Don’t blame Al Mohler, it was all God’s idea

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James Petigru Boyce in Confederate uniform

By Alan Bean

It is hard to believe that two full decades have passed since R. Albert Mohler ascended to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  To celebrate this momentous occasion, the seminary has produced a twenty-five minute documentary documenting the heroic stand Dr. Mohler took against the progressives and liberals who controlled the seminary prior to his arrival.

Earlier this morning I posted a video by Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian storyteller.  It’s a TED talk delivered in Oxford, England.  Adichie says that when we limit ourselves to one story about a person or a people, no matter how well-researched and compelling, we are bound to get almost everything wrong.  The truth emerges from many stories; one story, taken alone, will always be a lie.

Southern Seminary’s celebratory documentary is, without apology, a single story.  It is not surprising that none of the “progressive” or “liberal” professors who once marred the heritage of James Petigru Boyce, the seminary’s founder, were asked to comment.  The only representatives from this apostate assemblage are Dianna Garland and Molly Marshall, the only women who appear in the documentary.  Dr. Mohler, we are told, courageously forced these women to resign their teaching positions in the face of overwhelming outrage.

The documentary doesn’t obscure the fact that nobody supported the president’s draconian behavior.  Louisville’s Courier-Journal took editorial exception to Mohler’s tactics. The student body and all but four professors were adamantly opposed.  Virtually no one associated with the pedagogical process at the school agreed with Al Mohler, and yet he stuck to his guns.

What is a seminary?  The flesh and blood people who currently walk the halls, offices and classrooms, or the tiny band of slavery-endorsing Confederate Calvinists who founded the school in 1859?  According to the documentary, the answer is neither.  The seminary is defined by the Abstract of Principles penned by Basil Manly Jr., who combined bits and pieces from a number of Baptist confessions into a single document.

Professors Garland and Marshall signed the Abstract in good faith.  They interpreted the document in one way; Dr. Mohler interpreted it very differently.  Mohler’s interpretation prevailed because he had the support of the conservative movement and they didn’t.  It was a simple matter of power politics.  Many stories were reduced to a single narrative by brute force and the seminary was saved.

The documentary doesn’t trouble itself with the fact that almost half of the folks voting at the the annual convention showdowns opposed the spirit of the conservative movement.  It didn’t matter.  A tiny majority supported the movement, and that was all that mattered.

I wonder if the folks who produced this bit of hagiography are troubled by the fact that every single person featured in the piece is a white male?  I doubt it.  They could have lined up a conservative female student who attended Southern in 1993 and supported Dr. Mohler’s ascendancy.  There must have been at least one–Southern had 3,000 students at the time.

But that’s just the problem.  Women aren’t supposed to attend seminaries designed prepare men for pastoral ministry.  Any female student studying at Southern in 1993 must, in retrospect, be viewed as a child of darkness.

The producers could have interviewed a seminary secretary, I suppose, but who cares what secretaries think?  The folks featured in the film are heavy hitters, men of substance, great minds.

If you asked Al Mohler, or any of the long list of while male worthies appearing in this documentary, why they don’t believe women should serve in positions of ministry or hold authority over men in any ecclesiastical capacity, they would tell you it doesn’t matter how they feel or what they think. They don’t personally have a problem with women; God has a problem with women.  He says so in His inerrant word.

If you could travel back in time and ask James Petigru Boyce why he wore the uniform of an army dedicated to maintaining the institution of slavery and the principle of white supremacy, he would likely say much the same thing.  It wasn’t a matter of whether the founders of Southern Seminary believed Negroes were inferior to Caucasians and thus fit only for the status of chattel property.  The founders didn’t create black people as an inferior species; God did that.  He said so in the same inerrant Word that, in the opinion of virtually every gentleman theologian working in the Southern states in the mid nineteenth century, celebrated slavery as the revealed will of God.

