EDITOR’S NOTE: Leading up to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, Baptist Press plans interviews with candidates who have agreed to accept a nomination to serve as SBC president.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) – R. Albert Mohler Jr. describes himself as “a creature of print.” He pores over more than a dozen newspapers a day in order to prepare for his podcast, “The Briefing with Albert Mohler,” in which he provides cultural analysis from a Christian worldview. And he means actual printed newspapers.
“I’ll end up with black fingers,” Mohler says, chuckling, even as he laments that given the continuing decline of print journalism, “the days are over when I can do that.”
Mohler also knows the days are dwindling for Southern Baptists of his era – those who were involved in the Conservative Resurgence – to lead the denomination. But he has agreed to accept a nomination to serve as SBC president at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in hopes, he says, of serving as a uniter in turbulent times, including a generational shift in denominational leadership and the changing ministry context of an increasingly secularized culture.
Since 1993 Mohler has been president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he led a recovery of the seminary’s confessional commitment after decades of liberal drift. While he says similar drift is not occurring, he believes it is time for Southern Baptists “to reaffirm some of those theological truths and principles again.”
Mohler says if elected, his goal would be to serve as a bridge between the SBC’s past and future, and that he would use the office of president to foster healthy conversation in what he describes as “an argument among conservatives.”
“I want to fly the flags of conviction very clearly,” he says, “but also winsomely. I believe these truths are not only essential to the Southern Baptist identity, I believe they’re joyful truths that we hold together. We don’t hurl them at each other as stones. We affirm them together as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Mohler sat down last week with Baptist Press.
Baptist Press: What is the biggest issue facing the SBC?
Mohler: I think the biggest issue here is time. So much time has elapsed since the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. So much time has elapsed in recent decades of Southern Baptist history, that we now lack the cohesiveness that the denomination had at the end of that enormous upheaval that brought about the SBC of the 1990s. And we have an entire army of young pastors for whom I’m very thankful, and they were just not a part of that. And we’re in a period of such social change in the United States that the America that we took for granted in the 1990s has been transformed. And Southern Baptists now face the necessity of dealing with some basic issues, but I believe Southern Baptists are quite capable of dealing with those basic issues. And I think that’s an opportunity, but it’s also a responsibility.
I think we’ve reached the point where certain issues are now unavoidable. And it’s the same way in a family or in a local congregation. But the great postponement of talking about some things in the SBC has come to an end. I just want to make sure that we talk about these things and work through these things in a healthy and respectful manner – which I think Southern Baptists are fully capable of doing. I think the average Southern Baptist pastor just wants to make certain that the SBC is as healthily and convictionally and joyfully directed toward the accomplishment of our mission as is possible.
Baptist Press: You mentioned ‘issues and things.’ What are those?
Mohler: To put the matter bluntly, during the time of the Conservative Resurgence, it appeared that it wasn’t irrational to think that the culture and the Southern Baptist Convention were at least moving in the same direction. By now it’s abundantly clear that the culture is moving in a very different direction. And frankly we should have seen it at the time. Some of us, I think, did see it at the time. But nonetheless, from the 1970s to the present is a period of conservative evangelicals coming to the conclusion that the world is not becoming more like us, but more unlike us. And thus missiologically, we’re in a different position than we were. And then the political traumas in this country get transformed into discussions around every family dinner table and eventually discussions at the SBC.
There are theological issues that were settled in the Conservative Resurgence, and thankfully so. Yet so many of those things haven’t been discussed in quite a long time because we can take them for granted. Well, you can’t take anything for granted these days, so it will be healthy just to reaffirm some of those theological truths and principles again. And it’s just really important that people remember what the SBC is, and thus what it’s not.
The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention of churches dedicated to the fulfillment of the mission of reaching the world for Christ, and establishing healthy churches across the United States, and training ministers for the next generation in equipping our churches for that work. And the SBC is not intended, it was never intended, to be the primary arena for determining what every single Southern Baptist church would believe about every single issue.
There’s a theological consensus that is necessary for our cooperation, and where that’s endangered it needs to be strengthened. But the SBC is a confessional denomination. And where we stand together is what we articulate in the Baptist Faith and Message and what we express together, and then we respect one another and join in fellowship with one another and eagerly try to reach the world for Jesus together.
