The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, September 23, 2022

It’s Friday, September 23rd, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

‘We Live in a Society of Unfiltered Liberalism, and It Functions Like a Religion’: The Religious Shape of Secularism

Some interesting developments in the case of Yeshiva University in New York. It turns out that this really is an even bigger story than we had understood at first. You’ll recall that the background is that just a matter of months ago, a state court judge there in New York had ruled that the historically Jewish university must recognize an LGBTQ student group. The judge had made the ruling that Yeshiva University is a secular institution serving an academic purpose rather than being a religious institution, and thus qualified for what would constitute a religious exemption.

I’ve argued from the beginning that that is a distinction that simply will not hold water. That’s a distinction that is very threatening, not only to Yeshiva University, but to any range of Christian and other religious institutions that are seeking to operate by their own doctrinal convictions and their own moral codes. But as we’re thinking about Yeshiva University, the reality is that the threat against Yeshiva is a threat that could be brought against any Christian institution. And the stance taken by Yeshiva is one that demands a much closer attention.

Now, we discussed in recent days some very recent turns in this story. It has to do, first of all, with Yeshiva University appealing to the Supreme Court of the United States for relief. The judge, the justice, who is responsible for that region of the country, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, had granted a temporary stay, giving the university some relief from the state court judges’ decision there in New York. But then, in a very disappointing move almost exactly a week ago, the Supreme Court of the United States, with all nine justices involved, turned back the request for a stay. The 5-4 ruling was a grave disappointment.

And even though it was handed down on largely procedural grounds with the majority of justices saying that the university should make its appeals in New York State before appealing to the United States Supreme Court, the bottom line is that as of this week, Yeshiva University, having been denied relief, having been denied a stay in terms of the state court decision, simply said that all student groups on the campus would cease meeting for the foreseeable future. In other words, if the rule is that if we have student groups, we have to have an LGBTQ student groups, then we will have no student groups, at least until some court gives the university what it needs in the recognition of its religious liberty.

But that’s where the situation stood until just the last couple of days when the newest news, at least thus far, is that the LGBTQ activist group on the Yeshiva campus that was seeking official recognition has agreed to accept a stay in the situation for the present so that, quite frankly, they could allow other student groups to go on and meet. You can imagine there was a good deal of resentment on that campus coming from other students and other student groups because they were simply being forbidden from meeting without any access to university facilities, or resources, or even mailing list until such time as the court finally adjudicates the issue.

Now, we’re looking at religious liberty here in a different frame than we might have expected before. Now, this comes to us in a way we can immediately understand. Just consider that this might not be Yeshiva University, let’s say that it is a Christian private school, it’s a Christian school for say high school students and the same kind of demand is made. Now, is a Christian high school or is a Christian college, university a religious institution, thus a Christian institution, or is it an educational institution? And the answer has to be, yes, it is both.

Now, a lot of issues impinge on this, some complications. For instance, you have institutional charters in America’s corporate structure going back early in our history. Institutions are chartered in such a way that they have official legal standing and every one of the 50 states has certain rules for how those charters are to be formed, recognized, and approved by the state. Now, sometimes in some states, you have to declare yourself either a religious institution or an educational institution. I think that itself is a problem.

But what we now know is that Yeshiva made a calculated decision a matter of years ago, and as a matter of fact, that goes back now 50 years to the year 1970, Yeshiva made a decision to reregister its charter in such a way that it was clear in the state of New York that it was operating as an educational institution and it forfeited at least a part of its protection under a religious charter. But notice, the university was clear that it was maintaining its religious identity. Now, I just want to come back and say I think it’s wrong, indeed it’s dangerous for a Christian educational institution to have to choose, “Are we Christian or are we an educational institution?” That’s a false dichotomy that sets up a very dangerous situation.

But even as we think about that, and yes, it’s a warning to all Christian institutions, we’d better be very, very clear that our convictions are absolutely constitutional, which is to say they are our identity. If your beliefs are simply something as an institution that you advertise for public relations, then you’re going to find yourself in big trouble right away. And for one thing, Christians need to understand the difference between legitimately Christian institutions and those that are simply declaring themselves to be Christian in order to gain Christian students. The latter represents a huge danger to Christianity.

