Past the Crossroads
In my estimation, Southern Baptists have passed the proverbial crossroads in regard to civil cooperation within convention life. While many are still seeking to build bridges between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, and go forward with a Great Commission resurgence, the actions and proposals of many “Traditional” Southern Baptists will ensure further fracturing.
Sam Houston views the Southern Baptist Convention as “a fractured set of special interest groups, none of whom share the same agenda” though they “might have overlapping agendas.” He identifies three key groups, whom he labels as the Barbarians, the Bolsheviks, and the Baptists. While prefacing his descriptions of three by noting all three are “devoted Christians” who “believe the Bible” and “serve the Lord to the best of their ability.” The key difference “boils down to who Baptists are and what means should be used to do the Lord’s work most effectively.”
Houston labels those who “tend to be more Reformed in their theology than most Southern Baptists,” and who disagree on issues with “most Baptists” such as drinking alcoholic beverages and ecclesiology as Barbarians. He characterizes them as foreign invaders who have no real commitment to the convention. He likens Baptists who have long been associated with convention life but desire changes in methodology and denominational leadership as Bolsheviks. He describes them as infantile in their outlook and charges them with signing a “peace treaty with Calvinists.” They are guilty of “partnering with the Barbarians to ‘further their agenda.’” Like the bloodthirsty communists who overthrew the Czars in Russia, these SBC Bolsheviks “want to overthrow the old SBC aristocracy” and be placed in control of the convention. This group of revolutionaries “eschew cooperation, that old deeply held Baptist core value,” and desire to implement “participation” as “the key value.” This means that each congregation decides how to designate their gifts, “rather than contributing to a common pool which enables all SBC ministries.” Though these revolutionaries “have not achieved total control,” their revolution “is in the ascendency and is likely to succeed.” As compared with the invading hordes and communist revolutionaries, “The Baptists” are characterized as those who “believe Baptist doctrine,” support the Cooperative Program, and abstain from imbibing alcoholic beverages. They are “good family people,” they are “Middle America,” and they “contribute more to the church.” They are “the anchor that keeps Baptists moored to our roots and foundations,” and “are very concerned about what they hear about the Barbarians and Bolsheviks.” Such analogies and comparisons reveal the deep antagonism and obsession with “theological battle” existing within “Traditional Baptist” circles. It is the same antagonism appearing in such articles as Malcolm Yarnell’s “The Heart of a Baptist” and “The TULIP of Calvinism,” which castigate Calvinists as being less than (Southern) Baptist and believing nothing less than “man-made” doctrine.
Even more recently, Dr. Jerry Nash posted an essay on the SBC Today blog entitled, “Hold the Hearse, I Have An Idea!” Nash lamented the inevitable attempt to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention – at attempt rejected in recent years and currently proposed by absolutely no one. The Director of Missions for the Harmony Baptist Association in Trenton, Florida, declared such an endeavor as “anti-Southern, anti-Baptist, and anti-Convention,” not to mention “anti-SBC, anti-[Cooperative Program], anti-Association,” and, “anti-State Convention.” At least Nash was positive about one thing, all this hatred of things Southern Baptist is to be placed at the feet of Calvinists. He welcomed Southern Baptist Calvinists to “be blessed” by going out and becoming “whatever it is they want to be.” By this, “God would be honored” and their departure would prevent the destruction of the convention. Two years ago, Nash bemoaned “Calvinists and Calvinist sympathizers…in positions of leadership throughout our Convention,” arguing that “Calvinist theology” is incompatible with “Traditional Baptist theology,” and that it is impossible for “Traditional Baptists” to cooperate with “Calvinists.” He maintains it is time to expel all individuals, congregations, seminaries, and mission boards consisting of “Calvinists and Calvinist sympathizers.” To put it another way, the “good family people” have had enough of the barbaric invaders and communist revolutionaries.
While I believe the narrow mindset typified such individuals is ultimately detrimental to the cause of Christ and His Kingdom, I nonetheless generally agree with Nash’s assertion that it is impossible for “Traditional Baptists” and “Calvinists and Calvinist sympathizers” to labor together any longer within the SBC. The reason for this lies in the fact that some individuals refuse to acknowledge the denomination’s history, discard the history of the church, fail to comprehend the breadth of Baptist theology (including the Baptist Faith & Message), and belittle those who fall outside their constricted parameters as less than Baptist, let alone Christian. In other words, they don’t want to be civil. They don’t want to get along and don’t want to work together. This unfortunate attitude is reflected not only by “Traditional Baptists” such as those cited above, but also among “Calvinists” who refuse to acknowledge the denomination’s entire history, fail to comprehend the breadth of its theology, and belittle those who fall outside their constricted parameters.
