Wednesday, June 06, 2012

An inevitable schism?

A storm is brewing in the Southern Baptist Convention. Not a storm over women pastors or gay marriage or evolution or Biblical inerrancy. This storm is over the centuries old debate about Calvinism. It has been coming for a long time, and like many major engagements it has had a series of skirmishes leading up to the main event. As someone who used to be part of Southern Baptists churches and church life, I watch these events from afar with a mixture of fascination and sadness. Many peripheral players have been poking at this issue for a decade or more but recently a shot across the bow has prompted a more serious response and a path that I am afraid only ends one way .

Recently a manifesto of sort was published by a number of well known and respected Southern Baptist leaders, men like Malcolm Yarnell, Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines as well as other characters like Emir Caner, brother of disgraced former anti-Calvinist crusader Ergun Caner. The manifesto is rather grandiosely titled A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation and is really just a statement of why Southern Baptists have allegedly traditionally understood God's plan of salvation in a way that is, well it is not Calvinist.

The responses have been fast and furious. Nothing is quite like a bunch of Calvinists who feel disenfranchised responding on the internet! Of those responses, two stand out. Tom Ascol of Founders Ministry has been putting a comprehensive response together and Al Mohler weighed in this morning with a sober piece that warns of the danger of creating theological traibalism within a group, a warning that he rightly applies to both Calvinst and non-Calvinist alike. These are important issues to be sure but not issues that should divide us from one another and distract from our common mission.

Unfortunately I don't see this as a friendly debate. There are lines being drawn and words being said that cannot be undone. As someone who is more clearly sympathetic with the Calvinist camp and as someone who has been a part of the SBC, I have long felt there is something of a witch hunt going on.  In my opinion the instigators have almost always been on the non-Calvinist side. I don't think I have heard any Reformed Southern Baptists pushing to drive non-Calvinists out of the convention or muzzle them but plenty of that talk coming from the Arminian side.  I think I somewhat understand why. As the "Conservative Resurgence" wound down and Southern Baptists found themselves with a Bible everyone affirmed, it wasn't long before issues of interpretation started springing up. While more old school capital "S" Southern Baptists are generally Arminian at best, the younger men coming up are more and more Reformed, thanks in large part to the influence of Al Mohler at Southern Seminary and other notable leaders like John Piper and John MacArthur. There is a disconnect between the young, enthusiastic and zealous (often overly so) Calvinists who are filling the clerical ranks in the SBC and the more traditional older men who sit in the positions of power and the pulpits of the biggest and most prosperous churches.  This conflict I believe can only end one way, ultimately a functional if not a overt split of the Southern Baptist Convention followed by unseemly squabbling over the vast wealth of the SBC.

As a sideline observer I watch this with a great deal of sadness and headshaking. When you look at the vast resources of the SBC in terms of seminaries, local churches, academic powerhouses, money and most of all people and think about those resources being used to start and refute a pogrom of purging over an admittedly important theological issue but one that does not rise to the level of the Gospel, it is nothing short of tragic. When people bemoan the powerlessness and the irrelevance of the church in America, events like this are Exhibit A. The lost among us are really not interested in the doctrine of God's sovereignty in salvation or man's free will. They are watching us and what they see all too often are a people who fight and squabble and split and hate one another . When the world looks at us, they certainly aren't seeing Jesus and they likewise don't see anything they are interested in learning more about. Who can blame them? It is not the foolishness of the cross they reject, it is the pride and foolishness of man that they reject and rightly so.

There was a time not too long ago that I would have been out on the electronic front lines waving the banner for Reformed theology, smiting Arminians with righteous fury. Those days are past and I repent of the pride that drove that attitude. I make no apology for affirming what I firmly believe is the clear witness of Scripture of the sovereign election, predestinating, effectual calling and keeping of the elect. I also make no apology to others who affirm these truths when I say I would rather stand side by side in the work of ministry to help the poor and reach the lost with an Arminian than sit around talking theology with a Calvinist who agrees with me safely surrounded by the walls of a "church".  My voice holds no weight in the Southern Baptist Convention but I plead with my brothers who do have a voice to stop the infighting before it goes too far. The SBC has plenty of issues and problems but a divided SBC is not going to improve our witness to a lost and dying world in desperate need to hear about the Lamb who was slain and rose again. Brothers I humbly ask you to step back from the brink before it is too late.

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