Some months ago, I reached my limit on Calvinism discussions here at SBC Voices. We’ve had a few articles posted here related to the topic, but I have turned down several posts that have been submitted to me that focused on Calvinism – pro or con.
Based on my observations of dozens (hundreds?) of posts and thousands of comments on the topic, I formed the opinion that Southern Baptists generally lacked the ability to discuss this issue in a Christ-honoring and productive way. Comments seemed to devolve into petty mudslinging almost immediately.
Then Dr. Frank Page formed a Calvinism study group to try to find a way to bring peace on this issue. Since there was a blue-ribbon panel of our leaders trying to hash this thing out, there seemed to be little point in us continuing our verbal bash-a-thons on this blog.
So, I shut it down.
And I have been so glad that I did. Since we stopped hosting Calvinism-based food fights, I have been thrilled at the progress of this site. We have had productive discussions on a wide range of topics. Our traffic has not gone down (as some warned it would) and we’ve had a lot of productive, insightful and helpful discussions. And, best of all, I don’t have to be ashamed of being editor of this site when I put my head on the pillow every night!
But I cannot escape what a prominent Southern Baptist, a member of Dr. Page’s task force, told me last year in NOLA. “Southern Baptists have to have this Calvinism discussion.” He was right. We have to talk about it and it won’t go away. I firmly believe that most of us are where I am – Calvinism moderates. We buy into some, but not all of the Calvinist system. Some leaders in our denomination who are passionate Calvinists and desire to promote that doctrine. Other leaders are passionately opposed to the upsurge in Calvinism and stand against any further spread of the doctrine among us.
If some folks are promoting a doctrine and others are opposing it, it is going to lead to conflict. The discussion needs to be had. One of these days, Dr. Page’s task force is going to bring forward a report with recommendations and the topic will be right back to the top of the topic list (if it ever went away).
So, can Southern Baptists have productive discussions related to Calvinism? I am not yet convinced, but I remain hopeful. I think there are a lot of people who are tired of the mudslinging, us-against-them, take-no-prisoners tone of the discussion to date and are ready to discuss this issue in a different way. I’ve seen some academic discussions that have been productive, but we in the blue-collar blogs need to up our game and develop a new pattern for conversations about soteriology.
This post is not going to be about Calvinism, but my thoughts on the process of discussing the topic (which we will start doing again just as soon as the task force brings its report).
As I’ve observed our discussions, several problems have been apparent to me. I have worded these in the first person plural because I believe them to be widespread, almost systemic problems. But obviously, not every person is guilty of these offenses and I in no way intend to make a blanket accusation.
1) Some folks are just plain obsessed with Calvinism (pro or con).
Cage-phase Calvinists abound in the SBC – its all they want to discuss. But there are just as many among the various non-Calvinist stripes who should probably be in a cage as well. Cage-stagers, on either side of the aisle, are an obstacle to peace and Christian unity. They are ideologues who are so blinded by the righteousness of their cause that whatever damage they do is justified in their minds.
Are you obsessed? Simple test. If you write posts, look at the last 2o or 25 you have written. If more than half of them are about the topic, you might need to consider climbing out of your cage and getting some balance in your life.
2) We are not good listeners.
“Well, what you are saying is that you hate Jesus and want to drown puppies.” Ever been there? You made a point and someone drew a conclusion from your point that never crossed your mind. But the reader heard something you didn’t say, ran it through the filter of their own experience and theology and drew a conclusion that never crossed your mind.
I have watched (and perhaps participated) in amazement as a discussion escalated emotionally when there was very little difference in the participants’ positions. They were talking past each other and failing to understand one another.
3) We play the victim.
They are trying to take over the convention. They are trying to drive us out of the convention. Both sides view themselves as the innocent victims of the big bad ogres on the other side.
It is not uncommon at all to watch someone who has come on a comment stream with guns blazing get his (or her) feelings hurt by what someone else says. That is normal human behavior, I guess. Of course, we have the Spirit of God and can aspire to greater things.
4) We adopt pejorative and exclusive terms.
Look at the self-designations of various groups in the debate. Majority Baptists. The Founders. Traneditionalists. The use of the term “gospel-centered” as a synonym for Calvinism. Each of these names in one way or another lays exclusive claims to Southern Baptist identity. But what is the effect of these names? Each of them also is an insult to the other side. “We are the keepers of the flame, the true Baptists. Not you.” That was likely not the intent of any of these folks, but it is the effect.
We also tend to label the other side with negative and pejorative labels. I could list a million of these, but I doubt I really need to.
