Sometimes, it feels like the Southern Baptist Convention has a low-grade fever. We hover around 99 or 100 degrees, worried the fever could spike at any time.

In my interactions with churches across North America, I don’t sense widespread division. But people do seem to be concerned, not about “bad guys” ruining the SBC, but about the presence of people who think there are “bad guys” ruining the SBC. I sense that many are concerned for the good of the Convention, that we hold it together and not splinter needlessly.

Every few years or so, the low-grade fever in the SBC takes on a new form. For a while, it was the church growth movement. Then, it was charismatic practices. Lately, it’s been Calvinism, Traditionalism and everything in between. Here are some personal reflections on our current situation.

1. We’re here because the Conservative Resurgence was successful.

This statement is true in two senses, one positive and one negative.

The positive side has often been cited as a sign of health. We are debating lesser issues because the central issues related to the authority of the Bible were settled during the Conservative Resurgence.

In other words, the reason we can spend time blogging about Calvinism or contemporary worship or differences in church polity or homiletics is because we are united on the first-tier issues related to biblical authority. Had the Conservative Resurgence not succeeded, our Convention would be debating homosexual clergy, the exclusivity of Christ, the authority of the Bible, etc.

And yet, there is a negative aspect as well. The Conservative Resurgence was so successful at excluding moderates from Convention leadership that many conservatives who once stood shoulder to shoulder are now suspicious of each other. In the post-CR era, we are less trusting and more suspicious than before.

Case in Point

At the Convention last year, I spent some time with a prominent signer of the Traditionalist statement on salvation. He told me the rationale for the document was to make sure that Traditionalists would not be forced out of Convention leadership and lose their place at the table.

I was stunned to hear this perspective. Most of my friends who are Calvinists harbor the same fear on the other side. Vastly outnumbered, they worry the Traditionalists would push them out.

I came to realize that everyone seems to distrust everyone. The Conservative Resurgence, which for some was an attempt to achieve “parity” became, for others, a movement to achieve “purity.” And while the fears of my friends on both sides may be exaggerated, any scenario seems plausible. The Conservative Resurgence was so successful that different kinds of conservatives are left looking around, wondering, “Are we next?”

2. We’re here because it’s easier this way.

A 99-degree temperature shouldn’t keep you from functioning like normal. You may feel lousy, but you’re going to be okay. Many times, however, we take the easy road and call in sick.

In the SBC, I wonder if one of the reasons for our low-grade fever is that it’s easier to deal with a small fever than to deal with the raging fires outside our holy huddle. It’s easier to debate small matters with people who see the world much like we do than it is to engage with a lost world that seems increasingly hostile to the Christian perspective.

Case in Point

I recently met with an SBC church planter. Our conversation never turned to SBC politics or the kinds of debates you find on blogs. He was burdened about how to reach the LGBT community in his city. How can we be unfailing in our love for lost people and uncompromising in our proclamation of the truth?

We talked about the difficulty of gaining a hearing for the gospel as antipathy toward traditional Christian teaching grows. We talked about being in uncharted territory, not knowing how to handle all the possible situations that could develop.

It was a tough conversation. We could have spent our time debating Calvinism or private prayer languages or alcohol, but that would’ve been too easy. The harder conversation is about getting the gospel to the lost in a world growing darker.

If, in the next generation, faithful Southern Baptists begin to go to prison for speaking the truth in love, I suspect we won’t be debating the finer points of soteriology or the role of elders on the way. We’ll be encouraging each other to stay the course, love the lost, and share the good news. So why don’t we do that now?

Looking Ahead

The theme of this year’s annual meeting is Unity. That’s encouraging to me. I’m looking forward to good conversations about important matters. But I hope we will not be so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of the world around us.

Watch someone dying with cancer and you’ll ignore your low-grade fever and give thanks for your health. It’s the same with the SBC. Once we stop taking our own temperature and start focusing on the lost and dying around us, I think our fever might go away.

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60 thoughts on “The Low-Grade Fever in the Southern Baptist Convention”

  1. Rick Patrick says:

    I have no idea as to the identity of the signer of the Traditionalist Statement you mentioned, but my reason for signing was NOT to preserve a place at the table for Traditionalists. Rather, I wanted to state positively that which I DO believe, rather than merely denying the Calvinism I DON’T believe. Sometimes, people get the feeling that one is simply AGAINST their movement, when in reality, one is FOR another movement, which just happens to conflict with theirs. We would all do well, in the interest of this unity, to give each other space to believe according to the dictates of our conscience, without any suggestions of semi-heresy being tossed about.

    Having said that, there does come a time when unity is not desirable. I am sure the British would have preferred that George Washington and others had remained united with them, but there were legitimate concerns about “taxation without representation.” In our present denominational conflict there is an element of this as well. In the analogy, our “taxation” is our Cooperative Program and other denominational financial support, while our “representation” is the proportion of our entity presidents, trustee boards, and other SBC leaders who are increasingly Calvinist rather than Traditionalist. As clearly as I know how to put it, I simply will not pay for the Calvinization of the Southern Baptist Convention, and there are many, many others who feel the very same way.