But an important consideration is simply this. When it comes to the threat against the religious liberty and the religious identity of Yeshiva University, this really is a threat to all religious institutions. And furthermore, it just demonstrates that continuing grip of secularism on the society and the fact that the secular surge is going to seek to snuff out and to eliminate just about every strong religious argument or every institution formed on strong religious convictions and a strong religious moral code to strangle them out and to prevent access to the public square, this will start of course with access to public funds. By the way, the institution I lead receives none of federal or state funds as a matter of principle. But the fact is, it won’t end there.

But I really wanted to raise this issue today because of an extremely important argument made by a Jewish authority connected to Yeshiva University. It’s in an article actually published in what is known as the Yeshiva University Communicator. That’s identified as an independent student newspaper there serving the student body of Yeshiva University. In this case, the author is Rabbi Rafi Eis. And he is making I think one of the most important arguments that we could confront on this issue and the larger issue, the great challenge of religious faith and religious conviction in an increasingly secular age.

And then, one of the things we need to note once again, and I come back to this, is that it is highly convictional forms of the theology, highly convictional forms of religious expression, congregation, synagogue, cathedral, you go down the list, that are going to be in the bull’s eye here. And there’s a commonality, not that Judaism, and Catholicism, and Protestantism are the same, profoundly, we are not. But we are in the same predicament, profoundly we are. When it comes to the great ideological or worldview divide, liberal Protestants, liberal Catholics, and liberal Jewish citizens, well, they basically hold to the same worldview just with different labels and traditions to which they give greater or lesser, usually lesser significance.

But when it comes to Orthodox Judaism, when it comes to traditionalist Roman Catholicism, when it comes to evangelical Christianity, we are also in a similar predicament in the modern age. We are similarly facing or even mutually facing the animosity and the threats of an increasingly hostile secular culture. Rabbi Rafi Eis writes an article with a headline, The Danger of Liberalism and Why Yeshiva University Should Change Its Charter. Now, I’m going to leave the charter issue aside for a moment and I’m simply going to draw attention to what I see. Here is a brilliant argument, and I’ll simply say it’s extremely similar to the arguments that I’ve been making for years.

It is good to find a similar argument being made by a Jewish authority. It again underlines the predicament of the modern age. He goes on and says, “Even if the courts eventually allow Yeshiva University to carry on its religious mission in the name of religious liberty,” he says that it’s time for the university to go back to its original charter and he cites the advice of the famous rabbi and authority, Joseph Soloveitchik. And he goes on to say, “It is time for the university to heed the Rav’s advice and amend its charter once again to define itself as a religious institution.”

He then says, “How will liberalism continue to pose problems for Yeshiva University?” He continues, “Proponents of liberalism describe it as secular, neutral, universal, and based on human reason. This is sleight of hand, since liberalism begins with certain assumptions and is therefore not based on pure reason, is not universal, and makes important claims about what is right and wrong,” again, extremely consistent with the worldview of Orthodox Christianity. He then goes on to say this, “On issues related to the definition of gender, the importance of marriage, the definition of marriage, the importance of raising children in the nuclear family and duties to parents, liberalism takes a side. In a strong biblical society, liberalism can give the appearance of neutrality.”

“However,” and remember this is being written by a prominent American Jewish rabbi, he goes on to say, “However, with Christianity on the wane in America and without biblical resources to strengthen healthy moral values, we now live in a society of unfiltered liberalism and it functions like a religion.” That is a spectacularly insightful understanding of our predicament. It is a predicament that was well understood by some people with eyes to see, going as far back as the 1950s and the 1960s, perhaps among some even earlier. But the crisis points in the modern age came mostly on these questions with the radical secularization that really began to set in in the second half of the 20th century in the United States. And not only among the intellectual elites, but in particular within the United States and its federal courts.

I really appreciate the argument of Rabbi Eis when he says, “Liberalism takes sides.” That’s right, it does. It takes a side. It does, in his words, “make important moral claims about right and wrong.” And modern liberalism or progressivism makes those claims and takes that side against Orthodox Judaism, traditional Catholicism, and also evangelical Christianity. And why? What’s the common cause here? Well, the common concern here is that strong theological beliefs based in a strong biblical tradition. And that of course is true of Judaism, traditional Catholicism, and evangelical Protestantism when it comes to these moral issues and these central claims. That is what runs directly into contradiction and into the modern maelstrom, precisely against any form of strong theological belief particularly rooted in any biblical tradition.

