At age 15, R. Albert Mohler Jr. had a crisis of faith. Two years earlier, his family had moved from the conservative idyll of Lakeland, Florida, to the other end of the world: Pompano Beach, 200 miles south, where Christian faith was by no means universal and the fleshpots of Miami beckoned. In Lakeland, life had revolved around Southside Baptist Church, a traditional congregation that treasured its "tall steeple, pipe organ, and things done decently and in order," says Mohler.
He entered the church rolls while still in the womb, as "Baby Mohler," and later joined every age-appropriate church activity, from the Royal Ambassadors to summer camp at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center. "It was an intact culture, so the messages I was receiving at home and church were the same messages I was receiving in public school," he says, "and I just considered that's the way the world was and always would be." In Pompano Beach, torn from everything he knew, Mohler found himself in class sitting next to the children of rabbis and Roman Catholics, the high-school honors curriculum stirring in his mind the biggest questions of existence.
The curious teen's youth pastor offered the diversions of his megachurch's bowling alley and gymnasium, but had no answers to his questions. He took the boy to meet the minister of a fast-growing congregation down the highway in Fort Lauderdale: Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. D. James Kennedy listened to Mohler and knew just the antidote to his anxieties. Francis Schaeffer's He is Not Silent "had an absolutely determinative impact on my life as a young teenager," Mohler says. "Not that I understood everything that Schaeffer was saying, but it came with incredible assurance that there were legitimate Christian answers to these questions." Schaeffer became a hero; Kennedy, a lifelong mentor. At 15, Mohler was already a friend of culture warriors and a citizen of the wider evangelical world—yet still a born-and-bred member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), where the culture wars seemed remote and evangelical was a "Yankee word."
Thirty-six years later, Mohler is the president of the SBC's flagship school—the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville—and the most prominent public intellectual in the convention. In recent years, his influence has spread beyond Southern Baptist circles. He blogs for The Washington Post's On Faith religion column (not to mention his own blog) and has appeared multiple times on Larry King Live. Until this July, he reached listeners across the country five days a week on a syndicated radio program (he gave up the show to free up time for writing books and longer-form podcasts). Time magazine has turned to Mohler for the conservative evangelical perspective on issues ranging from evolution to Christian missions in Iraq, calling him the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S."
After nearly 20 years at the helm of Southern Seminary, Mohler has put the finishing touches on what supporters call the "conservative resurgence" and critics bemoan as the "fundamentalist takeover": the radical shift of SBC leadership from the moderate, even mainline-inclined theology of the 1970s to today's firm grounding in biblical inerrancy, a complementarian view of gender roles, and, more often than not, conservative politics. Before Mohler's appointment, Southern faculty celebrated higher biblical criticism and embraced evolutionary theory. Now the school is a bulwark of conservative Reformed theology and creationism. The campus of lush trees and neocolonial architecture is the staging ground for a struggle against a mainstream culture that Mohler believes is sliding into moral chaos—and against "postmodern Christians," the enemy within.
To Mohler—who eschews the "culture warrior" label for its political connotations—these battles require not so much reformation in Washington as renewal in the church. Despite his modest media empire and efforts to engage a broad audience, Mohler's parachurch enterprises come second to his duties as a denominational man, his aim to unify the SBC and reverse falling baptism rates. He is not the only Southern Baptist worried about the church; nor do all of his fellow believers agree with his theological vision for the denomination. As Southern Baptists struggle to evangelize post-Christian America and rev up missions worldwide, they are finding that the denomination cannot face the future until they agree on what constitutes true Southern Baptist history and identity. Mohler believes Southern Baptists are Reformed thinkers rather than merely pietistic revivalists, citizens of the world rather than the South, and evangelical in the best sense of the word.
Others aren't so sure.