    Thus, we have issues–genuinely significant issues that need to be resolved in order for the SBC to move forward. Our present conflict will not go away simply because people ask for “unity.” I want unity as well, but not if unity is defined as me sitting quietly in the corner as Calvinism sweeps across the institutions of the SBC. Understand that from my perspective, that would not be unity. It would be surrender. It would violate my conscience. I would have to disown my convictions.

    Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to deal with it. I get the feeling that many Calvinists are simply trying to wish away the conflict through various appeals to unity: “Let’s all just get along and move on and talk about other things.”

    Uh, sorry, but we need to talk about THIS thing, because it’s a really big deal that threatens to bring about a denominational schism. It feels like some Calvinists are just blowing this off. Instead, why not come to the table and let’s talk about some real solutions that will prevent our SBC leaders from being more Calvinistic than our denomination as a whole?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Brother,

      Your comment assumes two things:
      – That Southern Baptists are neatly divided into Calvinist and Traditionalist camps.
      – That leaders who fit one side or the other are as interested in this debate as you are.

      I don’t believe either assumption is true.

      – With regard to the first, Southern Baptists are on a spectrum that defy the neat categories. At the same time, many Southern Baptists who do fit the categories do not define themselves by one category or the other.

      – With regard to the second, not everyone in Convention leadership who lean Reformed in their soteriology are as animated and aggressive about this issue as you are. There are some Southern Baptists, no doubt, more excited about Calvinism and scoring debate points than about Jesus and winning the lost. (Or vice versa, on the Traditionalist side.) But I hope that those who fit this description do not rise in leadership.

      To advocate a proportion-type system of leadership makes this issue bigger than it should be. It also assumes that leaders of one persuasion cannot serve a broad swath of constituents.

      Consider another area where the BF&M pushes for unity rather than uniformity – eschatology (which also affects one’s interpretation of Scripture). Were there to be a movement to ensure all Convention leaders represented Southern Baptists in terms of End Times views, we would have to do extensive polling, neatly define categories, and try to get people to figure out which “side” they are on.

      In reality, there’s a spectrum of eschatological views, most people aren’t highly animated by whatever position they ascribe to, and there’s a good segment who hasn’t ever thought through End Times positions to the point they’d be firmly in one camp or another.

      My point is – making that doctrine a test of fellowship or some sort of proportional system would unintentionally elevate the doctrine to the point it changes the functional use of having a common confession – the BF&M. I think the same is true of Calvinism. Better to recognize the divergence of particular views on the End Times, and focus on witnessing to the lost before Jesus returns. The unity of our belief that Jesus is coming back is what grounds our witness to the lost, not the uniformity of views.

      I do hope the conflict goes away because I believe it is a distraction from the real issues confronting the SBC and our ability to unite in mission. It is easier to focus on warring each other than to warring against the devil through evangelism and missions.

      Thanks for the interaction brother.

      1. Denver says:

        In addition to what Trevin said so well above, look at Baptist history in general, in any volume or account. Baptist history is littered with the heritage of Particular (Calvinist) and General (Traditionalist) Baptists.

        In fact, Particular Baptists generally dominated the leadership at varying points in time while the laity was generally General (sorry). Our greatest and most-quoted theological figure (at least in many circles), C. H. Spurgeon himself, was a noted Particular (Calvinist) Baptist.

        These two “tribes” have co-existed for quite a long time, and neither group has usurped power from the other. In fact, they both united to drive the Conservative Resurgence that arguably saved the SBC from the ailments of numerous other denominations. There are many valuable lessons to be drawn from this history.

        1. Hi Denver,

          That maybe true of English Baptist history (although I doubt it). The reality of American Baptist history is that the origins were over-whelmingly Calvinistic. I don’t believe that any “General Baptists” played a significant role in the original growth of Baptists in America. The major impetus to Baptist growth in America was the Great Awakening (which was a Calvinistic revival) and the subsequent ministry of Isaac Backus who was an Edwardsean. The result was that many revived Puritans became “Separatists” and then often Baptists. They then took their revival to the South. The so-called “traditionalists”, however, seem to be a late out-growth of 19th century revivalism and the cultural religion of the South, a cultural religion which, by the way, never challenged the reigning racism of the South.

          1. Denver says:

            Well John perhaps I misspoke, but from the Kentucky Baptist Association’s Calvinism conference, it conveyed the sense that the leadership did tend towards the Particular variety, but that much of the laity were perhaps General Baptists. I gather this from my limited amateur research as well.

            There is much controversy over the Sandy Creek Baptists depending upon whom you ask and read, but I’m not convinced the Traditionalist is entirely a 19th century construct versus being influenced by earlier movements. In fact, I think there was a version of a tempered (my word) Particular/Calvinist strain that existed in the NC/SC area (at least and perhaps the south as a whole) that at least did not stress soteriological concerns even as late as the mid 20th century. This gradually evolved, if you will, to more of the modern traditionalist position.

            The issue is that none of these constructs are precise, as what congregations believe and practice can vary but still remain under a larger umbrella. For example, a number of local SBC’s are not Calvinist (rather decidedly), and you can trace this heritage back through them at least to the 40s and 50s per family members, etc.

            Either way, my point remains that Calvinistic Baptists were never in absolute control, and that there has always been some form of coexistence even back to the early English days.

          2. Hi Denver,

            Thanks for the thoughtful reply. However, I don’t know of any real evidence that there were sizable, decisive “general Baptists” at the early stages of the growth of Baptists in America. As above, Isaac Backus was probably the most important leader of Baptists in early America and he was Edwardsean. Large numbers of “Separatists” (revived Puritans) became Baptists. William McLoughlin has two excellent essays in an otherwise poor compilation entitled “Baptists in the Balance” (edited by Everett C. Goodwin, Judson Press, 1997). Gregory Wills excellent book “Democratic Religion” is a good look at the state of Baptist churches in the South in the 19th century.

            What’s now called “traditional” Southern Baptists is really only the result of the late 19th century which by the mid-20th century many conservative Baptists took to be the status quo being challenged first by the liberals and then by the Calvinists. That’s a short-sighted view of Baptist history.

    2. The statement you signed was semi-Pelagian and unBiblical.

      The reason for the growth of “Calvinism” is simple: when sincere believers read the Word of God, they see that it teaches the sovereign grace of God in salvation, not that people who are “dead in sins” (Eph. 2:1) are somehow capable of adding to their salvation with their volition. As C. H. Spurgeon said, “Calvinism is just a knick-name for the gospel.” As the old, cultural “traditional” religion fades away, you can expect to see more believers believe the Bible.

      1. Trevin Wax says:

        John,

        With all due respect, I disagree that the Traditionalist statement was semi-Pelagian. It can only be interpreted that way when judged by the Augustinian framework, which it itself intends to modify/reject. I do not believe the signers intend to put forth a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian view of salvation, and therefore, it’s wrong to accuse them of this. Their attempt is to put forth a doctrine of salvation that does not rely on Augustinian categories. Whether or not they’ve succeeded in introducing categories that better represent Scriptural teaching is another matter… Not enough room here to go into that…

        Regarding Spurgeon’s comment, I also disagree. To equate Calvinism and the gospel, as Spurgeon does in his oft-cited quote, is to create unnecessary division. I’ve written about that here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/08/28/a-word-to-my-calvinist-friends/

        1. Hi Trevin,

          Thanks for the thoughtful interaction. However, whether or not the drafters of the “traditionalist” statement “intended” to put for a semi-Pelagian statement is irrelevant to whether they did in fact do so. That they put for a statement that said salvation is reliant upon the will of sinners, that Adam’s sin is not imputed to his children, is, by definition, semi-Pelagian. If they didn’t “intend” that, then they likely didn’t know their theology very well. Unfortunately, Southern Baptists have not been known to produce some of the best theologians.

          What you call “Augustinian” categories are, in fact, Pauline categories (and reflected elsewhere in the Bible, especially in Johannine literature). The fact that some people don’t have a clear understanding of the gospel does, in fact, create division. The fault, however, is not of those who accurately describe the gospel or those who accurately say that what is generally called “Calvinism” is an accurate description of what the Bible calls “the gospel” — the fault of the division is of those who refuse to accept what the Bible says.

          1. ^ I meant to write “put forth” (not “put for”) twice above. Please excuse the errors.

        2. Josh Bales says:

          Brother Trevin,
          I’ve appreciated many of your posts since I’ve set the GC as my home page, but admit that I’m new to this particular conversation. I respectfully take issue with your statements about the gospel not equaling the doctrines of grace. Just a couple of things in response. Cavalry Chapel who does not hold to the doctrines of grace released an article found here:

          http://www.calvarychapeltheology.com/Articles/AREFORMED-FREECALVARYCHAPEL.pdf

          In that article, Bryson said that Calvinists hold a different ‘doctrine of salvation’ then Calvary Chapel does. Now I disagree with CC’s view on the gospel, but I do agree with them that the doctrines of salvation are the gospel(FYI they didn’t explicitly say this but it seems to be the inevitable and logical conclusion of their article).
          Now I went back and read your blog that you wrote on this issue so that I could be more acquainted with your view, and I have a couple of questions:
          What is the Gospel if it is not the doctrines of salvation? Even your description of the gospel in your previous blog, which I throughly agree with, is a doctrine. And it happens to be a doctrine of salvation. Is the atonement part of the gospel? What about the intended recipients of that atonement?
          I’m preaching through the gospel of John right now and frankly I am struck with how much Jesus talks about the doctrines of grace. Was He not talking about the gospel when he was in those conversations with unbelievers?

