One of the realities of life in the Christian community post 1517 is more complex forms of division. Division was, of course, a reality prior to Luther’s Reformation, but with the German Reformer’s writings and actions came a new level of division along organizational lines. Prior to the Reformation, every Christian had two types of membership in the Christian community: Membership in their local church in which they practiced public worship, received the sacraments, lived with their fellow members, and so forth. They also held membership in the broader church universal, which was a larger organization that helped mediate conflicts in local churches, define acceptable doctrine within local churches, handled much of the church’s money, and trained the church’s leaders.
The key point is that the broader church universal and the larger organizational structure of the church were functionally the same thing. With the Reformation, a third membership was added that guts the second membership of most of its obvious responsibilities, that membership is the denomination. (It should be noted that I’m speaking exclusively of western Christianity here – the picture gets much more complex if we include the Orthodox, Nestorian, Coptic, and Jacobite churches.)
With denominationalism, the role of the local church stays largely the same. But the second membership becomes the denomination, which performs all the functions of the universal church prior to 1517. They handle the money, define the doctrinal parameters of the denomination, and so forth. Yet our membership within the larger people of God secured in Christ hasn’t changed. I may be a member in the Presbyterian Church in America, but I still have obligations to love my brothers and sisters in other Christian denominations – even if our organizational ties have been severed. And this is where Al Mohler and the young, restless, reformed wing of evangelicalism shows it’s greatest weakness.
To recap, Al Mohler is the President of Southern Seminary, the flagship seminary of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists. (They claim 16 million members, but everyone knows that figure is wildly inaccurate. A very liberal but honest estimate of their membership would be about half that. Lying about such an important figure is probably something the SBC should repent of – and, you know, stop doing – before they start telling everyone in evangelicalism to be young-earthers, but that’s another rant for another day.) When Mohler came to Southern in the early 90s it was known as a moderate-to-liberal seminary within a generally conservative denomination. Moreover, it was generally understood that there was a big difference between Southern Baptists and Evangelicals – and the Baptists wanted it that way. As Mohler says in the CT piece, “Baptist was a Yankee word.” But when Mohler took over he quickly began cleaning house at Southern. The moderate-to-liberal faculty were all dismissed and replaced by conservatives. And the watersheds that defined “moderate-to-liberal” vs. “conservative” were issues like the doctrines of grace/TULIP (commonly – and inaccurately – referred to as “Calvinism”), complementarianism, young earth creationism, and inerrancy. In Mohler’s defense, this was not an arbitrary list he defined, but simply an attempt to make the school conform to its own standards, a document called the Abstract of Principles.
Within 10 years Southern had become a thriving, rapidly-growing seminary and Mohler had developed a reputation as a firebrand reformer who was also a quite capable controversialist and popular-level intellectual. Around that time, there was a growing interest nationwide in various forms of Reformed theology. Mark Driscoll and Acts 29 championed a brand similar to Mohler’s in its theology, but more culturally savvy. Meanwhile, PCA pastor Tim Keller was also quietly working in Manhattan at a wildly successful church plant he and his wife had started in the 1980s called Redeemer Presbyterian. In the Baltimore/DC area, pastors C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris were developing and growing a movement that embraced elements of Pentecostalism and Reformed thought in an interesting and historically unique ministry called Sovereign Grace. Additionally – and most importantly – Baptist pastor John Piper’s ministry of Desiring God and his church, Bethlehem Baptist, were growing at unprecedented rates with Piper quickly becoming one of evangelicalism’s most famous authors through books like Desiring God, Don’t Waste Your Life, and Let the Nations be Glad!.
It wasn’t long before these disparate groups began to come together around their shared belief in a vaguely Reformed set of doctrines. (I say vaguely reformed because technically speaking the only Reformed guy in the bunch I just named is Keller because Keller is the only one that baptizes babies and talks about the Gospel primarily as a proclamation of creational renewal, both of which are absolute staples of the reformed tradition. The rest are, and I don’t mean this derisively, Baptists who like aspects of Calvin’s thought.) Through conferences hosted by Desiring God, Together 4 the Gospel, Ligonier, Acts 29, and Sovereign Grace, these men began to work more closely together and the “young, restless, reformed” movement was born.
Recently, Christianity Today ran a profile focused on Mohler and his role in reforming Southern Seminary, the SBC, and evangelicalism on the whole. Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, Andrew Walker and others understandably found the piece condescending. Writer Molly Werthen did a decent job giving a big picture of Mohler’s influence, but some of her writing – especially the section discussing Mohler’s library – comes off as terribly patronizing to our Southern brothers and sisters. Moreover, that section is especially distressing, but it also makes some dreadfully cynical assumptions about Mohler. It assumes he’s some kind of insecure southerner who uses a big library to impress northerners. But, to point out the obvious… maybe he just likes books? Though Worthen’s portrayal of Mohler is hardly charitable (and, speaking as a former newspaper editor, is journalistically questionable) there’s more that needs to be said and to say it we have to return to our three memberships described above.
