As long as there are Southern Baptists, there will be disagreements about doctrine. The Baptist Faith and Message unifies us around a common core of gospel imperatives and Baptist distinctives. At the same time, our statement of faith allows for a variety of views on important aspects of church practice, eschatology and soteriology. Because of our common faith, we partner together in Great Commission work. Because we disagree on important issues like election and the atonement, we have the potential for conflict and division that threatens that cooperative spirit.
While there will always be those among us who seek to divide, there are others who earnestly desire to work together despite our very real differences. But such unity does not happen unless we aim for it and work hard at it. We need models of how we can engage one another in productive ways that build up rather than tear down. I experienced one such model at the Southern Baptist Convention last year.
One of the bright spots of our gathering in Baltimore was the panel discussion at the Gospel Project breakfast. The panel included “Traditionalist” Executive Committee president Frank Page, “Calvinist” pastor now International Mission Board president David Platt, and Gospel Project editor Trevin Wax. More than 500 people attended the event for free breakfast, free books (including Page’s the Trouble with the Tulip) and a spirited discussion. Ed Stetzer was in rare form as he guided the panel in a frank and lively dialogue entitled “Salvation and the Mission of God.” Stetzer led the panelists to explore issues of soteriology that have been a fault line in the SBC for some time.
The event was the most helpful discussion I have heard on the issue in recent years and I believe it provides a good model for further discussions going forward. I thought it might be helpful to revisit the event and draw some lessons from it on how we might approach such disagreements moving forward. You can listen to the audio of the event here. Here are a few takeaways from the event:
1. We must be willing to engage in serious discussion about theological issues. There’s no pretending we do not differ from each other on important issues. And, though the issues regarding Divine sovereignty and human responsibility will not be resolved this side of eternity, we must be willing to engage on these issues as we seek to faithfully live by God’s word. The panel discussion at the Gospel Project breakfast provided a good model for profitable theological discussion. The panelists were willing to ask pointed questions and receive honest criticisms of their views. Moderator Ed Stetzer left no wiggle room as he prompted discussion on some of the most divisive topics.
During the panel, Stetzer noted the importance of having such healthy discussions. Reflecting later on the panel, Ed Stetzer noted that “these kinds of discussions are relatively useless if you won’t ask hard questions.”[i] Some people dislike conflict and any kind of debate. Avoiding such confrontations, however, does not resolve divisive issues but pushes them under the surface to arise later. A willingness to have healthy discussions on the issues on which we disagree is vital for cooperation among people with significant, though compatible, theological differences.
2. We must treat one another honestly and with charity. The men on the panel modeled how to engage on these issues in a way that was constructive rather than destructive. The panelists, even when sharing their concerns, presented facts and not conjecture. They neither caricaturized one another’s views nor questioned each other’s motives or commitment to evangelism.
As the conversation developed, we saw an honest attempt by the panelists to understand each other’s views. The panelists avoided using “straw man” arguments and sought to treat their opponents’ view in the most charitable light possible. Even when warning about extreme positions of opposing views, the panelists did not assume their opponent held those extremes. When language was fuzzy or could be interpreted in a number of ways, the moderator pushed for clarity and precise language while the panelists listened to each other instead of making assumptions about what the other believed.
In one very lively exchange about the sovereignty of God and whether God’s will could be thwarted, the panelists (prompted by the moderator) carefully articulated their views, asked questions of one another, clarified how each other were using terms and defining theological concepts, and listened intently to understand one another. There was vigorous discussion but no heated rhetoric or tense exchanges. Rather, the conversation was lighthearted and jovial, even as it dug deep into controversial topics of election, grace, and the sovereignty of God. The result was a challenging, “iron sharpening iron” type of exchange. The panelists dealt honestly with each other and the result was genuine dialogue and fruitful theological discussion.
3. We can let others be honest about their real concerns without taking personal offense. I found it remarkably refreshing that the panelists allowed one another to speak candidly and pointedly about their concerns with each other’s views. No one got offended or defensive nor did the conversation turn antagonistic and hostile. In a light-hearted but direct way, Stetzer challenged each of the panelists to defend their views, express their concerns, and challenge one another.
Frank Page openly shared his unease about Calvinism and especially its belief in irresistible grace. He expressed his concern that the view could lead to “an extremism that kills passion for evangelism.” He worried that even among Calvinists who expressed a belief in evangelism, that they could fall into a “functional hyper-Calvinism” that resulted in a lack of evangelistic fervor. Trevin Wax acknowledged the potential of Calvinism to harden into a hyper-Calvinist lack of zeal.
