In a recent article, Florida pastor Tom Ascol argues that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) should elect a local church pastor for its next President. Ascol pushes back against the selection of a denominationally employed “bureaucrat.” The article implies or asserts a number of problems with a denominationally employed leader.
Ascol argues that denominational bureaucrats (by which he largely means the administration and faculty of the SBC seminaries) traded orthodox theology for something unbiblical, leading to the need for the reformation of the SBC in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Ascol also correlates the bureaucratic organs in Washington (what some call the “Deep State”) with current employees of SBC entities. Some of these employees promote positions Ascol considers unbiblical, refusing to stiffen their spines and stand for the gospel. Instead, Ascol argues, these employees work for us, the pastors and members of SBC churches, who “own the institutions” and “pay their salaries.”
While offering thanks for faithful denominational employees, Ascol calls for a return of presidential power to one of the many (small-church) pastors in the SBC. Here he encourages thousands of local churches to send messengers to voice the values of a seemingly silent and slumbering denominational majority in order to overturn a resolution about Critical Race Theory (Resolution 9) and to elect a pastor to lead the denomination. In all of this, Ascol presumably refers indirectly to the most prominent candidate for election to the SBC presidency in Nashville in June, 2021, Dr. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Unfortunately and ultimately, Ascol’s proposal merely mirrors the political populism of the last five years, reflecting a theological voice that has taken the tactics and tone of that populism. He echoes voices on the American political Right who rail against the “Swamp” and the “Deep State,” against lifelong government employees who are, in this view, the problem. Like the calls for a disruptional candidate and President from outside the system (i.e., Donald Trump), Ascol calls for an SBC pastor who will disrupt the bureaucracy of the current denominational system. He intends to stir populist angst to accomplish his goals.
In doing this, he treats SBC denominational employees unfairly and in bad faith, implying they are part of the problem, or that they very well could be a part of the problem. Ascol embeds his sentence or two of gratitude for these servants into paragraphs that question their legitimacy and integrity. In this way, his article trades in bad faith on the current institutional distrust across our culture, implying any lifelong denominational employee is suspect. Such implications further erode institutional health and trust, doing more negative destruction than positive disruption.
As Yuval Levin has recently noted in his volume about institutions, A Time to Build, we need those who will work within institutions rather than merely platforming themselves on top of them. If anyone has done that, it’s Dr. Albert Mohler, who has faithfully served the premier seminary of the SBC for nearly 30 years. He turned the ship bearing the flag of SBC theological education away from the very theological wreckage that Ascol laments. Implying that Mohler is merely a “bureaucrat” does not fairly honor his service.
Now, none of these means that Mohler deserves the SBC presidency. But it does mean that his vocation in an SBC entity rather than in an SBC church does not in any way disqualify him. What we need in an SBC President is not necessarily pastoral experience, but the qualifications and track record of godly leadership. Mohler has a fairly fat stack of receipts on this point.