Battle For The Baptist Soul
In 1979, when the SBC's annual meeting elected Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers as president and the conservatives launched their push to take over the denomination's leadership, Mohler was a senior at Samford University in Birmingham. He had only a faint notion of the turmoil engulfing his church. Samford's moderate faculty inculcated students with the view that "there were good guys and bad guys in this denominational conflict, and the good guys were forces of scholarship, academic respectability, and serious theological thought, and the bad guys were recidivist fundamentalists who were seeking to topple the integrity of the Southern Baptist system," Mohler says.
At the time, moderates staffed the SBC's key bureaucratic bodies and the boards of trustees that ran the denomination's schools. Since the late 1960s, conservatives had grumbled that these leaders embraced modern methods of interpreting the Bible, compromised Scripture to accommodate secular culture, and espoused a version of Christianity alien to the Baptist in the pew. They organized fellowships and founded renegade Bible schools years prior to the 1979 election, when they studied the minutiae of SBC electoral rules in order to direct the outcome. Most moderates failed to take conservatives' intentions seriously until it was too late.
The conservative strategy was simple: Elect a conservative as president of the SBC for ten consecutive years, during which time all crucial denominational positions would come due for re-nomination, allowing them to populate all boards, agencies, and trus?teeships with their own kind. Conservatives gained control of nearly all major Southern Baptist bodies by the end of the 1980s. They pressured the moderate president of Southern Seminary, Roy Honeycutt, to crack down on faculty who deviated from the school's founding Abstract of Principles, a document based on the early confessions of English Calvinist Baptists. Honeycutt weathered years of negotiation and compromise between liberal faculty and fire-breathing trustees, finally announcing his retirement in the fall of 1992. After a tense presidential search, the trustees appointed the candidate many considered a long shot: the untested Mohler, then 33.
Some faculty were cautiously optimistic. They had known Mohler when he was a student at Southern, where he wrote his dissertation on evangelical responses to Karl Barth, worked as Honeycutt's personal assistant, and was firmly in the moderate fold. He led student protests in support of women in ministry, and in 1984 lent his signature to a full-page ad in the Louisville Courier-Journal protesting the SBC's recent resolution condemning female ordination. However, those who had followed Mohler's career since then—and read the editorials he wrote as editor of the Georgia Baptist Convention's Christian Index—understood that Mohler had since become an "unquestioned fundamentalist," Jack Harwell, editor of the moderate monthly Baptists Today, told The Courier-Journal.
Mohler admits that his thinking changed. When he arrived at Southern, he adopted his professors' views because he was "raised with a predisposition to trust anything with a Southern Baptist label," he says. He embraced an egalitarian view of gender roles because "I'd never come across a complementarian argument. That was not presented in class."
One day, toward the end of his studies, the Student Evangelical Fellowship invited Carl F. H. Henry to campus. In Mohler's recollection, the faculty disdained Henry as a "northern evangelical"—a term they rarely distinguished from "fundamentalist"—and treated him rudely, making no arrangements for hospitality. They left Henry, a Southern Baptist and a trained theologian with a Ph.D. from Boston University, in Mohler's care.
Strolling the campus grounds, Henry asked Mohler how he justified women's ordination. After Mohler rehearsed the argument he had learned in class, "Dr. Henry looked at me with a look of intellectual shock and asked me how, if I held to the inerrancy of Scripture, I could possibly hold to the egalitarian position. I tried to defend it and discovered that I didn't have much ammunition," Mohler says. "He looked at me … and he said, 'You will, one day, be embarrassed by this conversation.' Well, I was embarrassed by the conversation right then! … In 24 hours, I came to the chilling conclusion that the hermeneutic required for an egalitarian position was incompatible with the inerrancy of Scripture."
