In April of last year, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, and The Gospel Coalition held the MLK50 Conference. MLK50 launched a controversy over the topic of racial reconciliation within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over the following year.
The themes present at the MLK50 event were then recapitulated during the 2018 Together for the Gospel Conference. In response, major conservative church leaders clashed over the volatile issue at the 2019 Shepherd’s Conference.
Tensions mounted again at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting when voting members (referred to as “messengers”) overwhelmingly voted to affirm “Critical Race Theory” as a valuable “analytical tool” via the controversial “Resolution Nine.”
Most recently, on July 23 Founders Ministries released a trailer for their upcoming documentary, “By What Standard? God’s Word…God’s Rules,” which is set to debut in September. The nearly four-minute preview sparked a firestorm both on social media and behind the scenes.
Charges of racism and misogyny were leveled, along with claims that the trailer portrayed fellow Southern Baptists dishonestly. As a result of what could only be described as a “Twitter mob,” three prominent SBC leaders—Mark Dever, Danny Aiken, and Jonathan Leeman—demanded that their interviews be removed from the final production. On August 1, Founders announced three members of their board had resigned over the incident.
The trailer featured several sound bites of prominent Southern Baptist leaders discussing racial reconciliation, the role of women in the church, and the sex abuse scandals currently embroiling the SBC. Pastor Tom Ascol, president of Founders, agreed to an interview for this article and featured prominently in the video. He expressed a clear concern that certain “godless ideologies”—namely so-called “critical theory,” which forms the basis of identity politics—not entrap leaders of the SBC as they seek real solutions to these problems.
That’s Not What It Looked Like To Me
The trailer made clear that these were serious issues in the country’s largest Protestant denomination that need to be addressed with the utmost expediency and clarity. No leader in the trailer was portrayed as unconcerned about these matters. All in all, it looked as if Founders Ministries was attempting to put together the most outstanding leaders in the SBC to address the denomination’s most pressing challenges.
Yet this is not how many received the trailer. Shortly after its release, all four presidents of the major SBC seminaries released statements on Twitter, including Albert Mohler, who also granted an interview for this article. Each criticized the video in some manner. On social media, many labeled the preview racist and misogynist, and others framed the situation as Mohler and Ascol having a serious falling out.
In Mohler’s statement, he said, “I am alarmed at how some respected SBC leaders are represented.” “I tried my very best not to denounce anyone,” Mohler said in response to pushback on his statement. “I’ll be glad to denounce anyone who is an enemy of the gospel…but that’s just not the case here on either side.”
When asked what alarmed him about the promo, Mohler stated, “the cinematography.” Mohler said the trailer seemed to cast certain leaders in the SBC in a poor light and could have been more adequately edited. Ascol publicly agreed the editing could have been improved.
What further “alarmed” Mohler, he said, was that Founders exposed themselves to this backlash by using out-of-context sound bites that could be interpreted any number of ways. This is perhaps what frustrated Mohler the most in the entire incident, because now the focus has been diverted from the SBC’s most pressing current challenges into a golden opportunity to impugn the motives of Ascol and Founders Ministries.
Twitter Mob Does What Twitter Mobs Do
Ascol reported that some, in reaction to the trailer, sent him personal messages saying, “He and Founders should be condemned by the SBC,” “You should resign from the ministry,” and even, “You should kill yourself.” Ascol responded in a recent statement, “Certainly, no one at Founders Ministries [was able to] foresee people taking it that way. That was not our intention.”
As the critiques mounted, some of the interviewees in the documentary accused Founders of asking them to participate under false pretenses, purposefully taking footage of them out of context, or using footage without permission. Ascol categorically denies these charges, calling them “patently false.”
Despite the blowback, Ascol seems determined to keep the preview of the documentary public, stating, “It’s telling that (the trailer) has caused such a reaction.” He further expressed that, given the reaction, and despite the angst it has caused him, he and Founders should “stay the course.” Ascol is convinced that he “hit upon a nerve” in the SBC that should be further explored and “discussed with open Bibles, as brothers,” not as a social media mob.
