Redefining Unity: A conversation with Dr. Russell Moore

 

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel.”  So writes Paul in Philippians 1:26-27 as he exhorts his readers to live lives characterized by unity.  Throughout the New Testament, we see unity established as one of the main distinguishing marks of the Christian community.  Christians share the common goal of seeing the Gospel proclaimed to all nations—in word and deed—and the only way we can accomplish this goal, according to the Bible, is through oneness of purpose, spirit, and action.

Despite the level of importance that the Bible places on unity, it often seems a far-fetched ideal in today’s Church, and this is not without reason. While unity has always been difficult to attain, it is nevertheless true that this difficulty has been incredibly evident amongst Christians in 2016.  Through a particularly vicious and divisive election cycle, Christians across the board have found themselves at odds with their brothers and sisters in Christ, often disagreeing vehemently over which candidate to support or which issues should influence their votes.  With the election now behind us, many are left tending wounds inflicted by fellow Christians.  Acknowledging this, you may wonder how, as Christians, we can recover from such a divisive period.  The fact is, our mission as Christians has not changed as a result of the 2016 Presidential Election: discipling the nations remains our goal.  How, then, can Christians in 2017 rediscover the unity that is so essential to our existence and purpose?   Recently, Dr. Tom Jenkins, Bobby D’Alessandro, and I were able to sit down for a conversation with Dr. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, to discuss how to address this very issue.

In addressing how the Christian Church of 2017 can rediscover unity, it is important to first note what has made this past year so particularly divisive.  When asked why we saw more division than usual with the recent presidential election, Dr. Moore responded by attributing much of it to the nominees themselves: “We have two morally problematic and controversial candidates.  The nominees themselves are two of the most divisive figures in American history.” With these two at the forefront, society—secular and religious—experienced divisions as a sort of ripple effect.  With relation to the Church, Dr. Moore thinks the election has “exposed some divides that were already present.”  Moore feels that, generally speaking, the past year has simply reinforced the generational differences that were already evident to some.  While he acknowledges that some older Christians fit more within the younger generation, ideologically, and vice versa, he says that for older Christians, much of the election was about returning to a bygone area.  Moore states, “In the rhetoric many older Christians use, you see a recurring theme of ‘getting back to where we were.’  Because they enjoyed so much of their lives as a cultural majority, there is an illusion of a Christian America,” one that seems to be crumbling before their very eyes.  “This sense of nostalgia is not shared by younger Christians,” Moore continues, “most of whom do not see the United States as a covenant nation, analogous to Old Testament Israel.”  Moore attributes much of these theological and political differences to the fact that younger Christians have never had the illusion of being the cultural majority, as they have had to articulate their beliefs to an unbelieving, majority secular world since the beginning of their Christian lives.  Recent studies support Moore’s comments.  Look at these results from a 2011 Pew Research Study:

Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%). Millennials were also the most likely generation to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%).

Despite their comparatively low level of patriotism, Millennials are more optimistic about the nation’s current state of affairs as well as its future. Compared to Boomers and Silents, a slightly greater percentage of Millennials (55%) and Gen Xers (55%) think the country’s best days are ahead. In total, half of Americans (51%) say that’s the case.

So, the generational divides Moore references apply not only within evangelical camps but to society as a whole, and, though these generational divides were already present in the Church, much of what transpired over the past year has brought them to the surface in an unprecedented manner.

 

Given the nature of these differences amongst Christians, we know that some are happy with the results of the election, while others are not.  On either side of the issue, then, we must wonder: how do we respond not only to the 2016 election but also to all that has happened over the past year?  Regardless of past or future events, Moore says Christians must “trust God” and respond with “calm confidence,” acknowledging that the Lord is working all things together for our good and His glory in ways that we cannot comprehend.  Furthermore, Christians must remember that no matter the political climate in which they find themselves, they are always on the “winning side” of history; Christ and His Kingdom will persevere forever, something that we cannot say of any earthly state or ruler.  Beyond this, Moore cautions Christians against “falling for apocryphal language, suggesting that [any one leader or event] is our last chance to save America.”  Christians must guard against this type of rhetoric as we remember that our ultimate hope does not rest with any political leader, but with the Lord, Himself.  In keeping with this truth, Christians should be careful not to identify with a political party more strongly than they do with their own faith.  “When Christianity is first defined culturally or politically,” Moore states, “Christian identity becomes built around these things,” when the opposite case should be true.  We should remember that we are Christians first, foremost, and above all else.  We should not let our politics define our faith, but should instead let our faith inform every decision we make—including political ones.

While this information about responding to the election is beneficial for all of us, it does not take us all the way to recovering the Biblical practice of unity.  Responding in a Christlike manner to events like the 2016 Presidential Election is one step on the path to rediscovering unity, but it is not the only step.  When we asked Dr. Moore how Christians can come together for the purpose of spreading the gospel in 2017, he responded in a somewhat surprising way.  For Dr. Moore, the realization of unity in our churches and lives will require redefining unity in a more biblical way.  “Scripture makes a distinction between matters that shouldn’t disrupt fellowship and things that should,” he says.  Citing 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 and Galatians 2:11-21, respectively, Moore proves his point by reminding us how Paul was willing to give up eating meat without argument for the sake of others, but the same man also openly rebuked Peter for acting hypocritically. Based on these instances, we see there is a need for Christians to discern the difference between issues worthy of disagreement and those that are not; when we fail to do this, Moore says, “we end up fighting about everything or avoiding conflict at all costs by not speaking about issues of justice. Neither of these methods is right.  Take, for example, the silence offered by many white Christians on issues of racial justice.  White Christians think they are being wise and avoiding conflict by not speaking up about these problems, but in reality we are failing to keep the biblical command of bearing one another’s burdens.”  Black Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we must fight for them as we would for ourselves.  Moore cites this as just one example of how we disguise inactivity as unity.  He redefines unity for us, stating that “unity in the long-term has to come from disagreement in the short term.”  Just like the previously mentioned case of Paul and Peter, Christians must discern issues that are important and those that are not, and they must be willing to speak up to rectify injustices that they see.  While standing against injustice may involve conflict even with other Christians, these disagreements are necessary if we truly desire unity in the biblical sense.

Our conversation with Russell Moore certainly gives us some challenging ideas for thought.  Though we recognize the importance the Bible places on unity, we acknowledge that actually practicing it is difficult; therefore, as we strive for unity, we must keep the ultimate goal in mind.  Finally, let us remember the words of Paul in Philippians 2, as he urges his readers to unity through humility: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord, and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  May we all have this selfless attitude as we move into a new year, one that is filled with new opportunities for boldness in the furtherance of the gospel.