Mohler found that Henry's critique of post-war northern evangelicalism helped explain the confusion he detected among Baptists in the South two generations later. Henry also influenced Mohler's attraction to presuppositionalism, a school of apologetics associated with Westminster Theological Seminary scholar Cornelius Van Til. Presuppositionalism is a system of thought that boils down to the slogans advocated by that other prominent presuppositionalist, Francis Schaeffer: There is no such thing as neutrality. Every worldview is predicated on certain founding assumptions, and those of Christianity are incompatible with those undergirding the secular humanist worldview. Studying Barth's effort to mediate between the presuppositions of Christianity and those of secular modernity hardened Mohler's conviction that "mediating between modernity and Christian orthodoxy doesn't work."
After graduation, Mohler's stint covering SBC news at the Christian Index convinced him that the battle between conservatives and moderates was not a matter of politics or personalities but of presuppositions. He saw that "these are two fundamentally different understandings of the Baptist faith, Baptist identity, and the future of the SBC," he says. When he took office at Southern Seminary in 1993, compromise and accommodation were not strategies he had in mind.
Within three years of Mohler's inauguration, Southern Seminary's faculty and administration had turned over almost completely. He asserted control over the seminary's hiring and tenure processes, insisting that even inerrantist evangelicals hired as compromise candidates were unacceptable if they supported women's ordination. "It was like John Grisham's The Firm," says Carey Newman, director of Baylor University Press, who joined Southern's faculty in 1993 but left after five tense years. "Al recruited young lieutenants, students who were spies in the classes who would report back to him what was being said in every classroom."
The seminary's Abstract of Principles did not address women's ordination, but Mohler and the trustees believed that faculty should conform to what they considered the prevailing sentiment among Southern Baptist laypeople. Through a combination of forced resignations and "golden parachute" retirement packages, Mohler purged the School of Theology, closed the School of Social Work, and replaced moderates with inerrantist faculty who agreed with him on abortion, homosexuality, women's ordination, and his brand of Reformed theology. (As proof of the seminary's current "diversity," some faculty protest that they are only four-point Calvinists.)
E. Glenn Hinson, one of the old-guard faculty at Southern, granted that there was some distance between his colleagues and the average layperson, "but all of us could go into a Southern Baptist church with our love for the Bible and, using modern hermeneutical methods, thrill people with what they learned about the Bible," he said. "Most all of us went to help people love the Bible, but without ignoring the tremendous problems of understanding it." Moderates feared that the seminary's metamorphosis would turn Southern into an intellectual backwater.
Mohler has gone to great lengths to counteract this assumption, to nurture a polished, well-read breed of fundamentalism that is a far cry from H. L. Mencken's caricature of the literalist bumpkin. "He knows he's carrying the mantle of Southern Seminary, which has been, at its best, patrician in its appreciation of culture and learning," says J. Ligon Duncan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and a friend of Mohler. Students at Southern are not sawdust-trail Baptists but the smartly dressed sort who can make small talk about literature and art. On a recent weekend for prospective students, future seminarians crowded into Mohler's personal library in the basement of the president's house, goggle-eyed. At the time, Mohler possessed 40,700 catalogued volumes (the number grows every month), some 20,000 of which his student librarians have organized by the Dewey decimal system in rooms arranged by theme ("Church History"; "Biblical Studies"; "Worldview and Culture"; and so on).
The students wandered through each room, pausing to study shelves packed with everything from the ante-Nicene fathers to Andrea Dworkin, one arm around their shivering wives in the climate-controlled chambers. In the Church History room, next to the fireplace displaying framed pages of a medieval Book of Hours, they admired Mohler's shrine to Winston Churchill: portraits of the British Bulldog, shelves of his books, even a program from his funeral.
On the other side of the fireplace are the books and visage of another hero, Charles Spurgeon. Every cranny of the room displays a carefully chosen artifact: elaborate model ships and resin statues of medieval knights astride the tops of bookshelves; a cabinet of presidential memorabilia; numerous paintings of George Washington; a replica of the last letter from the Alamo (which gasping students took to be original). Mohler's is probably the only library that contains both an original portrait of William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth's adviser, and an enormous painting of Franz Joseph, the Habsburg emperor. Why a Southern Baptist would favor the company of an Anglican schemer and a Catholic autocrat is not entirely clear.
