There have been some strong reactions across the internet the past couple days to some remarks that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Dr. Albert Mohler made on his daily podcast The Briefing. The provocative headline: “Controversies involving Episcopal leaders affirms liberalism and Christianity two rival religions”.
A little ways down in the piece it’s clear he’s not talking about political liberalism, but rather Protestant liberalism. And he says that Protestant liberalism (he singles out the Episcopal Church) and Christianity are “two rival religions”.
Why does he make this audacious claim? He points first to a recent tragedy where a female Episcopal bishop in Massachusetts was driving drunk and hit and killed a bicyclist. Mohler theorizes that the woman was appointed a bishop, even after one prior drunk driving conviction, because “the diocese was in a rush to elect a woman as bishop”. Secondly Mohler notes that the dean of a leading Episcopal seminary (also in Massachusetts) is stridently lesbian and pro-choice, and is stepping down from her job, Mohler conjectures, not because of those views, but because of financial mismanagement at the school.
Mohler says that these two examples demonstrate that the Episcopal church has a different “moral code”. (This seems fairly self-evident, albeit with the caveat that not everyone in those denominations may agree with those value norms.)
But then he audaciously claims that because of this different “moral code”, Episcopalians (and apparently, by extension, the rest of ‘liberal Protestantism’) are not actually Christians, but rather, “rival religions” to “orthodox Christianity” (by which, of course, Mohler doesn’t mean Orthodox orthodox, but rather those that agree more closely with his set of beliefs).
By their fruit you will recognize them
Now we shouldn’t be hasty to discount Mohler’s evaluation criteria. After all, in Matthew 7 Jesus says that we will know false teachers by their fruit. “A bad tree bears bad fruit.”
So, to summarize Mohler’s argument, these two Episcopal leaders are exemplars of a set of moral priorities that demonstrate that liberal Protestantism isn’t, in fact, Christian.
But is it really reasonable to go from observing two pieces of rotten fruit to concluding that the whole section of the orchard is bad?
First, I’m more than a little astounded that Mohler would suggest that a “moral code” is what delineates “real Christians” from “rival religions”. (Apparently we don’t need to worry about theology much? Odd coming from the head of a seminary…)
But if, from a couple highly-visible examples, it’s appropriate to conjecture the “moral code” and thus orthodoxy of an entire branch of Christianity, let’s use Mohler’s own Reformed Baptist Evangelicalism as an example.
Let’s consider the case of C. J. Mahaney, who while being fawned over at conferences for writing books on humility was also running roughshod over staff without any accountability, had a history that included blackmail of rival leaders in his denomination, and who was at the helm of a denomination that covered up multiple accounts of child abuse.
And then let’s consider the case of Mark Driscoll, who built a megachurch on his reputation as “the cussing pastor”, bought his way on to the NYT Bestseller list with church money, and finally resigned in disgrace and saw his church shut down after a plagiarism scandal was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
What should we conclude from the “moral code” demonstrated by these two leaders (certainly at least “bishops” if there were a formal hierarchy) in Mohler’s theological circles? Is it fair to suggest that Reformed Baptist Evangelicalism is some sort of rival religion to Christianity because Mohler and many with him embraced these men until their patterns of sin finally became too public to ignore?
Of course not.
Christians, of all people, and reformed, “total depravity”-believing Christians most of all, should be the first to line up to admit that we are all sinners, and that moral uprightness is (blessedly) not the criteria by which our faith is judged.
Yes, true faith will change how we live, how we calibrate our “moral codes”, how we allow God to make us more like Jesus every day of our lives. And by all means, let’s strive, vigorously, to champion righteousness within (and without!) the church.
But publicly dismissing an entire wing of Protestantism as a “rival religion” because their set of acceptable sins is different than your own is arrogant foolishness, and Albert Mohler’s listeners deserve better.
I have many friends and family in liberal Protestant denominations who I am happy to embrace as brothers and sisters in Christ, even when we disagree on moral priorities. I will continue to learn from them, and hopefully them from me. One day a perfect man will sort us out and open our eyes and show us how wrong we all were in various areas of belief and practice. Thank God that man’s name will be Jesus and not, well, anybody else.