Disagreement Hasn’t Separated These Two Pastors
Despite some differences in approach, from the interviews with both men they appear to remain allies on the topic of racial reconciliation in the church. Mohler referred to his many years hosting “The Briefing” and his consistent denunciation of philosophies such as critical theory, intersectionality, and postmodernism. Like Ascol, Mohler would define these worldviews as “godless.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that we…walk arm-in-arm on this subject [and his tweet] was an exhortation to charity among us all,” Ascol said of Mohler. Mohler expressed the same sentiment: “I have known Tom for years and he has always been a man of respect and character.” Mohler also unequivocally denied as a possibility that Ascol deceived his interviewees for the documentary or that intentionally meant to harm fellow Southern Baptists.
Furthermore, Mohler seemed repulsed by the notion that social media mobs are ruling conversations, even in the SBC. He asserts, “One of the problems in this situation is that people make instant judgements about the motivations and the heart of people.”
“How is it that they can judge my heart now and they couldn’t judge me if I was trying to trick them into participating in the (documentary)? It doesn’t make sense,” Ascol said. Both Ascol and Mohler expressed a very real concern that something simply does not add up here.
At the end of the day, according to both Mohler and Ascol, the message from one friend to another is, “Get a better editor for the next trailer” and perhaps, “Nondescript soundbites are a bad way to go, especially when you have enemies.”
Identity Politics Not Welcome at Southern Seminary
Both Ascol and Mohler were adamant that anyone attempting to pit them against each other is entertaining a fantasy. Mohler was repeatedly clear that politically leftist ideologies such as critical theory, identity politics, and any other notion of postmodern, neo-Marxism have no place in the church of Jesus Christ, even as “analytical tools.”
To prove this point, Mohler stated, “No one is going to be teaching at Southern Seminary from ‘the other side,’” of post-modern, critical theory.” Some have contended that Mohler is attempting to hide “woke” faculty members—men such as Dr. Matthew Hall, provost of Southern Seminary, and Dr. Curtis Woods, the chairman of the “Resolution Nine” committee.
When asked why one of Hall’s articles on the Southern Seminary website affirming critical race theory was scrubbed, Mohler replied forthrightly, “Because I asked for it to be scrubbed. It was because I did not think it was helpful…If I thought Matt Hall was a danger to the church of Jesus Christ, he would not be the provost of Southern Baptist Seminary.”
Woods is a very recent addition to the Southern Seminary faculty. His statement at the 2019 SBC meeting on Resolution Nine was called into question by Mohler on his daily radio show. When asked if he was siding with the social justice movement in the SBC, Mohler said, “I find [that question] ludicrous. I have spent my entire adult life combating leftist ideologies…from critical theory to Marxism, to theological liberalism…I will let my record and my writing speak for themselves.”
“A denomination cannot survive by anathematizing one another,” Mohler said. “The conversation is going to have to avoid ad hominem arguments…but I do not believe that the conservative position can be maintained only in the context of denunciation. It just doesn’t work. It’s about making the case for the superiority of conservative ideas and doing so while maintaining the intellectual process.”
Complaining Versus Tangible Work
Mohler said those who want to seriously combat identity politics within the SBC must offer real solutions to racial disparities in the United States. To that end, enter Ascol’s record as a pastor for 33 years.
In a recent email interchange for this article, he reported his church, Grace Baptist Church, “helped immigrants gain legal status, return to their native countries, and get settled in the USA. Over the years I have personally dealt with ICE, the FBI, our local Sheriff’s office and immigration attorneys in trying to help both members and unbelieving friends who found themselves—sometimes unjustly—ensnared in our legal system.”
Indeed, a simple Google search of Ascol’s work yields this article demonstrating that Grace doesn’t have time to pontificate on race relations because they are actually doing something about it, one individual at a time. Ascol was clear to assert that it is not “systemic” change that needs to happen, but that “the Gospel of Jesus Christ – which is the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection” is the answer. In his vast experience, that has been the key to reconciliation.
Ascol shared personal information on this note: “My grandfather was a Muslim immigrant from Syria who was murdered by a white man in Arkansas as my 10-year-old dad sat beside him in a horse-drawn wagon.” The Ascol family is not many generations removed from the kind of racism the SBC is attempting to combat. Ascol simply questions whether opening the SBC to identity politics and intersectional theory will truly further the gospel’s work of forgiveness of sins.
Despite Pastor Ascol’s efforts and background, a social media mob was able to erase half of the board of directors of his respected SBC ministry arm. One of the lost board members has been Ascol’s friend for 40 years. What other effects on the SBC, and American Christianity, might such social media mobs have in the long-term?