — of refusing to eat with Gentiles. Paul rebuked him and he backed down. We shouldn’t be surprised that those things are going to happen. We shouldn’t be thrown by them.

The apostle Paul tells us there are going to be those who teach things contrary to the gospel. But notice what he says to Timothy. He says, “Just as Jannes and Jambres [those magicians that were opposing the work of Moses] . . . they will not get very far” (2 Timothy 3:8–9). So, we ought not be despondent. We ought not be gloomy. We ought not say, “Everything is slouching toward Gomorrah.” We expect it and we call it what it is when it is seen. But we do that by giving room for repentance.

Proffer Repentance

Now you think about this: The apostle Paul withstood Peter to his face about that matter of table fellowship with the Gentiles and Peter repented. He turned around. We ought not see people as cartoon characters that aren’t people who can still respond to rebuke and repent. We need to give people the ability to do that.

I remember having a conversation with a pastor friend one time. He was saying to me (while trying to think through the issue of so-called same-sex marriage), “What if we were to make a deal where we will say, ‘You all can have so-called same-sex marriage out there in the civil arena, and we are just going to make sure that we have biblical marriage within our own churches.’” We were just having coffee. And I said, “Well, that won’t work. And here is why that won’t work.” And I walked through with him why we wouldn’t be able to make that deal and why it would be wrong to try to make that deal. And he said, “I see what you are saying.”

It occurred to me later that if he had been on the radio or a podcast or some other venue and said that, he probably would have created a firestorm and he may never have had the opportunity to back down and say, “You know what, I was wrong.” That is especially true because so many of us in our sinfulness (and I count myself very high on this list) find it really hard once people start attacking you to turn around and say, “Let me reconsider this. Maybe I was wrong.” We need to give people room to be able to do that.

Walking the Tightrope

Finally, I think we need to model how to be courageous while being overheard. Think about the different sorts of ways that Jesus and the apostles spoke to different audiences. Paul spoke to the church at Galatia really, really sharply and he spoke to the church at Philippi really gently.

We are in a situation now, because of social media, where we are speaking to multiple audiences all at the same time. So, we have to figure out how to rebuke — and sharply rebuke — false teaching, while at the same time recognizing that we are going to be overheard by lost people. We are going to be speaking to shepherds who are in error, but we are also going to be heard by sheep that Jesus sent us to seek and to call out toward salvation. We must keep that in mind in whatever it is that we post, whatever it is that we say, whatever it is that we write.

(@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.