I think one of the dangers is that a lot of younger pastors didn’t live through the Conservative Resurgence. I don’t think they understand why so many of those issues had to be articulated so clearly in the 1970s and ‘80s and ‘90s. And I don’t think they have any clue where the SBC would be today if those doctrines had not been recovered.
Baptist Press: Which doctrines are you speaking of?
Mohler: The inerrancy of Scripture, first and foremost. But with the inerrancy of Scripture comes an entire affirmation of biblical truth, everything from the substitutionary atonement to a biblical pattern of sexuality. It all comes back to the primary issue of biblical authority. The great dividing line in American denominations is between the denominations that affirm the unconditional authority of God’s Word and those that don’t. And the direction is now very predictable. If you don’t, then you’re going to join whatever revolution in morality comes along. If you do (affirm the authority of Scripture), then we’re going to find ourselves – we do find ourselves – in a predicament with the rest of the world thinking we’re odd or dangerous.
But we haven’t had much affirmation of these issues. Not because there was any effort to subvert them, just because we haven’t. Anytime you have a great reset, the instinct is we’re going to take this for granted for a while, because we can – until we can’t.
Here’s the good news: I’ve not heard any movement away from affirming the inerrancy of Scripture in the SBC. But it’s just like a family has to get around and remind ourselves what we’re about, we need to remind ourselves what we’re about: the Great Commission. That means the exclusivity of the Gospel. It means affirming these things.
Southern Baptists have historically been healthy when we unite around those central, essential, common beliefs and celebrate them together. And that establishes the unity in which we can stand and minister. We’re now in a world that is resetting the entire culture around us. And this is presenting real threats to religious liberty. But beyond that it’s presenting real threats to Christian faithfulness. And so all of these issues are in a cauldron that Southern Baptists are going to have to talk about. There are issues of politics that are thrown upon us by the moment. And Southern Baptists have got to decide, ‘Here’s where we’ve got to stand together,’ and then move on together.
Baptist Press: What’s something Southern Baptists can do or that we are doing that could be more fully realized?
Mohler: The Southern Baptist Convention has three tremendous assets no other denomination in the world has. One of them is the most remarkable fellowship of churches. You’re talking about, let’s just say at least theoretically, 40,000 churches. An enormous number, tens of thousands of churches that actually do believe the Gospel, preach the Gospel and want to see the nations won for Christ.
The second thing is, (we have) the most remarkable lay involvement. When you look at the Southern Baptist Convention, you’re looking at a denomination where people think first of pastors, because that’s who you see speaking. But the glue of this denomination is the most amazing assembly of committed laypeople. That’s what you see absent in so many other religious bodies and denominations.
But the third thing is the most precious of all right now. We have an army of young pastors, which almost no other denomination has. We need to celebrate that fact. We need to understand they wouldn’t be here if there hadn’t been a Conservative Resurgence, they wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have healthy churches, they wouldn’t be here if we weren’t driven by the Great Commission. But now they are here, and it’s our responsibility to pass the torch and to celebrate the fact that we actually have convictional young pastors coming along who will be taking the reins of our churches in this denomination. And that sets us in radical contrast to the mainline protestant denominations.
But that generational shift – we don’t make a decision on whether a generational shift happens, it happens. But we do make a decision about whether it happens graciously and healthily, faithfully. We’ve got some big decisions to make there. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
One of the things that I hope to do is to – and by the way, not just with regard to the leadership of the SBC as president – what I try to do here (at Southern Seminary) is connect those generations in the most healthy way, so they celebrate one another. And I find that to be the most natural thing in the world. I’ve never met a young pastor who wasn’t thrilled by the opportunity to spend time with an older pastor. I’ve never met an older pastor who didn’t consider it the highest compliment imaginable that a younger pastor wants to spend time with him. So, I get to make that happen on this campus all the time. I try to make it happen wherever I go. That’s the kind of thing that will, I think, really help. We have a problem in the SBC because a lot of that just hasn’t happened.
Baptist Press: As SBC president, how do you encourage that or make it happen?
Mohler: SBC president has limited power, and that’s the way it ought to be. But one of the powers is convening authority. There’s an ability to convene people and to raise issues, and to make certain those issues are discussed. I honestly have just tremendous confidence – I’m of the generation, I was a young man; I lived through the entire Conservative Resurgence, it’s my entire adult life. And I keep coming back to it because that’s the defining moment.