I have long argued that a preference for reading the Bible literally became popular in the South because it allowed theologians to trump the radically inclusive teaching of Jesus with select quotes from the Apostle Paul and the Old Testament.  If you start with Jesus you will never end with slavery or the systematic exclusion of women.  So you start with the handful of passages that appear to sanction your pet prejudices and then argue that, because the Bible speaks with a single voice, Jesus must have endorsed the virtue of slavery (in the nineteenth century) or the systematic humiliation of women (late twentieth century).  What’s good enough for the father must be good enough for the son.

A young Al Mohler with Billy Graham

What happens when the Christian faith is reduced to a single story?  In the mid-nineteenth century you get slavish support for the institution of slavery?  In the early twenty-first century, you get an all-white, all-male institution preparing pastors for leadership in all-white, male-led congregations.

If the men and women who taught at Southern Seminary when I was  student there were liberal in any sense, it was only because Jesus was telling them to grow beyond a rigid orthodoxy that relegated women to secondary status and a religious tradition that condemned the civil rights movement as thinly-disguised communism.

These folks loved the South, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the heritage of Southern Seminary; but their primary allegiance was to Jesus Christ.

I was surprised to discover that the documentary freely admits that Al Mohler had been dreaming of being president of Southern Seminary for at least a decade when, at the tender age of 33, his dream was suddenly realized.  The story of Al calling up his pal, Danny Akin, at an ungodly hour to share the exciting news that the trustees had offered him the big job is more-than-just-a-little embarrassing.  When young leaders are thrust into positions of great responsibility, aren’t they supposed to be humbled and awed by the enormity of the task them?

According to the documentary, Al Mohler was thrilled to death to have be chosen “for such a time as this” because God, long before the foundations of the earth were laid, had preordained that it should be thus.  (Yes, it actually says that.)  Who is Al Mohler to argue with a God who ordains slavery, relegates women to the kitchen, and chooses thirty-something neophytes to lead a time-honored institution?

That said, we can only marvel at the marvels Al Mohler has wrought.  He has survived his critics.  He has evolved into the intellectual voice of conservative evangelicalism.  And it won’t be long before he will be celebrated as the elder statesman of the New Calvinism he now champions.

It’s always nice to see a boy chase his dreams and catch them . . . even if he has to ruin a few hundred careers to make it happen.  Remember, it wasn’t Al’s idea.

30 thoughts on “Don’t blame Al Mohler, it was all God’s idea

  1. So, what’s the problem with women pastors? My wife was raised in a small neighborhood church with a woman pastor. The church once had a male pastor, but he couldn’t cut it and wimped out. Finally the denomination decided to close the church because no man would accept the pastorate. That’s when two women stepped forth and volunteered to keep it open. In time one of the women became the church’s pastor. The other became the Sunday School superintendent. Under their ministry the church grew leaps and bounds.

    It was there I met the cute young piano player who became my wife. Together we became pastors of several churches for many years. I was eventually called to be an executive officer of our denomination and, finally, president of a Bible college. Don’t knock women pastors! By the way, have you noticed that some religious denominations have a hard time finding men to go to those hard missionary fields, but they will gladly accept women to go and teach men and boys about Christ and the gospel. Go figure!

  2. Fascinating. Thank you for this. I’m not only taken by what you’ve said about women, as I feel the same way, but I also find the seminary takeover really interesting. I’ve been part of a Christian organization when that sort of thing happened. A “cleansing” by a young fella with stars in his eyes and a really big agenda in his pocket. (And no respect for the work that was in progress.) It’s rather revolting, actually, but I find myself curious about the psychology of a person who can do that sort of thing to others. Force people out of jobs and completely change the trajectory of an institution (although in Mohler’s case it sounds like he was just returning it to its formerly ignorant state). I’m sure a lot of people were wounded in that war. It’s sad, really. Sadder still that they find it something to celebrate.

  3. Al Mohler ruined more than careers. He ruined the Baptist denomination. Thanks to him they now detest, despise, and mock the teachings of Jesus.

