This past month there was a conference called Building Bridges was birthed out of the research by Lifeway concerning the resurgence of Reformed theology within Southern Baptist life (though the term “reformed theology is somewhat of a misnomer for most Southern Baptist Calvinists since most are not “reformed” in exactly the sense that the term means). The purpose of the conference was basically to have an open discussion about what Calvinism is and isn’t and move the SBC forward in a spirit of cooperation. Here is what the research revealed:

The research portrays what many have imagined to be true. While around 10 percent of rank-and-file Southern Baptist pastors would consider themselves to be five-point Calvinists, a sizeable portion (29 percent) of recent seminary graduates would identify themselves in that particular way. In fact, over 60 percent of graduates of one of our seminaries identify themselves as five-point Calvinists.

SBC leaders who do not consider themselves 5-point Calvinists such as Danny Akin and Paige Patterson are calling for more open dialogue and understanding among Southern Baptists over this issue, which is a good thing in light of some of the more hostile rhetoric towards Calvinists coming from Southern Baptist leaders such as the late Adrian Rogers and Ergun Caner (Liberty University).

One of the primary issues emerging from this resurgence in Calvinistic theology is that some prospective pastors have been less than forthcoming about their theological persuasions during the interview process with the pastor search committee. This has led to unneccessary conflict and even division in some local churches. Paige Patterson says that the solution is for prospective pastors to give full disclosure about their Calvinistic theology during the interview process. While this is good counsel, Tom Ascol points out that this is much easier said than done.

I add a hearty “amen” to his statements. But I also think it is necessary to inject a huge does or realism into the discussion at this point. Many of our Southern Baptist churches have not been very well taught on basic doctrinal issues. It would unkind and unproductive, therefore, for a pastoral candidate to employ theological jargon in a thoughtless way when interviewing with a search committee. Such language can be intimidating to some sincere believers and confusing to others. The goal is genuine understanding. Therefore both love and wisdom dictate speaking plainly and simply about one’s doctrinal commitments when in the interview process.

Ascol then offers some helpful advice to prospective pastors whose doctrine has a Calvinistic flavor.

I encourage men to provide the search committee with a confession of faith that represents what the candidate believes. This can be a recognized confession or one that he himself has written. But it ought to be more thorough than brief. Don’t try to hide your convictions. To do so is cowardly and dishonest and has no place in Gospel ministry. Try to explain your views in clear, concise language. If “Calvinism” as a term comes up, fine. Define it accurately and address it. If it doesn’t come up, don’t feel compelled to mention the word as some kind of test of honesty. Just be very clear about your biblical convictions.

However, the burden need not rest solely on the prospective pastor. Ascol wisely calls on search committees and churches to become more theologically aware and educated about the doctrines of grace. Sadly, too many churches and SBC lay persons “think” they know what Calvinism is, when in fact, they do not. My experience has been that many Southern Baptists equate biblical Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism. This had lead to widespread confusion and misunderstanding.

Calvinism, the doctrines of grace, Reformed Theology (insert your favorite description here _____________) is on the rise among young Southern Baptists. It is not an issue that we can, or even needs to be ignored. It is an opportunity for healthy dialogue (not debate). Furthermore, it is an opportunity for the followers of Jesus to search the Scriptures seeking God’s wisdom and insight into how and why is it than anyone believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Time spent in God’s Word is profitable so my encouragement to all lay theologians (and we all are exactly that on some level) is to spend twice as much time in God’s Word as you do reading someone else’s opinion on that matter. I believe you will find there is great gain in this worthy endeavor.

You can read Tom Ascol’s whole post here.

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