Al Mohler, Indianapolis, the SBC presidency
“It was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
The conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has produced remarkable results since 1979. The issue over the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture is settled. Our seminaries are experiencing record enrollment and are thoroughly conservative theologically. The SBC has the largest number of missionaries in the field in its history and the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings have enjoyed record giving in recent years. The Cooperative Program remains perhaps the greatest missions-giving apparatus in Christianity.
For all of these successes, something still doesn’t seem quite right. Now that “The Battle for the Bible” has been won, the once smooth-running conservative juggernaut seems to be wobbling a bit. Apathy has set in, evidenced by the declining number of messengers attending SBC meetings. Not only are Southern Baptists not attending, they in large part are not even participating if they do attend. Consider the lamentable number of messengers who did not vote (about 65 percent) in the election for first vice president at the SBC’s just completed annual meeting in San Antonio.
Meanwhile, too many in the SBC seem to talk out of both sides of their mouths, spouting the conservative line on one side while kowtowing to lingering moderate influences – that still exist in some state conventions and associations – with the other. Strife seems to be on the rise. Some people are crying out for a statesman to bring it all to an end. The name of Adrian Rogers is invoked, followed by sighs and then looks of dejection.
Other signs point to trouble: Suddenly alcohol consumption, charismatic speaking in tongues, the Emerging Church Movement, pop psychology and variants of existential philosophy seem to be creeping into SBC life. Fewer pastors are preaching on sin from the pulpit for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Felt needs are now discussed, where once only the need of a Savior, King Jesus, dominated. Warring factions have broken out in some state conventions and scandal seems to lurk around every corner. Some young Southern Baptists are in rebellion, declaring their skepticism about the usefulness of denominations while removing the name “Baptist” from the church sign and doing what is right in their own eyes. This is not what the conservative resurgence was intended to produce.
To paraphrase what President Ronald Reagan once said at the height of the Cold War, let us honor those who have given their lives for the freedom we enjoy, but let us also not forget those who faithfully stand their post, exercising vigilance and protecting that which we have won at such a high cost (emphasis is mine). If the SBC is to avoid falling back into the abyss of creeping theological liberalism, then it will take courageous and faithful leaders to obey Jude 3 and practice the second part of what Reagan said. Such a leader is R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
There was a time in the SBC’s history, the pre-liberal period, that the denomination would routinely look to the president of its flagship seminary for leadership. It was not uncommon at all for the Southern Seminary president to be elected SBC president. In fact, it was expected, with men like James Petigru Boyce, E.Y. Mullins and John Sampey being elected. The election of Southern presidents ended when more liberal-thinking presidents ruled Southern, but that time has passed and the denomination would do well to look to Southern once again.
It could be argued that Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Francis Schaeffer, W.A. Criswell and Carl F. H. Henry were the most important evangelical figures of the 20th century. Mohler, 47, appears on his way to a similar standing at the dawning of the 21st century. He has often acknowledged that the brilliant Schaeffer and the prolific Henry have had an enormous impact on his ministry. It was most appropriate for Mohler to receive a pair of Criswell’s cufflinks while being honored at the June 13 Criswell College luncheon at the SBC’s annual meeting in San Antonio. Criswell, a Southern alum, would no doubt grin with approval at how Mohler engages postmodern culture, with its philosophical contradictions, moral relativism and extreme skepticism.
Consider Mohler’s words on the cultural engagement issue: “In every generation, the church is commanded to ‘contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.’ That is no easy task, and it is complicated by the multiple attacks upon Christian truth that mark our contemporary age. Assaults upon the Christian faith are no longer directed only at isolated doctrines. The entire structure of Christian truth is now under attack by those who would subvert Christianity’s theological integrity.
“Today’s Christian faces the daunting task of strategizing which Christian doctrines and theological issues are to be given highest priority in terms of our contemporary context. This applies both to the public defense of Christianity in face of the secular challenge and the internal responsibility of dealing with doctrinal disagreements … .”
