Al Mohler’s Incomplete Apology: My Story

Dr. Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, apologized in the Houston Chronicle yesterday for his longtime support of a man the paper described as “helping conceal sexual abuses at his former church” and “for making a joke that (Mohler) said downplayed the severity of the allegations.”

The supported man in question is C.J. Mahaney, the founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries and co-founder, with Mohler and two other pastors, of Together for the Gospel (T4G), a popular conference that bills itself as “standing together for the main thing—the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Mohler’s long-overdue apology, interestingly enough, came on the pages of the same newspaper that this week revealed devastating investigative evidence of hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and further evidence that many of the crimes were not reported to law enforcement. They could have probably even uploaded this sexual conduct towards victims to adult sites, although they wouldn’t have lasted long before being taken down by a site administrator, probably due to the porn industry employee’s having a better moral compass than many of these Ministers and church employees.

Mohler now says he should have been more forceful in his denunciation of Mahaney, should have insisted on an independent, third-party investigation and “should have said nothing until I had heard from those who were victims and who were making the allegations.” Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, also expressed “similar regrets” to the Chronicle, which noted both he and Mohler had received “a letter in which a former Mahaney associate pleaded for them to denounce Sovereign Grace (ED. NOTE: likely referring to former SGM pastor and whistleblower Brent Detwiler).” Akin said he was wrong to support Mahaney without properly investigating the allegations, the Chronicle reported.

I always applaud people who are willing to own up to their mistakes and/or sins, big or small. Repentance is a necessary and vital part of the Christian life, and it’s definitely a daily necessity in my own life. It is also a critical first step toward forgiveness, restoration and healing.

But after reading Mohler’s apology, I believe it is also incomplete — which brings me to my story.

I began covering the Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal in 2012, on my previous nationally syndicated Christian radio show. As I dug more deeply into sexual-abuse victims’ accusations in a class-action lawsuit, spoke with some of those affected and began to conduct interviews to glean more information, I stated that the SGM scandal was American evangelicalism’s biggest sex scandal to date.

My assessments back then are no more significant than the parallel or subsequent assessments made by many others along the same lines. But as a Christian radio host who was covering the story, I was subject to strong and uncomfortable pressure behind the scenes, which others may not have experienced in the same way.

And Al Mohler was at the center of that pressure.

In 2013, several months after I had been covering the SGM scandal, I was blindsided by two executives from my former radio network’s corporate headquarters on an extended conference call.

They told me that they had received a call from “Al Mohler’s office” that expressed “concerns” over my radio interviews with Detwiler, who had weighed in on the class-action lawsuit filed against Mahaney and others. They communicated to me that Mohler’s office did not believe Detwiler was a good guest choice.

Knowing that Mohler served on our company’s editorial board, I said, “‘Mohler’s office’ didn’t call you. You mean Al Mohler called you.”

Neither executive denied it.

I was chastised for a lengthy period of time on the phone, but I did remind these executives that my network contract provisions gave me creative control of my own show and the right to choose my own guests.

I also asked why, if Mohler had a problem with my coverage, he didn’t just call and speak with me directly about his concerns, instead of trying to influence me through back-door maneuvers involving my employer. The question was bypassed.

I told the executives the full story about the SGM scandal, including the fact that Mahaney’s lawyer had been invited on my show to tell his side of the story but had declined to appear. I also relayed to them that Mohler and Mahaney were good friends, that they co-founded T4G, and that Mohler’s seminary had financially benefited from donations from Mahaney. For example, Mahaney’s name is listed as a Southern Seminary Distinguished Associate donor on page 36 in the linked seminary publication; this classification of donor is given to those individuals or groups who donate $10,000 or more to SBTS.

I informed them that the scope of the SGM scandal meant significant coverage was warranted and that Detwiler’s role as an early leader of SGM and investigator into the scandal made him a perfectly appropriate person to interview on the matter. I further told them that I thought it wholly inappropriate and unethical for anyone to try to influence my coverage of a news story on my show who has a vested personal — and, arguably, financial — interest in how that coverage is executed.