Rather than imitating Christ Jesus by praying for the unity of His people so that the world might believe the Gospel (John 17:20-21), and rather than following the injunction to unite themselves in humility (Philippians 1:27-2:8), some prefer to battle for denominational control (James 4:1-3). Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Tom Ascol addressed the question, “Why stay in the SBC?” At that time he stated wisely, “Good men will no doubt disagree on the value/ wisdom/ legitimacy of working for reformation within the Southern Baptist Convention. Ultimately, every person and every congregation must seek to address this issue individually before God. No one can dictate to another what course to chart and we should be willing to grant those who disagree with us the same right that we request for ourselves, namely, to be true to one’s conscience.” I concur with this assertion, though I now disagree with his encouragement to remain within the SBC.
Dr. Ascol argued that one very good reason to stay within the SBC is its historic theology, the same as “that of the founders of the denomination.” One may wholeheartedly affirm the Calvinistic theology which under-girded the denomination at its inception, and be glad that this form of theology is still compatible with official Southern Baptist doctrine, yet one should also grasp the fact that the denomination as a whole is operating from a different theological framework than it did at its founding. This is why, for example, denominational executive Frank Page once commented derisively, “The totality of history shows the vast majority of Baptists have not been [Calvinists], so why go back to the founders? I think we need to go back to the Bible.” Joseph Regel, pastor of FBC Laneville, remarked in The SBC Texan, “When it comes to false doctrines, what difference does the history of the SBC make? History, associations and friendships have nothing to do with it.” He then added, “My question is: why do we even want to walk together with proponents of false doctrines?”
Whereas Page and Regel dismissed the relevance of Southern Baptist history, Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, argued Calvinists such as Ascol are “rewriting” history by claiming “Southern Baptists have always been Calvinists.” In an article featured in The Economist last fall entitled “The New Calvins,” Land called such a claim “demonstrably false” and further impugned the character of all SBC Calvinist ministers with charges of unethical behavior by lying about their theological convictions during interviews with congregations and agencies. While Calvinists claim rightfully that Southern Baptist theology was predominantly Calvinistic at its founding, none have made the claim asserted by Land. Peter Lumpkins echoed Land’s charge that Southern Baptist Calvinists are unethical, castigating them as “dishonest theological charlatan(s)” who have succeeded with a hostile takeover of denominational leadership. He sets the theology of Calvinistic Southern Baptists on par with that of Liberalism, and argues that denominational funds should not be spent to teach Calvinism in any SBC seminaries. In his argumentation he fails to mention that Southern and Southeastern seminaries are bound legally to teach in accordance with the Abstract of Principles – the doctrinal confession of both institutions.
I believe in the next few years Southern Baptists will begin fracturing at a greater pace, with more congregations following the example of Pastor Bob Harrell and the Abilene Baptist Church by redirecting their Cooperative Program gifts around agencies and institutions containing “Calvinists and Calvinist sympathizers.” Lumpkins maintains such action is necessary because Calvinists and Calvinist sympathizers “want nothing more than to change Southern Baptists” due to the fact that they “hate Southern Baptists.” With such a perception, more associations will vote to “take a stand against the presentation of reformed theology” as did the Arbuckle Baptist Association in Oklahoma.
Though I believe the charges leveled harshly against Calvinists within the SBC are baseless, I do not believe it is possible for Southern Baptists to navigate the perilous political waters in which the convention is engulfed. “War” has already been declared, as noted in The Economist article, and many will be blasted by broadsides whether or not they fly under a flag of truce.
My prayer, like that of our Lord Jesus Christ, is for believers to be united in order that the world might believe the Gospel (John 17:20-21), and I believe we should all humble ourselves in laboring for this unity (Philippians 1:27-2:8). I do not hate the SBC. Southern Baptists have been an integral part of my family’s spiritual pilgrimage. My father and grandparents were converted under the ministry of a Southern Baptist minister, my grandfather served as deacon, my grandmother served as a Sunday School teacher, and my father was ordained as a minister. My wife was converted as a result of Southern Baptist outreach. I was educated by Southern Baptists in college and seminary, and I have had the privilege of ministering to many wonderful Southern Baptists. With no desire to fight fellow Baptists over denominational “turf,” and knowing that a peaceful solution for depopulating the denomination of Calvinists is highly unlikely, I’ve decided to seek a civil solution by finding a new denominational home. I prefer involvement with a group in which denominational politics are miniscule and Kingdom concerns are paramount. For those who remain in Southern Baptist life, I wish nothing but the best.
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