          In Christ,
          Josh

          1. Trevin Wax says:

            Josh,

            Thanks for your comment.

            I don’t think this is the best place to engage in the discussion of the relationship of the gospel (an announcement of salvation in Jesus Christ) and Calvinism (a particular theory for how that salvation is initiated and applied). Perhaps I’ll do another blog post showing why it’s a category mistake to confuse Calvinistic soteriology with “the gospel” – as it implies that those who are not Calvinists are not true believers in the gospel.

            More of that on another day… ;)

          2. Josh Bales says:

            Thank you for you reply…

            There is a straw man in your comments(perhaps unintentionally) that many people believe, which is just inaccurate. People may jump to the conclusion that “those who are not Calvinists are not true believers of the gospel,” but people may jump to many false conclusions all the time.(That doesn’t mean we change our doctrine, it just means we have to get better at explaining WHAT we mean.) I believe that there are many true believers(since “salvation is of the LORD”) who are not Calvinists. People are born again by grace not by doctrinal purity. These are our brothers and sisters who we should love enough to show them the full gospel just as Apollos was instructed by Priscilla and Aquila. This brings glory to God, since “by His doing [they] are in Christ Jesus;’ and it brings them the maximum joy from seeing the undeserved mercy and grace that was bestowed upon them by Jesus Christ.

            Additionally you said “It’s a category mistake to confuse Calvinistic soteriology with “the gospel.” PLEASE do another blog on this for I am fascinated how you will show that the doctrines of salvation(Calvinistic soteriology) is different from the gospel. Please address the CC article that I posted as well, because even they understand this point although they are coming at it from the other side. If the doctrines of salvation are not the gospel, I guess I do not understand what the gospel is…

  2. Trevin, I greatly appreciate this post and the metaphor. It is very easy to think our malaise is malignant (from either side), and quite frankly, I’m tired of all the brou-ha-ha. I much rather be rooted in my local SBC church and partner through the CP for mission. Thank you for this encouragement.

  3. Trevin,

    You know I love you, man, but for you to suggest that those of use who write about the topic of SBC traditionalism and Calvinism are somehow not interested in reaching the lost with the gospel is at the very least wrong and borders on insulting. I invite you to come and spend a typical week with me and my wonderful church and see whether or not we’re interested and active in evangelism and missions.

    You can do better than this.

    Regards,

    Les

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Brother Leslie,

      It was not my intention to insult you in any way. I applaud your evangelistic efforts and I join you in celebrating ministries and churches that reach the lost.

      My post is an observation – that internal bickering can often be a sign that the mission is not at the forefront of our attention in the way it should be.

      Just yesterday, I was leading a group Bible study and we were discussing church unity. We used The Fellowship of the Ring as an illustration. This strange band of characters (dwarves, elves, hobbits, a wizard, humans) were very different, and yet they were united in a mission that brought them together (get the ring to Mordor to be destroyed). Their understanding of the seriousness of the situation necessarily focused their attention so that their individual differences were secondary. The dwarf and elf even got to liking each other as they were side by side in battle! :)

      My point is broader, and intended to cut both ways (to Calvinists and Traditionalists). A church that is focused on internal battles often betrays a lack of perspective as to the seriousness of the current situation and a corresponding focus on their members’ common mission. Likewise, a Convention of churches that is perpetually in battle mode with its own leaders/members is usually a sign that the mission is not at the forefront of attention in the way it should be.

      I hope that helps explain my rationale for point 2, it being “easier” to debate theology with likeminded believers than to engage people with the gospel when more and more seem to be hostile to a biblical view of the world.

    2. I don’t think that’s what he was saying. I interpreted him as saying that Calvinists and non-Calvinists, etc., should be able to work together for evangelism. I agree with him on that.

      And this gets right to who, exactly, is causing the division. I don’t hear Calvinists saying they will refuse to work with “traditionalists.” I do hear people, like Rick Patrick above, say they don’t want to work with Calvinists. One of the causes of the “low-grade fever” is the compulsion of some “fighting fundamentalists” to fight with anyone who differs with them even on secondary or tertiary matters.

      1. Trevin Wax says:

        John,

        You are right. This is what I am saying.

        However, when you say “I don’t hear Calvinists saying they will refuse to work with ‘traditionalists'” in this comment, and yet in your earlier comment you called Traditionalists semi-Pelagians (i.e., heretics), surely you sense the dissonance in your position. It appears you are labeling your brothers heretics while expressing a desire to partner with them!

        Again, my goal in this post is to help us move past the fever. My hope is that the Spirit will impress upon our hearts the seriousness of our current cultural situation so that we refocus on our common mission. When we look at ourselves, we see all that divides us. When we look at the lost world, we see all that unites us.