A self-conscious air pervades the library, in the jumble of cultural artifacts intended to convey worldliness; in the shelves lined with a conspicuous number of Great Books, Harvard Classics, and other pre-packaged sets that seem the fruit of a single-minded mission to conquer a body of knowledge, or at least to give that impression.
"Mohler, as aristocratic as he appears, is of very common stock," says Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the original architects of the conservative takeover. "We just don't have very many aristocrats in the SBC." (Mohler's father was a grocer.) For a denomination in which only a fraction of pastors have earned advanced degrees, Mohler's library sends an important message: "We may be fundamentalists, but we are not obscurantists." His seminary trains pastors not in the model of "Texas Tornado" J. Frank Norris, but of the genteel founder of Southern Seminary, James Boyce. In one campus building, a clothier sells blazers and ties, and a small barbershop offers Redken hair products and eyebrow waxes for $10, apparently to encourage students to counter outsiders' stereotypes of fundamentalists.
Mohler leads by example: impeccably groomed, his voice measured, he is not the backslapping car-salesman preacher thatnorthern evangelicals might imagine. The mainstream media adore him because he is so palatable, so polite—yet never afraid to take extreme positions. Time's declaration that Mohler is the "reigning intellectual" of today's evangelicalism seems an overstatement considering the array of accomplished evangelicals in academia and politics. But Alvin Plantinga or Michael Gerson would never go on the record endorsing hormone therapy for gay fetuses or defending seven-day young-earth creationism, as Mohler has done. In a recent speech, he was pugnacious on the latter subject—in his beguiling, well-mannered way—arguing that "the exegetical defense of a 24-hour calendar day [in Genesis] is sufficient" and taking to task such leading lights as John Stott and J. I. Packer for their more conciliatory views of the fossil record.
Mohler is not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an articulate controversialist, a popularizer and spokesman who has branded himself as one who speaks to and for evangelicals. His multimedia finesse makes Francis Schaeffer appear amateur. His books (one is titled He Is Not Silent, a nod to Schaeffer) rehearse familiar arguments about the importance of maintaining a biblical worldview, and offer little in the way of original analysis—though Mohler is capable of nuanced scholarship, such as the dissection of Barth in his dissertation. Ivory-tower discourse is simply not his primary calling.
Rather, his vocation is to redefine the notion of "culture warrior." Mohler rejects the clich of infiltrating Washington to take dominion in Christ's name. "I don't invest a lot of hope in the political sphere," he says. "I believe in Niebuhr's analysis, and then some—evangelicals invest too much confidence in a political recovery that Scripture doesn't prescribe." Mohler prefers instead to offer a stream of commentary on a diverse range of subjects, provide the secular media with a consistent evangelical viewpoint, and give constituents talking points to defend the biblical worldview on any subject that might come their way—all while running a seminary and serving the SBC.
"I am always a Baptist, and with the full measure of conviction," he says. He dabbles in the parachurch world of Henry and Schaeffer, collaborating with other evangelical leaders in coalitions such as Together for the Gospel, and encourages fellow Southern Baptists to do the same: to break out of the longstanding cultural isolation of the denomination that scholar Martin Marty once called "the Catholic Church of the South," and recognize their common ground with other evangelicals. But Mohler's primary loyalty is to his mother church.
While other culture warriors maintain loose relationships with their home denominations, Mohler has placed his personal enterprises at the service of the SBC. He is teaching young Southern Baptists to use Twitter while they pastor and attend the annual convention, and to be committed SBC citizens—no matter what anyone says about young evangelicals' lack of denominational loyalty.
"I started a blog because [Mohler] had a blog," says Owen Strachan, a recent Southern graduate. "I loved what he was doing, going deep into cultural sources of the day and engaging in a conversation with them." Each year, more Southern graduates fan out across the country and the globe, preaching in the Mohler school of Reformed cultural engagement. "Al's denominational and institutional role makes his legacy very different from that of his two heroes, Schaeffer and Henry," says Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern. "His reshaping of Southern and the course of the SBC will long outlive him in a way that is not possible with parachurch organizations."
