Dr. Kevin McFadden has been an Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at Louisiana College. He is one of the professors whose contract was not renewed – the action that sent Louisiana College into the headlines. You can read his biography here. I appreciate both the wisdom and the spirit of this article.
How should Southern Baptists approach disagreements in theology? What should we do when we disagree about what the Bible says about God? My goal in this article is to help Southern Baptists think productively about the Calvinism controversy and other theological controversies in the Southern Baptist Convention. Full disclosure: I am one of three professors who were recently told that their contracts would not be renewed at Louisiana College next year. None of us were given reasons for our non-renewals, but our non-renewals coincided with several public statements against Calvinism from the president of the college. Almost everyone, including the local paper, has connected the dots.
I think this Calvinism controversy was handled poorly by the leadership of Louisiana College and the leadership of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. But my goal is not to dwell on the past. My goal is to help Baptists think about how these things should be handled in the future. And I’m not just talking about Calvinism, because Calvinism will not be the last theological controversy that Southern Baptists face. How then should we approach our theological differences?
First, we need to recognize that some doctrines are more important than other doctrines. All Christians recognize this to some extent. For example, the doctrine of the return of Jesus Christ, the second coming, is much more important than the question of whether Christ will return before or after the tribulation. If you deny the second coming of Christ, it calls into question whether you are a Christian. But Christians have always disagreed about the exact timing of Christ’s return. So which doctrines are more important and which are less important?
One way to think about this issue is to distinguish between three levels of doctrines. First level doctrines include those a person has to believe in order to be a Christian. These include things like the inspiration of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the humanity of Christ, the sacrificial death of Christ for our sins, and his bodily resurrection. Now I am not saying that every Christian understands these doctrines fully. But if a person rejects these doctrines, can they really be a Christian in any historic sense?
Second level doctrines include those which are important because they promote the health of the church. These doctrines include those which separate denominations, like believer’s baptism or congregational church government. One does not need to be a Baptist to be a Christian, but these doctrines are important enough to the health of the church that Protestants have been willing to divide over them.
Third level doctrines include those which are matters of indifference. These include doctrines like the pre-tribulational rapture of the church, or the question of whether Sunday has become the new Sabbath. Christians simply disagree about many matters of indifference in the Bible.
Now my distinction between three levels of doctrine will not solve all of our disagreements. But it will at least help us think productively about our disagreements. Not every disagreement over doctrine is important. Some are more important than others.
Second, we need to hold to our confession, the Baptist Faith and Message. The Baptist Faith and Message was crafted in part to help us deal with our disagreements. It is an umbrella document under which many different people can work together to cooperate in supporting missions and education. It explains which doctrines are important for us to agree upon, but it allows disagreement on other doctrines that are not as important.
Throughout history, Christians have attempted to clarify important doctrines through the use of confessions, or summaries of Christian doctrine. We don’t use confessions as a replacement of the Bible. We use confessions as a summary of what the Bible teaches. If we could, we would just sit down and read the entire Bible together and say, “that’s what we believe.” But that would take a really long time. So, we summarize the teaching of the Bible in confessions of faith.
Some of the earliest Christian confessions include the Apostles’ Creed and its expansion in the Nicene Creed. These confessions address what I have called first level doctrines. After the Protestant Reformation in the Western Church, many confessions began including second level doctrines. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith was a Presbyterian confession. It was then modified to form the Second London Baptist Confession for Baptists. This Second London Baptist Confession is the parent document that traces down to the Baptist Faith and Message, which was adopted as the confession of the Southern Baptist Convention and the confession of Louisiana College.
To be a teacher at Louisiana College, you don’t have to agree with everything in the Baptist Faith and Message, because our confession includes both first level and second level doctrines. Every teacher at Louisiana College has to agree with the first level doctrines—that is, they must be a Christian. But not every teacher at Louisiana College has to agree with the second level doctrines—that is, you don’t have to be a Baptist to teach here. However, to teach in the religion department, you have to agree with everything in the Baptist Faith and Message. In other words, you have to be a Baptist. This makes sense, since we are training students for ministry in Southern Baptist churches.
Remember, the Baptist Faith and Message explains the doctrines which are important for us to agree upon so that we can work together in churches and as a denomination. It also allows disagreement on other doctrines that are not as important. It protects us from forcing others to agree with our theological pet-peeves and from being forced to agree with the theological pet-peeves of others.
So now we come to the question. Is Calvinism outside of the Baptist Faith and Message? Clearly, it is not. The Baptist Faith and Message comes from a line of Calvinist confessions, rooted in the Second London Baptist Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is our theological history as Southern Baptists. Our confession has been modified over the years to allow views that don’t fit strictly within the Reformed tradition, but it was certainly never modified to exclude Calvinists, because the current revision of the Baptist Faith and Message included five-point Calvinists on the committee. You can be a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist and be a Southern Baptist. Both views are permitted under the umbrella of our confession.
Is hyper-Calvinism outside of the Baptist Faith and Message? Yes, and it should be. Hyper-Calvinism is the idea that the gospel should not be offered freely to all people. This doctrine is not within the bounds of our confession. Let me say this clearly: Calvinism is not the same thing as hyper-Calvinism. Any person who says the two are the same is either ignorant or lying. And this leads to my last point.
Third, we need to be people of integrity. The Baptist Faith and Message is not enough. It is important. But for our confession to work, we need people of integrity to uphold it. This means that professors in colleges and seminaries should only sign a confession if they believe it and plan to teach in accordance with it. It also means that administrators in colleges and seminaries should enforce policies that are in line with the confession they claim to uphold.
The problem at Louisiana College is not a lack of integrity in the professors who are leaving. I have worked hand in hand with these colleagues for the past three years. They are not sinless, but they are people of integrity. The problem at Louisiana College is a remarkable lack of integrity among the leadership of the college and the leadership of Louisiana Baptist Convention. And I think this lack of integrity is rooted in something deeper I have observed in the Southern Baptist Convention—a culture of flattery and glad-handing and even outright lying for the sake of personal or political gain. I love the Southern Baptist heart for evangelism and revival. But revival needs to start at home. We need to pray that God would grant us repentance of sin and faith in his Son, that he would pour out his Spirit and give us integrity. And we need to beware of the spread of the hypocrisy that is in our midst (see Luke 12:1–3).
Let me close with a historical perspective from the Northern Baptist Convention. Conservative Baptists in the North fought against those who denied first level doctrines. But they lost, and they separated from the convention. Unfortunately, many of them didn’t stop separating. After fighting the battles over first level doctrines, they kept dividing and dividing, many times over doctrines that were really matters of indifference.
And this is what some who opposed the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention prophesied would happen. They said in effect that if you cause divisions over first level doctrines, then the divisions will never stop. This prophecy is beginning to come true. I hope you will see that the situation at Louisiana College didn’t have to happen, and it doesn’t have to happen in the future.
Let’s be clear about first level doctrines—let’s make divisions when Scripture calls us to do so. But when we have theological differences that fall under the umbrella of our confession, let’s agree to disagree, and go on working together for the spread of the gospel and the glory of God.