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Russell Moore Wants Us To Be Strange (but not Crazy)

Joining David French and me this week is Russell Moore. Russell was a provost at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, became president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (the nation’s largest Protestant denomination) and was one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention who called for a third party investigation of sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. He’s now Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project. 

With the Southern Baptist Convention taking place next week in the immediate aftermath of a third party report on sexual abuse and institutional coverup, we cover a wide range of topics this week.  Including:

  • Why is the Southern Baptist Convention Important to the American Church?
  • Why did Russell leave the Southern Baptist Convention?
  • What surprised Russell about the SBC report?
  • How does the average Christian make sense of the SBC’s sexual abuse report?
  • What is the Exhausted Minority and how should they respond to the news of the day?
  • How does an aversion to “elitism” undermine the church?
  • How to distinguish “crazy” from “conviction”
  • Does technology affect theology or vice versa?
  • What is the difference between a power play and a moral responsibility?

In the excerpt below, David and I ask Russell about what the SBC should do in response to the sexual abuse report, Russell explains why everything seems so much more contentious now, and David introduces listeners to the idea of the “exhausted majority.” Russell also talks about the difficulty of distinguishing between “crazy” and “conviction.”

DAVID FRENCH – Putting on your old SBC hat for a minute, what should the Convention do in response to that report?

RUSSELL MOORE – Well, the recommendations are good, but it’s going to take a lot more than that. The primary problem here is cultural in which most of the people are really good people and want to serve Jesus. David, you may have even been with me when I was saying to a journalist who asked, “Why do you care about these people to this degree?”

(Because I was hoping they would work this through.)

“Well, I love them,” I said. “And 90% of them are great.”

“Eh, I think your math’s off,” he said.

“Well, maybe.”

But most of them really are wanting to serve Jesus. The problem is that those good people assume that if you just sort of bear with some crazy for a while, it will eventually go away. And I understand that. I was doing that in a lot of ways. I told students at a Southern Baptist Convention meeting, “You’re gonna have people get up and make some crazy motions, but every family’s got the crazy uncle in the attic.” And then there came a point where I realized, “Oh, maybe I’m the crazy uncle in the attic and I’m outta step with this.”

There’s a sense in which a lot of people think if you just sort of bear with people, you don’t mention what they’re doing, you give them 30% of what they want if you can in good conscience… then it will just adjust itself. That’s not happening. And it’s the same thing where I would make a mistake is to say, “because most of the things that were awful that were happening were happening between conventions, nothing that was happening at the actual Southern Baptist Convention itself.” I never came out of an SBC meeting that I wasn’t elated and encouraged and felt empowered and affirmed. It was what happened between the meetings but I would often think, you know, well, let’s just take this to the people and the people will settle it. And they would every year. But the problem is that there’s a group of people who don’t care about that. There’s not a resolving of the issue. So you end up with a situation where the unique sort of dynamic in the SBC, and I’m seeing this in a lot of other institutions, is that the healthiest people are disengaging. Because they’re not the people who want to sort of go through all of the nonsense that one has to go through in these things. So they don’t necessarily leave, but they disengage because they have lives that aren’t… they don’t care about, you know, having their name on some sort of a committee or that sort of thing and they just disengage. Which means that the people who are the most engaged often tend to be the unhealthiest people for a variety of reasons.

DAVID FRENCH – That’s an American crisis right there. That’s the “exhausted majority” concept: people people – right, left, middle – who believe there’s a better way are just pulling away. They’re being sort of cattle prodded out of the political or the church community.

RUSSELL MOORE – That’s part of the strategy, because one of the things that this smaller group will do – what they’re really counting on – is that if anybody says, “Hey, I think we have a problem here.” Then you hit that person so often – and I see this happening in local church context all the time – where it sort of starts out with, you know, “I like Pastor John, but a lot of people are concerned.” You know? And so that causes people to say, “Well, Pastor John is really controversial.” And so it eventually ends up where you put Pastor John through a series of made-up and completely fake controversies to the point that the normal people will say, “Come on, Pastor John, give us a break. Why are you always in the middle of controversy?” Rather than saying, “You’re not –” to this group of people, “you’re not going to do this to our church or to our denomination or to our institution.” That’s what happens.

CURTIS CHANG – Russ, I want to pick up on this theme of “the crazy” and the impact of that craziness on our institutional contexts. You’ve mentioned “crazy” is actually strategic, that people are using “crazy” to advance their aim. Say a little bit more about this.

