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Russell Moore: the call to ministry & the public square

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — For Russell Moore, it all makes sense. His new job as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission resolves a nearly 30-year tension in his life between vocational ministry and vocational politics.

“I think I’ve always had the tension between the call to ministry — which I experienced very early on — and the call to the public square,” said Moore, 41, who will begin his work for the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy entity June 1. “I’ve always been drawn to the political world, while seeing both the limits and the possibilities of it.”

Moore’s call to ministry began when he was about 12 years old. He grew up in Biloxi, Miss., an immigrant-heavy town on the Gulf of Mexico with less than 50,000 residents. Not quite a quaint Southern town, Biloxi is basically a cultural spillover from New Orleans. The Moores attended Woolmarket Baptist Church, the same congregation Moore’s grandfather pastored before he was born.

“I was always around the Gospel,” Moore said. “But there was a particular Sunday night, I think, when, as I walked home from church, I was struck with the Gospel in a new way, and I came to know Christ on that walk home.”

Not long after, Moore sensed a particular desire and calling toward ministry. When the pastor of Woolmarket heard about Moore’s desire, he scheduled a youth service so Moore could preach his first sermon.

“It was this collection of random texts about essentially everything in the Bible that uses an armor-of-God type of metaphor,” Moore said. “I preached about the full armor of God from Ephesians 6, but then I just rambled on everywhere. It was horrible, and remarkably short given the amount of material I had.”

Moore first entered real-time politics when he was 18 years old. It was 1988 and Democrat Gene Taylor was running for the congressional seat in Mississippi’s fifth district, and Moore became a volunteer in the campaign. Taylor lost. But eight months later, the state of Mississippi held a special election to fill that same office, and Taylor won.

In 1990, Moore went to work for him as a congressional aide. This role took him to and from Washington, D.C., and all across the state of Mississippi.

It was a hectic time of life. He was studying history and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg — about an hour from Biloxi, where he still lived — and working on the staff of a United States congressman.

Then, his sophomore year at USM, he met a young lady. She was friends with Moore’s cousin Kim, who, for months insisted that he and her friend would make a good pair.

Eventually, Moore decided he would follow Kim’s advice and take out her friend. In biology class one day, he wrote a note to his cousin telling her that, if her friend was interested, so was he. Not long after, Moore bought Maria dinner at a local restaurant called The Chimneys.

“I knew that night that I was going to marry her,” Moore said of his first date with Maria. Just as Moore predicted, the two married May 27, 1994.

At the time, Moore’s plan was to continue working with Taylor and follow that path to a political career. He wanted to serve on Taylor’s congressional staff while attending law school in Washington.

But, again, Moore’s calling toward ministry drew him a different direction. In the fall of that year, he enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to prepare for vocational ministry, working toward a master of divinity degree.

The following summer, Moore attended the sesquicentennial Southern Baptist Convention — the 150th meeting of the denomination’s messengers — where he heard a sermon that would influence the next 20 years of his life.

“In 1995, I heard Al Mohler preach from Joshua 4: ‘What Mean These Stones?'” Moore said earlier this year during his farewell chapel sermon. “I’d been to a lot of religious events, and in many of these I’d heard strings of clichés put together in order to evoke ‘amens,’ in order to prop up whatever status quo was being propped up. But this was different. This was someone preaching with a power, with a conviction, with a rootedness and with a theological vision that wasn’t some kind of antebellum reenaction of somebody else’s thought.

“He spoke as someone not speaking for Bible-belt civil religion but someone speaking of an ancient vision of what it means to be the people of Christ,” Moore said. “He was preaching something that sounded so different from anything I had ever heard from a living person. It was a vision that wasn’t only 150 years in the past, but a vision that was looking 150 years into the future. And as I stood there listening to that, I said, ‘That is what I believe; that’s the vision I hold to and I would love to give my life to.’ And I still do.”

For Moore, Mohler’s sermon sparked an interest in studying at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under a president he saw as a visionary leader. In the fall of 1997, the same year he finished at New Orleans Seminary, he enrolled at Southern as a doctoral candidate in systematic and historical theology, writing under Mohler’s supervision. He also worked for the president as his research assistant.

Moving to Louisville, Ky., the location of Southern Seminary, meant moving away from Biloxi. Before then, Moore spent time in Washington, traveling all around the state of Mississippi and commuting back and forth from New Orleans for seminary. But neither he nor his wife ever lived as residents anywhere other than Biloxi.

“Biloxi was and is crucially formative on me,” Moore said about his hometown. “It’s where I come from, but it’s also where I met Christ, it’s where I met my wife, it’s where our roots are. It was a very good place for me to grow up for all sorts of reasons. I come from a family that was one-half Baptist, one-half Catholic in the least Bible-belty part of the Bible belt. It is made up of a large immigrant population from Serbia, Croatia and, in more recent years, Vietnam. All of that was and is formative on me, in ways that I know and in ways that I don’t know.”

Moore’s academic pursuits, even at two theological seminaries, reflect his passions for the public square and highlight the tension in Moore’s mind between his call to ministry and his draw toward politics. His doctoral dissertation, which he defended in 2002, is “Kingdom Theology and the American Evangelical Consensus: Emerging Implications for Sociopolitical Engagement.”

