I hate talking about Calvinism on this blog. I hate it. For about 6 months, I pretty much banned it, with a few slip ups that I usually regretted. When the Calvinism committee issued its report, one of the things they called for was constructive engagement. Calvinists and non-Calvinists (including Traditionalists) need to talk to one another, calmly, biblically and graciously. So, I opened the door.
And, of course, foodfights ensued!
So, with much fear and trepidation, I am going to enter into the fray and try to add a perspective on the subject. I am committed to seeking to build unity in the SBC between Calvinists and Traditionalists. I am also painfully aware that discussions of Calvinism generally widen the rift instead of closing it. But I add these words to the debate anyway, because I have come to believe this:
Avoiding the discussion of Calvinism will not foster unity. We need to fundamentally change the way we have the discussion!
So, in that spirit, I give these thoughts.
A Little Background
It was just about a year ago that I took a long walk one Wednesday morning. I had gotten a call asking me to allow my name to be placed in nomination as 2nd VP in NOLA. I had decided to turn the nomination down, but before I called the person who had contacted me, I thought I should give it a little more prayer and thought. So, I prayer-thought-walked for an hour.
I was not interested in becoming a combatant in the Calvinist-Traditionalist fracas that was burning at such a fever pitch last year. But, as I prayed about it that day, I had a moment that I cannot describe without offending all you cessationists who think that God doesn’t speak directly to human hearts today. I sensed that God was in this, that I ought to allow my nomination. There were two reasons for this.
1) I would represent and promote Southern Baptist work in Iowa and the Midwest. We don’t even get representation on boards in the SBC, so I thought this was one way to raise a little awareness. Frankly, I think Iowa Baptists and perhaps those in the Dakotas, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Illinois and other areas were happy to see someone from our region elected.
2) My chief concern, though, was to promote unity in the SBC. I knew then in theory, and I know now in reality, that the SBC 2nd VP has no authority and almost no significant role, but I knew that being elected would give me a chance to speak out on this issue.
I believe the SBC will splinter and shatter into pieces unless we learn to get along and partner with one another in Great Commission tasks.
Unity, to me, is more important than Calvinism – pro or con. I know I come across at times like Sandra Bullock’s character in Miss Congeniality advocating for some kind of meaningless and nebulous “world peace.” But it is not meaningless or nebulous to me. We were redeemed and baptized by the Spirit into one Body. We all drink of the same Spirit and our unity is a precious thing to God. It is a primary teaching in God’s Word. We are to be an earthly reflection of the heavenly unity of the Trinity. And we fail miserably at that!
I have been called a pollyanna by some for this stand, preferring wishful thinking to serious theological debate. I have been called a fraud, someone who only used unity as a means of self-promotion. I have been called a traitor to the Calvinist cause. One man I would have considered a friend circulated emails telling people how I’d sold out the Calvinist side. I have been told that I lack the theological sophistication to understand the issues and their significance. But in spite of all this I remained convinced that:
- Unity is essential in the church and in our denomination if we hope to see God’s blessing and the reversal of the SBC’s statistical decline.
- Unity is a theological imperative – rooted in divine nature and the redemptive purpose of God.
- Unity is possible for Southern Baptists because the ground of our unity is greater than the areas of our disagreements.
- Unity is broken not by theological disagreement among Calvinists and non-Calvinists, but by fleshly behavior such as strife, envy, rivalry, anger and malice.
- Unity is possible if Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike walk together in a commitment to the Word, the Great Commission and fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Not Everyone Agrees
Of that I am very well aware. Some on the Reformed side view the modern church as compromised and corrupted and see the only solution as a thorough-going reformation along soteriological and practical lines. Some among Traditionalists have made it clear that there is no place for Calvinists in the leadership of the SBC – it must be uprooted and banished. Others, not quite so extreme, see an unhealthy advance of Calvinism and believe it needs to be stayed and perhaps reversed, at least to some degree.
Each of these groups must be allowed to hold to and operate on the basis of their convictions. But I also must continue to disagree with both sides and state that I think the conversation has often been lacking in grace and our treatment of one another has not given evidence of 1 Corinthians 13-type love.
What I think is necessary
I have said for years that one of our great needs is to hold one another accountable. For too long, Calvinists have tried to hold non-Calvinists accountable for their words and actions, and Traditionalists have sought to hold Calvinists accountable for their words and actions. It has not worked.
I’ve seen it a thousand times. The foodfight begins and accusations are hurled at one another. When people are called on their words, they invariably reply, “They started it.” “What they did is worse than what we did.”
- We Calvinists may not be perfect, but our words are justified based on the misinterpretation, misunderstanding and misrepresentations of Calvinism and by the wild accusations of the Traditionalists.
- We Traditionalists are only responding to the power grabs, the accusations of heresy (semi-heresy?) and the exclusionary language of the Calvinists.