David Platt was questioned on his previous statements about the sinner’s prayer. He shared his concerns that the practice, though not wrong in itself, had the potential, functionally, to obscure the biblical language to repent and believe and reduce salvation to a “formulaic set of words.” As Platt fleshed out his view, Page listened attentively and ended up affirming Platt’s concerns and his method of calling sinners to respond to the gospel.
The panelists listened to one another and found themselves agreeing on much. Even where they continued to differ, they set aside their “theological distrust” and spoke openly with one another about those differences. There was no outrage, anger or offense. The panelists neither attacked one another nor became aggressive in tone. Even when the discussion was most pointed, I saw in the panelists a genuine appreciation for each other as brothers in Christ. One could sense the brotherly affection these men had for each other and the mutual respect they had as co-laborers in the gospel.
4. We must partner together in gospel work. At a time when Southern Baptists were discussing the continual decline in our baptism numbers, all the panelists expressed concern over the current state of evangelism in the SBC. Instead of placing blame on one theological camp or another, however, they challenged all to increased participation in evangelistic work. Each of the panelists acknowledged a lack of fervency in evangelism across the theological spectrum.
When asked directly, Page said he saw no correlation between the rise of Calvinism and the decline in Baptisms. “I am seeing a lessening of evangelistic passion across the board,” he lamented; “I see them [the anti-Calvinists] witnessing less than I’ve ever seen people witness before and that’s the problem. It is both a Calvinist problem and a non-Calvinist problem.” Similarly, Wax and Stetzer acknowledged that there is sometimes a lack of urgency in evangelism among reformed believers. Wax also noted the tendencies of both views, in their extremes, toward non-evangelism and warned against both a functional hyper-Calvinism or a fuzzy inclusivism that lessens the urgency to evangelize.
When asked about how Calvinists and Traditionalists can come together when they differ on the ordo salutis, Page challenged “The way we come together on this is when I go out witnessing…are you going to come with me?” Page quipped, “I don’t care if your order is wrong, as long as you get it done!” Wax admonished Calvinists to stop being defensive about the Calvinist missionary spirit and instead to model evangelistic fervor. Instead of saying “look at Carey” or “look at Spurgeon,” Wax challenged, they should be able to say “look at me.” Platt described his own zeal for evangelism and his desire for Southern Baptists to work together to take the gospel to the nations.
Beyond the challenges for Baptists on all sides to increase their evangelistic zeal, the panelists demonstrated a desire to partner together for kingdom work. They shared a passion for evangelism and missions. They demonstrated a shared passion for cooperative work even when disagreeing on these issues. The focus should be not our theological differences on the balance of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, they argued, but on cooperation for the cause of the gospel.
When asked how he looks out at a denomination in which the vast majority were not Calvinist and who practiced many things that he did not, Platt responded,
“With joy! Our theologies may not be identical down to every single point, but they are more than compatible. . . . I feel no need to think any pastor or any missionary or anybody in whatever position needs to be Calvinist or non Calvinist, this [the BFM2000 ] is our umbrella under which we joyfully lock arms together in gospel ministry here and among the nations.”
Page agreed. He emphasized that panel members have compatible but not identical theological views, which means they can cooperate in ministry, even if they don’t always agree on everything. He called on Southern Baptists to focus on doing evangelism and not just the theology that informs evangelism. All the panelists agreed that we must be willing to focus on cooperating for the cause of the gospel.
Can such divergent views exist in the same denomination? Can we dialogue on these issues in a way that unifies rather than divides? I think so. If you’ve read this far, you have a pretty good picture of the discussion that day. These men demonstrated the desire and possibility of working together for the cause of Christ and His gospel. Midway through the panel, I tweeted to Stetzer, “This is the most fun I’ve had at a panel discussion & the most honest candid discussion I’ve heard. Well done!” I was encouraged by the exchange. When it was over, I left with a renewed optimism about the future of our cooperative work. From my perspective, the breakfast gathering was a huge success.
In the end, the panel did what it set out to do: to “model charitable discussion and point people toward gospel-centered mission.” My take-away? Let us follow their lead!
[i] Ed Stetzer shares his reflections on the discussion in this Christianity Today article. Trevin Wax shares his own reflections here.
Photo courtesy of Lizette Beard