Taking a Stand Against Reformed Theology
THE ARBUCKLE ASSOCIATION MOTION
Last month (Oct. 16, 2007), during the annual meeting of the Arbuckle Baptist Association (Oklahoma), Pastor Joe Elam (FBC Pauls Valley) presented the following motion from the Executive Board:
“That the Executive Board of Arbuckle Baptist Association recommend that the messengers to the Arbuckle Baptist Association Annual Meeting in October 2007, vote to request the Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and the Executive Committee of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and the Board of Directors of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, take a stand against the presentation of reformed theology — often called ‘Calvinism’ — as a legitimate topic that we need to debate; and instead of recommending that we should debate reformed theology, take a public stand against reformed theology.”
There were no questions from the floor and the motion was approved. A companion motion was then offered and approved with no questions from the floor. It stated:
“That the Arbuckle Baptist Association send this motion to the President of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention and to all members of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well.”
CONTROVERSY IN THE SBC
These motions are being discussed just as Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Founders Ministries are sponsoring the Building Bridges: Southern Baptists & Calvinism conference. Just last year, at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, Paige Patterson and Al Mohler debated the topic. Just prior to that debate, Les Puryear, a well-known SBC blogger and pastor, wrote about the “campaign to remove Calvinists from the SBC.” Of course, the issue heated up long before when articles appeared in Baptist publications during the 90s, such as William Estep’s “Doctrines Lead to ‘Dunghill‘”. Numerous other writings and conferences, not to mention innumerable blog entries, have also covered the topic from various Southern Baptist perspectives. One SBC seminarian, Timmy Brister, has even compiled a chronological survey of the debate within SBC life.
It seems ironic, in many respects, that Reformed Theology is such a divisive topic considering that only ten percent of SBC pastors call themselves “Calvinists.” Deepening the irony even further is the fact that the majority view of the “founding fathers” of the SBC were themselves “Calvinists.” This has been demonstrated from both the “Calvinist” and “non-Calvinist” sides. Nonetheless, many Southern Baptists, such as the late Jerry Falwell, have declared Calvinism as “heresy” and state conventions in Texas and Florida distributed anti-Calvinistic literature to SBC churches.
Despite the criticism and antagonism of many SBC Fundamentalists, many Southern Baptist Calvinists, such as Tom Ascol, seek to remain within the denomination and work cooperatively with non-Calvinists for the sake of causes such as missions and religious education. Others, such as Bill Lollar, were once committed to cooperating within the SBC structure but found themselves excluded from participation because of a growing hostility towards Calvinism and Calvinists. The issue is not about to go away for Southern Baptists, and it is unlikely that Fundamentalists will be willing to build bridges anytime soon to their Calvinistic counterparts.
A PERSONAL VIEW
I have declared, both on this blog and in personal conversations, that I am not a follower of John Calvin, yet I fully affirm the “doctrines of grace.” I affirm both free will and divine sovereignty, in the Edwardsean/Augustinian sense, and follow in the evangelistic tradition of Whitefield and Spurgeon. I’m quite interested in these subjects, in fact, my PhD dissertation was entitled, The Impact on Evangelism of Calvinistic Preaching as Seen in the Ministries of Leading Figures in the First Great Awakening. During my days of doctoral study I pastored two SBC churches: one during the seminar days and one during the dissertation days. I led the first to become both a Global Priority Church (IMB) and a Covenant Church (NAMB). I also began an outreach program, emphasizing evangelistic tract distribution and personal visitation/outreach in the community. Despite this Great Commission emphasis, my three-year service in that church concluded in controversy over the issue of “Calvinism.” Some claimed, with the help of local Baptist clergy, that I was a “hard-shell Baptist” who was anti-evangelistic and anti-SBC.
The same type of thing happened in the following church. During the interview process with the pastor search committee the issue of Calvinism was discussed, largely because one of my references (Dr. Roy Fish), insured that the search committee knew my theological bent. This led to the interim pastor spending a few hours with the search committee explaining the “Five Points of Calvinism.” After receiving this explanation, the committee continued the interview process and asked about my personal views. I told the committee members that I would not preach “five point sermons” every Sunday, but that I would preach from a “Reformed” view when the text called for it (e.g., Romans 9, Ephesians 1). I emphasized that my calling as a pastor was to help make people into fully committed followers of Christ Jesus, not “Calvinists” (though that might happen with some along the way). Knowing that I held to Reformed Theology and being convinced that I was evangelistic, the committee recommended that I come in view of a call.
