Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for three decades, is an influential figure in Southern Baptist and evangelical circles. He is known for his work in explaining theology, promoting conservative values, and engaging in politics. Despite controversies and challenges, the seminary under his leadership has thrived, maintaining its position as one of the largest in the country.
Mohler’s long tenure as seminary president is highly unusual in the field of theological education. His leadership has been marked by a commitment to conservative values, which he adopted after initially supporting women pastors. This change in stance caused a drop in student attendance but eventually led to the seminary’s resurgence.
While Mohler’s leadership has helped Southern Seminary regain its momentum, it has also contributed to a narrowing of differing opinions within the Southern Baptist denomination. Some moderate Southern Baptists left, leading to further divisions among conservatives.
Mohler has faced criticism from both the left and right within the denomination, with some accusing Southern Seminary of promoting “woke ideology” on issues of race. Despite these challenges, Mohler’s personal ethics and commitment to institutions have enabled him to persevere and maintain a reformist yet loyal approach.
Looking ahead, Mohler recognizes the challenges facing organized religion and institutions as faith declines in popularity. However, he has no immediate plans to retire and aims to continue contributing to the institution and the kingdom while being supportive of his successor.
Bob Smietana writes in the Religion News Service:
If Southern has regained its momentum under Mohler, the politics have not necessarily gotten easier. Historian Bill Leonard, the founding dean of Wake Forest Divinity School and a former professor at Southern, said that the conservative takeover narrowed the room for differing opinions in the denomination. Then, once the more moderate Southern Baptists left, the conservatives turned on each other.
“There may come a time when there are only two Southern Baptists left, and each will think the other one is a liberal,” Leonard said.
Making Leonard’s point, Mohler played a role in the high-profile departure of Warren this summer and, two years ago, in the exit of the prominent Bible study teacher Beth Moore, who dissented from the SBC’s support of Trump.
Yet Mohler has come under fire himself in recent years from the denomination’s extreme right, whose members claim Southern promotes “woke ideology” by talking about issues of race.
Leonard, who has known Mohler since the 1980s, when the future seminary president was his student, said Mohler’s conversion to the conservative viewpoint was genuine, but it was also a pragmatic decision.
“When he got nominated for the presidency, it appears he decided which way the wind was blowing for him,” Leonard said.
But the real key to Mohler is his personal ethical streak, Leonard said, which has made him equal parts a reformer and a company man.
“He’s not a flamethrower,” Leonard said. “He believes in institutions.”
Leonard said Mohler’s personal ethics have helped him to persevere when many other Southern Baptist leaders have fallen in recent years.
During a recent interview, Mohler agreed with that assessment, saying he was an unapologetic institutionalist. As if to illustrate the point, he said while he and Leonard have very different understandings of what it means to be a Baptist and even of how to interpret the Bible, he called his former professor one of the “best classroom teachers” he ever met.
“I still respect and appreciate those who taught me, even when we disagree,” he said.
Mohler also paid tribute to his predecessors, including McCall and Roy Honeycutt, whom he succeeded. Honeycutt, he said, disapproved of the direction Mohler planned to take the seminary, but he was gracious to Mohler during the handover.
“He was unfailingly a man of character and graciousness, and I am thankful for that,” Mohler said.
Despite his longevity, Mohler said he knows both the denomination and the seminary face challenges as organized religion declines and institutions fall out of favor.
“It’s a humbling moment for the Southern Baptist Convention and for evangelicalism,” he said. “A denomination that found an awful lot of confidence in constantly growing is now going to have to explain what faithfulness looks like when we are not.”
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