The battle over a proposed sale of American evangelism’s ‘Missions Pentagon’ raises questions of missionary strategy and nonprofit accountability. What responsibility do ministries have to their founder’s vision—and to those who sacrificed to fund it?
Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the host of The Briefing (a brilliant daily podcast), and the author of a half-dozen apologetic books.
What was it like growing up in Lakeland, Fla., spring training home of the Detroit Tigers? I grew up in an ideal middle-class Christian home—loving mother and father. We were not at all wealthy, but as a kid I didn’t know that. I went to a wonderful, happy church. I never went to anything but a public school from the first grade to the 12th grade, and in those early years that public school was an extension of home and an extension of church. How privileged I was to have known that world, because it no longer exists.
You were a free-range child? My parents knew it was completely safe to let me loose on the world as a 10- or 11- or 12-year-old. That changed when I was a teenager when we moved from Lakeland to Fort Lauderdale, wrenched out of a world that looked like a picture postcard of safety and thrown into a very different world. Suddenly I had an eighth-grade history teacher who declared himself to be an atheist. I did not have good answers. That panicked me. But by God’s grace I ended up in some places and in some relationships where incredible Christian intellectual strength was poured into me.
What were those places and those relationships? I ended up talking to a freshly minted graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary. He was ready for a 15-year-old to show up panicked, and he introduced me to his senior pastor who became a life-long friend, Jim Kennedy, at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Through Dr. Kennedy came the great influence of Francis Schaeffer in my life.
Did you go to that Presbyterian church? No, I was and am a Baptist.
I wasn’t suggesting possible heresy. I’ll simply say that I am very Reformed in my theology, as were the Baptist founders of our school and of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m a Baptist with a capital B. Baptists and Presbyterians, alike Orthodox in the faith, may be the last people to have an honest disagreement about what to do with the baby—but we do so out of theological respect and we share a theological heritage.
You become president of the flagship seminary of Southern Baptists at age 33. Were you amazed by that? I don’t think any sane person would expect that. It’s explicable under a very narrow set of circumstances: The Southern Baptist Convention—almost alone in the life of major denominations—was going through an incredible period of conservative resurgence. When the conservatives did get control, they wanted to make it count. When they asked me in the search process what I would do, I told them what I would do. They evidently wanted that done.
‘Nearly the entire faculty of one of the largest theological institutions on the planet was replaced within a four- to five-year period.’
You told them you would change the faculty? I said you cannot bring reformation and leave everything in place. You need a clear understanding of the confessional identity of the school and you have to make it stick. Institutions drift left. That is the Genesis 3 reality. If truth is the principle, then you can’t accept 45 percent heresy as a way to get to 35 percent heresy. If a confession states the truth of what we expect, every professor signs to teach in accordance with it.
So you purged the theological liberals. Do you accept that verb? That isn’t the word I would choose, but it is accurate. Nearly the entire faculty of one of the largest theological institutions on the planet was replaced within a four- to five-year period.
That’s a rare (by you) use of the passive. You replaced them. Yes. I replaced them. I own that as my responsibility. That’s why I was hired. That’s what I did.
Did they have tenure? They did. It is a horrible misconception that tenure itself is the problem. Will is the problem. The tenure policy at Southern said that persons could be removed for teaching what was not in accordance with the confession of faith. That required a heresy trial, due process, all kinds of documentation, and an adversarial hearing, like a court proceeding. It turned out that not one of the faculty members was willing to endure that.
Zero? We came right up to the threshold more than once, but those faculty members recognized, because trustees were the majority of the jury, that they didn’t have a chance. With the truth on your side, you’ve got a lot of confidence. If you are teaching in accordance with and not contrary to the confession of faith, then you’re fine. But if you’re teaching contrary to the confession of faith, that is all that is necessary to eliminate tenure, so they resigned.
It took guts to do what you did. Even with the trustees backing you, you knew you would be called a merciless dictator. Yeah, the verdict is already out there coming from the academic left. And I’m so thankful that the board of trustees was behind me. I could not have done this without my wife, Mary, who was as committed to this as was I. She was with me all the way, so I was not alone. But it is true that we were alone.
How do you view the wider culture war now? A lot of people have backed off of it. The problem is the issues are still there and, if anything, the issues are more stark. The culture war isn’t over because there was some kind of truce. If it is over, it is because the secular left is in control of even more of the culture.
What have we learned from losses? Some Christians were too belligerent and were not framing good arguments. Some of the things that were done in the name of the culture war are things that we should repent of. Some of the tactical approach undertaken by cultural conservatives and Christians in this country is going to change. But in terms of standing for what we believe to be true—not just because we believe it to be true but because as Christians we believe that is what leads to human flourishing—we have no option to back off of those.