LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Southern Baptist Theological Seminary honored Russell D. Moore for his nearly 10 years of service April 16 when he preached his last chapel sermon as dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration.
In March, trustees of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention elected Moore as the entity’s next president. Moore, 41, will be the eighth president of the ERLC, which addresses moral and religious freedom issues in the public square. Moore’s last day in his role at Southern Seminary is May 31.
The chapel service came during the spring meeting of the seminary’s board of trustees. (See related story.) Before Moore preached, seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr. addressed those in attendance, which included members of the board and a sizable gathering of the seminary community. Mohler introduced Moore and commented extensively about the dean’s tenure at Southern Seminary.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees laid hands on Russell D. Moore to pray for him and his new responsibility at the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. See video.
“It humbles me to think about how many men have stood behind this pulpit to preach,” Mohler said as he stood behind the pulpit of Alumni Chapel, which the school built in 1949. “It should cause all of us to consider how many firsts and lasts have taken place here. This pulpit and this chapel have stood here long enough for generations to come and generations to go. And we recognize that we don’t get to hold on to people. They come and they go. And we recognize that that is exactly what this institution stands for: We are not here to accumulate people but to deploy them. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“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. 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 in the 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.
“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,” Mohler said.
Moore preached a sermon titled, “The Weight of Twelve Stones: Reflections on a Grateful Goodbye” from the Book of Joshua, chapter 4. Moore explained that he chose that particular chapter because of a sermon he heard years before that contributed to his attending Southern Seminary.
“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. In 1995, at the sesquicentennial Southern Baptist Convention, I heard Al Mohler preach from Joshua 4: ‘What Mean These Stones?’ 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.”
According to Moore, the sermon by Mohler sparked an interest in him in studying at Southern Seminary under a president he saw as a visionary leader. Nearly 15 years later, Moore’s journey at Southern includes posts as a doctoral student, research assistant for the president, professor and administrator.
Moore explained that the stones the Israelites build on the bank of the Jordan in Joshua 4 are to establish a continuing pattern of memory with the Israelite community so that later generations both remember that God brought his people through the Jordan River and see a vision for God’s protecting and guiding them into the Promised Land.
Moore connected this idea to God’s placing people in the lives of Christians as markers both of God’s faithfulness in the past and a vision for the next generation. He said, for him, these kinds of people define his tenure at Southern Seminary, from students and faculty to fellow executive leaders and interns. And one particular person who serves as a marker for him is Mohler.
“There’s a danger, whenever you have a hero in the faith who you get to see up close, that that hero is just an artifice,” he said. “And that was not the case when I came around Al Mohler. I’ve travelled all over the country with him, and we’ve worked together here where I’ve been able to see his leadership up close, having to work together in good times and in bad times. In every step of the way, I have seen the same vision, the same conviction, the same integrity that I first heard at the Southern Baptist Convention.”
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. The school also gave Moore a portrait of one of the seminary’s founders and influential Southern Baptist John Broadus.
Later the same day, during the plenary session of the board of trustees meeting, the board laid hands on Moore to pray for him and his new responsibility at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Mohler further commented on his working relationship with Moore. Mohler said, recounting the recent death of his father, that one of the things he learned is to appreciate those people who are worth missing.
“I’m thankful for so much that I have that is worth mourning the missing,” he said, “I told Russ Moore as we walked out of the chapel today, ‘There won’t be a day I won’t miss you.’ And I am thankful to have had a colleague I’ll so greatly miss.
“Precious is a day like this in the life of Southern Seminary. I’m glad we didn’t miss it.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Aaron Cline Hanbury is manager of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Audio and video from Moore’s final sermon as dean and senior vice president are available here.)