Mohler is a fundamentalist. Again, I don’t mean it derisively. I simply mean that by the historical definition of the term as it was defined throughout the first half of the 20th century, he’s a fundamentalist. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just what he is. And as the President of Southern, he has every right to try and push Southern in that direction. It’s not necessarily the direction I’d like to see them go, but it’s not my school or my denomination so my opinion doesn’t matter. But where Mohler’s thinking becomes dangerous is when he tries to impose these views on the rest of evangelicalism – a movement originally intended to be a departure from fundamentalism. Functionally, I wonder if Mohler sees a distinction between the Southern Baptist Convention and the big tent of evangelicalism. He seems to make the same demands of rigid complementarianism, young earth creationism, and belief in predestination that have defined his regime at Southern. What other reason could he have for going after people like the members of the BioLogos forum in such a public and aggressive fashion? None of them are SBCers, yet he’s attacked them on a regular basis for the past year.
Historically, Mohler’s rigid fundamentalism is not what Evangelicalism has stood for. Scot McKnight said as much in his post last week and historically speaking, he’s absolutely correct. Evangelicalism, when it emerged in the mid 20th century, arose under the leadership of thinkers like Carl Henry, Billy Graham and, later, Francis Schaeffer. It was a self-consciously moderate move away from the extremes of fundamentalism and modernism, an attempt to reclaim the center. And while Henry and Schaeffer would share much of Mohler’s theology, a point belabored by Mohler’s defenders, they did not share Mohler’s universalizing ethos that would see everyone in evangelicalism embrace that theology (and, for what it’s worth, Schaeffer himself wasn’t a young earther). They saw theological diversity as a very good thing. At Mohler’s Southern the “diversity” amounts to having faculty that are both four and five point Calvinists. In contrast, Henry and Graham sought a big tent approach to our membership in that third group, the group that goes beyond local churches and denominationalism. The required theology was very basic, practically creedal in fact. To be evangelical you needed to affirm things like the trinity, the incarnation, the physical resurrection, the virgin birth, and inerrancy – and on that issue of inerrancy, a lot of leeway was given for a variety of approaches to scripture. These views are all common – and almost universal – throughout all of Christian history. Offering such broad criteria for membership in evangelicalism allowed us, at our best, to be a movement comprised of Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, non-denominationalists, and Congregationalists. If we adopted Mohler’s more rigorous criteria that includes complementarianism, young earth creationism, and the doctrines of Grace… goodbye big tent, hello ghetto fundamentalism.
At its best, the big tent allowed our movement to accomplish things we couldn’t accomplish as smaller groups. Certainly, big tent evangelicalism is not perfect. But the problems that arose (a lack of theological rigor and our co-option into the Republican Party being two of the greatest) can’t be blamed on the existence of the big tent, but on the people inside inside it who weren’t always careful enough in their thinking about what they should be and do.
But, while discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of the big tent have value, they ultimately miss the point. The most important part of the big tent isn’t what we do with it, but that it exists. Jesus puts a huge emphasis on Christian unity. In his High Priestly prayer in John 17 he goes so far as to say the proof that he came from the Father is that Christians would be one. So regardless of what we do with the big tent, it should exist as a place where we can set aside secondary differences and embrace our brothers and sisters, where we can worship with them, pray with them, and – when able – pursue the work of the Kingdom with them. Mohler’s inability to distinguish between the SBC and evangelicalism is a threat to this big tent because his list of “essentials” is so much lengthier and – it should be noted – historically anomalous.
In any event, my takeaways on the Mohler/CT issue go something like this: a) Worthen’s piece was at times condescending and cynical. It’s understandable that Mohler’s friends would be upset about that. b) That said, if they showed the same passion for Christian unity that they showed for their friend’s reputation then perhaps the non-reformed members of evangelicalism wouldn’t think that Reformed Christians are characterized primarily by our arrogance and pretension. c) If Mohler wants to fundamentalize the SBC, he has every right to do so. But he has no right to make those same demands on his brothers and sisters in Acts 29, the PCA, Sovereign Grace, etc. For example, I don’t buy young earth creationism. I think the biblical case for it is very weak and the scientific evidence against it is overwhelming. Some of my friends share this view. Are we not evangelicals? We take public stands on all issues essential to the Christian faith – and sometimes we get lit up for it by those outside the church (and sometimes by those inside it). Yet it seems that Mohler’s brand of evangelicalism leaves no room for people like us.
Of course, if we were in the SBC, then Mohler and the SBC powers that be could do whatever they want with us, we’d be under their ecclesial authority. We’d be obligated to submit. But I’m not under Mohler’s authority, I’m under the authority of my local pastor and the PCA, both of whom have said we don’t need to be young earthers. Mohler and the SBC can do what they want, but they have no right to make those same demands on their brothers and sisters in other denominations. So Mohler’s insistence on these beliefs as necessary for evangelical belief is arrogant, historically absurd, and, to use a term more common around here, imperialistic. Most importantly, it threatens the lifeblood of Christian testimony to the non-Christian world: the unity of Christian brothers and sisters.