One of the executives appeared to side with me after I explained the entire story. The other asked if I would be “open to suggestions” from Mohler’s office about guests to interview regarding the SGM scandal in the future, with the clear subtext that we weren’t really talking about “suggestions.” I said I was open to hearing suggestions for Mohler-approved guests.

A few days later, this same executive offered me the name of what he said was a Mohler-recommended guest: a Sovereign Grace pastor who called the accusations against Mahaney a “witch hunt” and advised his church members to “refuse to read or listen to the divisive speech” Detwiler and others “continue to spread.” He added, “To do otherwise is to poison your soul … and displease God.”

I told the executive a few other details about the “recommended” guest’s background — to which he reacted with appropriate surprise and concern — and told him that I would not be inviting such a pastor on my show.

No one in my company made any more Mohler-approved “guest recommendations” to me after that.

I kept my mouth shut about this behind-the-scenes situation (at least publicly), in part because I didn’t want to get into more trouble. But I also knew that I was a fairly new talk-show host who was up against a veritable, and nearly unassailable, demigod of evangelicalism — a man whose presence and influence looms large, not just in Southern Baptist circles, but also in the evangelical subculture as a whole.

It was gratifying, though, for me to watch the Mahaney/SGM story continue to have legs. Sexual-abuse survivor blogs kept up with the ensuing developments, rightly taking T4G to task for welcoming Mahaney back to the conference stage in 2016. That same year, Washingtonian magazine covered the scandal in an article, entitled, “The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch: Inside the rise and fall of Sovereign Grace Ministries.”

And the pressure grew even more intense in 2018, when attorney Rachael Denhollander — the first accuser to step forward with sexual-abuse accusations against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — also came forward with her own strong words against Sovereign Grace Ministries and Mahaney. See links here and here.

So why did I decide tell my story now? Because it’s time.

For more than six years, I have watched Mohler go from a fiercely unapologetic defender of Mahaney to proclaiming that “the wrath of God” had been poured out on the Southern Baptist Convention during the #MeToo era — using Dr. Paige Patterson as Exhibit A.

But in that article, Mohler also said this:

“We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. … When people said that Evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible — even to me. I have been president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twenty-five years. I did not see this coming. I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.”

Huh. I said, nearly seven years ago, that evangelicals had a similar crisis, with Sovereign Grace Ministries as Exhibit A. And Mohler’s response wasn’t to tell me it “didn’t seem plausible.” His response was to use back-door tactics to try to control the SGM-scandal narrative on my radio show.

I love apologies. I am all for repentance. I believe all Christians have to forgive those who have offended them, just as God has forgiven us in Christ for the much-greater sin of offending Him. Ephesians 4:32 says it well: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

So I certainly believe Mohler’s apology for backing Mahaney all these years and making an inappropriate joke is warranted. But I think he must do more.

It’s not sufficient to issue a conveniently timed apology for covering for Mahaney all these years, especially when that apology coincides perfectly with the publication of an embarrassing, bombshell SBC sex-abuse investigation in a major newspaper.

Also, it’s not like this apology was spontaneously and organically issued in 2014 or 2015, in the days before #MeToo or published investigations into widespread sexual abuse in the SBC.

Frankly, I think Mohler owes the SGM sexual-abuse victims and their families a personal apology, for dismissing their allegations so casually and making them feel all these years like their stories weren’t worth the time or energy to investigate.

He owes Brent Detwiler a personal apology, for so easily dismissing all his painstakingly compiled evidence and research about the sexual abuse cover-up at SGM and painting him as an unsuitable guest for my radio show.

Mohler owes T4G attendees and supporters a personal apology, for cracking that tasteless joke and for leading them to believe the Mahaney/SGM scandal was really no big deal.

And Mohler owes a personal apology to the sexual-abuse bloggers who stood all along with the SGM victims and were proven right — bloggers like The Wartburg Watch’s Dee Parsons and Deb Martin; Thou Art the Man’s Todd Wilhelm; and Spiritual Sounding Board’s Julie Anne Smith, among others.

As for me, I don’t need an apology. Just telling the truth is enough.