And of course, what Orthodox Judaism, traditional Catholicism, and true evangelical Christianity share is a common understanding of the biblical roots of humanity, marriage, gender, sexuality, sexual morality. All of this is a common offense in the secular age. The rabbi goes on to write, “Actions and rituals, holidays and symbols, and public statements by religious leaders apply and reinforce this understanding of right and wrong.”

He then writes, “Liberalism does the same thing.” Yes, that’s exactly what liberalism does. It apes a religious form and it makes transcendent claims. He goes on to say, “Many aspects of liberal culture are reminiscent of religion. There are liberal holidays like gay pride month.” And he goes on to say, “Being fired from one’s job are canceled for having the wrong outlook is a form of excommunication, bordering on inquisition. Its adherents even call it a religion.” Now, I made that very same argument in an address I gave in Florida just a matter of days ago.

And I think it’s really important that we understand this is the challenge we face. It is not religion versus no religion. It’s not religious commitment versus a supposed secular neutrality, secularism is decidedly not neutral. It is transcendent, theistic religion in some form versus a secular religion, along with all the accouterments and all of the moral demands that a religion makes. The secular religion issues commands that are just as demanding as any form of theistic faith.

Part II

Beaver Dams and the Glory of God: Some Farmers and Ranchers Change Their Minds About Beavers

But just before I turn to your questions and just before we go into the weekend, I want to turn to other headline news. And this has to do with beavers building dams. It turns out that ranchers and farmers once thought that the beavers were the enemy, but all of a sudden they’ve discovered the beavers are their friends. And this is a story, by the way, coming in headline form from both sides of the Atlantic. A recent article in The New York Times points out that the warfare between human farmers and ranchers on the one hand and beavers on the other has been furious for a very long time.

At least in more recent years and decades, this has meant that farmers and ranchers, particularly in the American west, have been blowing up the beaver dams with dynamite. And frankly, it has been a battle that is sometimes won by the beavers and sometimes won by the ranchers. But they have cross purposes, or at least they have. The beavers are trying to dam up the water and the ranchers and farmers are trying to let the water flow. So, what has changed? A shortage of water is what has changed. And all of a sudden, it turns out that some of the ranchers and farmers, but particularly ranchers, are discovering that their cattle will now have access to water precisely because the beavers have built dams.

And thus, there are ponds and there are bodies of water that exist precisely because of the industrious engineering of the beavers. And you might put it this way, although The New York Times doesn’t, it is almost as if God intended it that way. I love the way the reporters for The New York Times describe the beavers, “Beavers can be complicated partners. They’re wild, swimming rodents, the size of basset hounds with an obsession for building dams. When conflicts arise, and they probably will, you can’t talk it out.”

But then we’re told, “Beavers also store lots of water for free, which is increasingly crucial in the parched west. And they don’t just help with drought, their engineering subdues torrential floods from heavy rains or snowmelt by slowing water. It reduces erosion and recharges groundwater. And the wetlands beavers create may have the extra benefit of stashing carbon out of the atmosphere.”

Then we’re told that the rodents, that means the beavers, are actually doing environmental double duty “because they also tackle another crisis unleashed by humans, rampant biodiversity loss. The wetlands are increasingly recognized for creating habitat for myriad species, from salmon to sage grouse.” And the Times then goes on to say, “Beavers, you might say are having a moment.”

As a matter of fact, in the state of California, the secretary of natural resources said recently, “We need to get beavers back to work. Full employment for beavers is a new state policy.” And again, it’s not just that there are animals able to drink and biodiversity that is being enriched by the beavers’ ponds, and that of course is the result of their building of dams, but it is also that the beaver dams and their systems actually help to prevent damage from floods and to retain water so that the flood water is not destructive but actually it turns out to be productive.

Now, again, there are complications. The beavers are decidedly single-minded. They will carry their twigs and branches that they have nod from trees right past the ranchers trying to light their dynamite. And there’s also something else and I find this worth noting. It turns out that the beavers apparently don’t know the difference between a fence post and a tree.

Now, I hope that story made you happy. And I think a part of the happiness for us is understanding that what is being portrayed here is just an indication of God’s glory in creation from the first. God made beavers and all creation for His glory. The beavers don’t know it, but we do. And sometimes, it’s just good and spiritually healthy for us to talk about it.

Part III

What Bible Verses Should Be the Basis of Law and Applicable to All People? What Commands are Applicable for Only Christians? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

But next, we’re going to get to your questions. I always appreciate the questions sent in.