  4. Thanks for this frank assessment. The lack of opposition to this heavy-handed type of leadership has always bothered me. Those who would like to know more specifics of just how political the changes in the SBC camp were should read Joe and Audra Trull’s book, Putting Women in Their Place. The book details with dates and names the stories of people at seminaries and churches who were essentially forced out for not agreeing with hardline views. Lottie Moon must be rolling over in her grave! (metaphorically, of course!) http://www.helwys.com/books/trull.html

  5. This is a sad post, but very true. Being from UK I am less familiar with Al Mohler, but I’m very familiar with the sentiments expressed. Middleaged white men can’t be the only people who have the wisdom to run the world, even their own little worlds. But they times, they are a’changing… because of people like you who are determined to see it happen, just as legal slavery was overturned. Thanks Alan.

  6. I find this article to be on the verge of slanderous. I’m not a big fan of Mohler, I believe in women ordination, and support dialogue with other positions. However, I worked at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi under Ligon Duncan, Mohler’s good friend. I had to chance to meet Mohler a few times, and Duncan and Mohler were pretty similar in their beliefs an praxis, (Duncan is currently chancellor of RTS). That said, Mohler did not, nor does not, believe in the subjugation or humiliation of women. He takes a complementarian position, which seeks to honor women’s equality and function, but disagrees with egalitarians with respect to role and differentiation of gender. However, this difference doesn’t make them “anti-women.” My own wife is complementarian, which makes for a humorous debate in our marriage, and she finds the position as respectful for her desire to serve. I find your argument similar to the argument that says, “If you believe in traditional marriage, you’re anti-gay.” Both are poor arguments.

    Also, Mohler is also not a racist. When Duncan was pastor of FPC Jackson, he had the arduous task of changing it’s subtle and historic ‘racist’ tendencies, (we students often described him as turning the Titanic). However, Duncan never let up on the issue, and by the time I left, there were several African-American members in the choir, joining Sunday School, and becoming members. Who was Duncan’s main inspiration for this? Al Mohler.

    I think you need to get your facts straight before misrepresenting other image bearers, friend: that’s the liberal view. He may have been too aggressive for kicking people out, o.k., stick with that; but why accuse straw men and use your single story on all complementarians as the prima facie of racist, bigots, and anti-women? Who’s struck with their story here? In this case, not Al Mohler.

  7. Thank you for sharing your concerns,Peter. I did not intend to imply that Al Mohler, as an individual, desires to humiliate women, and I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that he is personally a racist. My point is that the “complementarian” view has the practical effect of humiliating and subjugating women. Women who meekly accept their subordinate and restricted role are not inconvenienced in the least; but women like Dianna Garland and Molly Marshall are cast into the outer darkness where women (but never men) shall weep and gnash their teeth. Nothing personal, ladies, that’s just the way it’s got to be.

    Al Mohler, the individual, is not a racist. In fact, he helped organize the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1995 apology to African Americans for racism. My point is that the men who gave us the Abstract of Principles were racists in the strict sense that, like virtually all Southern Baptist pastors of the period, they taught that slavery was divinely ordained and that African Americans were an inferior species. Basil Manly Sr., the father of the man who concocted the Abstract, served as a leading Confederate chaplain and, according to Wikipedia, “On February 18, 1861, in Montgomery, Alabama, serving as chaplain for the provisional Congress of the Confederate States, Basil commenced the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as the President of the Confederate States of America, with a prayer.”

    But my intention was not to sully the reputations of the founders of Southern Seminary. They were very courageous men who kept a fledgling institution alive against incredible odds. But they defended slavery and their literal hermeneutic was created largely for this purpose. Mohler and company argue that God, as the author of an inerrant Bible, ordained that women should not have leadership roles in the church and that, as a consequence, the only way to honor God is to send the women preachers and professors packing. This argument works very effectively for the evangelical tribe in the South; but the practical consequences have been horrific, especially for women. The end result, as I argued in my post, is a denomination dominated by white men joined at the hip to a political party that has tied its wagon to the star of white male resentment. A successful formula in the short-term; but the long-term consequences will be harrowing.

  8. I was a doctoral student at SBTS when the events described in the documentary were unfolding in real time. Many PhD students had studied with Al Mohler and knew him quite well. Initially, Mohler favored the ordination of women and appeared to have no deep-seated problems with the faculty. All that changed, I was told, when it became clear that the fundamentalists were going to win the Battle for the Bible in the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m not sure when Dr. Mohler first decided that he wanted to be (or God wanted him to be) seminary president, but it gradually became clear that if this was going to happen, in the immediate future, or decades down the road, Al Mohler needed to embrace fundamentalism. When he became president much earlier than anyone had supposed, he knew what he had to do, and he did it. As the documentary suggests, this was a deeply painful process for both Al and his wife, but there was no practical alternative. The men who placed Al at the helm expected him to clean house and that’s what he did.

    The deeper question is whether Al’s conversion to fundamentalism was cynical or genuine. I’m not sure this is the right question. The over-riding factor in this equation was personal ambition linked to a strong sense of divine appointment. I don’t think Mohler loses sleep at night over his low-down dirty ways. He is likely convinced, as is his loving wife, that his actions were godly, necessary and unavoidable.

  9. “I wonder if the folks who produced this bit of hagiography are troubled by the fact that every single person featured in the piece is a white male? I doubt it. They could have lined up a conservative female student who attended Southern in 1993 and supported Dr. Mohler’s ascendancy. There must have been at least one–Southern had 3,000 students at the time.

    But that’s just the problem. Women aren’t supposed to attend seminaries designed prepare men for pastoral ministry. Any female student studying at Southern in 1993 must, in retrospect, be viewed as a child of darkness.”

    I think that the male supremacism of the New Calvinists is far from being the main problem:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/naked-calvinism-motivation-and-methodology/

    I would be extremely glad to learn your thoughts on that.

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

  10. My goodness Mr. Bean —

    It seems to me that Peter’s words ring true as I read your acidic words here. The Apostles words seem appropriate — “your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent of this your wickedness, and pray to God, if perhaps the thoughts of your heart may be forgiven you. For I perceive that you are in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.”

    Prayers for you, Sir.

  11. Interesting that Scripture is rarely referenced in the arguments above. It’s all anecdotal once again.

  12. I entered Southern in January 1993 and was there when Mohler arrived in the fall. As a forty-something student I was shocked at the callousness and rapidity of Mohler’s (and we can let the trustees of the hook) actions. In the midst of the turmoil, I remember going to my campus mail box and opening a letter, written by Mohler, sent to the entire seminary community. The gist of the letter was, “Sit down, shut up, I’m in charge and if you don’t like it then leave.” As a cradle roll Southern Baptist whose parents had been supporters of the Cooperative Program for many years, I was angered and saddened by the arrogance and uncooperative attitude and spirit of Mohler and his minions. After receiving that letter, I disconnected from the seminary community and focused only on the credits I needed to get my M.Div.
    During my stay in Louisville I attended St. Matthews church. There I witnessed first hand the real human costs of Mohlerism. There were several seminary professors who were members at St. Matthews. Each one of them – and their families – were carrying the wounds of the battle. My Sunday School teachers at the time were a wife and husband team, both on the faculty at Southern. She was a tenured professor and he was not. They were forced out of the seminary when he was denied tenure as a way of getting rid of his tenured wife. It was indeed sad time but not with out lessons. My biggest take away from that sad and tumultuous time is my unwavering belief that the starting point for all Christian thought and theology has to be the initiating, all encompassing, never ending love of God. If the conversation starts anywhere else it is easy to end up destroying relationships and the lives of real people in the name of True Religion.
    By the way, I was in attendance the night the above picture was taken with Billy Graham and Mohler. I have always thought It was quite ironic the that “For such a time as this” was chosen as the theme for Mohler’s ascendancy to to the presidency at Southern. A scripture reference that challenges a women to be who God had called to be was used to crown a man who disdains everything such a woman would be doing in the 21st century.

  13. If I am not mistaken, this same time period is about the time the SBC wanted to force the WMU to come under absolute authority and control of the SBC rather than keeps its autonomy. The women fought hard to keep their Independence and rightly so. For 125 years Southern Baptist Women have turned a deaf ear to the politics and rhetoric of the men and their egos and have worked feverishly to feed the hungry, provide medical care to the sick, reach the lost for Christ and YES WE ARE THE ONES providing Vacation Bible School year after year after year to the children, because men AREN’T and WON’T stoop to getting THEIR hands dirty messing with little children! That’s women’s work!!!! Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong gave their lives reaching the lost for Christ. Lottie Moon, literally gave her life serving the Chinese. Men, like Mohler, can talk it, but the women he and many others would love to see walking two steps behind are busy doing the walk of the word. Too bad Mohler doesn’t know the truth of the Word. When a Jewish man prays, “Thank you HaShem that you did not make me a woman.” is not a slam against women, it is saying that women are more spiritual than men and don’t have to do as many mitvah’s as men. Thanking God for making them a man means they must work harder at reaching God, thus they must spend more time with God and I quote from an Orthodox Jewish website for reference: “Can you tell me about the traditional roles for men and women in Judaism?” I asked him last December. “You want to know how men and women should be?” he began. “All the answers are in the Torah.” Then he proceeded to tell me about the great Biblical matriarchs and the exalted position of women in Judaism. “Women are more spiritual than men,” he said, to my astonishment. They naturally have a closer connection to G-d. Men need to be reminded to pray. That’s why they have to come to the synagogue. Women can pray by themselves because they pray deeper. And you know, it is said that when the Messiah comes, men will be raised to the spiritual level of women.” http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/385355/jewish/The-Back-of-the-Synagogue-is-Not-the-Back-of-the-Bus.htm So you can see that we have misinterpreted scripture all along! I would love to expound on all the other scripture we have misinterpreted also, but time will not allow!!!! but you can follow my blog to find out more at: hannahrachellucretia.blogspot.com or follow the teachings of my Rabbi at: http://www.pastorsclass.faithweb.com ENJOY! you will be blown away!

  14. Thank you for this article, which is a fair and honest portrayal of the demise of a once wonderful school. Dr. Mohler received his PhD the same year I received my MDiv, 1989. Four years later (after serving as the editor of a state Baptist newspaper), he is the President of the seminary? Come on, his only qualifications for the post were political. He decided to cast his lot with the fundamentalists, and the Presidency was his reward for being a reliable soldier.

  15. Dan Davis, I believe from your description of your Sunday School teachers that you are referring to Pam and Charlie Scalise. You will be glad to know that they landed on their feet at Fuller Seminary Northwest as professors and at Good Shepherd Baptist Church outside Seattle as members. In both places, they are valued and beloved.

  16. You write: “Women are more spiritual than men,” he said, to my astonishment. They naturally have a closer connection to G-d. Men need to be reminded to pray. That’s why they have to come to the synagogue. Women can pray by themselves because they pray deeper. And you know, it is said that when the Messiah comes, men will be raised to the spiritual level of women.”

    So your answer to Mohler’s supposed male supremacism is this bit of female supremacism. As a spiritual man, I find the above quote insulting and deeply troubling. I truly believe that women are no more spiritual than men are. Statistically, women might have a greater predilection to adhering to the practices of organized religion, but such is not one and the same as spirituality.