        1. Yes, you’re right! But I’d say I’m labeling my brothers “confused”. I agree that Rick Patrick and others who signed that statement did not intend to put forth a semi-Pelagian statement. But they did. They did, I assume, because they are confused. If they followed the implications of their confused theology to it’s logical end, they would eventually become heretics. But few of them do that. They are thankfully inconsistent.

          But as a Baptist pastor, I would have no problem with having my church co-operate with a “traditionalist” SBC church (or even an evangelical Methodist, Presbyterian, etc) church for some out-reaches. I recognize that the things we differ on are not essential to the faith. The difference is that many of the confused “traditionalists” have no such understanding. Another expression of their confusion is their inability to accurately discern what is essential to the faith and what isn’t.

          1. Trevin Wax says:

            John,

            I am glad you give the benefit of the doubt to your Traditionalist brothers. But labeling them “confused” sounds condescending, as if you are saying, “if only they weren’t confused, they’d agree with me.” This is no less damaging to SBC unity than the Traditionalist who says Calvinists aren’t Hyper because they’re “inconsistent” and “confused.” I think you’d rightly chafe at such a characterization, as you should. But so should Traditionalist brothers who find this kind of attitude elitist and condescending.

            Again, disagree with the statement and the position of the signers if you like. But don’t talk down to Traditionalist signers.

            Throwing around labels of heretic or confused only makes it harder for good dialogue to take place.

          2. Hi Trevin,

            Sorry, but truth has consequences. The truth is that the Bible teaches that sinners are “dead in sin” (Eph. 2:1), “slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:10) and incapable of accepting the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14). It also teaches that salvation is not dependent on human “desire” or effort but on God’s mercy (Rom. 9). Someone who claims to believe the opposite of those doctrines but then also claims to believe the “gospel” they describe, is, at the very best, “confused”. I don’t know what other terms you want us to employ, unless you don’t think we should speak at all. The difference with the description of being labelled “hyper-Calvinist” is that that label is usually untrue. Truth makes an enormous difference.

            My specialty is church history and I find even the label “traditionalist” problematic. The fact is that Baptists in America began (as I describe above) as Calvinists. The theology of the “traditionalists” is really fairly new historically, arising from the revivalism of the mid- to late 19th century.

            If someone doesn’t want to be called “confused”, then the solution is to show either (1) that the one making the charge is wrong (i.e. show that the Bible teaches what they say) or (2) learn and stop being confused.

  4. An interesting post. But I think there are two major issues about the SBC left untouched:

    1. Some of the conservatives are really “fighting fundamentalists”. They appear to be always looking for someone to fight. When it was the presence of real liberals in the SBC (not merely “moderates”), then all evangelical believers could join with them. But after the conservative resurgence, now they are ever on the look out for someone else to go to war against.

    2. The major source of sickness in the SBC is what Jim Elliff has identified in his brilliant article “Revival and the Unregenerate Church Member”. The SBC claims about 17 million “members” but only about half of them are in church on any Sunday. It is typical for an SBC church to have many times more “members” on the rolls than are actually faithfully involved with the church. Church discipline has disappeared from most SBC churches. It was a regular part of church life in the 19th century (see Greg Wills, “Democratic Religion”) when also, not incidentally, the SBC was much more Calvinistic.

  5. April Erxleben says:

    With all due respect, I never could understand why there is so much disagreeing on this topic. It seems the more degrees one has behind their name in this field the more one wants to constantly debate doctrine. What happened to faith? What happened to preaching the gospel and helping one another? There is too much time spent on these trivial arguements and not enough time coming up with a plan. Apparently, it is a situation where people agree to disagree. Ok then, now let’s move on. Quit worrying about who may be in control…Calvinist or Traditionalist. You all know the answer to who is in control. You should pray on how to get along not on who’s right. And, Unity, is encouraging to me too. Good article.

  6. sandy cruise says:

    Loved this article.

  7. Charles says:

    I don’t have a fight in the outcome of SBC disagreements (although everyone on my father’s side is SBC). But the comments from the Calvinist are same comments I see by Calvinists in the conservative Episcopal/Anglican community which that they are right and if you disagree then either you aren’t Christian or are Biblically illiterate. Paul only sees only in the mirror dimly, but Calvinist believe that they see perfectly clear even where scripture itself must be re-interpreted such as John 3:16 or Phil 2:12.

    1. One of the weaknesses of being right is that some people don’t like it when you’re right! :)

  8. Russ says:

    My family first joined a Southern Baptist church when I was about 15 years old. It wasn’t long after my family joined that SBC church that I remember our pastor inviting a man to come to our church to explain to us the importance of getting away from the “liberal’s” in our state Baptist Convention who “don’t believe that the Bible is God’s Word.”

    That had a tremendous impact on me as a teenager who felt called into the ministry. It made me extremely leary about associating with anyone or anything that was tied to “the liberal’s”, because all I knew was that liberal was bad and conservative was good.

