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Faculty defends Mohler’s call for renewal of church discipline

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s call for church discipline for President Clinton was affirmed by a faculty resolution of support Sept. 3 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Passed by a 32-3 vote with one abstention in a specially called meeting, the resolution followed a Sept. 1 editorial by Mark Wingfield, editor of Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder newsjournal, critical of Mohler’s call for church discipline by the president’s home church, Immanuel Baptist in Little Rock, Ark.
Mohler, in a monthly commentary piece in Religion News Service, wrote Aug. 24 that Immanuel has enabled Clinton to “claim to be a Southern Baptist” while continuing his “public display of serial sin” because it has not practiced biblical discipline.
“Southern Baptists will be watching the Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock to see if it musters the courage to make clear its own convictions,” Mohler wrote in commenting on President Clinton’s Aug. 17 admission to the nation that he had not been honest in court testimony and in comments to the American people about having had a sexual affair with a young White House intern. The affair continued over an 18-month period, according to news reports.
Like many churches, Immanuel has not practiced public discipline, including the removal of members from the church, in recent decades, two staff members confirmed to Baptist Press Aug. 26.
The faculty resolution stated, “Dr. Mohler’s urgency about discipline exactly conforms to the biblical principles and Baptist practice of corporate holiness.”
The faculty resolution, passed in a secret-ballot vote, also noted, “Exhortations from individuals and associations of churches have been prominent in Baptist history and constitute no violation of church autonomy.”
Wingfield’s editorial, as noted by the title, “Telling another church what to do is wrong,” had contended that “an authentic Baptist wouldn’t think of telling another church what to do.”
Those who say his call for Immanuel to discipline Clinton violates local church autonomy, Mohler said in an Aug. 26 interview with Baptist Press, ignore “the fact that I have no power to force Immanuel Baptist Church to take any action, nor does the Southern Baptist Convention have any power to force the congregation to exercise church discipline.”
“But it is by no means improper to call upon this church to exercise this most basic responsibility,” Mohler said.
“Southern Baptists at the end of the 20th century have a very odd understanding of local church autonomy,” he added. “Records of associational minutes and other Baptist documents demonstrate that Baptist bodies did openly encourage (in the past) churches to exercise discipline in cases of public sin.
“Unfortunately, the church has grown accustomed to a level of worldliness and seems to have lost all courage in church discipline,” Mohler said.
But, to Wingfield, Mohler’s stance “crosses the line from a free church tradition to a hyper-hierarchical church tradition.”
“In the authentic Baptist tradition, no one — no seminary president, no denominational official, no editor, no pope — has the right or authority to tell a local church how to handle its business.”
Wingfield contended, “It is one thing to criticize the president directly for his moral failure and his lack of contrition. That is something I and many others of Christian conviction have done over the last two weeks. But it is another thing entirely to then attempt to instruct the president’s church on how they ought to relate to him as a member.”
A faculty spokesman, assistant professor of ethics C. Ben Mitchell, in a prepared statement, recounted that, “The impetus for the faculty meeting came from several faculty members acting independently.” He said the resolution “represents the strong consensus of the faculty. It was written by nearly a half-dozen faculty members and carefully deliberated by the faculty. The resolution says what we want it to say.”
Mitchell echoed the resolution’s affirmation of Mohler’s stance by stating that Wingfield’s criticism “is just wrong. Anyone — even the editor himself — may attempt to persuade a local church of his or her position. In no way does this constitute interference with local church autonomy. The church may well say, “Thanks for your opinion, but no thanks.’
“Furthermore, the Bible clearly teaches church discipline, and churches which do not practice it are not following revealed truth,” Mitchell stated. “We ignore church discipline at our own peril. Dr. Mohler was merely calling for the church to be the church. Sadly, even most social clubs and fraternal organizations have higher standards for membership than most local churches.”
Wingfield used his editorial to launch into other criticisms of Mohler, which also prompted a response in the faculty resolution that Wingfield had “criticized unjustly the character and motives” of Mohler.
The faculty stated, “We do not challenge the editor’s right to criticize appropriately the views of Dr. Mohler, or any other public figure,” but, “We consider this editorial to contain an unkind, unwarranted and unsubstantiated personal attack against Dr. Mohler and his motives.” The faculty contended, “Such attacks violate standard journalistic practice as well as the canons of Christian propriety” and “We believe that such editorials are inappropriate journalistic expressions and do not serve the churches well.”
