Calvinists and Non-Calvinists in the SBC: A Proposal for Unity

It is no secret that Calvinism has been a hot topic in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years due to the rise of Reformed theology among (mostly) younger leaders, especially seminarians.  A number of non-Calvinist SBC leaders have responded in print and from the pulpit by putting forth arguments against Calvinism, and of course, some Calvinists have responded.  This post is by no means a call for the end of theological debate.  I believe that debating our views in a spirit of charity with our brothers is good and healthy, and no one should feel pressured to privatize his views on this subject.  Rather, the point of this post is to issue a call for protocol, so to speak.  I believe that both Calvinist and non-Calvinist Southern Baptists can live and minister together in the various entities of Southern Baptist life, including associations, state conventions with their various ministries, and the various entities of the national convention.  While the doctrines that surround the debate about Calvinism are very important theologically (even touching the heart of the nature of God’s grace, human sinfulness, God’s intention and accomplishment in the cross, and the nature of God’s love), I do not believe that either one side or the other has fallen away from the truth of the gospel.  I fear that theological conservatives, having won the battle for the SBC, have now turned to fight each other.  It would be a tragedy for the issue of Calvinism to create disunity at any level of SBC life.

So let us debate our views as we love one another and minister together.  Here are the rules of discourse that I propose for addressing important theological differences over our views on Calvinism:

1. Let us seek first to understand each other’s views.  This should really go without saying, but unfortunately, in our desire to refute theological opponents, we often respond too quickly before we have taken the time to hear their claims fairly.  Sometimes Calvinists accuse non-Calvinists of Semi-Pelagianism (the affirmation that God gives grace in response to some remnant of goodness left in sinners).  But this is not necessarily what non-Calvinists believe.  Those who stand in the Arminian tradition believe in total depravity, just as Calvinists do, but they affirm that through the cross God gives all people prevenient grace that enables them to respond freely to the offer of the gospel.  (Of course, I recognize that very few Southern Baptists are fond of the term “Arminian” because of its associations with liberalism and its doctrine of apostasy, but on the subject of conversion at least, many non-Calvinists would probably affirm the evangelical Arminian doctrine).  Calvinists should not paint their non-Calvinist opponents as Semi-Pelagians without sufficient evidence.  Similarly, non-Calvinists should not accuse Calvinists of teaching fatalism.  There are important differences between Calvinism and fatalism.  Calvinists affirm that God ordains all things, both the ends and the specific means to those ends.  Fate, on the other hand, is an impersonal force that compels us toward necessary ends, though without encompassing the specific means to them.  So a fatalist will say, “If I am destined to die today, there is nothing I can do about it.  So I might as well jump in front of a bus.  If it is my fate to die, I will die.  If it is not, then I will live.”  Calvinists do not say these things.  Calvinists affirm that both the ends and means fall under God’s sovereign decree, so that if God has decreed that I will die today, he has also decreed how that will happen, and it is a decree that incorporates decisions of free agents who are morally responsible for their actions.  So I will not, therefore, jump in front of a bus because I would be morally culpable for jeopardizing my own life and acting with stupidity. 

So, let both sides agree to do their best to hear what the other side is saying.  Not only does Christian charity demand that kind of fairness, but we also accomplish nothing when we argue against views that our opponents do not hold. 