That’s the World War II of the Southern Baptist Convention’s history. And out of World War II came this great generation in America. Out of the Conservative Resurgence came this most remarkable generation of pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. The convening authority of the president says, ‘Look, I can at least make sure that people are in a room, and I can at least make sure that these issues are discussed, and I can do everything possible to make sure they’re discussed in a way that is most healthy and respectful.’
I have never been in a meeting of Southern Baptists where we didn’t eventually get to the right place. And that means that Southern Baptists are in person much better than we are on Twitter and much better than we are outside the room. When we get inside the room, good things tend to happen. But it takes time, it takes prayer, it takes conversation, it takes trust. And we kind of acted over a course of years like those things just come by divine right. They actually come by hard work.
Baptist Press: Do you feel there is a problem in the SBC with regard to respecting others and treating others in a Christ-like fashion?
Mohler: I do, but here’s the good news: I don’t think it’s a problem in the room. It’s a problem in the atmosphere. I think social media has exacerbated this tremendously, but so has just kind of the fact that we withdraw into our own worlds of conversation.
But to make the matter really clear, I’ve gone to the SBC Executive Committee meeting, I’ve missed only one Executive Committee meeting since my early 20s. So I’ve got almost 40 years of going to Executive Committee meetings. I’ve been going to the SBC (annual meetings) since 1984, with one exception when I was very ill. You know, you get Southern Baptists in a room, there’s some moments, but being in the room means you’re going to have to talk to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and it happens. So it’s amazing when you look at people, how they talk outside the room or how they express themselves on social media, (but) you get inside the room and you’ve got people looking at each other face to face, it’s amazing how responsible the conversation grows. And that’s a healthy thing.
So frankly, what I wish we had had more of in recent years – and this is not a criticism of other leaders, because they each had to do in their own way what they thought, so I have to say this carefully – what I think has been a missed opportunity is putting people in those rooms together.
Baptist Press: There seems to be less of a desire among pastors and laypeople to be involved in the SBC than there once was. Why do you think that is?
Mohler: I think this is a problem in most local churches. People are so busy. They have their kids on traveling baseball teams. They’re involved in building businesses. Life is measurably more complex than it was when the SBC was kind of at its organizational height. And the pipelines of leadership development just aren’t there as they used to be. And those pipelines of leadership development used to run through the associations and the state conventions to the SBC, and I do hope to reconnect a lot of that.
I find our state convention leaders are very concerned about this and they also want to do something about it. And many of them are doing outstanding work in recreating those leadership pipelines in their own states, and we need that to extend into the SBC. We need to bring the state conventions and the associations – especially the state conventions – so much into the conversation that we are in continual combined effort to raise up leaders who are pastors and leaders who are laypeople, who are ready to move into positions on our boards and agencies, ready to move into the officer roles in the Southern Baptist Convention and ready just to be a part of the Southern Baptist conversation as we look at charting the future.
Baptist Press: Why are you uniquely positioned as an entity head, denominational leader, to serve as SBC president?
Mohler: There’s no particular value, I think, in being an entity president in this. What I think I bring is the fact that I honestly believe I am just chronologically, and I hope in character and attitude, a bridge between the past and the present and the future in the SBC. I’ve been in this role nearly 30 years in this place. I have never had an experience of self-identity outside Southern Baptist identity. I was an RA (Royal Ambassador). I was on the cradle roll. I had my call to ministry in a Florida Baptist assembly. I went to an Alabama Baptist college. I went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And the robe I wear for formal occasions was the robe of my pastor, who had a Ph.D. from Southern Seminary. The man who was his doctoral supervisor was A.T. Robertson. Well now we’re back almost to the beginning of Southern Seminary.
But I have the joy and frankly the track record of bringing thousands of very, very young people to this campus. And I think they come because they know I love them, and we love them. And this faculty is here to do nothing but invest in them. And so I’ve been trying to build those bridges between the past and the future for 40 years of my adult life. I want to do whatever I can to help Southern Baptists to build that bridge as substantially as possible.
There aren’t many people left in the SBC who can span that kind of chronology. But I’ve also been deeply involved in helping to lead the SBC for decades. And look, my generation is not the generation of the future, and I know that. I’m also not bitter about that. I mean, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. I’m happy.