As evidenced by him answering the call to be Southern’s president, Mohler has always responded positively when called upon for denominational service from fellow Southern Baptists. He has served in several offices including a term as chairman of the SBC Committee on Resolutions, which is responsible for the denomination’s official statements on moral and doctrinal issues. He also served on the seven-person Program and Structure Study Committee, which recommended the 1995 restructuring of the SBC. In 2000, Mohler served on a blue-ribbon panel that made recommendations to the Southern Baptist Convention for revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message. He currently serves as chairman of the SBC’s Council of Seminary Presidents.
Mohler has the backbone to serve as SBC president. When he became the ninth president of Southern Seminary in 1993, the school was a liberal bastion. He was greeted with disdain by a liberal faculty and student body, who once hung Mohler in effigy outside the seminary chapel while he preached! Feminists angrily staged a sit-in outside the office where trustees were meeting. Mohler responded by buying pizza for the protesters. He and his family endured prank phone calls, bomb threats and fireworks being shot over their home in the wee hours of the morning. Yet he was undeterred, displaying graciousness to those who ridiculed him (including the Louisville news media) while making the necessary changes.
I had an opportunity to worship at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a few years ago. Following the service I had a brief chat with the senior pastor, Dr. D. James Kennedy. When I mentioned that I was a Ph. D. student at Southern, he quipped, “Ah yes. Southern Seminary. Al Mohler, the man who threw out the moneychangers.”
God has blessed Mohler’s ministry. Southern has become the largest seminary in the world and is highly regarded for its academic excellence. Mohler may well be the most recognizable Southern Baptist in the world and is certainly regarded as one of the most eloquent speakers. Time.com even called him the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.” The Chicago Tribune called him “an articulate voice for conservative Christianity at large.” The seemingly ubiquitous Mohler is frequently quoted in many of the nation’s major newspapers and he appears often on such national news programs as CNN’s “Larry King Live,” NBC’s “Today Show,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Mohler’s courage, graciousness and intelligence is perhaps surpassed only by his humility. He recently had a close encounter with death after blood clots formed following surgery to remove scar tissue from his intestines. He chose to make his thoughts about the experience public and the result is one of the finest, certainly the most personal, articles he has ever written.
“We really are made of dust,” he wrote. “We are weak and vulnerable creatures who remain dependent from the moment we are born until the moment we die. We are made of frail stuff – skin and bones and organs and tissues. A decade ago I was seriously threatened by a microscopic entity – the flesh-eating bacterium. Necrotizing Fasciitis is a horrible and deadly disease, but God was merciful in allowing me to escape after five days in the hospital. I have never seen the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria (not even through a microscope), but it came with intent to kill. We can be turned back to dust by microscopic enemies – and yet we feel ourselves to be so strong and self-sufficient. Until, that is, we find we are not.”
He also wrote this: “I’m very, very thankful that I’m here with you today. It’s all of the Lord’s mercy, and I am very knowledgeable of that. I also know there will come a medical crisis I will not survive, and it will come for you as well. So we better decide what we’re going to do in the meantime. And in weakness and in fear and with much trembling, we had better preach the cross.”
Indeed he has – while being a faithful, loving husband and father to his wife, Mary, and their two children, Katie and Chris.
I am biased. This article has nothing to do with any particular issue or person. The SBC is blessed with many fine leaders, but only one – Mohler – was my systematic theology professor when I attended Southern, so I can testify to the fact that he is a world-class scholar. His opening lecture for the “Contemporary Issues in Theology” class that I took rates, in my mind, as the greatest single lecture I have ever heard. Just because I am biased does not render what I say any less true.
Mohler’s intellect is matched by a dry wit of which many are unaware. He once opened one of my theology classes with a sudden impersonation of a certain charismatic TV preacher. Everyone else on the campus heard the echo of us roaring with laughter that autumn Friday morning.
In the past, the SBC has looked to the president of Southern Seminary for leadership. That time may have come again. I urge Mohler over the next several months to pray, asking God if it is His will that he run for SBC president in Indianapolis. I will be praying, too. Will you join me?