I’m going to take first a question from Josh. He says, “What biblical text should be the basis of law and thus applicable to all people, and what are just commands for Christians?” He then says, and this is interesting, “Christians, for example, are commanded not to get drunk. I don’t think we take that to mean it should be unlawful to get drunk.” Well, I would’ve answered the question a little bit differently except for the illustration that Josh gave here. But it’s a good question, it’s a good thing for us to think about this.

First of all, the history about Judaism and Christianity, you see a distinction being made between say the religious law, the ceremonial law, the moral law, and the civic law, the civil law. Now, there are distinctions. Israel was by definition of theocracy and that’s all of it was obligatory to all in Israel. And the distinction was between Israel and all the other nations, all the other peoples of the earth. In the New Testament, the issue is the church. And the church does not have the power or the authority to establish all the laws for the entire population in any place to establish, for example, a liturgical or a ceremonial Christian law for everyone.

But the distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law, and the moral law continuing, even as for Christians, the ceremonial law does not continue, this also gets to the question as to the relationship between the moral law and the civic law, the civil law, the laws of the government. Now, here’s where things are a little bit different than what Josh has suggested here when he says, “Christians are commanded not to get drunk. I don’t think we take that to mean it should be unlawful to get drunk.” Well, there are two different legal considerations here. Josh, you’re right, there are two different considerations although I can’t end to the way you ended here.

In the first legal consideration, yes, Christians face the law of God which is very clear in forbidding any kind of drunkenness period. Now, Christians may have extended arguments beyond that, but at the very least, we understand that we are not to be drunk with alcohol ever. And that’s a matter not only of civic consideration, it’s a matter of church discipline. It’s a matter of sin in the Christian life and how we must deal with sin in the Christian life and how we must obey Christ. But when it comes to the civic or the civil law, well, Josh, I have to say, I think some forms of drunkenness clearly should be illegal under even the civic law.

And so, in the United States, civil law will tell us that for example, public drunkenness is often a crime, drunk driving is in almost any case a crime and one that’s received and I think rightly so much more attention in recent decades than before. So, there are some who try to make an absolute distinction between the civil law and the moral law. And I’m just going to argue that doesn’t work. Because even as, and you can see a parallel with our previous conversation about Yeshiva University, the civil law deals with moral issues. It makes moral claims, it teaches moral truths or it teaches moral untruths. And Christians have an interest in the civil law corresponding to the moral law to the greatest extent possible.

Part IV

Do We Concede the Point to the LGBTQ Agenda If We Use the Phrase "Biological Male?” — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Next, I love the question from Matt Pryor. He says he’s the father of three teens who listen also to The Briefing. Thank you so much for that, that’s very encouraging. And then Matt writes, raising the transgender issue and the apologetic and moral challenge presented to Christians. And he says, “For those of us holding to a biblical worldview, does it not concede the point if we embrace that distinction,” that’s a distinction as he says between say male and biological male. He goes on to say, “Does it not concede the point if we embrace that distinction and adopt the term biological male to describe what has always been known simply as male?”

Well, to an extent, Matt, you’re absolutely right. We shouldn’t have to say biological male. The problem is that in the use of the English language, we have to be precise sometimes where frankly, the very need for that precision and the awkwardness of it testifies to the brokenness of the world. And so, I can remember when I was a teenager, Francis Schaeffer saying that in many contexts, and by the way, Schaeffer was a great Christian apologist, I’m very dependent upon Francis Schaeffer, very influenced by him, he made the point in the midst of the modern age that sometimes when we use the word truth, we have to say true truth because we’re speaking to a world that wants to call truth something else or to call something else truth.

So, Matt, I want to tell you, I think you’re right and insightful. You raise a challenge to us. We end up saying things we shouldn’t have to say. But sometimes, it is just to create a coherent sentence. When we’re talking about the transgender rebellion, at least a part of that rebellion is that it basically confuses all the language, but that’s just a sign to the fact it confuses something even more basic than language. Sometimes, I think Christians are going to be in the position of having to say in some context, in some arguments, in some conversations, the phrase biological male or biological female precisely because we have to insist upon the fact that we are talking about biology. We’re talking about more than biology, but we’re not talking about less than biology.

And sometimes, in the midst of the cultural fog, and this again testifies to the glory of God and creation, the biology tells the truth even if someone is denying the truth with their words.

Part V

Do You Think That We Rely Too Much on the Simple Reading of the Text in our Bible Studies and Church Services? Should We Return to the Use of Art? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Another very interesting question came from Steven. And it’s a question I really hadn’t confronted in this way, at least recently, and he talks about the fact that throughout much of the history of Christianity, a lot of Christian truth, a lot of biblical content was conveyed to people through images, frescoes, I’ll simply add stained glass windows, pictures, paintings, but artistic representation. And indeed, during that time, a lot of people had no access to a copy of the Bible.

He then says, “Do you think that we rely too much on the simple reading of the text in our Bible studies and church services?” He goes on, “In the past, artists have captured biblical passages and paintings, frescoes, stained glass windows, illustrations, engraving sculptures, reenactment, symphonies, operas even,” yes, Steven you’re right, operas even. He then goes on to ask, “Have we perhaps lost something by no longer depicting the stories of the Bible and church frescoes? Should we be returning to dramatic or even operatic renditions of the parables?” Well, Steven, that’s a good question well asked and I simply have to answer it.

First of all, as a son of the Reformation and as a son of the Protestant Reformation, I want to say that it is the preaching of the Word of God that are to be central in Christian worship. They are the indispensables when it comes to conveying biblical truth, God’s truth, doctrinal truth, theological, moral truth to God’s people. And it is the living and active word of God that is to be preached in season and out of season. And that raises the question, “Well, what about images, stained glass windows and all the rest?” Well, even in the reformation, there were two different answers to that question. And in the main they were the Lutheran answer and the Calvinist answer, or you can say the Wittenberg or Saxony answer, and the Geneva answer.

And the reason they answer differently is because you had Luther who made very clear the centrality of the Word, but he kept a lot of the art. As a matter of fact, you can go into the Frauenkirche, you can go into the Marienkirche there in Wittenberg and you can see an awful lot of art. You can see an awful lot of iconography, stained glass, carvings. It’s very much a feast for the eyes. And Luther kept the altarpieces, art pieces and all the rest because he did not see them as distracting from the preaching of the word. But he made very clear that the gospel is to be preached through the Word and he dedicated his life to the preaching of the word of God.

Calvin, on the other hand, in the Reformed tradition, they were much more iconoclastic. That is to say they were much more of a tradition we would later call, and it’s important to say later call Puritan, and that was they sought to remove all the images. They removed all the artwork. They removed in so many cases, most cases the stained glass. They certainly removed the altarpieces and all the rest. And it’s because they believe that any image would inevitably pull the eye away from the word of God. And the reform tradition makes very clear that it’s the preaching of the word of God and the hearing of the word of God that is most important, not the seeing with the eyes of anything.

Now, in the United States, I am much more of the Puritan tradition. And by the way, that means that as you look at the Puritan tradition, you even look at a church building in that Puritan tradition, you won’t see religious symbolism, you won’t even see a cross. You certainly will not see religious art. And so, there’s a beauty to the simplicity of the architecture and the prominence, and usually the centrality of the pulpit. But visually, there’s very little else. And that’s the tradition I grew up in as well.

Now, I have to tell you, I simply love taking people to Europe, going into cathedrals, going into art museums and helping to explain even these theological issues as they are depicted in the history of Western art. And furthermore, I actually like art a very great deal. You come into my library, which is not a Christian place of worship, it is a study place, you’ll find there are all kinds of pictures, all kinds of oil paintings hanging on the wall because they mean a great deal to me. But I really think the Protestant tradition is right, that the visual space of worship should have nothing within it that distracts in the preaching of the word of God.

Now, I don’t mean that it’s wrong to have stained glass windows in your church that might even depict a biblical scene. I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m simply saying that as a matter of principle. The visual should be radically sublimated to the oral, which is to say the hearing, that’s what’s most important. Now, I don’t have the power or the authority, and for that matter, I wouldn’t claim the wisdom to be able to tell all Christians, all congregations in all places how they must honor the balance in which the primary concern is hearing rather than seeing. But we are seeing creatures. And quite frankly, our eyes are drawn to beauty and our eyes can also point us to the glory of God.

The issue is whatever we see with our eyes, certainly within the context of worship, should not threaten to distract us from the hearing of the preaching and teaching of the word of God. Steven wrote to us from Ontario, Canada. I’m just glad to hear from all of you wherever you are, and we’ll turn to even more of your questions next week.

In the meantime, thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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