5 Questions Pulpit Committees Must Ask Prospective Pastors | Part One

January 27, 2015

Dr. Jay Sulfridge |  Academic Dean
Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, Pineville, KY

*For more information about Dr. Sulfridge or CCBBC please click here. (links are now fixed)

It could be easily assumed that in the process of searching for and calling a pastor, both the church and the prospective pastor desire a good match in matters of doctrine. This assumption has caused many regrettable mismatches and more than a few church splits. Many ministers do not offer information about personal doctrinal stances that may not be shared by the congregation considering them for the pastorate. One area in which a potential pastor may be less than forthcoming lies in the issue of Calvinism. At LifeWay’s conference on the issue of Calvinism, one question that was discussed was whether or not Calvinistic ministers under consideration for the pastorate should reveal their convictions concerning that doctrine. Dr. Danny Akin advised:

If a person is strongly committed to five-point Calvinism, then he should be honest and transparent about that when talking to a church search committee. He should not hide behind statements like “I am a historic Baptist.” That statement basically says very little if anything and it is less than forthcoming. Be honest and completely so. If it is determined you are not a good fit for that congregation, rejoice in the sovereign providence of God and trust Him to place you in a ministry assignment that is a good fit. God will honor such integrity.[1]

Sadly, some men do not heed such advice, and poor matches between church and pastor result. Morris Chapman summed up the potential damage of mismatches that occur when ministers do not reveal their theological persuasions toward Calvinism. “One danger is that pastors are tempted to accept pastorates in churches that are not Calvinistic, and then strive to drive them into the Calvinistic camp, thereby destroying an otherwise strong and healthy church.”[2]  Frank Page expressed the same concern. “What we’re seeing across the nation is that it’s not being discussed enough. Candidates and churches are being put together, and it immediately becomes apparent they’ve got a serious issue of disagreement.”[3] Page predicted “tumultuous days” ahead due to a relatively large number of Calvinistic recent seminary graduates as compared to a relatively small percentage of Calvinistic churches. This situation could result in pressure on Calvinistic ministers to downplay or even misrepresent their doctrine when speaking to pulpit committees. But rather than placing all of the blame on the ministers, we must admit that many pulpit committees are ill equipped for the task of discerning a candidate’s doctrinal stance. There is a valid point in the following response posted in a Founder’s Ministry blog:

I am not at all suggesting that a pastoral candidate refuse to speak plainly with a search committee or church regarding theological commitments. But the reality is that most churches—including their search committees—are not very equipped to have that kind of conversation. Should the details of Calvinism…be spelled out anyway, even though there is no understanding of the language, categories or constructs? Or would it be wiser to stick with biblical categories, language and constructs? When a man does the latter for the purpose of communicating as clearly as he can I find it disheartening to hear Southern Baptist leaders criticize him as being dishonest.[4]

Frank Cox addressed the issue when he was nominated for the SBC presidency.

Evidently there are pastors accepting churches, never raising the flag that they are a Calvinist to the pastor search committee. They are called to the church and begin to teach their view and it is bringing great strife to some of our congregations. That concerns me. I feel pastors who hold to Calvinistic views ought to be up front with the congregation that is calling them, just as pastors who believe in “whosoever” ought to be up front to those congregations who hold to Reformed theology. I also believe pastor search committees must be thorough in their responsibility to investigate more, so they can have a reasonable understanding as to what their new pastor believes before they issue a call to him. There is mutual responsibility on both the pastor’s part and the congregation’s part in dealing with this issue.[5]

Those in position to search out pastors for our churches must answer this charge by educating themselves on the issues and by asking the right questions. A church committee cannot assume they have fulfilled their duties simply because they have asked a candidate if he is a Calvinist. The answer may likely leave the committee with no clear idea of where the candidate stands on the issue. It is a start to bring up the issue of the Total Depravity of Man, but the committee must be equipped to interpret the answer. Most Southern Baptists would agree that Man is totally depraved. Some would interpret that depravity as simply unable to save oneself. Calvinists believe that man is so totally depraved as to be completely unable to answer even a call to salvation. One Calvinist webpage declares, “Our natural spiritual incapacity prevents us from being able to respond by our own strength to the call of the gospel message.”[6] Thus, they would day, God extends grace to be able to hear and respond to that call, but extends this grace only to those He has chosen for salvation. Those not chosen, according to reformed theology, will never be able to respond to the Gospel message. The question must be asked, “Do you believe in the Total Depravity of man?” An answer of “Yes” does not mean that person is a Calvinist, since most Southern Baptists agree to the doctrine by some definition. The follow-up question is vital. “Does Total Depravity, as you understand it, mean that those not chosen by God for salvation are unable to respond to the Gospel call?”

Part two coming soon!

 

[1] Danny Akin, “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: How Should Southern Baptists Respond to the issue of Calvinism?” SBC Life, April 2006. Available online http://www.sbclife.org/Articles/2006/04/SLA7.asp.
[2] Morris Chapman, “My Hope for Our Convention,” Available online http://www.morrischapman.com/article.asp?id=54.
[3] Frank Page, “TULIP Blooming: Southern Baptist Seminaries Re-Introduce Calvinism to a Wary Denomination,” Christianity Today, Feb. 2008. Available online http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/february/8.19.html. (Editor’s note: This dialogue has since been removed from the Founders website.)
[4] Tom Ascol, “Dishonest Calvinists (?) and the call for integrity,” Founders Ministries Blog, May 31, 2006. Available online http://www.founders.org/blog/archive/2006_05_01_archive.html (Editor’s note: This dialogue has since been removed from the Founders website.)
[5] Frank Cox, “Frank Cox’s response to questionnaire,” Baptist Press, available online http://bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=28161
[6] Trinity Reformed Baptist Church, “Doctrines of Grace,” available online http://www.reformedbaptist.net/ (Editor’s note: This website has since been redesigned and we offer simply the “home” page.)