I have to admit: my relationship with Dr. Russell Moore’s work has been…evolving. Dr. Moore’s book Tempted and Tried was a challenging book that I have recommended to others in the past. I heard the man speak during a lunch for prospective seminary students, and his words stirred me and confirmed my desire to pursue full-time Christian ministry down the road. To be honest, it was Drs. Moore and Mohler that clinched Southern Seminary as my school of choice. But then, over the last few years, Dr. Moore has said and done things that left me scratching my head. I have found myself disagreeing more and more with Moore’s tendency toward coalition-building across denominational and even religious lines.
So when I had the opportunity to read and review his new book Onward, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do so. Having finished it, I can say that I’m glad I did. Onward is, above all else, an incredibly hopeful book about the opportunities that lay before the American church in the coming century.
The heartbeat of the book is the idea that the Church must accept that it is becoming more and more counter-cultural in America. Moore repeats the refrain that the days of “traditional Judeo-Christian values” and the Moral Majority are at an end, but that this is ultimately a good thing for America and for the American Church. As Christians let go of any perceived cultural power, we are freed to act like the ordinary radicals we were called to be–people who hold to “bizarre” sexual and relational ethics of chastity and monogamy, people who seek to overcome through weakness and sacrifice instead of strength, people who are marked by a strange grace and compassion for those that society deems irrelevant. This truth is sorely needed in the American Church today.
Dr. Moore is sometimes criticized for being too ideologically or politically liberal. While I think his positions are closer to the middle than the left, I will acknowledge that I disagree with him on more than a few political issues. However, it is crystal clear in Onward that Moore upholds the authority of the Scriptures, the lordship of Jesus Christ, and the primacy of the Gospel message in the mouths and hearts of the American Church. Whatever knocks Moore’s opponents have on him, he is still a brother in Christ, and his work elevates the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is certainly material to commend in this book. The chapters on human dignity, family stability, and convictional kindness are strong and convicting.
While I agree with many of Moore’s arguments and solutions, I can’t accept all of them. In recent years, Dr. Moore has demonstrated a growing comfort level with ecumenism (the linking of arms with people of different faith backgrounds) for the sake of social causes. This type of coalition-building is recommended throughout Onward. However, I’m still not convinced that linking arms with people of other faiths to address topics like same-sex marriage or human trafficking is the right answer. No matter with whom we lock arms outside of Christianity, we will ultimately disagree with our co-belligerents on both the cause and the solution for any societal ill we seek to remedy.
Dr. Moore writes in several chapters about how the Church should have a prophetic voice in the public sphere and the political process. Yet, he also decries how Christians have politicized their moral campaigns in the past. This seems to be a disconnect. If the use of political influence to accomplish a moral agenda was wrong then, why is it more acceptable now? It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood Dr. Moore’s intention here, but this just seemed like a logical disconnect for me.
The fifth chapter in the book, “Mission,” was problematic for me for both of the reasons described above. Dr. Moore argues that Christians should be engaged in actively seeking righteousness and justice in their culture. However, he argues that “the new birth itself is not the stand-alone remedy for the work of righteousness and justice. We cannot simply assume that ‘changed people’ will ‘change the world.‘” He goes on to suggest that Christians have the responsibility to seek good actively in the world, rather than passively hope things will get better.
While I agree on some level with the second half of that quote, I have to disagree strongly with the first. It is precisely the New Birth that brings about true change in cultures. When the Holy Spirit brings a spiritually-dead person to life, it is only then that they can seek true righteousness and justice. Apart from that, there may be some temporary improvements, but the fruit wouldn’t last. The most powerful force in all of human existence is the proclamation of the transforming Gospel. Cultural change without spiritual change is hollow secular piety at best, a cultural morality that will change and “evolve” with every passing generation. In this chapter, Moore misconstrues the counter-arguments he is facing. The issue is not that Christians refuse to alleviate suffering and injustice in this life. The great concern that I and others like me have is that we must be careful not to stifle the eternal message of the Church through a primary focus on this life alone. The message of the Church is that Christ came to save sinners from the divine wrath they have justly earned. The Church’s call to the ends of the earth is not, “We will save you from injustice!” but “Christ can save you from condemnation!”
In these and other moments, I feel like Dr. Moore has misunderstood or mischaracterized the arguments and concerns of those who he is trying to argue against or persuade. The issue for many believers is not that we don’t realize doing good for others is good. Rather, we are seeking to address first what we feel may be the most urgent need for that person.
Final Verdict: While this book is far from perfect, there are some really helpful and challenging ideas that Christians in the American Church should consider and wrestle with. While I obviously disagree with several parts of it, it would be worth reading and discussing with mature and discerning believers.
On the whole, Onward was a challenging work for me, on a few levels. First, it challenged me to reconsider Dr. Moore and reminded me of the areas where we have common ground. Second, it forced me to think through the way that I respond to the vast cultural changes taking place in my country. Third, the book helped me reevaluate the ways my Christianity had been influenced by my political ideology, so that I might not make the same mistakes my spiritual predecessors did. Finally, Onward reminded me that we Christians are to be a people characterized by hope–hope that is not found in political influence or cultural cache, but hope in a resurrected Savior who defeated death by death and rose again to triumph forevermore. Whatever our political or cultural fates in this age, we await a better country, a secure and unshakeable city, and a righteous, just, and triumphant King.
Please Note: I was provided a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. The preceding comments are purely my own.