The gospel is ‘worth fighting and dying over’
“There was an air of tension and conflict that was very evident on the campus when I got there,” Danny Akin, who served at Southern Seminary in the mid-1990s as dean of the School of Theology, said in a recent conversation with the editor of Southern Seminary Magazine. “Over time, things began to change within the makeup of the faculty. We saw things just take off after that.”
Akin, who is now president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, worked alongside Albert Mohler from 1996 until 2004, a time during which Mohler’s ministry at the seminary began to see rapid, fruitful growth. The earlier parts were still difficult, as Mohler was still in the throes of turning the seminary in a direction more consistent with its founders’ vision.
“People ask me sometimes, ‘Do you regret what took place with the conservative resurgence?’ And my response is, ‘I do regret people having suffered and people having been hurt.’ But, would I do it again? Yes. Because the gospel, inerrancy, orthodoxy [were] at stake.”
These years at Southern Seminary shaped Akin. And he said they continue to shape his ministry today.
“Many of the things I do at Southeastern — for good, I hope — I learned from Al,” he said. “They were molded and shaped by the way he approached things. Al did everything, Al does everything, with excellence. Al’s very clear: If you’re not going to do it well, then don’t do it. He’s an omni-competent individual, one of the most gifted persons I’ve ever seen — except in the realm of athletics.
“I learned a tremendous amount about how to lead well, how to lead in such a way that you do everything with excellence. And so, the good things at Southeastern have Al Mohler’s imprint all over the place.”
I was privileged to join the Southern Seminary faculty in 1988 and to be named dean of the School of Theology in January of 1992. Dr. Albert Mohler was named president of Southern Seminary in March of 1993; I was honored to be named the chief academic officer during the initial years of his administration. We were both still in our 30s, quite young for that kind of responsibility.
The Lord helped us and protected us, even as we made mistakes along the way. There were wonderful people on the faculty at the time, some who had served at Southern for many years, but several of those were not supportive of the transition that was taking place. Dr. Mohler exemplified vision, courage, and conviction that grew out of his primary calling as a theologian to give direction to Southern Seminary that has continued over the past 25 years.
He is a gifted thinker and a thoughtful theologian, who understands well the history of Baptists, the heritage of Southern Baptists, and the traditions, movements, and individuals who shaped Southern Seminary through the years.
I think it is important to recognize that Dr. Mohler is a theologian and historian first and foremost, and that these things have shaped and guided his decision making, his dreams for Southern Seminary, and the way that he has served the Southern Baptist Convention and engaged the evangelical world. One will never fully understand Dr. Mohler or his approach to leadership until one first recognizes how his work as a theologian shapes all other aspects of his life and ministry. Significant decisions that he made during those early years grew out of his theologically shaped vision for the school.
To serve consistently and faithfully as president of the same institution for a quarter of a century is highly commendable in so many ways and on so many levels. To do so with the effectiveness with which Dr. Mohler has carried out this work is most unusual and laudatory. In many ways, he brought together the theological convictions of James P. Boyce, the denominational statesmanship of E. Y. Mullins, and the leadership gifts of Duke McCall to shape a special time in the life and history of Southern Seminary.
“Dr. Mohler exemplified vision, courage, and conviction that grew out of his calling as a theologian.”
‘The key leader’ among denominational leaders
From 1994 to 2005, Rainer served as the first dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth. He has been president of LifeWay Christian Resources since.
SSM: what were you and Dr. Mohler trying to do with the Graham school?
Thom Rainer: The Billy Graham School had as its primary purpose a firm commitment to the Great Commission, to evangelism, and to missions. That is the heartbeat of its reason for existence. Another purpose was to create a school where the professors held to the inerrancy of Scripture. Southern was in a time of tumultuous transition toward orthodoxy, and the Graham School served as a bridge until all professors at the seminary affirmed inerrancy.
SSM: How did those years shape your ministry?
TR: Because I had a front-row seat to the theological revolution of the Mohler presidency, I was able to see him as a leader up close and personal. I saw the price he and Mrs. Mohler had to pay personally. The key lesson I learned is that convictional leadership is never easy. It requires courage, persistence, and the willingness to endure personal pain.
SSM: What is the significance of Dr. Mohler’s work within the denomination?
TR: Dr. Mohler is truly the key leader among our denominational leaders. We all look to him for any major initiative or response to issues of the day. He has earned this leadership with his tenure, his intellect, his convictions, and his courage.
I went to the 1995 Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta and Al Mohler gave the convention sermon. I heard someone stand up in a time when often what we heard from religious leaders [were] slogans and spiritual-sounding clichés. He gave a substantive, theologically rich, mission-driven address. And that’s when I realized: I want to study with him.
When my wife, Maria, and I came to Louisville to see the campus and interview with people, I happened to get an appointment with the president to be able to sit down with him. He laid out his vision for the school. And when we left his office — which, later, oddly enough, became my office — I turned to my wife and I said, “I don’t care if this school has accreditation or not, I want to study under that vision.”
I wasn’t the only one. There were people who were coming from all over the country because there was a leader at Southern who clearly wasn’t afraid. He really was free from fear in order to lead the seminary in a different direction from, not only, where it had been, but from where most people expected that it should go.