No response by Wingfield to the resolution was received by Baptist Press’ Sept. 4 deadline.
Among the comments written by Wingfield in his editorial: “… Al Mohler apparently thinks he knows more about how a certain Arkansas church ought to handle its business than that church itself knows.”
Wingfield also wrote, “It is no secret that the editors of the Western Recorder over the last five years have been critical of the changes made at Southern Seminary during Mohler’s administration. We have spoken out not only about the changes made but also the way in which changes have been made.
“Yet despite the utter lack of Christian love Mohler has shown for many of those subject to his authority — wrecking the careers of committed people, inflicting pain on marriages and family relationships of those he has purged and labeling everyone who disagrees with his interpretation of the Bible as ‘liberal’ — the editors of this paper would not think of telling his church it ought to exercise church discipline on him.”
Faculty spokesman Mitchell described Mohler as “a man of principle, character, conviction, and love. This faculty recognizes this and does not fear saying so.
“The editor of the Western Recorder appears to have an obsession with Southern Seminary,” Mitchell continued. “The seminary and its administration has been the object of his vilification an inordinate number of times. In fact, one has to wonder if the editor didn’t have Southern Seminary to write about if he would have anything to say at all.
“It’s one thing to disagree, and disagree strongly, with a position taken by a public figure like Dr. Mohler. It is entirely another matter for the editor of the Western Record to impugn Dr. Mohler’s character and motives. The editor is assuming an omniscience which he clearly does not possess. Even an editorial must be based upon facts, not slander and personal animosity.”
Saying Wingfield’s editorial “crossed the moral line into character assassination,” Mitchell said, “This was not journalism, but a personal vendetta chronicled in a Baptist state paper.
“Amazingly, the editor does exactly what he vilifies Dr. Mohler for doing. With inflammatory rhetoric and sensationalistic hyperbole, he tells the churches what to do.” According to Mitchell, “Rather than dealing with the merits of the issue, namely, whether or not President Clinton should be disciplined, the editor attempted to shoot the messenger.”
The faculty added in their resolution an invitation to Kentucky Baptists “to visit the seminary campus, attend classes and chapel services, speak to faculty and students, and participate in the life of the seminary as they have opportunity, since we believe they will find us faithful to the seminary’s mission of serving the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Clinton has been a member of Immanuel since July 1980, according to church records. While he attended Immanuel regularly and often sang in the choir during his years as governor of Arkansas, Clinton and his wife, Hillary, a Methodist, have normally attended Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington since he became president in 1993.
When there has been a moral transgression, the church has handled it as a private matter between “a minister and the individual,” associate pastor David Napier told Baptist Press. Rex Horne, Immanuel’s senior pastor the last eight years, has not divulged what he has said to Clinton about admitted or alleged sexual sins, Napier said. Horne has said in the past he has told Clinton of his disagreement with him over some moral issues, such as abortion.
Horne has declined to grant interviews with reporters since Clinton’s admission, a church staff member said. Horne issued a written statement Aug. 25, noting: “The recent admission of immoral conduct by the president is grievous. His actions are indefensible and inexcusable. They are not, however, unforgivable. I pray the president will find the grace of God which comes upon confession of sin and the peace which comes from a restored relationship with our Lord.”
In his Aug. 22 weekly column for Little Rock’s daily newspaper, Horne said the future will demonstrate whether the president was sincere in his Aug. 17 admissions to the country. “Our country faces a crisis,” Horne wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Now, I’m well aware that there are people who will never be satisfied by anything the president says or does. I also know that there are people who — no matter what the president does, whether it’s right or wrong — would defend him and say that it doesn’t matter.
“Well, things do matter and our lives and choices matter. Our character matters. Was the president sincere? God knows and the days ahead will reveal it. People of faith need to be full of both grace and truth. Better still (–) to be full of the one who is grace and truth.”
Immanuel, with more than 4,500 members, is one of the largest churches in the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. It consistently has been the leader in the state in total gifts to the Cooperative Program, the SBC’s giving plan. Last year, Immanuel gave more than $450,000 to CP to rank first in the state, an ABSC staff member said.
Tom Strode contributed to this story.