When Moore joined the faculty of Southern Seminary in 2001 as instructor of Christian theology, he also became executive director of the seminary’s Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement — a position suited well for a theologian with a mind toward public discourse.

In his time at Southern, Moore was a doctoral student, research assistant for the president, professor and, in January of 2004, he became an administrator. In a move that he said shocked him, Mohler appointed Moore to the roles of dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president of academic administration, a post opened when then-dean Daniel Akin left Southern to become president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“I have loved this job,” Moore said of his role as dean and senior vice president. “I’ve loved working with these people.

“I’ve been able to spend the last nearly 10 years not only dealing with issues but dealing with people in various ways, both denominationally and personally here leading this size organization with all of the various moving parts. Also the kind of experiences I’ve been able to have here, to be both in the academy and in the church has been helpful.”

The deanship at Southern Seminary came as a surprise to Moore. Nearly 15 years before, though, when he was in his first year working for Taylor, he thought about a different role he might enjoy.

“It never crossed my mind that I would be dean at Southern Seminary,” Moore said. “But it had crossed my mind that I’d like to be president of the ERLC.”

Back in 1991, Congress was approaching a vote on the Persian Gulf War. As an aide to a congressman, Moore’s duty was to assemble materials about the conflict and help the congressman think through the issue.

“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder what my denomination says about just war as it applies to this.’ So I called the ERLC — then known as the Christian Life Commission — and talked to Jim Smith, who is now editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, who sent me a lot of materials. And I remember thinking at the time about Richard Land [the long-time president of the ERLC] and saying to myself, ‘I would love to be able to do what he does.’ So, it had crossed my mind that I would love to be president of the ERLC.”

Last year, Land announced his retirement from the entity. The head of the ERLC works with and in the media, meets with elected officials, shapes legislative strategies for the organization and helps churches think through ethical issues. This was, and is, Moore’s dream job.

On March 26, 2013, trustees of the ERLC elected Moore as its next president. He will be the eighth president of the entity.

“I am honored and humbled to be asked to serve Southern Baptists as ERLC president,” Moore said after the announcement. “I pray for God’s grace to lead the ERLC to be a catalyst for connecting the agenda of the Kingdom of Christ to the cultures of local congregations for the sake of the mission of the Gospel in the world.”

A few weeks later, on April 16, Southern Seminary honored Moore for his nearly 10 years of service when he preached his last chapel sermon as dean and senior vice president.

The chapel service came during the spring meeting of the Southern Seminary Board of Trustees. Before Moore preached, Mohler addressed those in attendance, including members of the board and a sizable gathering of the seminary community. Mohler introduced Moore and commented extensively on the dean’s tenure at the seminary.

“This is the last sermon Russell D. Moore will preach here as dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is going to be the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Nothing should make Southern Baptists more thankful than that fact,” Mohler said. “God has prepared Russ Moore for this position in a way such that anyone close to him, anyone who knows him, knows that God made his genetic structure for this job and made him for this time.”

Mohler continued: “I knew him as a student. I have known him as a colleague. And this is one of those bittersweet moments when we say ‘goodbye’ to a friend. At the same time, we want to rejoice because we have immense personal and institutional pride in Southern Baptists’ electing him to this position, and we want him to know how grateful we are for his years of service here. Transformative years. Crucial years. Historic years.

“When you work with someone, you inevitably get to know them better day-by-day and year-by-year. To know Russ Moore is to know that what you see in him at first is only just a hint of what is to come. Southern Baptists will discover this year-by-year, through his service as president of the ERLC. We have experienced that — I most close at hand and most gratefully,” Mohler said.

“There are so many things that could and might properly be said, but the most important thing to say is ‘thank you’ to Russ Moore.”

Moore preached a sermon titled, “The Weight of Twelve Stones: Reflections on a Grateful Goodbye” from the Book of Joshua, chapter 4 — the same text he heard Mohler preach in 1995.

“I chose this text today because this text chose me,” Moore said. “This text is the reason we wound up here at Southern Seminary in the first place.”

Immediately following Moore’s sermon, the seminary held a reception in his honor. Hundreds of people — trustees, faculty, staff, students and friends — filled the Duke K. McCall Sesquicentennial Pavilion to congratulate and express appreciation to Moore and his family, including his wife Maria and their five sons.

At the reception, Mohler presented the Moore family with a large, commemorative photograph of Southern Seminary’s campus. Later, at a dinner with faculty and trustees, Mohler gave Moore a portrait of influential Southern Baptist John Broadus, one of the seminary’s founders.

According to Moore, his new position at the ERLC resolves a 30-year tension in his ministry, a pull between the pulpit and the public square. Now, he can do both.

“I think both 12-year-old and 18-year-old Russell Moore would see that this all makes sense,” Moore said of his long-time passions for ministry and politics meeting in his new position.

“I always had more things that I wanted to do than I could do. I wanted to be involved in ministry; I wanted to be involved in politics; I wanted to be involved in culture. This role enables me to look back and see what sometimes seemed to be little cul-de-sacs off the main road really weren’t cul-de-sacs at all. In the providence of God, He was preparing me for something else.”
Aaron Cline Hanbury is manager of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Aaron Cline Hanbury