Mohler, Mormons, and Militancy
On Monday of this week, Albert Mohler, Jr. delivered an address at Brigham Young University. Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the largest Baptist seminary in the world. If one reckons Baptists as Protestants, then it would be the largest Protestant seminary in the world. Brigham Young University is the most prominent Mormon educational institution in the world.
Mohler was not invited to preach to the Mormons. He was not invited to conduct interfaith dialogue with them. He was asked to address the problems created by the current erosion of religious liberty in the face of radical redefinitions of marriage and family. With the exception of distinguishing Christianity from Mormonism, he largely stuck to his task.
If any Mormons are upset about the presence of a Gentile speaker on the platform, they’re not getting any press. Some fundamentalists, however, have expressed disappointment that Mohler agreed to appear in a Mormon venue. Some are also upset that he chose to talk about intellectual history and civic affairs rather than delivering a sermon. These fundamentalists tend to see Mohler’s appearance at BYU through the grid of certain past decisions, such as his (later repented) endorsement of the Manhattan Declaration. Some also link Mohler’s appearance with Mormons with Jerry Falwell’s willingness to include Mormons in his Moral Majority.
The problem with Moral Majority, however, was not that it included Mormons (or Catholics or other people who were not biblical Christians). If the Bible forbade Christians ever to join with non-Christians in any endeavor, then every Christian would have to resign from nearly every political, commercial, and cultural activity. Christians would not be able to run for congress, fly an airliner, or play in a decent symphony. Rather than requiring this kind of separation, however, the Bible explicitly disavows it. Believing people are not to cut themselves entirely off from the wicked people of the world—indeed, if they had to, they would need to leave the planet (1 Cor. 5:10).
What the Bible requires is sometimes called ecclesiastical separation. The idea behind ecclesiastical separation is that those who are reckoned as part of the true ecclesia (church universal) must never pretend to Christian fellowship with those who are not. Thus, Paul pronounces an anathema upon those who teach a false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9), while John forbids Christians from giving even mild encouragement to gospel deniers when they come to spread their false doctrine (2 Jn. 10-11).
Such passages leave unaddressed the relationship between Christians and apostates in the ordinary course of life. They do not require a newly-converted Christian to abandon her husband if he is a Jehovah’s Witness. They do not demand that a banker resign his presidency when members of his board are Catholics. Specifically, they do not imply that a Christian academic should avoid all association with apostate academics within the academy.
Back to Moral Majority. The problem was not that it involved people of different faiths in the pursuit of a public policy that favored morality. The problem was that it never clearly drew the line to show where politics ended and religion began. The result was a vague impression, never entirely dispelled, that the Moral Majority was actually involved with both religion and politics. Falwell even included a whole chapter on the Moral Majority in his book on Fundamentalism. In other words, he tried to straddle the fence between politics and religion. This attempt was, from a biblical point of view, disastrous.
The same problem came up again in the Manhattan Declaration. The signatories were evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox who shared a core concern to protect traditional morality from hostile public policy. Along the way, they downplayed their differences and acknowledged one another as Christians and brothers. The line between Christianity and apostasy, however, is clearer than the Manhattan Declaration would allow. For an evangelical to sign the Manhattan Declaration was, in a very important sense, to betray the gospel.
Albert Mohler was wrong to sign the Manhattan Declaration. Eventually, he himself changed his mind (repented) about the document. When he came to understand that the Manhattan Declaration undermined the gospel itself, he publicly distanced himself from it.
Was his appearance at Brigham Young University simply a repetition of the same error? Mohler’s words indicate otherwise. From the beginning of his address he emphasized the contrast between Christianity and Mormonism. He neither stated nor implied that Mormons should be recognized as Christians. Quite the contrary, he stated that Mormonism and Christianity occupied “separate and irreconcilable theological worlds.” He insisted that he did not believe that Mormons would be in heaven together with Christians. He stated clearly, “I believe that salvation comes only to those who believe and trust only in Christ and in his substitutionary atonement for salvation. I believe in justification by faith alone, in Christ alone.”
Perhaps because of his experience with the Manhattan Declaration, Mohler was careful to distinguish Christianity from Mormonism. At no point did he suggest that his presence at BYU represented some form of Christian commonality or fellowship—in fact, that was what he explicitly denied. Mohler appeared, not as an ecclesiastic to dialogue about some form of interfaith rapprochement, but as an academic to address the very real possibility that both Christians and Mormons could soon face overt persecution from increasingly hostile secularists.
In short, nothing in Mohler’s appearance at BYU violates any of the Bible’s teachings about ecclesiastical separation. Mohler did not transgress any biblical precept or violate any biblical principle by speaking to Mormons, nor did he somehow betray his calling when, in an academic role, he chose to address cultural and intellectual issues instead of preaching a sermon. No legitimate, biblical criticism can be directed at Mohler in this instance.
Of course, even if Mohler’s participation is not a moral issue, it might still be a mistaken judgment. Gauging the wisdom of this choice would require the sifting and weighing of many factors. What would be the likely effect if conservatives of different faiths cannot unite in the social and political sphere? Or, what credibility might Mormonism have gained simply because a leader of Mohler’s stature was willing to appear at BYU? The answers to such questions are subject to debate, much as they were when the chancellor of a fundamentalist university endorsed a Mormon for the presidency. Both men have received criticism for their decisions, but in both cases the decision was a judgment call.
Discussing the wisdom of Mohler’s decision is beyond the scope of this essay. If it was unwise, then room for criticism still exists. If such criticism is offered, however, it needs to be clearly directed toward issues pertaining to prudence, and not to those arising from principle.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
from The Task
William Cowper (1731–1800)
[From Book III, The Garden]
I WAS a stricken deer that left the herd
Long since; with many an arrow deep infixed
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
There was I found by One who had Himself
Been hurt by the archers. In His side He bore,
And in His hands and feet, the cruel scars.
With gentle force soliciting the darts,
He drew them forth, and healed and bade me live.
Since then, with few associates, in remote
And silent woods I wander, far from those
My former partners of the peopled scene;
With few associates, and not wishing more.
Here much I ruminate, as much I may,
With other views of men and manners now
Than once, and others of a life to come.
I see that all are wanderers, gone astray
Each in his own delusions; they are lost
In chase of fancied happiness, still wooed
And never won. Dream after dream ensues,
And still they dream that they shall still succeed,
And still are disappointed. Rings the world
With the vain stir. I sum up half mankind,
And add two-thirds of the remaining half,
And find the total of their hopes and fears
Dreams, empty dreams.
About Kevin Bauder
Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.