Friday, September 19, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In beginning his 10th year as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, R. Albert Mohler Jr. delivered a convocation speech that rang off the walls of the school’s chapel with evangelistic fervor.

“The task for Southern Seminary in the years ahead,” Mr. Mohler told students and faculty, “is to stand on the faith … without compromise.”

That’s certainly been the way Mr. Mohler has seen his mission so far at the Louisville school, a 144-year-old training ground for pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. His unbending conservatism has helped school enrollment reach record heights (“a sign of God’s great blessing,” he says), but it also has brought criticism and suggestions of intolerance.

When Mr. Mohler took over Southern, the oldest of six seminaries in the SBC, his ascension cemented a sharp rightward shift as conservatives took control of a seminary where moderates once flourished. It also reflected a larger realignment within the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Mr. Mohler, handpicked by conservatives on the seminary’s board of trustees, had already gained a reputation as an outspoken conservative voice while editor of a Southern Baptist newspaper in Georgia.

The conservative swing prompted an exodus of faculty at odds with Mr. Mohler’s strict ideological stands over such issues as women in the pastorate — he’s against women’s admission — and the infallibility of Scripture. The faculty underwent a near-complete turnover after Mr. Mohler’s arrival.

Wade Rowatt, one of those who departed, said Southern once projected a “symphony of voices” across the philosophical spectrum. Now it clings to a rigid theology, its leaders “a Baptist version of the Taliban,” he said.

“They were able to take over the buildings, they were able to take over the endowment, they were able to take over the curriculum,” said Mr. Rowatt, who left in 1995 and has taught psychology of religion, pastoral care and family counseling since the early 1970s. “They are occupying institutions that they didn’t build and enjoying the spoils of the conquer.”

Bill Leonard, who departed Southern just before Mr. Mohler’s rise to president, said Mr. Mohler completed the school’s redirection onto a narrowly evangelical course.

“He’s done what he was called to do, and that was a decision that Southern Baptists made about their schools,” said Mr. Leonard, now dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University. “We made a valiant effort to give them another kind of vision, and they said no, and it’s over.”

Mr. Mohler, 43, said his first priority a decade ago was the seminary’s “theological recovery.” The faculty he inherited included “brilliant” teachers with one shortcoming: “They opposed the movement of this institution into much clearer confessional fidelity” to doctrine.

Mr. Mohler said he wished more faculty had accepted “this kind of vision,” but there was no room for compromise.

“So the big question is: Was that worth it? Was the one issue worth all of this? And the answer has to be yes,” he said. “Because the price of not enforcing confessional fidelity is simply too tragic.”

John Polhill, a professor for 34 years at Southern, said he admired Mr. Mohler for “his backbone” during that turbulent era.

“He took an awful lot of flak, some of it quite hostile,” Mr. Polhill said. “The atmosphere now is very healthy. There’s a real good spirit among faculty.”

The Rev. Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Southern under Mr. Mohler’s leadership turned back a moderate drift and underwent a “renaissance and spiritual renewal.”

“If you want to maintain the spiritual fire and fervor of the church, then you start with the education and the development of the minister,” said Mr. Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.

With a campus of stately brick buildings and immaculately groomed lawns, Southern Seminary has grown during Mr. Mohler’s tenure. Enrollment, which dropped sharply early in his presidency, is expected to surpass 3,500 in the current academic year.

“It tells me that this generation is not looking for tepid Christianity but is looking for the authentic thing,” he said.

New buildings rose and old ones were renovated. The Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth opened but the Carver School of Church Social Work was closed. A four-year baccalaureate college was formed. The seminary’s budget nearly doubled, to $25.3 million.

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