Let me frame this post by beginning with a few quotes in recent years.
“Act with personal integrity in your ministry when it comes to this issue. Put your theological cards on the table in plain view for all to see, and do not go into a church under a cloak of deception or dishonesty. If you do, you will more than likely split a church, wound the Body of Christ, damage the ministry God has given you, and leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone.”
“We must have honesty about this issue. There are churches splitting across the convention because pastors are coming in quietly trying to teach Calvinism or Reformed theology without telling the pastor search committees where they stand. The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches are not Calvinistic in their theology and it’s causing some serious controversy.”
“I think the problem of Calvinism in the SBC could be solved if we establish one ground rule. If a man wants to start a Calvinistic church, let him have at it. If a man wants to answer a call to a Calvinistic church he should have the freedom to do that, but that man should not answer a call to a church that is not Calvinistic, neglect to tell them his leanings, and then surreptitiously lead them to become a Calvinistic church. That is not to suggest that all of our Calvinistic friends do that, but when it is done it is divisive and hurtful.”
“If you wish, debate Calvinism. We should not fear theological debate as long as the participants understand they are brothers debating one another in a friendly environment. While Calvinism is a fair debate in the halls of academia, we do not need to bring the debate into our churches at the cost of dividing our congregations.”
“One danger is that pastors are tempted to accept church pastorates in churches that are not Calvinistic, and then strive to drive them into the Calvinistic camp, thereby destroying an otherwise strong and healthy church.”
I think that’s enough quotes for now. Do you see a common thread here? Denominational executives have come out of the woodwork with warnings in the form of talking points telling young Calvinistic Baptists to stay out of non-Calvinistic churches. Young Calvinists like myself are told that we must “put all our theological cards on the table” with full disclosure of our soteriological and ecclesiological beliefs. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for that, but the problem comes when you talk to a pastor search committee who understands Calvinism through a book given them through their Baptist State Board of Missions by Fisher Humphreys who butchers the Bible and contorts the most fundamental understandings of Calvinistic doctrine. More and more non-Calvinistic churches are being given literature, sermons, and materials that is inaccurate, biased, and entirely unhelpful (if not Humphreys’ book, then Dave Hunt or Norm Geisler). The result is that it is impossible to talk about Calvinism to folks who have an altogether different definition from a different dictionary than Calvinists. To make matters more difficult, we are told, as aforementioned in Chapman’s quote that the issue of Calvinism is for academia, not the church.
On the other hand, when Calvinists do not use Calvinistic terminology and simply preach the Bible only later to be questioned about Calvinism, they are told that they are being deceitful, dishonest, and disingenuous. So if you put all the theological cards on the table, you are accused of trying to convert them to “five-point Calvinism,” and if you don’t, you are not a man of integrity and honesty. It is a lose-lose situation in the SBC for young Calvinists, and early into his presidency, Frank Page recognized this as Baptist Press reported,
Asserting his belief that some Southern Baptist seminaries are graduating “hundreds” of students who espouse Calvinism while there are a “relative small number” of Calvinist SBC churches, Page said that he believes Southern Baptists are headed for “tumultuous days” as those graduates come to places of service in the churches.
So how are we to deal with the “tumultuous days” ahead? Well, for the young Calvinists, their answer is to either abandon the SBC altogether or plant new churches. They aren’t coming “to places of services in the churches.” They have received the warnings and “No Thank You’s” from the denominational executives. Just this past week I conversed with students who had recently participated in an Acts 29 Church Planting Bootcamp who will soon graduate and plant a non-SBC church. Other students have committed themselves to higher theological education with the pursuits of being an educator or professor at a Baptist college or seminary. The result is that the vast number of SBC churches will soon have vacant pastorates with a increasingly fewer candidates that don’t fit the theologically correct criteria predetermined by our denominational executives.
Other denominational leaders are sensing the growing attraction to overseas missions and church planting and are cautioning young ministers to not abandon already existing churches. Last week, Dr. Mohler wrote on his blog a necessary word of caution, asserting,
At the same time, we also need this generation of young pastors to go into established churches and revitalize a Gospel ministry through expository preaching and energetic leadership. Giving up on the established church is not an option. Some young pastors see church planting as a way of avoiding the challenge of dealing with the people and pathologies of older congregations. This is an abdication of responsibility.
While I agree with Dr. Mohler entirely on his caution, how can a young future pastor like me heed his counsel without falling under the criticism of the men quoted above? This conundrum is far more problematic than we realize. Several leaders are piping out warnings to not go into existing non-Calvinistic churches, and on the other hand, we are exhorted to not abandon them. What one denominational executive calls “destroying a strong and healthy church,” another calls not doing it would be an “abdication of responsibility.” Indeed, this is a lose-lose-lose situation.
Many of us in seminary are being trained by professors and administration who have never done it. They have gone to an established church that needed revitalization of gospel ministry and labored there for decades, revitalizing it, and building it on strong theological, confessional, and missional principles. The remarkable Reformation of my beloved seminary has yet to make a significant mark in churches within our own region and area. Rather, when friends put their resumes out to churches and associations, when they find out that they are Southern students and Calvinists, their resumes quickly find the trash can. Something has to change. There is yet much reformation that remains in the SBC.
It is not enough to tell a young Calvinist who enters a church to “just love the people and preach the Bible.” It isn’t enough to warn them with handed down political talking points. It isn’t enough to provide them with sound theological education. When the bridges for this younger generation are being burned and yet they are still told to walk the line, the result is that many young Calvinists find themselves forced on a plank leading to the edge where the rubble of a burned bridge looms below.
If the Southern Baptist Convention is going to see churches revitalized, old churches replanted, and new church plants embraced, then they are going to have to extend the right hand of fellowship to the young Calvinists existing the seminary with a willingness to be taught and led from God’s Word. Calvinism can no longer be the whipping boy for all the divisions and splits that occur in our churches (though it is likely involved in some). Young seminary students will need more than just sound theological education, but they will need sound pastoral training in church polity, church leadership, and caring for the flock that only comes from within an ecclesiological context. Finally, the Convention at large is going to have to develop a consensus on the gospel that embraces “five-point Calvinists” and encourages guys like me, not discourages us, to pursue pastorates in existing churches.
At this point in time, I can understand why some of my brothers are discouraged. There is little that is attractive to coming into the SBC, whether it be the fundamentalism expressed in alcohol issue or the sectarianism that I have mentioned here. But if we can come together for the church, for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, then I believe the tide can change. I’m in, and I hope others in the SBC, whether Arminian or Calvinist, can come together for the building of God’s church and furthering of the Great Commission under the same conviction and inspiration as our founders in 1845. They did it then, and by God’s grace, it can happen today.