  17. The Confederate Army was not dedicated to ” maintaining the institution of slavery and the principle of white supremacy” . It was dedicated to the sovereignty of the states over a federal government. ” If you could travel back in time and ask James Petigru Boyce why he wore the uniform” of the Confederacy, I think that he would tell you that he believed in States Rights, but then I never have talked to Mr. Boyce personally, so I can’t really say. Then again, you never actually spoke to him either. How about we stick to the facts? If the Union was dedicated to abolishing slavery, Abe Lincoln should have issued the Emancipation Proclamation for ALL states, for the Northern States, as well as the Confederacy, but it was not. I am amazed at the way The War of Northern Aggression is today repeatedly misused. It doesn’t have a thing to do with the topic discussed here, yet false “facts” are perpetrated by people who are pitching fits because they were mistreated. One sin does not require another sin, it requires forgiveness.

  18. The Confederate Army was not dedicated to ” maintaining the institution of slavery and the principle of white supremacy”. It was dedicated to maintaining the sovereignty of the states over an increasingly growing federal government. “If you could travel back in time and ask James Petigru Boyce why he wore the uniform” of the Confederacy, I think that he would tell you that he believed in States Rights, but then I never have talked to Mr. Boyce personally, so I can’t really say. Then again, you never actually spoke to him either. How about we stick to the facts? If the Union was dedicated to abolishing slavery, Abe Lincoln should have issued the Emancipation Proclamation for ALL states, for the Northern States, as well as the Confederacy, but it was not. I am amazed at the way The War of Northern Aggression is today repeatedly misused. It doesn’t have a thing to do with the topic discussed here, yet false “facts” are perpetrated by people who are pitching fits because they were mistreated. One sin does not require another sin, it requires forgiveness.

  19. As one who narrowly escaped the Mohler years, I am pleased to have the name of Roy Honeycutt on my SBTS diploma. This insightful essay is roughly reason 317 that my family and I are no longer Southern Baptists.

  20. I am sorry, but there is another pt of view here, a scholarly one, by James Loewen, co-editor of “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The ‘Great Truth’ about the ‘Lost Cause'” (University Press of Mississippi, 2010).
    “In fact, Loewen said, the original documents of the Confederacy show quite clearly that the war was based on one thing: slavery. For example, in its declaration of secession, Mississippi explained, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world … a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”….

    In its justification of secession, Texas sums up its view of a union built upon slavery: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

    “The myth that the war was not about slavery seems to be a self-protective one for many people, said Stan Deaton, the senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society……

  21. Your comments have touched one possible reason, not to say the only possible reason, why God might appoint men, and only men, as pastors. Simply put, men respond to the leadership of men only. Women, however, will respond to the leadership of either sex. It has nothing to do with worldly claims of “superiority” or “inferiority.”

  22. It’s ridiculous to say that men respond to the leadership of men only – what research do you have to back that statement up? Thank goodness that was not true of men in our government today, who readily concede that it was the leadership of women that ended the shutdown. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/16/shutdown-women_n_4110268.html. Thank goodness it is not true of most of the men I know, who serve under women denominational leaders, women pastors, and women leaders of Christian universities, NGO’s, and other ministries, and testify to their effectiveness. Thank goodness it was not true of men like King Josiah and his advisors who went to the female prophet Huldah for advice rather than her male contemporaries.

    The top four leadership attributes executives value most for success today—intellectual stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision-making, and setting expectations/rewards—are more commonly found among women leaders, and companies with three or more women on executive committees or boards scored higher on nine metrics of organizational effectiveness than their peers. (http://www.mckinsey.com/features/women_matter)

    When God said “it is not good for the man to be alone” he didn’t just mean in marriage. I believe it applies to the mutual mandate given to both Adam and Eve to rule over the earth.

    Why do we insist on limiting God or his people?

  23. A transcription of events can only be countered with a contradictory transcription of events. What happened at the SBTS was a series of events, no matter what inspired them. Did they happen, or did they not happen? Personal stories, and Reason, look to be more informative tool sets. Right?

  24. I’ll have to remind my numerous, capable female managers in my past of this (to give them a big hearty laugh, if anything). And if you aren’t managed by a female today, when you likely will be in the future, please explain your viewpoint. Actually, do this in the middle of a team meeting. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

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