    Here we are now 15 years later (12 of which I have been in vocational ministry, 8 in SBC churches). I have spent much time around those who my childhood pastor and that other man (and many in SBC leadership) would label as liberals. What have I learned about these “liberals”? 1) Most of them are just as conservative and passionate (or more) about the Bible and global missions as my childhood pastor was. They are some of the most godly people I have ever met, and many of them are heroes, mentors, and role models to me. 2) What my childhood pastor and that other man called “liberal” many in the SBC would call “moderate” as Trevin does above. And these “moderates”, in my estimation, are misunderstood conservatives. The knee-jerk reaction of the conservatives in the SBC is to throw the labels “moderate” or “liberal” at you if you don’t agree with their interpretation of the Bible. Those labels are damaging and dividing, and have been terribly misused to malign some of the most godly Christ-followers and disciple makers I have ever known.

    All of this (my own experience and observations) has made me increasingly leary of the SBC and its leadership.

    I believe this is one of the reasons that many my age (early 30’s) either are leaving or want to leave the SBC. If the SBC leadership keep making the SBC more exclusive rather than inclusive, the future of the SBC looks (to me) to be very dim.

  9. Don Sartain says:

    Brilliant words, Trevin.

    I definitely needed to hear that encouragement today. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Randall Cofield says:

    It feels like some Calvinists are just blowing this off. Instead, why not come to the table and let’s talk about some real solutions that will prevent our SBC leaders from being more Calvinistic than our denomination as a whole?–Rick Patrick

    Instead of creating pseudo-kerfuffles and trying to establish de facto restraints to the spread of Calvinism, why not simply try and promote the Traditionalist position positively?

    Let the increase of Calvinism or Traditionalism ebb and flow according to the purpose of God…

  11. Preston says:

    I think what T. Wax is doing is moderating between the contentious “traditionalists” and contentious “Calvinist.” (By the way, Calvin would slap the “Calvinist” for using his name. Nothing in “Calvinistic” theology produces an ounce of pride and fist-a-cuffs from that perspective). Not all are contentious and need to have the last word. I do pray that a spirit of unity can be achieved within the SBC. If so, it will be a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” like story to report. At the root of unity is humility and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree on a few doctrinal matters. We could use some biblical tolerance and extend grace to one another – there is no better time than now given our challenges we face in the culture.

    Jim Elliff’s point in “Revival and unregenerate church membership” is a valid criticism that should be seriously addressed. Another point we should unite around and speak to is the wreckage that the “Prosperity” gospel is having among self professing believers. These false teachings/teachers dominate the airwaves and sell thousands of books in Christian book stores. Many under our watch are reading and listening to these dangerous doctrines and SBC appears to be silent about the wolves loose in the flock. Thankfully, Lifeway does not appear to promote them as much.

    I thank you for your efforts Bro. Wax. Be a peace maker and strive to live at peace within the body of Christ where it is possible.

  12. Bobby Wood says:

    Great post Trevin.

    As a SBC church planter in a tough field (Utah), arguments like this show an unbelieving world that we like to argue over non-essentials. The problem is that when we argue over non-essentials we, in effect, elevate them to essentials. We are unified in the Gospel. Keep preaching a biblical Gospel, and I believe people will be converted. Calvinists and non-Calvinists can be united around that.

  13. Nate says:

    Thanks Trevin. Good post.

  14. Joel says:

    Trevin,

    Thanks for the post. As a guy leading a network of churches outside the Bible belt south, I can say that in the last 8+ years the only time there was a threat of disunity on this issue in our churches was when it was introduced by those outside our region–most notably the Bible belt. Frankly, we have worked hard in the northeast to keep “Southern Baptist news” on this issue from the eyes of our pastors and laity, because unless they are confronted with such nonsense, they typically don’t see any redemptive end in dividing the house. “Calvinists” and “Traditionalists” work side by side here (my Executive Board is, I would guess, pretty evenly divided), and have done so to the extent that our Association now has a missions presence on every inhabited continent.

    I am brokenhearted at the time that, in my estimation, is wasted on this issue in so many other regions of our denomination. I believe you are right that we suffer from sickness; although I would contend that the low-grade fever may be symptiomatic of a deadly disease that will eventually cause us to splinter from a lack of trust in each other.

    From a philosophical standpoint, I do think there is a cure. The SBC needs a good, strong dose of epistemological realism. Both sides need it (and truth be known, as a guy who leans Reformed, I’d say some of my Calvinist brothers may need a slightly larger dose!) and with it will come the realization that if some of the most brilliant minds on the planet over the past 500 years didn’t settle this issue, then one largely regionalized denomination that has existed for less than half that period is unlikely to settle it either.

    1. except that the most brilliant minds over the last 500 years (Luther, Calvin, Knox, the Puritans, Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, etc) did settle this issue. It’s just that some others refuse to acknowledge that.

      1. Dustin Price says:

        John- an appropriate response…. it has been settled. Amen.