- We can get along, but only if THEY will change (first)!
We are practicing “weighted guilt” – as if our responsibility to walk in the fruit of the Spirit is abrogated by the failure of the other side to do so. That is the way Democrats and Republicans behave, but it is not the way of the Kingdom or of the Church of the Risen Lord! Nothing another does ever justifies sin that I commit.
We must break the cycle of blame and justification. The solution, I believe is simple. I must hold “my side” accountable. Hey, if we are, if fact, the “right” side then ought not our behavior show that more than even our theological argument?
So that is what I am going to do. I’m going to anger my own side. I’m going to tell you what I think my side is doing wrong. I am going to call my side to repentance and reformation – to a new commitment to change the way we talk with and relate to the other side.
I am a Calvinist
Well, sort of. If you pin me down and tickle me till I talk (and that would be pretty creepy, wouldn’t it?) I will tell you that I am a Calvinist. There was a time when I was a fire-breathing, cage-phase, 5-point, passionate, proselytizing Calvinist. Talk to my college friends. I have moderated my views a little as time has gone by – I believe it is because of a greater understanding of scripture, but obviously others will share other opinions.
I believe that God, based on no merit in us or any anticipation of future action by us, chose before the creation of the world those lost, hell-deserving sinners that he would save. That choice was based on his sovereign purpose alone.
However, I also have some moderating positions:
- I believe in antinomy – that the Bible reveals truths that are contradictory by human logic but are both true in superior heavenly logic. We must accept these antinomies as revealed without understanding them. God is one God in three persons. Logic says he can’t be both, but he is! Jesus is both God and man – fully.
- So, based on the antinomy principle, I believe in human choice in the faith response in a way that would likely not be satisfactory to the monergists out there.
- I can see the logic of particular redemption within the Calvinist system, but there are too many John 3:16-type verses in the Bible for me to accept limited atonement.
- I have some questions about the order of events in salvation. I’m not sure whether the chicken of faith or the egg of regeneration came first.
- I flat-out reject much of the Reformed system. I think there is some biblical truth in it, but a lot of human tradition mixed in. I reject covenant theology and the amillennialism that often accompanies it (because I have a Bible! – sorry, I kid) and other aspects of the Reformed system.
So, in general, I’m a Calvinist. But I’m a Calvinist who gets frustrated with a lot of Calvinists, especially Calvinist bloggers. I have expressed this before and the reaction has not been well-received. Confronting my side was viewed as an act of treachery. So, let me be a traitor again.
I think that if we are going to foster peace, if we are going to partner for the Kingdom, there are some changes that WE need to make in the way we talk and in the way we act. Do the Traditionalists need to change their ways. Yes, I think some of them do. But that is not my concern. Those in the Traditionalist movement need to check themselves and their ways. But my purpose is to confront what I see as problems on the side I’m on!
What Calvinists MUST Do to Maintain Unity in the SBC
Yes, I said it. We have sinned. We have been arrogant, condescending and dismissive of our brothers and sisters on the other side. We need to call our actions what they are – sin. And we need to reject them.
- To all of you Traditionalists I have offended by dismissing your viewpoint, I ask your forgiveness.
- To those I have disdained or harshly criticized, I ask your forgiveness.
There will be no healing as long as we justify our actions based on our perception that the actions of the other side have been worse. Maybe they have. Maybe they haven’t. But no actions on the Traditionalist side justify sin on our side.
Calvinists often practice the fine art of building mountains out of molehills. There is a reason we talk about Cage-stage Calvinists. When you discover this crucial doctrine of the sovereignty of God, it often fills your heart and mind with a passion that can get a little out of balance. I honestly believe that much of the trouble in the SBC has been created by overbearing, obnoxious, proselytizing Calvinists (like me – I speak from experience) who simply overwhelm, intimidate and annoy those who do not see the scriptures the same way.
Not every issue needs to be taken to the mattresses. Has there been an unhealthy civil-religion aspect in many SBC churches? I think so. Does that mean that any display of patriotism in a worship service is offensive to God? Maybe so. Maybe not. But is the display of a flag or an expression of patriotic fervor really that inimical to the glory of God? Do views on tithing, alcoholic consumption, even styles of government really rise to the level they are sometimes given? Altar calls and sinners prayer – I have personally seen them be abused. But are they really the evil practices we have sometimes made them out to be?
And let’s dispense with the tendency to see disagreeing with Calvinist views as a personal attack, even if those disagreements are based on misunderstandings.
There is some vibrant, powerful, genuine Christianity outside of the Reformed world, but you wouldn’t know that to talk to some Calvinists. There is sometimes a messianic, manifest-destiny attitude displayed among us. We are here to correct the inadequate theology, right the wrongs, and reform the unreformed.
I am a Calvinist, but I became very uncomfortable by the prominent (and since, I think, corrected) use of the term “gospel-centered” to refer to Calvinist/Reformed theology and practice. Do you realize what that does to a non-Calvinist? How can he not feel slighted when we intimate that disagreement with our views is not just a theological difference, but a failure to understand the gospel. When we act as if the church was morally, spiritually and theologically corrupt, compromised and crumbling until the Reformed movement appeared to set things right, how do you expect non-Calvinists to react?
I’ve known plenty of non-Calvinists who love the gospel. They put some of the aspects of salvation in slightly different logical order than I do, but they are gospel-centered nonetheless. There have been some pretty good things that have gone on in the SBC and in non-Calvinist churches back in my day when Calvinists were rarer than Republicans voting in some Philadelphia precincts!
A little humility is necessary here. I believe what I believe because I have studied God’s Word and have come to these views. But I also need the humility to realize that some people who love God and the Word come to very different positions. Look, the greatest minds of Christianity have pondered the relationship of divine sovereignty and human choice since the days of the post-apostolic fathers. They have not solved all the issues, dotted all the i’s or crossed all the t’s in these issues. Are you really so certain you have it all figured out?
What I am advocating here is respect for those who disagree. They love Jesus and they love the Word. Perhaps you might even learn something from them! And I believe that the doctrines we believe would likely have a better hearing if we demonstrated more respect and humility toward others as we promote them.
I have now been the pastor (senior pastor) of three churches – one in Virginia and two in Iowa. I never discussed my Calvinistic views with any of the churches or committees in the selection process. They never asked. I never brought it up. Why? I never had an agenda to make my churches Calvinistic strongholds. When I preached a passage that touched on the subject, I made my viewpoint known. I had no agenda to “reform” the church, to conform it to a certain ecclesiological style or practices. Nothing wrong with having an agenda, but hiding demonstrates a lack of integrity.
If you enter a church with an agenda, you are sinning against God if you do not reveal that agenda. You are deceiving the church and there is simply no justification for that. I don’t care how godly or biblical you think your agenda is, to go into a church with an agenda that you do not reveal is beneath a man of God!
And yes, this happens. It should not, but it does. It may not be as common as some have made it out to be, but let’s make this commitment – it must NEVER happen again.
5) Remember to season your words with grace.
If we are advocates of the biblical teaching of grace, ought not that grace invade every area of our lives, including the way we speak? We ought to guard our words carefully, to build up, encourage, and promote fellowship (Ephesians 4:29). Our truth must be spoken in love, not in arrogance, condescension or ridicule.
6) Reserve “heresy” for heresy.
I had some good friends years ago with a simple theological system. Whatever R.C. Sproul said was true, everything that disagreed with him was heresy. We drop the h-bomb all too quickly. There are some real heresies out there – just about every fundamental doctrine of the faith is under some form of attack today. But within the SBC, we are having family disagreements. We should save the word heresy for those doctrines and practices that undermine the gospel or denigrate the nature of God.
7) Rely on the Holy Spirit!
I know some of you are not the Henry Blackaby fans that I am, but I learned a life-changing, ministry-changing principle from him years ago. If you are operating on God’s agenda, then the Holy Spirit is your ally. If you are doing your own thing, you must convince, motivate, manipulate and cajole others to get your way. But if you are doing God’s things, the Holy Spirit is the convincer and the motivator.
If we are right about the “doctrines of grace” then we don’t have to be overbearing, manipulative, or harassing in our interactions with non-Calvinists. If the Word is on our side, then the Spirit is on our side. If the Word and the Spirit are not on our side, we ought not really be doing it anyway, right? I can proclaim truth as I understand it and then trust the Spirit of God to do his miraculous, transformational work on others.
I don’t have to convince anyone – the Spirit of God will do that in his time!
8) Remember, there are a LOT of issues out there that matter.
Don’t get bogged down on ONE thing. Calvinism may matter, but it is not ALL that matters.
My dad said something years ago, back in the day that Baptist churches had prayer meeting on Wednesday night, and business meeting once a month at the same time (pretty standard where I grew up). He said,
“The people who scare me the most are those who come to business meeting but not to prayer meeting.”
The Calvinists who scare me the most are those who only want to talk about Calvinism. We have great posts on ministry – they ignore them. We post biblical interpretations, denominational issues and myriad other topics. Nothing. But, when someone posts on a topic remotely related to Calvinism, they come out of their crags and gnaw the topic to the bone.
If all you want to talk about is Calvinism, know that there is one overweight preacher in Iowa who thinks you have a problem with your priorities.
I am not saying that it is all our fault. Traditionalists have plenty of fault on their side. But I am calling out MY side. I think we need to change the way we engage in the debate. We need to demonstrate grace, humility, respect and trust in God’s Spirit instead of a warrior spirit and obnoxious attitudes which have been all too common.