The day after I was called to serve as pastor by a vote of 172-3 (having preached a strongly “Calvinistic”/evangelistic sermon from Ezekiel 37), the 3 began to “study” the issue of “Calvinism” and were soon passing stacks of printed internet materials to members. BaptistFire (now defunct) was a favorite source, and before long a church member and the DOM of the local association were distributing copies of “Predestined for Hell? Absolutely Not!” and The Other Side of Calvinism. This, despite my willingness to help the association in whatever capacity I possibly could in the area of evangelism and missions and actually leading a group from our church to Mexico on a mission trip (the first adult mission trip the church had sponsored in nearly three decades). I also sought to support missions in every way I possibly could. Many people were very supportive, yet those in opposition were loud and active. Included among the complaints was that I “got rid of all the good old SBC tracts and replaced them with ‘Reformed’ ones.” The “good old” tracts really were old – having been printed in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and sun bleached from sitting in the racks for decades (no kidding!). I replaced them with Two Ways to Live (recommended by the text used in my philosophy of religion class during MDiv study – The Gagging of God), Quest for Joy (by John Piper, a frequent speaker at SBC seminaries and whose missiology book, Let the Nations Be Glad! was distributed to IMB missionaries), sermons by Spurgeon and Luther, copies of the Baptist Faith & Message, and brochures about being a Global Priority Church. In addition to the tract controversy, I was accused of attempting to “pull the church out of the SBC.” As a committed Southern Baptist, I had no intention whatsoever of trying to pull the church out of the SBC, but those in opposition refused to listen to my protests. The fact that I tried to get the church to increase CP giving and be more involved with the local association, the BGCO (even inviting the executive director to preach at the church), and the SBC were ignored by many. Another complaint was that I was “dishonest” and “deceitful” about being a “Calvinist,” and that I should have been “upfront” with the search committee and the church about my beliefs. After a year-and-a-half of needless turmoil, I stepped away from the situation.
I didn’t think I would re-enter the pastorate following that, but two weeks after leaving the FBC pulpit I found myself serving as interim pastor of Abbott Baptist Church. Fortunately, being “Reformed” never became an issue with the folks in Abbott. I loved them, they loved me, and I taught them God’s Word faithfully until they called a full-time pastor. During my time with them I received incessant encouragement to become the full-time pastor, but I was determined to work in full-time chaplaincy and refused the offer. Upon completion of interim service at Abbott I returned to my home church, Rock Creek, to serve as a teacher and pastoral assistant for the next sixteen months. The wonderful thing about Abbott and Rock Creek is that both congregations contain “Reformed” and “non-Reformed” folk. Both congregations are conservative, have a high regard for the authority of God’s Word, and are concerned about their communities hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Abbott definitely leans to the “non-Reformed” side of the aisle, while Rock Creek intentionally leans to the other side.
What have I learned from these experiences?
- That “Calvinists” and “non-Calvinists”/”Arminians” can serve together in the same congregation in a way that honors our God.
- That some people are willing to agree upon the fundamentals of the faith and work together for the sake of the Kingdom.
- That some people refuse to listen, refuse to cooperate, and refuse to love others who differ from them theologically.
FUTURE IN THE SBC?
This is essentially what Whitefield learned in his ministerial experience. Yet, the controversy over Reformed Theology within SBC life has caused me to reconsider whether or not I should remain a Southern Baptist. I remember being told during a meeting, “You aren’t Southern Baptist and it isn’t right for you to pastor a Southern Baptist Church. You should pastor a Reformed church.” I tried to explain that I am Southern Baptist — committed to the Cooperative Program and the IMB, that I affirm the Baptist Faith & Message (see Article V), that my family history (third generation Southern Baptist with a grandfather who was a deacon and a father who was an ordained minister) and education (AA, BA, MDiv, PhD from SBC schools) are all solidly Southern Baptist. The reply was to the effect that, despite my affirmations, history and education, I was not a “true” Southern Baptist.
Recent articles, such as Malcolm Yarnell’s “The Heart of a Baptist” and “The TULIP of Calvinism,” appear to support that sentiment by implying that Reformed Theology is less than (Southern) Baptist and nothing less than “man-made” doctrine. Ergun Caner has gone so far as to say that “Calvinists are worse than Muslims,” and refuses to withdraw that assertion. There comes a time when people tire of being in the midst of denominational warfare. Fundamentalists in the SBC are still gunning for the “Liberals,” but now the “Charismatics,” “Calvinists,” and “Antinomians” (beer and wine drinkers) are also in their sights. I’m uncertain as to my future in the SBC, but I’m certain that I am more concerned for the Kingdom of God than I am the Southern Baptist Empire and that I would rather cooperate in Kingdom endeavors with gracious non-Baptists than with non-gracious Baptists. It seems I’m not the only one frustrated with the tendency of some to “bomb the rubble” while ignoring the vast amount of Kingdom work needing to be done. Perhaps some Southern Baptists should stop spending so much time being against so many of their brothers and sisters in Christ and start standing with them for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom.