Recovering Faithfulness: A Faculty Perspective
Thirty years of leadership is an accomplishment in any job, but when that job is to help thousands of ministers remain faithful to the Word of God and preach it, the reward is greater than anything we can celebrate here on earth.
Even under the best of circumstances and enjoying the greatest possible support from all quarters, anyone who leads anything for three decades has accomplished something remarkable. No sailor has ever enjoyed comfortable winds blowing steadily at his back for 30 years, but even if he did, and if he piloted his boat consistently and safely for all that time, he would be lauded throughout the maritime world as one of the greatest captains ever. Even the greatest leaders rarely last thirty years at the helm of their organizations. Henry Ford didn’t do it. Neither did Sam Walton. Franklin Roosevelt made it for about half that time. Winston Churchill did not come close.
Thirty years is an astounding accomplishment, but the obstacles and challenges through which Dr. Mohler had to lead, makes his accomplishment truly singular. Those few leaders who actually stayed in one role for three decades usually were able to do so because they led something they built from the ground up (like Walt Disney) or were welcomed into leadership by an organization that desperately needed change—and wanted it. The most astonishing aspect of Dr. Mohler’s tenure at Southern Seminary is also perhaps the most underappreciated: he was appointed to steer an organization that overwhelmingly rejected him and everything he stood for. For the first years of his tenure, the majority of the administration and faculty woke each morning with the singular goal of thwarting any attempt of the President to return the institution to its historic theological moorings.
Who else could have had the patience, the wisdom, the skills, or the intestinal fortitude not only to withstand such relentless opposition, but also to reorient the organization despite internal obstinance? To put it bluntly, very few members of Southern Seminary’s 1993 faculty were positive, much less excited, about Mohler’s election to the office of President. If Mohler was commissioned to right the ship, his task seemed almost impossible because most of the professors would rather sink it by running to the side listing heavily to the “neo-orthodox” brand of liberal theology. Dr. Mohler’s predecessor, Dr. Roy Honeycutt, had ominously warned the seminary community in the fall 1984 convocation that “the crucial ingredients of our heritage [are] now being eviscerated by the myopic and uniformed action of independent fundamentalists and the sincere but naïve individuals recruited to support their political party.” No one thought Dr. Mohler naïve.
Consequently, Dr. Mohler was alternately accused of being a “fundamentalist” or, worse yet, a theological opportunist who struck a Faustian bargain to attain the presidency. This loathsome charge was made repeatedly by Southern Seminary faculty such as Bill Leonard and Henlee Barnette and immortalized in the 1995 film, “Battle for the Minds,” a documentary about Mohler’s appointment as President
and the turmoil that ensued.
The first two years of Dr. Mohler’s tenure were tumultuous to say the least. When he preached in chapel, students would stand with their backs to him throughout the sermon. Afterward, faculty members would be waiting for him at his office to voice their strong disagreement with the content of his message. At commencement, many graduates would refuse to shake his hand as he congratulated them and handed them their diploma.
By 1995, the turbulent waves threatened to wash him overboard and bring an abrupt end to his presidency. Mohler and the dean of the Carver School of Social Work, Diana Garland, had serious differences about the mission of the Carver School, the ordination of women, and the election of future faculty. When Garland resigned, the reaction and rebuke of the faculty was as brutal as it was swift. In a vote of support for Garland and a repudiation of the President, only two members voted for him. Students and faculty members held a protest on the seminary lawn and Dr. Mohler was burned in effigy. A student spat on him. Students kept vigil outside his office singing the official hymn of the Carver School. Members of the seminary community said terribly mean things to the Mohler children, then six and three years old.
Dr. and Mrs. Mohler were not sure that they could continue. Sitting on the floor in the President’s Home, weeping and crying out to God, they found the strength to go on. It became clear that the Board of Trustees would stay behind him, but finding the way forward meant finding a new faculty, and that would not be easy. At the same time, I lived seventy miles to the east in Lexington, KY, serving as pastor of the historic Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, watching all of this unfold. I did not know Dr. Mohler personally, but when he was elected President, I called him immediately while he was still Editor of the Georgia Baptist Index. I thought he should know at least one pastor in Kentucky was glad he was coming to Southern. In a brief but memorable conversation, I assured him of my prayers, but I also got a measure of the man.
My own history with Southern was a bit complicated. I grew up in a very conservative group of Baptist churches that had formerly been Southern Baptist but had withdrawn from the SBC and become independent due to the liberalism they saw in the SBC, particularly in the seminaries and especially at Southern. When I chose a seminary, I did not matriculate at Southern precisely because I had seen the effect that Southern Seminary had on many Kentucky Baptist churches and preachers. Stories abounded about fresh young preachers who enrolled there only to have their faith challenged or even destroyed. When I learned that Dr. Mohler genuinely believed the Abstract of Principles and had been elected by the Trustees to bring the ship about and return to what the Founders believed, I was cautiously and prayerfully optimistic, but I wasn’t sure he could pull it off.– Especially in 1995.
The Courier-Journal and local television stations were covering the turbulent events at Southern daily. Many faculty members were leaving, some voluntarily, some not, but each departure made news. Dr. Mohler’s search for a new generation of faithful, conservative Baptist scholars who would join him in training pastors, scholars, missionaries, and ministers to serve the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention became even more urgent—and more risky. One could not be sure that the seminary, let alone Mohler’s presidency, would survive the upheaval.
People with great vision, however, are drawn to people with even greater vision. The faculty began to turn around as men like Danny Akin, Dan Block, Tim Beougher, and George Martin came to join Dr. Mohler in this grand endeavor. I finally met Dr. Mohler in person at the SBC in 1996 and he graciously asked me to preach in chapel that October. Over lunch with him and George Martin, I asked, “Who are you getting to teach preaching?” Little did I know that within a few months the Lord would lay on my heart that I should do that very thing. I left a thriving ministry in a large church I loved for much the same reason that every faculty member since 1993 has come here–because I believed in Dr. Mohler’s ability to lead this seminary to fulfill the mission that God has given, and I wanted to be a part of something that has an eternal impact.
I arrived in 1997 alongside Greg Wills, Robert Stein, Tom Schreiner, and Tom Nettles. Though there were still many members of the old faculty here then, the outcome was beginning to look more certain. With every successive year, more gifted godly men and women came here to teach, excited and energized by the historic doctrinal commitments that originally defined Southern Seminary and were reinstated by this faithful President. By the year 2000, the faculty had turned over almost completely. After thirty years of uncompromising commitment to sound doctrine, no one questions the reality of Al Mohler’s convictions. In fact, those convictions are the reason the rest of us bought into his leadership.
I not only know Dr. Mohler as my president and colleague, but also as a trusted friend and brother. Once, when my sons were teens, I feared that one of them was making bad decisions and straying from the Lord. Like any Christian father, I counseled him, prayed for him, corrected him, and loved him. I did everything I knew to do, including enlisting the prayers of close friends. When I asked Dr. Mohler to pray for my son, he went beyond what I asked. He invited my son to drive him one evening to a preaching engagement—two hours each way. And for four hours that night, Al Mohler spoke gospel truth to my son with the same commitment that made him succeed in turning Southern Seminary around. Today, that son is in ministry and a father himself, grateful for the way Dr. Mohler cared so personally for him and resolutely pointed him to Christ.
The day I heard that a 33-year-old R. Albert Mohler, Jr. had been elected president of Southern Seminary, I could not have imagined the impact it would have on my own life. I could not have foreseen how that single decision would result in theological renewal in churches across Kentucky, the nation, and the world. I had no way to envision that he would assemble what many have called the greatest faculty in the evangelical world and their collective Kingdom effect. Thirty years of leadership is an accomplishment in any job, but when that job is to help thousands of ministers remain faithful to the Word of God and preach it, the reward is greater than anything we can celebrate here on earth.