This post was cowritten by Jay Sanders and myself. Jay Sanders also blogs here.
That small sliver of the known universe who keeps tabs on things related to the Southern Baptist Convention cannot have missed the continual rancor over theology. More specifically, to what extent the theological system known as “Calvinism” and the wider system known as “Reformed theology” should have influence in the conventions entities and churches. An oft spoken mantra with SBC blogs is, “If you want to drive up the hit count write something about Calvinism.” And, aside from the occasional Mark Driscoll drive-by, this holds true.
With all things Internet related our sense of scope and size is often much smaller than reality. When one is constantly neck-deep in debates over doctrine it seems the entire world is engaged. It simply is not so. Laser focus on a debate topic reduces our cultural peripheral vision to a thin margin, while the target of our focus undergoes a drastic pseudo-expansion.
Over the last two decades the Southern Baptist Convention has yielded precious influential ground in our culture. We have preferred to treat our intra-mural squabbles as if they were the Super Bowl rather than the annual spring game. And, we have not noticed the “fans” in the stadium are only friends and family. Few are clamoring to watch. As we have argued over machinations–and, yes, theological refinement–fewer and fewer people still care about what our leaders say about anything. The SBC is a Titanic of historical influence ramming the iceberg of current realities with not enough lifeboats to survive.
Our continued argument over Calvinism is a microcosm of our larger problem. The eternal fate of the lost does not depend on who has the best explanation of God’s sovereignty, human will, election and predestination. Lost people do not remain lost because we are still unraveling the interwoven threads of soteriology, but because we do not tell them what we do know about the gospel. By and large the only people in the Southern Baptist Convention consumed with Calvinism are those convinced of its truth and those convinced of its error. Most of our own people are not interested in an argument that has become, in some quarters, a theological equal to the Hatfield and the McCoys, but having ten times the length with one tenth the progress. There can be no mistake: the Calvinism debate in the SBC is not about the truth of Scripture, but over an interpretation of Scripture. Earnestly contending for the TULIP is not earnestly contending for the faith, nor is earnestly trying to pluck its petals any more biblical.
In our current state of affairs there are at least 10 things we can think of that are much more important for the Southern Baptist Convention than the Calvinism debate. We humbly submit that time may have passed us by on some of these, but there is yet time to impact the rest. God help us to do just that.
1. The worldwide sex trade.
Our constant bickering in the face of the multi-billion dollar sex trade is appalling. We might as well be looking these women, boys and girls directly in the face and laughing. Who really cares how money is divided, and who gets what office when 13-year-old girls are raped up to 30 times a day while chained in a brothel basement? We have no time for anyone who thinks theological debate is more important in the eyes of God than this. (Even if it is “robust.”)
2. Racial partnerships.
If the watching world will know that we are brothers and sisters by our love for one another, we could start by loving our brothers and sisters with different skin pigmentation. If Fred Luter is elected as president of the SBC this June that will be a good step, but, largely symbolic. The dominant race in the SBC (anglo) which is also the dominant race in our leadership, needs to realize we are white, we act white, we think white, we evaluate white, we judge white, and, usually, we think we are white right.
The cultural differences embedded in American racial constructs are profound. Talking about racial differences is barely a starting point. Until we are eating with, sharing life with, praying with, ministering with, and loving multi-racially, all of our perspectives will be skewed. An African-American president is good, but non-anglos holding the three primary elected slots would be better.
3. The homosexuality/gay marriage debate.
In case you are unaware, evangelicals have, for all intents and purposes, lost this debate. Those who seek to advance gay marriage and other “non-traditional” views on human sexual relationships have framed this debate, determined the wording, established the meanings and been aggressive. Those who believe marriage is between one man and one woman (as should be sexual relationships) will soon be severely–if not already–in the minority view. How and why this is so can be debated, but the numbers of Americans who approve of gay marriage continues to climb and is now a majority.
We can think of no convincing argument as to how debating the finer points of soteriology is more important than this.
4. Loss of civil liberties and looming civil disobedience.
The erosion of the rights guaranteed to Americans under the constitution is happening at an unprecedented pace. Within a few short years the “American experiment” could collapse like an Indonesian hillside in a typhoon. Despite what our Republican friends think, this is the result of multiple administrations and both major parties. Corporate influence, power mongering, greed and corruption are systemic in our system of government. Calls for civil disobedience were being discussed in February by influential evangelicals including Timothy George and Chuck Colson (who has since deceased).