I think one of the problems is, we’ve got some reservoirs of bitterness in the SBC, and that is unhealthy. We’ve got some reservoirs of cynicism in the SBC, and that is unhealthy. So I want to graciously and convictionally – I mean, if I’ve proved anything in 30 years as president here and long before that, my mode of leadership is convictional leadership. I want to fly the flags of conviction very clearly – but also winsomely. I believe these truths are not only essential to the Southern Baptist identity, I believe they’re joyful truths that we hold together. We don’t hurl them at each other as stones. We affirm them together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Baptist Press: There are some who would charge Southern as well as our other seminaries with a liberal drift. How do you respond to that, not only for Southern but the other seminaries?
Mohler: The idea of a liberal drift is frankly so irresponsible it’s very hard to take that seriously. You have six institutions that stand without hesitation for the inerrancy of Scripture, for the exclusivity of the Gospel, for the totality of biblical truth. And not only do so officially and confessionally, but so naturally that these are not even issues of controversy on our campuses, and that’s the way it should be. And the generation that fought for and won the Conservative Resurgence should look at the seminaries, and the fact that these young pastors who are coming are thoroughly committed to these truths, and will be even more deeply grounded in these truths during the time they’re on our campuses.
Look, there are legitimate issues. I share the concern of even a group like the Conservative Baptist Network, I share their concern that we are in danger of losing a theological inheritance. But I do not agree, and Southern Baptists have shown they don’t agree, (or) that they suspect they have denominational leadership trying to move them in that direction, nor do they have institutions that are rebelling against that.
But the fact is that if anybody has any question about what’s being taught on our campuses, the sign of health is you’ve got six seminaries that want as many Southern Baptists to come to the seminaries and see as is possible. There’s an open invitation for any Southern Baptist to come. There’s an open invitation to call any of our presidents, who will be glad to give any explanation to Southern Baptists about where we are and what we teach.
But the questions aren’t arising in that context. The questions are arising in a context in which we have some difficult issues to address as a denomination as we’re trying to think about issues that weren’t formally on the horizon during the Conservative Resurgence. And a lot of this has been horribly exacerbated in a toxic political environment of which the SBC is simply not immune. And so Southern Baptists need to get off of Twitter, in terms of trying to carry on this conversation, and get in the room together. And there’s really not going to be any rescue of the SBC or any positive future of the SBC unless that happens.
There’s thought that there is an encouragement of critical theory and critical race theory and things like that in the SBC. Well, there is in the entire culture. To my horror, it’s becoming the dominant worldview of the academy and of many who are producing the culture. So it’s going to be a part of the conversation.
I believe that critical race theory and critical theory are incompatible to the Baptist Faith and Message. I think we need to have some conversations about that. But those conversations cannot be healthily carried out on Twitter or on social media. The conversations are going to require serious engagement, but I can promise you that the leadership of the SBC is absolutely determined that the SBC not become lost to or infected by any ideology that would be subversive of biblical truth.
And if I have the opportunity to lead Southern Baptists, I will do everything within my power to make certain that Southern Baptists are not ‘woke’ and are not mean. You can be ‘not woke’ and mean. You can be not mean and ‘woke.’ The SBC can be neither ‘woke’ nor mean. It can’t give itself to the political correctness of this age, and it can’t give itself to attitudes that are corrosive to our working together.
Baptist Press: So when someone charges that critical race theory has worked its way into the seminaries, how would you respond to that?
Mohler: Come and see. The answer is ‘no,’ but come and see. One of the problems right now is that in the SBC — the SBC has spoken very, very clearly to issues of racism as sin. The SBC has spoken consistently, especially since 1995, but consistently for more than a generation, about its aim of seeking a future for this denomination that looks more and more like the kingdom of Christ. And that’s going to take Southern Baptists at our very best in theology and in character.
And by the way, many of these issues being raised are at least being shouted on Twitter by people who aren’t even Southern Baptists. That’s where being in the room becomes really crucial; we’ll find out who the Southern Baptists are. And by the way that includes the people who have formed something like the Conservative Baptist Network. It includes others in the SBC who need to be in the room together. They have every right to be in a room by themselves, but change in the SBC only comes when we’re in the room together.
