I’ve enjoyed the recent interview with Ed Stetzer on this site, especially Part 2 that references extreme Calvinism and rabid anti-Calvinism in the convention. I make no claim of proficiency in debating the matter, and I am not usually given to extreme points of view on most issues. However, I would like to offer just a few personal notes from an SBC missionary’s perspective.
-I have yet to meet an IMB missionary for whom the question of Calvinism is especially relevant. I don’t mean Calvin raised no significant points of debate; rather, the question of whether we are to be Calvinists or anti-Calvinists usually does not hold much practical significance for my missionary colleagues. They seem to continue on their evangelizing, church-planting way without really having to consider the question.
-I have yet to find a volunteer from the US whose personal effectiveness in the work with missionaries has been compromised by his stance on Calvinism. I once mentioned to my Arminian friend Pastor Jack that a mutual friend, Pastor Jones, would be coming down to help us. Jack warned me, “Careful – I love him, but Jones is a Calvinist. Calvinism and missions? I’m not really sure about that one…” Calvinist Pastor Jones came down and preached twice a day for a week, evangelizing in an amazing way. Incidentally, my wary friend Pastor Jack also came on a mission trip and was similarly effective.
-I have yet to find an IMB missionary who reports difficulties in local churches and conventions as they handle the question of Calvinism and Arminianism. For some reason, in many places in the world, Bible-believing Baptists just don’t seem to be as caught up in the question as we are in the US. I find that interesting. Even IMB missionaries working in local seminaries have told me that the debate has yet to arrive on their campuses.
-I have yet to stumble across IMB missionaries discussing the matter amongst themselves.
I have a theory that might tie all of these things together: IMB missionaries are, by the very international flavor of their experiences, big-tent Baptists.
A wonderful missionary who served for many years in Haiti warned me that we all arrive on the field ready to alter our people’s perspective of things only to find that we change more than they do. He simply meant that as we are teaching the Gospel, we find ourselves altered by the experience of bumping into Christians who lack a North American perspective of things. He’s right.
Would you like some examples of things that I have had to reconsider in my time on the field?
Female pastors vs female preachers vs female teachers
The role of deacons in service and administration
Systematic vs non-systematic approaches to theology
The order of salvation
Salvation as an act vs salvation as a process
The moral rightness of wealth vs the sin of wealth
Presence of the demonic in our world
Qualifications of church leaders
Separation vs intermingling of genders in worship
Imperialism in evangelism
Limitations of parental involvement in the lives of their children – even as adults
Parental responsibility for the sins of their adult offspring
And so on.
International missionaries run into so many local varieties of Baptists that they can’t help but consider expanding their definition of Baptist. Missionaries run head-on into a host of local assumptions that, while different, are no less valid than our own assumptions. Like us, Baptists around the world bring their assumptions into the church and read the Bible through their own personal filters, often asking questions that look nothing like the questions we have; it goes without saying that sometimes their answers are just as diverse.
I think my colleagues and I learn over time to see that local views of the Bible are at least as valid as ours. We learn to understand each other’s perspectives, seeking to treasure our commonalities instead of highlighting our differences. It is an important lesson that most international missionaries have to learn. I personally suspect that one unintended side-effect of that lesson is that Calvinism/Arminianism in the SBC is just another way in which we each see things differently. Ultimately, as others have highlighted in a more eloquent fashion, our beliefs should unite us more than divide us.