Most Southern Baptist are not prepared for biblically grounded acts of civil disobedience. Our infighting will not help them get there.
5. Social injustice.
The growing discontent across Christendom about our world’s injustices is a good thing. That activity is happening to answer those concerns is even better. We are thankful people are reading the Minor Prophets again. Even in this, we face the danger of turning a move of God into a theological debate. When the particulars of the gospel are more important than the practice of the gospel, then we have denied the gospel in the name of defending it.
It is a shame when so much addressing of injustice is done by secular organizations. They are “trying to make the world a better place,” while we argue over how the gospel is to be defined rather than being defined by it.
6. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.
The lost jewel of Southern Baptist life is the Disaster Relief ministry. This “helping hands for the gospel” kind of effort demonstrates the very best that Southern Baptists have to offer. Coordinated across associational, state and national levels, the work of “regular” Southern Baptists have been profiled after disasters like the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and countless local floods, tornadoes and the like.
Nowhere is the gospel more readily seen than when Southern Baptists take vacation, don yellow shirts and hats, and, for days at a time, serve food, provide care, assist with communications, remove debris, chainsaw trees, and, yes, share the message of Christ.
7. Idolatry of the SBC.
We have heard too many people lamenting the estate of “our Southern Baptist Zion.” There is little more self-centered, and, thus, idolatrous, than co-opting the biblical imagery of heaven (“Mt. Zion”) to use for a denomination. We aren’t all that. We never were. If the kingdom of God is not bigger than the SBC, then it is not a kingdom. If it is not more important than the SBC, then it is not God’s. The language “Southern Baptist Zion” is arrogant, disrespectful, unsupportable, unbiblical, unrealistic, unsustainable and unneeded. The simple truth is the only people in the United States who think we are somebody are a few Southern Baptists.
Certainly if Moses were among us he would be throwing every available tablet in response to our denominational golden-calfery.
8. Worldwide abuse of women.
It is amazing that a guy who said, “Son, behold your mother!” in a dying breath is hallowed and followed by so many who care so much less for women than He did. Beginning with Eve women have been specifically targeted by Satan for abuse. Sexual abuse, verbal abuse, and physical abuse are just a few most Southern Baptists could name. How women are “the weaker (fairer) sex” may be debated. That the supposed “stronger” sex has repeatedly asserted that strength for abuse is not. Where is the Southern Baptist voice against Middle Eastern countries like Yemen where women are purposefully withheld from educational opportunities, resulting in overwhelming illiteracy rates? Why are we more concerned about oil pipelines than forced female circumcision? Why are we preoccupied with preaching styles while women around the world can be raped then sentenced to death for adultery? Indeed, as Egyptian writer, Mona Eltahawy, asks, “Why Do They Hate Us?.”
Will anyone seriously argue that our theological sparring reaches even into the shadow of this level of seriousness?
Who comes to know Christ as a result of our wrangling with each other? No one. Who comes to Christ because one Calvinist is able to put a theological beat-down on a non-Calvinist, or a non-Calvinist scores five debate points against a Calvinist? No one. Are not unbelievers more important than theological structures? Yes, and eternally so.
We have known of people won to Christ both by Calvinists and non-Calvinists. We know passionate preachers who are making disciple-making disciples who hold all possible positions along the scale. No one is saved by your system. They are saved by faith in Christ and the power of the gospel or they are not saved at all.
10. Lack of credibility in the public square.
It is true that particular Southern Baptists have a public voice: Ed Stetzer at LifeWay Research, Rick Warren at Saddleback Community Church, and Al Mohler at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary are a few of them. However, we have a limited moral authority due to our very public stumbles. It really does not matter who wins a theological debate if no one is around to listen to the winner speak.
Most of this is our own fault. Of course it is true that most media are not looking for the good things Southern Baptists do; only the bad things merit news coverage in most cases. Yet, we do not help ourselves if our PR could have been done by Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf himself. We do not put forth a narrative of what God is doing through us that is authentic, realistic and compelling. As a result, our faults are multiplied and virtues diminished. The SBC should be pro-active in all media venues telling the story of what God has done and is doing, and we do not have to settle when regeneration takes place in order to do that.