The 'Catholic Church Of The South'
Mohler was the principal drafter of the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, the closest document Southern Baptists have to a confession. The revision made official the convention's commitment to scriptural inerrancy and gender complementarianism, overcoming protests from the few remaining moderates that the conservative "creed" violated the Baptist principle of "soul competency," whereby each individual Christian is able and required to come to his own terms with the Bible. Yet even moderates acknowledge the historic place of confessional statements in Baptist history. "I've never agreed that Baptists are not creedal," says Bill Leonard, until recently the dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, who taught at Southern Seminary during the moderate days. "Baptists are non-creedal—except when they decide to be."
Conservatives have conquered every major SBC body (with a few important exceptions, including Baylor University, whose moderate trustees broke from the SBC, and the Texas and Virginia state conventions, which remain in moderate control, forcing conservatives in those states to found their own conventions). Yet all is not well. Southern Baptist baptisms have fallen for the second year in a row, and everyone admits that the official membership tally—some 16 million—is a gross exaggeration of how many people show up in church on a given Sunday (perhaps by as much as half). Young people are leaving. Church-planting has stalled.
The conservatives who led the revolution of the 1980s were unprepared for this. "They thought they'd get rid of 200,000 moderates, then would have a great majority who were inerrantists, and their theology would keep them as the largest and most thriving denomination," says Leonard. "The thing that's worrying them is the newer generation of pastors, bloggers, and laity, the postmodern evangelical types who do not toe the line on the things they agree on."
Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a longtime friend of Mohler, sees the problem as structural rather than ideological. "We exchanged a moderate, neo-orthodox, liberal bureaucracy for a more conservative, even fundamentalist bureaucracy. But I think some of the folks who are part of the bureaucracy would have been part of it regardless of who won. They are bureaucrats at heart, atheological …. That's something we didn't see, and now we have to deal with it."
Conservatives have also learned that, now that the battles of the 1980s and 1990s are over, more theological variation remains among self-described fundamentalists than they bargained for. Those who led the first wave of the conservative resurgence—men like Paige Patterson and Adrian Rogers—were revivalist preachers who hailed from the Deep South or Southwest and favored emotional, barn-storming evangelism and pietistic theology. Mohler, on the other hand, is a cerebral, churchly, east-of-the-Mississippi kind of Baptist—and a five-point Calvinist.
Many commentators, in these pages and elsewhere, have noted the rising interest in Reformed theology among young evangelicals. In no denomination has the Calvinist revival been more striking, and more controversial, than in the SBC. Although many Southern Baptists were Calvinists in the 19th century, for the past hundred years most have feared Calvinism as an abstract bogey in a Geneva collar, threatening to divide churches over doctrinal minutiae and kill evangelism with predestinarian bile.
In the 1980s, a small number of Southern Baptist scholars began examining their denomination's Reformed roots. "The leaders of the conservative movement didn't want this," says Thomas Nettles, who teaches historical theology at Southern Seminary. "Calvinism had been demonized. When they were shown that it was Southern Baptist, that James Boyce was formulating something that was generally held by Southern Baptists, it became a matter of, 'We've outgrown that.' … The Calvinist movement was very small at first, but it became larger as the younger generation began to see this in the documents."
A year or two into Mohler's presidency, when his intention to steer Southern seminary in a Reformed direction became clear, non-Calvinists indicted him as the main carrier of a theology they viewed as an alien spore in SBC life. However, it was too late to halt Calvinism's growing popularity. "Calvinism had the chance to seep out into the convention in a more pervasive way, so that no one could say Southern and Mohler were the problem," Nettles says. In a 2007 LifeWay Research study, nearly one-third of recent SBC seminary graduates self-identified as Calvinist.