Baptist Press: Southern Seminary trustees recently decided not to rename several buildings named after founders who held slaves, but to vacate the Joseph Emerson Brown Chair of Christian Theology and set aside $1 million for scholarships for Black students. You’ve been criticized on one side for not doing enough. On the other hand, you have some saying the scholarships are reparations. How do you navigate through those things?
Mohler: If Southern Baptists are going to look to Twitter as the barometer of who we are as people, then we’re doomed. Because there’s not even any assurance that this Twitter account is a real person. But when you get in the room the right things tend to happen.
What I seek to do is to lead openly. So we released a massive document that I had written explaining all of this in detail and making very clear, based on conviction, why we would not remove the names of those who were the founders of this institution, but how we would come up with an understanding of how to deal with other issues and with the historical character of this school that does go back to slavery, with actually an incredible amount of the wealth that made the school possible coming from direct involvement in slavery.
But in the room, every single one of those motions passed – it wasn’t in a room, by the way, it was on Zoom – but when the trustees were together in a meeting, every one of those proposals was adopted unanimously. Unanimously doesn’t just mean without dissent. It means that so far as we can tell, every trustee voted positively for them. So in other words, there’s no great division in the SBC over this. The SBC elected every one of these trustees. Those trustees represent the entire Southern Baptist Convention, and when they got together facing these issues, they voted unanimously. Now, you don’t have to have every vote be unanimous in order to have unity, but it’s really hard to argue for disunity when the votes are unanimous. And again, I don’t pick these trustees, they’re chosen by the Southern Baptist Convention. And look, the same thing is likely to happen everywhere else.
And I’m against reparations as a matter of national policy for all kinds of reasons. I find the logic is both unworkable and in principle now is I believe inappropriate. The scholarships to Southern Seminary were not a form of reparations. The money is instead used to meet Southern Baptists’ stated goals of increasing opportunity for African American students to study in our seminaries. And by the way, such a scholarship was put into place by President Paige Patterson at Southwestern (Baptist Theological) Seminary in 2018, as reported in a news story at Baptist Press. And I think you’ll find similar scholarships at every one of our seminaries, and they should be proud of that. And at Southern, by the way, we have had such scholarships funded at some level, going back decades – long before I came as a student at Southern Seminary.
Baptist Press: If you become SBC president, you’ll have a hand in the trustee nomination process. Given your role at Southern Seminary, do you see a conflict of interest?
Mohler: No, not a conflict of interest. It’s happened in the SBC numerous times, going back to the founding era. And when Paige Patterson was president of the SBC, no one suggested his appointments were anything less than stellar. I can promise you that whatever appointments I make will be celebrated by the Southern Baptist Convention. And I’ll stand on decades of personal character and leadership. Southern Baptists know what they’re getting if they give me this opportunity.
Baptist Press: When you became editor of the Christian Index (of the Georgia Mission Board) in 1989, the SBC seemed to be at something like a breaking point. Are we nearing a similar point?
Mohler: No. In 1989 you had people who clearly wanted to see the SBC move in the direction of becoming a mainline protestant denomination. They refused to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. They saw conservatives as fundamentalists. They wanted nothing to do with them. They wanted to keep ambiguous doctrine – and look, there was genuine liberalism being taught in our schools.
That’s a part of what younger pastors have to know. I talk to students here and I tell them what I was taught as a student, and they are just absolutely shocked. I took a class here as an M.Div. here back in the early ‘80s and the name of the class was ‘Deutero-Isaiah.’ In other words, that was just all taken for granted.
I was pointing to a liberal, liberal, liberal pastor as I was teaching a class on preaching this week. And I mean, this guy was one of the most liberal preachers in protestant America and not even a Baptist, and the last place he taught was on the faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. And students now look at that now and go, ‘How could this be?’
Well, that was still true in 1989. You had a clear argument. Now, this is an argument among conservatives. That’s a very different argument. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have this discussion. There are issues that we’re quite capable of discussing respectfully and I think truthfully, candidly. And like I say, some of the people who are raising issues are raising quite legitimate issues and they need to be discussed.
It’s good for the SBC to have conversations. We just need to make sure we have the right conversations. We need people in the room. We need to be accountable for those conversations. And we need to take this issue just as soberly and responsibly as Southern Baptists have (taken) issues in the past. I have great confidence in Southern Baptists.