2. Let us not hold our opponents accountable for what we perceive to be the logical outcomes of their beliefs if, in fact, they specifically deny those outcomes.  I know that is a lengthy sentence, so let me give an example.  Many non-Calvinists cannot fathom why a Calvinist would ever practice evangelism.  To a non-Calvinist way of thinking, the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election renders evangelism useless.  It is fair enough for him to say, “I am concerned that unconditional election could lead to laxity in evangelism.”  It is not fair, however, for him to claim that Calvinists are not evangelistic, or that Calvinism by its very existence has killed evangelism wherever it has flourished.  These claims are simply not true.  The vast majority of Calvinists affirm evangelism as the church’s mandate until Christ returns, and they have stood alongside their non-Calvinist brothers faithfully proclaiming the gospel to a lost world.  Even if the non-Calvinist cannot make sense of that in his own mind, it is simply unfair for him to impute to Calvinists his perception of the logical conclusion to their theology if, in fact, that conclusion is something they specifically deny.  The same goes for Calvinists who cannot make sense of why a non-Calvinist would ever pray for a lost person’s conversion.  Just because Calvinists think such a thing is illogical (given the non-Calvinist theology), Calvinists would be unfair to impute timidity in prayer to non-Calvinists on that basis alone.  The point is this: just because I see someone else’s theology entailing something does not mean he sees it the same way.  Maybe he has a way of working it out that I have not considered, or perhaps he is simply logically inconsistent (but driven to that inconsistency by his commitment to the nonnegotiable truths of Scripture).  It is fair to say, “This is inconsistent with this.”  It is not fair to say, “You are not faithful in evangelism” or “You are timid in prayer” if, in fact, that is not the case.

3. Let us remember often and celebrate the important, weighty truths that we hold in common as conservative Southern Baptists.  Conservatives (whether Calvinist or not) in the SBC hold much more in common than they do in opposition.  Here is a list of our central beliefs: the inspiration, inerrancy, and supreme authority of Scripture; God as Trinity; God as sovereign over his creation (with differences in detail about how that works out); the divine-human person of Christ; Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross, whereby he bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners; the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead; the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church; the expectation of the visible, bodily return of Christ; the necessity of conversion for salvation; salvation by grace alone through faith alone (again, with some differences as to how that works out); the church as a body of believers who have been baptized as believers and by immersion; separation of church and state (though not in the ACLU sense); religious liberty; soul competency (meaning every individual is directly accountable to God); the priesthood of believers; congregational government of the local church; the church’s mandate to evangelize the world until Jesus returns; and a commitment to voluntary cooperation among churches for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. 

I could list more areas of agreement, but this list, taken as a whole, is sufficient to demonstrate my point.  Yes, how one conceives of the nature of God’s sovereignty, his decree of election, and the nature of saving grace in conversion is important.  But I do not believe these issues are important enough to overturn our unity on the weighty matters listed above.  So let us keep these matters in mind as we debate the issue of Calvinism and remember that we will be stronger together than we would be apart. 

4. Let us pray for each other.  I know this sounds so simple and basic, but oh, how much this simple practice could change the tone and nature of theological debate!  What would happen if, before launching a theological attack on the views of someone else, you took a moment to pray for that person?  What if you asked God’s richest blessings upon him, prayed that, where he does not see the truth, he would be given eyes to see it?  And what if, humbly before God, you prayed the same for yourself?  What if you prayed for the grace to be fair in your interactions with this other person, to represent him fairly in his views, to understand why he holds them, and to advance only the truth (and not a personal agenda) when you set forth arguments against him?  What if you imagined being with this person 10,000 years from now in Heaven, where theological controversy will be a thing of the past, and there will only be joy and unity in Christ?  How might this kind of prayer change the way you debate theology?

I am not proposing that we be any less vigorous in our commitment to the truth, or that we shy away from making arguments with deeply held conviction.  If there is anything we need in the church in this age, it is deep conviction.  We live in a sea of relativism, and I do not believe unity can be forged by pushing doctrine to the side.  Such a unity would only be superficial.  So let us hold our convictions deeply, debate them passionately, but do so prayerfully, humbly, and lovingly toward one another. 

Making this point prompts me to say this: I know I have not been a shining model of this kind of discourse in the past.  I have rarely committed myself to prayer for a theological opponent before seeking to blast his views into the stratosphere.  To all whom I have wronged in this regard, I ask your forgiveness.  And I pray for grace to do better. 

If we set these four rules of protocol in place to govern all of our interactions on Calvinism within the SBC, I believe we could debate the issue passionately and still join hands for the purpose of spreading the gospel to the nations.  The result will be a stronger, healthier Southern Baptist Convention with (we pray) stronger, healthier local churches.    

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