A recent post by Tom Ascol offers another take on the “problem” of Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention. The article is in response to the recent comments by Pastor William Harrell, pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, Georgia, who was recently named chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, which is perhaps the most important position in Southern Baptist Convention life. Ascol’s post is brilliant (read it for yourself) and there is very little that I can offer to say better what he has already so eloquently said.

The comments by Pastor Harrell irritate me like sand in my bathing suit. I can learn to deal with the grit in my groin, but it isn’t very pleasant or preferable. This is precisely the way I feel towards Southern Baptist leaders who continue in their efforts to demonize Southern Baptist pastors who believe that the 5 points of Calvinism most accurately reflect biblical soteriology. What I find interesting on the national scene in Southern Baptist life is that we often hear of non-Calvinistic SBC pastors volleying criticitical remarks, judgmental, broad-brushed mischaracterizations, and historically inaccurate or misinformed statements about Calvinistic SBC pastors, and yet we rarely hear of a public counter-volley from Calvinistic pastors in the SBC. It is curious that the assault is so one-sided.

In the past few months since the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, North Carolina and the conversation amongst friends between Al Mohler and Paige Patterson concerning Calvinism, which both men agreed should not be a point of contention or division among Southern Baptists (no division), it is becoming clearer that the SBC wants to bring the doctrines of grace (Calvinism) into clearer focus in denominational life. What isn’t clear is why. A recent study by Lifeway indicates that the “problem” of Calvinism is so widespread that only 10% of SBC pastors claim to be 5-point Calvinists.

Increasingly we are hearing rhetoric like that of Pastor Harrell, who clearly implies, like Paige Patterson, that Calvinistic Southern Baptists pastors are deliberately and willfully deceptive by not offering full-disclosure of their beliefs concerning Calvinism. What Harrell fails to account for is the fact that: 1) even in the cases where full-disclosure is offered, most lay persons don’t fully understand even the plainest, most articulate explanation of the doctrines of grace because this issue takes time, prayer and study. I have been through multiple interview processes where I have explictely shared a statement of faith, even concerning these issues, only to find that people agreeing at the time, but discovering later they really didn’t “get” what I was talking about; 2) the calling process of most SBC churches is so influenced by the business models of our contemporary culture that there is often very little discourse or discussion of theological matters of any weighty substance because emphasis is often on “important” issues such as strategies for church growth and worship style rather than doctrine. I think we would be appalled at how little theological conversation happens during a pastor/staff search at most SBC churches; 3) the ambiguity of our Baptist Faith & Message intentionally was written in such a way that both Calvinists and modified Calvinists (where most SBC’ers stand; they are few, if any, fully Arminian Southern Baptists), can affirm our adopted statement of faith and be innocent of any charges of deception should he not dot every “i” and cross every “T” of his theological views in the interview process with a search committee. Contrary to Paige Patterson’s claim that every Southern Baptist prospective pastor should tell the pastor search committee of a non 5-point Calvinist church whether or not he is Calvinistic in the same way an amillennial pastor should tell a predominantly dispensational congregation his eschatalogy, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. These aren’t the same issues or the same thing, and very few pastors, if any, offer full disclosure of all their theological persuasions, even though one could argue with great certainty that there is likely wide-ranging differences of opinions within any SBC congregation regarding eschatology, the doctrines of grace, gifts of the Spirit, the meaning of baptism (i.e., what is happening spiritually in baptism), church government, gender issues, and worship; 4) most Calvinistic pastors don’t have an “agenda” and didn’t come to their theological persuasion without careful thought, prayer and biblical study and contemplation over a period of months and even years. Because they have come to love the doctrines of grace and see them as wholly biblical, as a pastor, their intention is to take great care while patiently expounding the whole counsel of God’s Word to their people – who as Southern Baptists, have historically claimed to be a “people of the book”. Those pastors who have violated the shepherd’s principle in loving and caring for their people, teaching with gentleness and patience, explaining those things which are “hard to understand” (2Pet 3:16), not indoctrinating with some hidden agenda, may be poor pastors, but their lack of pastoral care does not characterize all pastors of the Calvinistic persuasion.

The final irritating charge at Calvinists is that the doctrines of grace kill evangelism. Sadly, even the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Pastor Frank Page, First Baptist Church Taylors, Greenville, South Carolina, believes this to some degree. In his book The Trouble with TULIP he writes: “If one does follow the logic of Calvinism, then a missionary or evangelistic spirit is unnecessary. If irresistible grace is the truth, then there is no need to share Christ with anyone, since those persons whom God has elected are irristibly going to be drawn into his kingdom anyway. If one studies the pages of history, one will see that Calvinistic theology (Five Point) has encouraged a slackening of the aggressive evangelistic and missionary heartbeat of the church” (74-75). Again, the rhetoric serves no purpose but to demonize the doctrine of Calvinism and those persons who believe it most accurately reflects the message of the Bible. Futhermore, it is patently false. Some of the greatest evangelists of any area were Calvinistic and Baptist, including Charles Spurgeon and the father of the modern missionary movement William Carey.

It is true that there are issues related to evangelism effectiveness in both Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic Southern Baptist churches. We are seeing fewer and fewer conversions in churches of both persuasions. A shockingly high percentage of church growth is transfer growth from other churches. But Calvinism does not kill evangelism, and though there are some Calvinists that are not as evangelistic as they should be, this charge is also true of non-Calvinistic pastors. What is ironic is that we are seeing fewer and fewer conversions amongst evangelicals whose approach to God and theology is patently more man-centered and man-focused than the theology and practice of Calvinists. It would seeem, logically, that an evangelistic ethic more concerned with the desires and preferences of people would be more effective, yet interestingly, it isn’t. Perhaps there is something to the statement from Jonah 2:9: “Salvation belongs to the LORD.”

If the demonization continues, I am convinced that it won’t be too far off in the distant future that we begin to see a greater chasm opening between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in SBC life until we reach the point of no return and are faced with a division that some prominent leaders today are fighting desperately to avoid. But if non-Calvinists such as Pastor Harrell, Ergun Caner and others continue with the hostile, controversial rhetoric, labeling Calvnists as deceivers and continuing to paint Calvinists with the broad, inaccurate brush of hyper-Calvinism, then a split, it would seem, is unavoidable.

What I find most disturbing is that there are other more crucial issues facing the church today and yet Calvinism has become the focus in far too many circles. There are pertinent concerns in Southern Baptist life concerning gifts of the Spirit and missionaries; the current state of the Cooperative Program and the shocking disclosure that high percentages of CP dollars never leave the state they are given in; meaningless membership in SBC churches where 30% or less of our 16+ million members attend on a weekly basis; non-existent church discipline to guard the purity of Jesus’ bride in a majority of SBC churches; the fact that 90% of SBC churches have plateaued or declining (90% are declining yet only 10% of us are Calvinistic – surely we aren’t to blame for all of that lack of effectiveness in evangelism); the deconstruction of the family by high-divorce rates among evangelicals and a pro-homosexual movement sweeping the United States; the loss of “Truth” in the postmodern world.

The issues in our culture are many and the list above only scratches the surface. May God bring what needs to be our focus into view, and may we be discerning and wise in pursuing those things which bring God the most glory.

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