I think I’ve had a unique vantage point, because over the past 25 years I’ve served with Al Mohler as student, as research assistant, as faculty member, as dean, as provost, and now as fellow entity head. We’ve interacted in almost every possible situation. I probably learned more in our conversations going down an interstate somewhere than I did in a formal hour of doctoral seminar. Not only that, but we would be working together in that basement until 3 o’clock in the morning.
Those would be really key moments, not just in terms of doctoral-level education but in tossing ideas around and also in seeing how he would process decisions he had to make. I learned a lot in those times. And I learned a lot from him continuing on; I still do.
That’s one of the things, frankly, that I miss more than anything. I miss the way he and I would, every single day, have these long conversations about issues that are of interest to both of us. It was transformative.
As I’m looking back now, there is no way I would be able even halfway to do the things God has called me to do if I hadn’t had those years serving with him.
Moore, a Ph.D. alum of Southern Seminary, worked at the seminary in various capacities from 1996 to 2013, most notably as provost for 10 years.
When God moved me to Louisville as a student in 2001, and then ultimately to serving as the assistant to the president and vice president of Institutional Relations, I had the opportunity daily to observe Dr. Mohler fulfill the multifaceted role of a seminary presidency.
Without question, at the vocational, ministerial level, Dr. Mohler shaped me more than any other individual. Frankly, it’s hard for me to quantify the many different ways he has had an impact on my life, leadership, and ministry convictions.
In particular, I believe the necessity of leading with conviction and vision, as opposed to pragmatic or aesthetic considerations, is a signature aspect of Dr. Mohler’s leadership, and I have sought to lead similarly at Midwestern Seminary. What is more, I learned from Dr. Mohler how to channel my personal ambition and driven-ness into serving the church and sacrificing for Midwestern Seminary.
Additionally, I credit Dr. Mohler with instilling in me a heightened standard of excellence, an appreciation of Southern Baptist history and theological education, and the importance of seeing the church and the world through a biblical and theological paradigm.
I’m grateful to have observed him as someone who is profoundly committed to his calling at Southern Seminary yet cherishes and loves his family as well.
‘Dr. Mohler shaped me more than any other individual’
The value of conviction
SSM: Why did you decide to
come to Southern, despite student angst at the time?
JS: I visited Southern Seminary in November of 1993. Dr. Mohler had been the president for just a few months. I had never even heard of Dr. Mohler. I spent three days on campus.
Faculty in the classrooms were saying derogatory things about him, students in the hallways and in pickup basketball games in the gym were saying terrible things about him.
I met with him in his office on the day I was going to leave, and he shared with me his vision for the seminary. I told him, “Dr. Mohler, I’ve been here three days. None of these people like you; none of these people believe in anything you believe in. What in the world makes you think you’re going to be able to turn this ship around?” And he looked me in the eyes and said, “I can tell you this: By God’s grace, I can turn this ship around, and if I can’t turn it around, I’ll sink it.”
I was so moved by the conviction in his voice and I thought: This is the kind of guy I want to learn from. That conviction was inspiring to me as a 21-year-old kid, and that conversation is literally why I came to seminary.
SSM: what has Dr. Mohler taught you about ministry and leadership that you still use today?
JS: A couple things: One, Dr. Mohler was absolutely committed to identifying and developing the best talent that he could. And one of the things that he has proven over his 25 years is a particular facility for identifying, attracting, and developing high-level leaders.
Two, Dr. Mohler told me a long time ago that if you really want to have a voice and make a difference in an organization, you have to show up at the meetings. Dr. Mohler has always maintained that.
SSM: How is Family Church different because of your time at Southern?
JS: My whole life is different because of my time at Southern. First, the mentoring relationships that were established at Southern are probably the most important thing. There were men who poured into my life — they helped me think about what it means to be a Christian man, a Christian husband, a Christian father, a Christian minister. Second, my education at Southern Seminary gave me theological and biblical tools that I could use to become a better student of the Word and a more effective teacher of the Word. Even though I don’t know everything I need to know off the top of my head, I know where to find everything I need to know.
Third, the friendships and peer relationships with students over the years have been very powerful in my life. A lot of the close friendships I’ve had over 25 years were established here at Southern Seminary. Even though there’s a strong move towards distance education and online education, I still think there’s something special to leaving home, going to a place, committing a season of your life, financial investment, and time to training at a brick-and-mortar school with real-life professors and real-life students. To me, that life-on-life interaction over a period of years has a very high value, and to everyone who can get that experience, I really encourage them to do it.
Jimmy Scroggins, an M.Div. and Ph.D. graduate of Southern Seminary, was at Southern during its most trying times — right at the beginning of R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s tenure. Now the pastor of Family Church in south Florida, Scroggins talks about his unique view of the resurgence at Southern Seminary.
As the president of the North American Mission Board since 2010, Kevin Ezell works alongside Albert Mohler as a fellow entity leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. But before that, Ezell got a unique perspective on the Southern Seminary president: He was Mohler’s pastor at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, for 14 years.
“When you see him outside his presidential role you respect him even more — to see how he genuinely loves his wife and family, to watch him share his faith and to invest in others sacrificially, and now to observe him as a grandfather shows again a man who has the priorities and focus of his life in proper order,” Ezell said.
Ezell learned much from Mohler about how to navigate difficult leadership situations and said Mohler has adopted a mentoring role in recent years.
“He has been able to help me process next steps in critical decisions,” Ezell said. “I was his pastor for 14 years and he has been more of my pastor the last eight.”
The president’s pastor