Hi and welcome back! This past week, we’ve been talking about Al Mohler, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader, and how he changed his mind about women pastors. As I said at the outset, Al Mohler’s historic flip-flop isn’t particularly news. He gave a speech about it back in 2010 to a bunch of his seminary’s students. (Transcription here.) His former support of women pastors only came back into awareness recently because the SBC is squabbling yet again about the topic. But now, I want us to circle back around to his speech. The contents of that speech and its intended audience both matter enormously. They tell us a lot about how authoritarians model behavior for their followers — and warn them of the consequences of stepping out of line. Today, let’s examine Al Mohler’s 2010 speech for its authoritarian signals.
The Setting: Al Mohler in His Fiefdom.
First, let’s examine the setting of Al Mohler’s speech. It took place on Tuesday, September 14, 2010 during mandatory daily chapel services at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). The seminary keeps records of their chapel sermons right here, so we can see this one nestled between “Signs of a Healthy Church” and “Panel Discussion: Marriage in a Prop. 8 Culture.” Clearly, SBTS engaged earnestly with the fundagelical culture wars of their day.
More importantly, SBTS belonged — and belongs still — to Al Mohler.
Back in 1993, the architects of the Conservative Resurgence gave Al Mohler the SBTS presidency. At the time, he was only in his mid-30s. They elevated him because they’d already seen what a yes-man he really was. They’d already noticed that he possessed not one single ideal that could not be extinguished, rerouted, or corrupted by his loyalty to the Party. Plus, he was a hardline Calvinist — just like the ultimate puppeteers behind the Conservative Resurgence. Yes, he’d do just fine.
Thus, Al Mohler succeeded the former president, Roy Honeycutt. Honeycutt stridently opposed the Conservative Resurgence. So he had to go!
As soon as Al Mohler took control of SBTS, he immediately began guiding its students to become like himself: anti-intellectual, Calvinist-hardliner authoritarians.
So in this speech, Al Mohler sits atop his throne. He addresses his subjects. He speaks about a topic his own masters will definitely approve. And he gives this speech during the seminary’s required daily chapel services very early in the semester (SBTS 2010-11 catalog).
SBTS students had no choice about attending daily chapel services, so they were very much Al Mohler’s captive audience that day.
A Powerful Appeal to Biblical Authority.
Al Mohler subtitled his 2010 speech “Learning Ministry from Apollos.”
If that subtitle refers to the character “Apollos” in the Bible, then we’re talking about a very early Christian leader mentioned in the books of Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Titus. In Acts 18:24-26, we learn his story:
Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. [Source]
So Apollos didn’t have the full picture of early Christianity. (So much for the supposed unity of Original Christianity, eh?) Priscilla and Aquila, a married couple active in the local group, took him aside to fill him in more fully.
Apparently, a 4th-century priest named Jerome wrote that Apollos eventually went to Corinth to lead Christians there. In Jerome’s telling, Apollos got so sick of the divisions among his flock that he flat-out left till things calmed down again. I don’t know how Jerome knew that. Nor do I know if Al Mohler knew about it.
Either way, the implications are clear. Al Mohler evokes, in his speech, a character from the Bible who got corrected and then went on to great things in the early religion.
More to the point, Al Mohler compares himself to Apollos. He subtly encourages his audience to envision themselves the same way.
What Al Mohler Doesn’t Want His Audience to Think About.
However, as we’ve just seen, the character of Apollos wasn’t actually wrong about anything. The author of Acts distinctly and specifically tells us that Apollos had had accurate instructions about Christianity. What he taught, as a result, was likewise correct. It simply wasn’t complete.
Thus, Priscilla and Aquila only needed to expand his understanding.
(Is it possible the author of Acts wanted to make the situation sound less dire than it was? To make early Christians sound more unified in beliefs than they truly were? Yes, of course. The New Testament functions as sales propaganda. However, Al Mohler thinks it’s literally true and inerrant.)
