the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Twenty years 
of denominational 
statesmanship

Twenty years 
of denominational 
statesmanship

Gregory A WIlls

October 15, 2013

At the June 2000 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Fla., messenger Anthony Sisemore objected to the revision of the Baptist Faith and Message proposed by the committee appointed to the task. Sisemore wanted to retain the statement that the Bible is “the record of God’s revelation of himself to man,” rather than the proposed statement that the Bible “is God’s revelation of himself to man.” Sisemore thought that the new confession placed the Bible above the Savior — although the Bible pointed to Christ, Sisemore argued, “the Bible is still just a book.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., who was a member of the committee and worked extensively on drafting the proposals, defended the committee’s revisions. Mohler’s response prompted a standing ovation: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what it all comes down to. The issue is whether the Bible is the word of God or merely a record of God’s word. ... The Bible is not merely a record; it is the revelation of God.” The committee’s revised version passed overwhelmingly. Mohler’s role in the passage is etched in denominational memory.

Throughout the history of Southern Seminary, its presidents have repeatedly been called upon to serve also in the role of denominational statesman. They proved themselves as strong and effective leaders with sound judgment and wisdom, and so the denomination called upon them again and again to render advice and give aid in the matters that concerned the churches and the convention.

James P. Boyce, the seminary’s first president, led the denomination with profound consequences. By great wisdom, labor and sacrifice, he led Southern Baptists to establish the seminary. And when the seminary’s fifth professor, Crawford Toy, embraced liberalism, Boyce was determined to lead the seminary in steadfast opposition to liberalism’s errors. He and the faculty successfully defended the orthodox view of inspiration and inerrancy, and convinced Southern Baptists of the crucial importance of opposing the liberal view, providing a precedent whose power endures to the present. Southern Baptists relied on Boyce’s wise leadership, electing him president of the convention nine times, from 1872 to 1879, and again in 1888.

Edgar Y. Mullins, president of the seminary from 1899 to 1928, served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention three times, from 1921 to 1923. More significantly, he led the convention to adopt its first confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, in 1925, when he served as chairman of the committee appointed to review the question as to whether or not the denomination needed a confession. The convention repeatedly called upon Mullins’s denominational statesmanship.

John R. Sampey, president of the seminary from 1929 to 1942, served as president of the convention 1936-1938. With aid from his advice and encouragement, Southern Baptists successfully negotiated the grave threats that the Great Depression posed to denominational interests.

Duke K. McCall, president of the seminary from 1951 to 1982, was already a recognized leader among Southern Baptists, having served as president of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention before trustees called him to serve as the seminary’s seventh president. McCall’s influence in the denomination at large was legendary.

When Mohler accepted election as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, he had already served as chairman of the Committee on Resolutions at the 1992 Southern Baptist Convention, and served on the Presidential Theological Study Committee, appointed also in 1992.

Mohler’s task in 1993 was to chart a new course for the seminary, building a faculty committed to the full inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible and sending forth students who were zealously committed to Bible truth and gospel preaching. Mohler successfully led Southern Seminary through heated conflict and grave difficulty, reshaping, and in many ways recreating, the school in accordance with the scriptural principles upon which Boyce first established it — and did so amid new complexities and challenges.

Through these challenges, Mohler demonstrated uncommon wisdom, strength, courage and vision. It is unsurprising that Southern Baptists trusted him with denominational concerns and looked to him as a judicious counselor and leader.

In 1995, messengers elected him to preach the convention sermon. In it he called messengers to pursue a “holy passion” for God, to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and to renew their zeal for evangelism.

Mohler labored on the complicated and difficult task of the Program and Structure Study Committee, which in 1995 recommended extensive changes in structure and work of Southern Baptist Convention entities, merging some and discontinuing others for the purpose of a “higher standard of faithfulness and stewardship in the denomination’s mission to “assist the churches in carrying out the Great Commission.”

Mohler played an important role on the Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee in 2000, which corrected the objectionable language added in 1963 and provided a defense against a number of  new errors regarding the character of God, creation, marriage and gender.

Mohler labored on the Great Commission Task Force, and made the motion in 2009 from the convention floor that lead to the convention’s authorizing president Johnny Hunt to appoint this committee. The convention adopted the committee’s recommendations, with minor amendments, the following year, for the purpose of a renewed focus on the task of the Great Commission, sacrificial giving and efficient deployment of the convention’s Cooperative Program gifts.

Mohler served also on the task force appointed by convention president Bryant Wright to report on the possibility of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. The convention adopted the committee’s recommendations in 2012.

Mohler worked most recently on the Calvinism Advisory Committee, appointed by Executive Committee president Frank Page in 2012 to help ease the brewing tensions over differences between Calvinism and its opponents in the denomination. The committee’s report, published prior to the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention meeting, helpfully clarified the points of agreement and disagreement, called on Southern Baptists manage disagreement in loving ways, and urged mutual trust in order to work together on the urgent task of sending the gospel to a perishing world.

In such crucial moments God has used the presidents of Southern Seminary in leading the denomination’s pursuit of righteousness, wisdom and truth. Boyce, Mullins, Sampey and McCall were called upon repeatedly to serve the needs of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mohler, like his predecessors, serves effectively as president of Southern Seminary and as a leading statesman of the Southern Baptist Convention. May God ever raise up godly leadership within the convention.

 

Gregory A. Wills is dean of the School of Theology and professor of church history at Southern Seminary.

 

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