RUSSELL MOORE – There’s a difference between what happens at the sort of larger denominational institutional level and what happens at the local level. At the larger level, there is this sense of playing to anti-elitism which then translates into any sort of expertise at all. Because that becomes read as “you think you’re better than me” if you have leaders who are saying, “Look, we’ve studied this. And we think this is the direction that we should go” is — by definition – elitism. Or if you’re not sort of just looking to say, “Well, where’s the mob going?” And let me get in front of that.” Then, well, that means that you’re an elitist to the point that the very things that the New Testament requires as qualification for ordained ministry: having a good reputation with outsiders, being reasonable with those who are on the outside.

That’s non-negotiable as a qualification for ministry that becomes defined as “elitism” and “you’re playing to the culture,” and so that’s part of it. So I would have, for instance, in one of my many “heresy trials,” a figure said to me, “the problem is you won’t play to the bubbas and the rednecks like we do.”

CURTIS CHANG – Somebody actually said that to you?

RUSSELL MOORE – Oh, yes. And I said, “I’ve never thought of anybody as bubbas and rednecks. As a matter of fact, I probably am one. I mean, I’m a Biloxi, Mississippi working class guy and so what… I don’t think of people that way.” And what he meant was: “You have to just sort of find out where the populist energy is, and just sort of tap into that and repeat back to people what they want to hear in the moment.” At the local church level, what you have happening is that in American society right now, “crazy” is really indistinguishable often from conviction. So if you stand up and you say crazy, inflammatory things, people are going to say, “Oh, well, he really tells it like it is,” even if it has nothing to do with “the way that it is.”  If you stand up and you say something like “we have some real religious liberty problems that we need to work on and here’s what they are,” that is nothing compared to, “we are about to be arrested, this is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment, the American culture is Hitler.”

The second sounds like conviction.

You can do that with virtually any issue. I hear from pastors all the time, who are faithfully preaching the word of God. They’re realizing people actually don’t resonate with Romans 3 and Ephesians 2 and working through Colossians. What they resonate with, is someone who’s going to say something that really charges them up about what they’re already interested in.

That’s not a new phenomena. We saw this in the 1970s and 1980s with prophecy. So you could have someone who could come in and say, “The book of revelation is talking about the European common market” or whatever “and that means Jesus will return by 1988.” And you could assemble this huge crowd of people who would want to listen to that. Well, now we have secularized to the point that Bible prophecy isn’t even interesting to people, but what’s interesting to them is this sort of, “there are people out to get us and we are the people who are going to have to stand up right now and speak against it” often in these conspiratorial sorts of ways. That builds churches in the short run and raises a lot of money. And so you have people who are leading all sorts of ministries even if they don’t necessarily want to play that game, they’re not going to stop. It raises a lot of money.

DAVID FRENCH – I remember that prophecy era. I’m the oldest one on this podcast. No, Kris is older. Producer Kris, he’s like 70, but I remember that era. I read The Late Great Planet Earth. I remember the 1988 rapture because I was going to a Church of Christ college. We did not believe in the rapture, and we were making fun of it. And I’ll never forget the morning after when the rapture was supposed to take place. I was in my room and our roommate’s alarm goes off and I said, “Ha, I guess the rapture didn’t happen.” I was on the top bunk and I looked under and my roommate was gone. And for one half a second, I thought “it happened and I’ve been left behind.” Then he walks in the door from the shower and everything was fine.

RUSSELL MOORE – I have right over on the shelf next to me, my copy of “88 reasons why Jesus will return by 1988” that I had as a kid and sort of waiting for that. And the thing that all of that era sort of taught me as a kid, not just with that, but also with the… We would listen to the records played backwards and there’s their backward masking here.

DAVID FRENCH – Oh, I did that too. 

RUSSELL MOORE – What it taught me is that nobody ever would turn around and say, “You know, turns out Mikhail Gorbachev probably isn’t the antichrist because the Soviet Union just dissolved.” Or “it turns out maybe Saddam Hussein isn’t reconstructing Babylon.” Nobody would do that. The very same people would just pivot to the next prophetic conspiracy theory and sell the next set of profits and make the same kind of profits as though that never happened. And you see that happening all the time right now.


RUSSELL MOORE – It’s just usually with really secular politics that means everything to you because they’re coming to get you as Christians.

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.

Image Credit: Theology147, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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