        1. Thanks Dustin! I appreciate the affirmation. I don’t think many people realize that what we now call “Calvinism” was the overwhelming predominant and expected theology of Protestants for the first 250 years after the Protestant Reformation. Only after John Wesley did many Protestants begin to think one could be a non-Catholic and not believe in the doctrines of grace. For the Baptists this is even more so.

    2. Trevin Wax says:

      Joel,

      Your comments on the geographical element of this debate are intriguing. I hadn’t considered before how all the hubbub seems to be coming from the Deep South. Interesting.

  15. Excellent post and perspective Trevin. I’m glad there are smart, humble, cool-headed guys like you in SBC leadership. Keep it up!

  16. Aaron Tucker says:

    Interesting article. I often hear similar thoughts in my head.

    Questions: Where are we on the Great Commission Resurgence? Did we successfully guide the fever toward the Great Commission? (I’m thinking we did not.) Is there not hope that discussions there can shift the fever towards the primary?

  17. Rick Patrick says:

    John Carpenter,

    I forgive you for misrepresenting me. I don’t think you did so intentionally. You said, “I do hear people, like Rick Patrick above, say they don’t want to work with Calvinists.” I said no such thing. Not even close.

    It is precisely because I DO want to work with Calvinists that I am seeking to forge some fair and balanced terms for such cooperation. I don’t want an unequal partnership. I don’t want convention leadership to be unbalanced and skewed in favor of the minority position. I believe this leads to instability in any organization, regardless of the issue. But that is not at all the same as saying I don’t want to work with Calvinists.

    Trevin,

    I think viewing soteriology in the same light as eschatology, in the present climate, is simply naive. The doctrine of the end times is not splitting our convention the way Calvinism is. Look around–professors, pastors, youth ministers, entity heads…you name it. In every case, Calvinism is controversial and there are heightened tensions related to it. It’s just more important to our unity right now than is eschatology. Apples and oranges.

    1. Tim says:

      I’m not sure naive is the right word to describe the comparison between soteriology and eschatology…
      As much as one may desire unity, one wonders how far we are willing to go to gain it, and how many doctrines we are willing to trivialize…
      If we are not allowed to fight over our understanding of salvation than what can we fight over?

      1. But the “traditionalist” understanding of salvation is not Biblical. Why not instead of “fighting”, don’t you study the Bible and submit to what it says about salvation?

        1. Tim says:

          John,
          I believe in the doctrines of grace. My point was that to compare soteriology to eschatology is more than just naive… I struggle to think of a charitable word to describe the comparison. What do you say when sometime seems to have lost their sense of proportion. I’m saying Mr. Patrick was too easy on Trevin with his word choice.

          Trevin,
          The Bible tells us, as you know, to contend earnestly for the faith, not for the BFM. You know this. As much as we don’t want to say that our traditionalists brothers are not regenerate, that doesn’t mean that this is an issue of the same priority as eschatology. There is good charitable and bad charitable. By al means desire cooperation and insist it is possible to cooperate, but please do not accomplish these objectives by trying to downplay the importance of our understanding of salvation. It is different! We are not saying the same thing. We may be saying some of the same things, but there are very real and very important differences.

          1. Trevin Wax says:

            Tim,

            The ordo salutis – as important as it may be – is not what is referred to by any New Testament author as “the gospel.” Exegesis before theology, brother.

            I am not denying distinctions and differences exist. But we’ve established enough common ground for cooperation in the BF&M and I will gladly link arms with brothers who believe in justification by faith alone, even if there remain distinctions in our views of how salvation comes about. Jude’s instruction to “contend earnestly for the faith” does not mean “trying to convince brothers of Calvinism.”

          2. Tim says:

            I know anachronism when I see it. You are making distinctions the text does not make. Ordo saludis is a helpful way to speak about one aspect of salvation, but you can’t use this later theological category in such a way as to create a fragmentary notion of salvation, in which some parts are optional and others are essential. You want me to believe that the order of salvation has nothing to do with the gospel? Or that contending for the faith has nothing to do with being clear about certain aspects of salvation? I think I will go with Spurgeon on that one. You are arbitrarily divided what the Bible presents as a unity.

          3. Tim says:

            It is irresponsible exegesis to demand that unless the Bible use the specific word gospel we are not to consider it to be explaning the essential characteristics of the gospel. If Paul is not speaking of the gospel in Eph 1 what is he speaking about?
            The Bible often speaks to subjects in many different ways. We can’t get all of our theology through wors studies.

          4. Hi Tim,

            I apologize for misunderstanding you and challenging you in the wrong way.

            While I probably agree with you theologically, I agree with Mr. Wax, his main article. Like you, I believe that “Calvinism is just a nick-name for the gospel” (C. H. Spurgeon). It is the teaching of scripture. Period. But I acknowledge that some sincere believers have managed to retain the essential parts of the gospel — e.g. justification by faith alone — while confusing it with other man-made perspectives (namely Pelagianism). I’d be willing to have my church work with churches whose preachers and teachers I may not allow to teach in my church.