In this case, though, Al Mohler will be sharing a time when he thinks his teachings and information were flat out wrong. He wasn’t just operating off of incomplete information, and thus was just in need of a few filling-in pieces. In his tribe’s opinion, his erroneous beliefs were make-or-break sins that could send him to Hell.
But whatevs. We’ve already seen that Al Mohler doesn’t really understand the Bible allusions he makes. Very often, they don’t actually illustrate the points he uses them to illustrate.
(As just one example, he misused the “little cloud” story in his recent rant about women pastors. One of the commentariat caught it. The story comes from 1 Kings 41-46. Mohler uses the cloud imagery to illustrate foreboding events, but in the actual story the little cloud is a good thing.)
Forget all that! Al Mohler wants to tell y’all about a time he was just like Apollos in the Bible!
Al Mohler Modeled Shame Responses for His Students.
And how exactly was young Al Mohler totally just like this Bible character?
Why, he was teaching accurate but incomplete things. A powerful couple in the local church took him aside and very quietly added to his information so he could go forth and preach the whole story–
In this story, Al Mohler was actually preaching something his masters thought was completely morally wrong, and one of their powerful leaders, Carl Henry, humiliated him about it — right on the seminary lawn.
For what it’s worth, I believe Al Mohler when he talks about how absolutely crushing this correction really felt to him. After all, Mohler read and loved Carl Henry’s books. He clearly thought he was Jesus-ing perfectly and in accordance with Henry in his support of women pastors. And then, his hero pulled him up short like he was a dog in a prong collar. Twenty-five years later, I can still hear Al Mohler’s frightened, shocked mental yelp as he describes the scene.
What happened next in the story, though, is what Al Mohler wants his students to absorb. In effect, he’s telling them something they will desperately need to know and learn and live about their broken system:
Your superiors will humiliate you if you’re wrong about something. Here is how to react afterward as you absorb their correction and adopt their views.
More importantly, he’s telling them not to argue with or disobey their superiors. It does not even occur to young Al Mohler to question Carl Henry’s opinion. Or if it did occur to him, he carefully omits such questioning from his story.
A Permission Slip of Plausible Deniability.
Now, here we are together with the SBTS students in their chapel service in 2010. We have heard about a crushing humiliation Al Mohler suffered in his younger days. What did young Al Mohler do next?
He utterly capitulated.
As he tells it, he rushed right to the library to look for materials that agreed with Carl Henry:
What do you do when Carl Henry tells you, “One day this is going to be a matter of great embarrassment to you?” Well, I went to the library. I looked for every book I could possibly find on the subject. Frankly, the urgency on me was such that I didn’t think I could eat or do anything until I found out why I was going to be so embarrassed. The campus was full of people who appeared to be wonderfully unembarrassed about the issue.
However, that early into the
hijacking of the SBC Conservative Resurgence there weren’t a lot of books supporting Calvinists’ misogyny-for-Jesus viewpoint. Eventually, Mohler managed to find one book on the topic that actually agreed with his hero. And that was enough. It spoon-fed him all the Bible verses and talking points he needed to shout out anything he’d learned in support of women pastors. And he clung to those verses and talking points like a toddler clinging to a well-loved blankie.
Al Mohler models exactly how he wants his own students to react in similar situations. Whenever a superior in the SBC corrects them, he wants them to rush out to find materials that agree with the superior. He allows no room for resistance.
It’s just like Apollos’ story! He was such an easily-persuaded, go-with-the-flow guy! (/s)
Shaping a Narrative of Error.
Of course, even in his retelling of the event Al Mohler can obviously tell that listeners jusssst might think that it was authoritarian pressure from his hero that had changed his mind — not divine influence. Moreover, he seems aware as well that one might just question how he’d come to hold his original position in the first place, if all it took to change his mind was a sharp rebuke from his hero.
