NASHVILLE – Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land evoked the godliness of the prophet Ezra and the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. in admonishing the church to set the spiritual temperature of the nation, instead of being a thermometer that merely reflects the culture.
Land preached to the staff of Southern Baptist entities in the SBC Building in Nashville during a farewell chapel message Monday (April 29) upon his retirement after 25 years as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
“The answer for what ails us is not going to come from Washington or from Nashville. Washington, government in general, is what’s known as a lagging social indicator. It’s a caboose, not a locomotive,” said Land, an author and former pastor in addition to the SBC’s most visible ethicist. “When God’s people change, Washington will change.”
Richard Land delivered the April 29 chapel message to the staff of entities in the SBC Building in Nashville, evoking the godliness of the prophet Ezra and the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. in exhorting the church to set the spiritual temperature of the nation.
Land read from Ezra 7:8-10 and 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3, encouraging Christians to grow in grace and represent God with authoritative maturity.
“[Ezra] knew what it was to be God’s man, in God’s place, in God’s time, on God’s business, with God’s power and God’s blessing,” Land said. “The problem we’ve got today, we’ve got churches full of Christians that are cases of spiritually arrested development. They’re not weaned yet.”
Land quoted King’s April 16, 1963, letter from a Birmingham jail in which the late civil rights leader and Baptist pastor encouraged the church to reengage its God-given power and lead the nation in the ways of righteousness.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced, when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion. It was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society,” Land quoted King. “Wherever the early Christians entered a town, the power structure was disturbed. The early church brought an end to ancient evils, such as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church. The judgment of God is upon the church as never before,” Land quoted from King’s letter.
Land called on Southern Baptists to be leaders in the 21st century.
“We Christians who are called upon to serve God in the first decade of the 21st century have got to decide whether we’re going to be thermometers or thermostats. Thermometers reflect the spiritual temperature; thermostats set the spiritual temperature,” Land said. “Make no mistake about it, our churches are either going to have their temperature changed by those who are seeking to make the law of the Lord, to know it, to do it and teach it, and to be spiritual change agents who are going to change the temperature, or we’ll just be thermometers and reflect the temperature.”
Land in 2012 announced his retirement from the post he has held since 1988 when the ERLC was still known as the Christian Life Commission. At that time, Land’s title was executive director and treasurer.
SBC President Fred Luter, by recorded video, thanked Land for his service and friendship, and said he was happy to become the convention’s first African American president during Land’s tenure.
“Thank you my brother for all that you’ve done for me, your support and prayers for me as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I know this is something you’ve been praying about for many years. I am so honored that it happened on your watch and you were able to see this and be a part of it,” Luter said. “Thank you for being a personal friend of mine. Thank you for supporting me and encouraging me through the years of ministry at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. Let me congratulate you on being one who’s always been on the front line on standing up for the Bible, standing up for values, standing up for morals, [and] standing up for the kingdom of God.”
Noted author and longtime Land friend R.T. Kendall attended the event, and a number of SBC leaders and advocates for religious liberty sent encouraging words to Land, who has accepted the presidency of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., in a recorded video message, spoke of Land’s influence upon SBC life, saying Land spoke with wisdom, scholarship, tremendous conviction and passion.
“The history of the Southern Baptist Convention will not be written, it cannot be written without pointing to the singularly important influence of Richard Land in terms of transforming the social and moral witness of the world’s largest evangelical denomination,” Mohler said. “The influence of Richard Land now extends to every church in our denomination. It extends to the hallways of Congress, to the corridors of power and also to the hearts of Christ’s people who’ve been touched by his prophetic teachings and witness on issues ranging from the sanctity and dignity of human life, to the integrity of marriage, to the issues of justice and righteousness throughout the land.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’s staff writer.)