Mohler believes that the only intellectually robust defense of biblical inerrancy lies in the Reformed scholasticism that emerged from the Synod of Dort (1618) and enjoyed its apogee at late-19th-century Princeton Theological Seminary, where James Boyce trained. Non-Calvinist conservatives, Mohler says, "are not aware of the basic structures of thought, rightly described as Reformed, that are necessary to protect the very gospel they insist is to be eagerly shared." He thinks that Reformed theology's appeal to young people proves its unique imperviousness to the corrosive forces of 21st-century life. "If you're a young Southern Baptist and you've been swimming against the tide of secularism … you're going to have to have a structure of thought that's more comprehensive than merely a deck of cards with all the right doctrines." In this regard, Mohler is just as elitist as the moderates of old Southern: he is certain he has the truth, and those Baptists who protest simply are not initiated intothe systematic splendor of Reformed thought.
"I would disagree completely," says David Allen, dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Seminary. "The early church affirmed inerrancy long before Calvin set foot on the planet." Yet Mohler is correct that the theologians of old Princeton, drawing on a particular strain of Reformed theology, formulated the hyper-rationalist theology that deemed the Bible "a storehouse of facts" (in the words of Princeton theologian Charles Hodge) and became a cornerstone of American fundamentalists' response to modernity. "Fundamentalism of a more sophisticated sort traces its roots to Dort Calvinism," says Hinson. (Calvin's own theology is distinct from that of his followers. It is far from clear, for example, that he believed in limited atonement, the L in Dort's famous TULIP.)
Hinson and other moderates say that Mohler misrepresents the Baptist tradition. A pietistic strain of theology that emphasized religious experience evolved parallel to the Calvinistic theology of Southern's founders. The Puritan movement, out of which Baptists emerged, "was primarily about heart religion, not primarily scholastic in character, or obsessed with doctrine, as Mohler is," says Hinson. To Joseph Phelps, a graduate of the old Southern who pastors a liberal Baptist church in Louisville, Mohler's version of Baptist history is not only reductionist but also damaging to evangelism. "It's not my experience [that seekers demand rationalist proof of the Bible]," he says. "Even if that were true, to reduce the gospel to logic is not a fair thing to do, just because that's what people think they need to perpetuate the faith. That doesn't get you the kingdom, the mystery, and the love of God."
Among conservatives, leaders on both sides of the Calvinist chasm downplay the friction these days. "I'm more in the Radical Reformation tradition than Mohler would be," says Patterson, citing the Anabaptist heritage that his seminary celebrates. "But we've always been able to work together."
"Calvinism is a small issue," says Ed Stetzer of the SBC's LifeWay Research. "On the scale of theological diversity, it's not that big of a distinction." Yet faculty at Southern say their graduates have struggled to find pulpits in the Deep South, where fear of a Calvinist conspiracy is perhaps strongest. Moreover, the SBC's current crisis over baptismal numbers—and how to evangelize in a postmodern age—has placed theological questions front and center. "What's scary to Reformed people is that they don't want to fall into the same decisionistic evangelism that filled our churches with non-serious people," says Nettles.
Moderates argue that historically, the SBC tolerated a range of theological and political viewpoints, and this big tent was a key to the church's success in evangelism. "What's always held Southern Baptist churches together has not been agreement on theology or gender roles, but their common commitment to missions," says Diana Garland, former dean of Southern's defunct School of Social Work, now dean of a similar school at Baylor. Garland notes that even today, many SBC-affiliated churches have members who give money to moderate breakaway organizations, such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. "They also give to the SBC because of a long sense of loyalty to the mission-sending organization, not because they agree or even understand what's going on in the leadership," she says. "There's a cultural identity and loyalty that's far deeper than beliefs and agreement."