          5. Tim says:

            John,
            I agree. My only concern is putting Calvinism and Eschatology in parallel.

      2. Trevin Wax says:

        We have no reason to fight over our understanding of salvation, because we are agreed on the Baptist Faith and Message as a representation of our view. To further divide underneath the banner of the BF&M is to cause controversy where the Convention has already spoken, saying, “We all agree with this statement.”

        1. Hi Tevin,

          I agree with that completely. My point is that it seems to me that it is not (generally) the Calvinists dividing over our understanding of salvation, although we are the ones insisting that our understanding is both more Biblical and logically consistent. What caused the controversy last year wasn’t a Calvinist confession but a “traditional” one. The Calvinists, as far as I can tell, aren’t the ones releasing statements denouncing the others — and mistakenly claiming that their theology is the “traditional” one (since the Calvinists would actually be correct if they made that claim). I’m a Calvinist and agree with what you are calling for: unity. Rick is a “traditionalist” and suggests that he will divide over the issue.

    2. Hi Rick,

      Admittedly I summed up what I believe to be the effect of your statement. You wrote, ” I simply will not pay for the Calvinization of the Southern Baptist Convention”. I take that to mean, practically, that you won’t give to the Cooperative Program or work with other organizations where the leaders have a Biblical (rather than semi-Pelagian) understanding of salvation. That is, to put it starkly, you refuse to practically cooperate with those who have a clear understanding of the gospel.

      And, yes, that’s what you are practically suggesting.

      The statement you signed and the cause you are supporting is semi-Pelagian and unBiblical. The Bible teaches we are “dead in sin” (Eph. 2:1), “slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:10), unable to accept the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14) and that salvation doesn’t depend on human “will” but on God’s mercy (Romans 9). Baptists used to understand that before the onslaught of Arminian revivalism in the 19th century, hence they produced clear statements of the doctrines of grace in the Abstracts of Principles at the founding of SBTS and SEBTS. The “traditionalist” theology you are fighting for is not even traditionally Baptist.

      And by “fair”, I don’t know what you are suggesting. As far as I know, there are no Calvinists in the high-profile leadership of the SBC, except, perhaps Al Mohler (technically he’s at one entity, not over the SBC). Certainly his SBTS is more than balanced by SWBTS which now has a reputation as being rabidly Arminian and ideologically opposed the doctrines of grace. The other seminaries, as far as I can tell, being somewhere in the middle. Lifeway doesn’t produce merely Calvinistic material. The NAMB and Foreign missions doesn’t send or even prefer Calvinistic missionaries. So it sounds to me that the problem is really that you can’t tolerate any clear, Biblical teaching of the gospel and so are demanding (like SWBTS) semi-Pelagianism (or Arminianism) imposed on the whole SBC.

      1. ^ about the NAMB and FMB, I meant to say “exclusively”. They don’t send exclusively Calvinistic missionaries. I’d assume they allow for hte sending of some. Please excuse the error.

  18. Tom Agnew says:

    As a pastor who both loves Jesus and his unmerited work on my behalf and serves a church that wants to be shaped by this, let me say a couple things.

    1. As a reformed brother who probably doesn’t fit any particular category listed above (which is one of Tevin’s main points), I will say to my other reformed brothers that it is hard to defend the doctrines of grace with arrogance and name calling. Yes, doctrine is HUGE and yes doctrine is essential to shaping Biblically faithful congregations (I think that is the heartbeat of the Gospel Project), but let’s not attempt to elevate our theological prowess with a lack of humility or love.

    2. I have many brothers on both sides of the debate and I am proud to link arms with either of them. I will simply not allow myself to downgrade my relationship with them to suspicion or mistrust. Let’s take to heart Trevin’s main point in the article. There is simply no room for name calling, arrogance, or suspicion. The heart of any biblically faithful representation of the faith has to be Christ centered. That means we are humble and be grateful for the work He has accomplished for us. If we truly look to Christ and have His Spirit reign in us, then those with impure motives within our convention on either side will be brought to light like we see so many times in Scripture.

    Grace to you my brothers!

  19. James Riley says:

    This is an interesting read. Although I am attending a SBC Seminary, I have not gotten involved in SBC life and politics. My ministry (Not mine, but the Lord’s) has benefitted greatly from my being around humble and gracious men and ministers at NOBTS in New Orleans. I will say after reading this article that this conversation is magnified because it exists within the largest Protestant denomination in the world; but it is a conversation that is happening in the greater context of American Christendom (so-called); that of the Sovereignty of God vs. Human Responsibility in salvation. I believe Romans 9 and 10 are helpful with this, as well as John 6:35-40. In this conversation there seems to be two antinomies that lay side by side here. I know that sounds rudimentary; but is it wrong?

  20. Scott says:

    Just the time it took me to read through all the back and forth in the comments made Trevin’s point for me perfectly. I can spend my time more effectively for the sake of the Kingdom, for sure. (Thanks for the article!)

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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