In his speech, he insists his change of opinion was totally Jesus’ doing. But he also wants to shape a particular narrative of error in his students’ minds. Look at how he does it, near the end of his speech:
Now… Carl Henry didn’t change my position, but he sure did arrest me. It was the Scripture that changed my position. I had to come face to face with the fact that I had just picked this up, I had just breathed this in, and I’d just capitulated it out without checking it according to the Scriptures. By the way, going to the Scriptures, it doesn’t take long. It wasn’t
notlike I embarked on a lifelong study to discover what Scripture says about this. It didn’t take long at all.
I realized that indeed Carl Henry was right. One day I would be very embarrassed about this. When I saw him the next morning, I was already in a different world.
This is how Al Mohler wants his students to think about the errors they’ll inevitably make in ministry. This is how he wants them to describe the process of changing their minds.
He’s planting in his students’ minds a particular narrative they’ll need to adopt in order to survive in the authoritarian world of the SBC.
The Flowchart of Properly Changing One’s Mind.
Here’s the process that young SBC-lings must adopt about changing their minds:
- They must say that their original position was not well-informed. They hadn’t read the right Bible verses or apologetics/theology books. Like Al Mohler claims to have done, they’d just absorbed this erroneous position without questioning it. It’s semi-okay to be misinformed or uninformed, but admitting outright error is a lot more problematic.
- Nobody may say they came to their former opinion through tribe-approved methods. The tribe thinks that’s absolutely impossible. Jesus-ing incorrectly leads to incorrect opinion-forming. Jesus-ing correctly can only lead to correct opinions.
- All changing of opinions must be attributed to tribe-approved methods like Bible and apologetics/theology reading from tribe-approved leaders. (Prayer is normally a tribe-approved method, of course. Strangely, Al Mohler doesn’t mention prayer even once in his story. Regardless, prayer must not form any part of the former and disapproved opinion.)
- Through these tribe-approved methods, the new opinion is likewise tribe-approved. Followers must attribute this complete synchronicity to Jesus, not coercion.
- The changing of their minds must be attributed to Jesus himself, or the Bible, or some other unimpeachable authority source that had somehow not formed any part of the former, erroneous opinion.
- HOORAY TEAM JESUS!
Gosh, it’s just so easy!
I wonder how many of those students realized that day that Al Mohler was indoctrinating them into a belief system, just as surely as Sunday School teachers indoctrinate their own charges!
Most Authoritarian Leaders Are Also Followers.
Al Mohler is an authoritarian follower to his very core. This free ebook by Bob Altemeyer explains this concept in detail. In fact, Mohlers’ known biography and his observed behavior both seem to check every single box in Altemeyer’s book. He’s illogical, super-compartmentalized, hypocritical, entirely lacking in self-awareness, and all the rest of it. Most of all, he possesses what Altemeyer describes as “a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change his mind with evidence or logic.”
However, Mohler also leads a number of other people. At SBTS, he acts as an authoritarian leader. And this is where I sit back and marvel at the animal cunning of the SBC’s masters in putting him there:
Al Mohler is the perfect person to model authoritarian-follower behaviors for his students. He teaches them how to be Party men like himself, how to obey without questioning, how to change their minds about anything under the sun to please their mutual masters, and how to be a sycophant and lickspittle bootlicker just like him.
After all, the SBC’s masters do not actually want a bunch of authoritarian leaders to emerge from SBC seminaries. They want followers who won’t challenge their authority or dominance — much less dismantle it.
And these hidden goals show whenever we look at exactly what their seminary students are learning — both in and out of class.
NEXT UP: Hey, remember “Abuse of Faith,” that shocking expose of sex predators and child abusers abounding in SBC leadership? Tomorrow, I’ll show you what’s changed, two years later.
(Spoiler: Their leaders should sure love for us to believe they’re totes ON this.)
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Last thoughts: I’m a big one for context. I like to know when something happened, in what setting, around what other people, and against the backdrop of what major events. It’s a bit like knowing the provenance of archaeological finds. Thank you all so very much for letting me pursue these sorts of posts.