In Mohler's view, that "cultural identity" concealed rampant heterodoxy for far too long—and in the SBC of the 21st century, cultural unity is a thing of the past. He argues that ethnic and religious diversity in the South has undermined the "tribal identity" on which the SBC based its traditional strength. If Southern Baptists want their churches to thrive, Mohler says, they must reclaim the sectarian mentality of the New Testament, and trade tribal identity for firm theological commitment. Despite the affection that Mohler has for the "cradle to grave" edifice of SBC programs that nurtured him, he has compared these with other outmoded structures based on business models of the 1950s, like General Motors and the suburban shopping mall.
After the 2009 convention, SBC president Johnny Hunt appointed a "Great Commission Resurgence Task Force" to study how conservatives could follow their theological victory with an overhaul of convention structure. The Task Force Report, drafted primarily by Mohler, proposed reforming the funding mechanism that has channeled money from SBC churches to state conventions and national mission boards, schools, and agencies since 1925: the Cooperative Program (CP). Such changes would allow congregations to count as "Great Commission Giving" the money they send directly to organizations such as the International Mission Board—encouraging them to bypass the CP, which would normally give some of the money to state conventions. Furthermore, the report recommended dissolving the "cooperative agreements" between state conventions and the CP in order to reduce the funds remaining in the hands of state conventions and—in theory, at least—to free up financial support for church-planting in northern and western regions where the SBC is weak.
At the June convention in Orlando, the report passed (in a slightly amended form) by a margin of three to one—but only after contentious debate. Critics charge that the reforms will undermine the evangelism that Southern Baptists must do in their own backyards. Pastors of small Southern Baptist churches—the median congregation reports a weekly attendance of 74—say the changes leave them in the lurch, as small churches depend far more on money from state associations than do megachurches (whose interests, these critics note, were well represented on the Task Force). Others say the report offered no more than bureaucratic reshuffling, and did not go far enough.
Akin stresses that in an enormous organization like the SBC, no change happens quickly. But when asked which models of church-planting and evangelism the Task Force admired, his answer was telling. "We have looked at—we have no intention of emulating them at every point—Acts 29 and Redeemer Presbyterian [Church in Manhattan]," he says, naming two of the most prominent Reformed evangelical church-planting bodies in the country. "We are this big, monstrous aircraft carrier, and they're both speedboats, but we've been watching them." Although the main personality associated with Acts 29, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, sticks in the craw of many Southern Baptists for his harsh language and rejection of teetotalism, his philosophy of church-planting—based on theological rigor, tight organization, and cutting-edge cultural engagement—may be the best way to inspire young Southern Baptists and produce the baptismal numbers that convince SBC skeptics. "When you're looking for theologically vibrant, healthy models that lead to growing churches, where else are you going to look?" asks Mohler.
Advocates of the Task Force Report stick to their populist rhetoric, assuring critics that their hearts, and the true power of the SBC, lie with the local church. But few Southern Baptists doubt the power of the denominational apparatus. If they did, they would give up their time-honored tradition of fighting over it. Mohler's career suggests that, in the hands of a single-minded cultural strategist, denominational institutions may become the new engines of a subtler, smarter—yet doggedly fundamentalist—confrontation with postmodern secular culture. Drop the culture war terminology, if you like—but whatever it is that Al Mohler is doing, D. James Kennedy and Francis Schaeffer would approve.
Molly Worthen is a writer and journalist finishing her Ph.D. in American religious history at Yale University.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Molly Worthen has also profiled Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri retreat and Doug Wilson.
Articles by or about Al Mohler include:
Why the Proposition 8 Decision Matters | That Judge Walker's ruling is not a surprise does not make it any less of a landmark. (August 5, 2010)
Creation Care: No Less Than Stewards | How concerned Christians should be about environmental care. (June 30, 2010)
Al Mohler on Race, the Unborn, and Obama | The president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's discusses how the election of an African-American as president "transcends politics and touches the heart of the American people." (November 5, 2008)
The Links Between Plan B and the Pill | The sanctity of human life has consequences for birth control, says Albert Mohler. (October 23, 2006)
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