5) We demonize the other side.
Calvinists hate evangelism and want to take over the denomination. Traditionalists are semi-Pelagian, or Arminian. “They” twist the truth to paint “us” in the worst possible light.
Demonizing the brethren is not really the way to build the Body of Christ, is it?
6) We justify and rationalize our behavior.
If you talk to some Calvinists, they are utterly convinced that they are innocent pursuers of truth and peace who are being hounded by the evil Traditionalists who are determined to misrepresent and harass them. If you talk to some non-Calvinists, they are utterly convinced that they are innocent pursuers of truth and peace who are being harassed by the evil Calvinists who are determined to dominate and harass them.
And what “we” are doing is justified in response to what “they” have done. “They” started it and are must worse than “we” are, after all.
What is the solution to all of this? Perhaps the words of that great counselor, Bob Newhart would suffice. “STOP IT!” But let me make a few more specific suggestions.
1) Show family honor
Treat fellow-Christians as fellow-Christians, as co-laborers in the cause of Christ and sharers in the Blood of Christ and the gospel that proclaims it.
You just don’t treat your family like the enemy.
And we are family. Yes, there are some weird uncles on both sides of the aisle, but Baptist Calvinists and Baptist Traditionalists and Baptists at every point along the way in between are part of the same family of the redeemed and must be treated with honor because of that.
The same Bible that gives us all the details about election and predestination and regeneration also gives us unequivocal commands to love one another inside the Body and to show honor and respect to one another. Really, if we would just do this, most of the problems would be solved.
Read the Love Chapter. Have the actions that describe love in that passage marked your interactions with those who disagree with you soteriologically?
NOTE: It is not enough to simply say, “Calvinists are my brothers” or “Traditionalists are my brothers” in an introduction or conclusion. Too often those are empty words of flattery, meant to take the edge off of harsh words. What matters is that we treat one another with relentless honor and respect, even when we disagree.
2) Accept that both Calvinists and n0n-Calvinists are theologically and historically Baptists.
Dr. Dockery presented a lecture on the history of Southern Baptists at the Kentucky Conference that demonstrated that the Calvinist thread and the non-Calvinist thread have both been an integral part of our history. There has been an ebb and flow – sometimes Calvinists rose to prominence and sometimes that theology died down to a remnant, but both positions have been represented throughout the history of Baptist life.
To present one side or the other as “the most Baptist” is divisive, historically inaccurate, and just plain silly.
3) Seek to understand
Dr. Howard Hendricks and Dr. Chuck Swindoll went to seminary together. Hendricks told us how they used to sit in the square at night and have theological debates. After debating a point for a while, they would switch sides and argue the other side. What a healthy exercise.
I think misunderstanding, intentional or not, is at the root of a lot of our issues.
I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has complained that another misunderstood what was said. And much of the time, the complaint is accurate.
It is all about listening!
4) Talk biblical exegesis more than theological system.
I’m not trying to denigrate systematic theology, but I believe it has some inherent dangers. Our systems ought to be built from exegesis. There is a danger when we bring a theological system to a passage and let the system skew the exegesis.
In my observation, biblically based discussions have been the most productive. The Traditionalist Document made it clear that one of the roots of our differences is anthropological – how is sin passed on from generation to generation? While there have been some harsh words exchanged in that discussion, there have also been some productive explorations of biblical passages.
Those tend, in my estimation, to be more productive.
5) Eschew accusations of dark intent.
The convention is not divided into good guys and bad guys (along theological lines). Bible-loving, Christ-serving, gospel-preaching Calvinists serve alongside Bible-loving, Christ-serving, gospel-preaching non-Calvinists in this convention of ours. We have some different emphases and different methods, and we do undeniably disagree on some theological issues. But on those things that really matter, we are one.
And we ought to stop trying to paint one another as dastardly foes.
6) Choose to see the best.
What if we simply did what the Bible commands us to do. Love, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:7, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.”
What if we actually did that? What if we bore with the failings and foibles of the brethren and accepted them as brothers in spite of it all? What if we believed in the power of the Spirit to guide us into all truth and to complete the work of Christ and kept hoping all the best for one another? What if we persevered through disagreement and even injury to seek the way of God?
Things in the SBC might start to turn around if we took the Scriptures that command unity as seriously as we do the Scriptures that advocate certain theological points.
So, I agree with the man I spoke to in NOLA. We have to have this discussion. But we do not have to have it the same way we have had it in the past.
We can do better, of that I am convinced.