Defining the Elephant
Part 1 of 2
Charles Kettering said, “A problem well-stated is half-solved.” Now that Southern Baptists are talking about the proverbial elephant in the room, it seems helpful to define that elephant as clearly as possible. Thus, I write this article not to foster division among us, but to more clearly define that division which already exists. The tension between Calvinism and Traditionalism in Southern Baptist life will never make sense to anyone who views this struggle merely as a dispute over minor doctrinal concerns. Rather, our present fault lines stem from three specific components: a theological debate, an institutional struggle and an intrinsically adversarial agenda. Unless we look at this elephant from all three sides, we will fail to comprehend the scope of our conflict resolution challenge.
1. The Theological Debate
Surprisingly, of the three components in our conflict, the theological debate itself is the least contentious of all, but it clearly provides the basis for the other two. Frankly, the number of Southern Baptists in the world who get all worked up about precise theological formulations and definitions is smaller than any seminary professor or preacher cares to admit. This stems not from a lack of intellectual curiosity, but rather the desire among most Southern Baptists to avoid arguing theology and concentrate instead on loving each other, moving on and telling the world about Jesus. This desire for peace is commendable, and would be more likely if our theological disagreements simply concerned one minor issue of salvation doctrine. However, even the theological component which comprises only one-third of the elephant is more complex than it would seem at first glance, touching not only salvation doctrine, but also related views of the church, our mission and the nature of man, as summarized below.
- Soteriology: Did God create man truly able and free to accept or reject God’s grace? Or did God decree, before the foundation of the world, precisely those souls which will irresistibly come to Him?
- Ecclesiology: Does the church make decisions through channels of classic congregationalism or does it function with ruling or leading elders? How does it receive members, extend altar calls and make use of the Sinner’s Prayer in evangelism?
- Missiology: In order to contextualize the gospel and reach our culture, will the church permit the moderate use of alcohol, a softer stance on homosexuality, and an emphasis upon issues such as environmentalism?
- Anthropology: Does man’s total depravity include or exclude total inability? Does the sinful nature we inherit from Adam include or exclude inherited guilt? Is the unredeemed man best understood as lost or dead?
While this multifaceted theological debate furnishes the initial conflict, the other two components are actually responsible for carrying the struggle from the ivory towers of theological reflection to the more practical matters of denominational vision and stewardship allocation.
2. The Institutional Struggle
Due to church autonomy, when a congregation is Calvinized, our denomination possesses no stake or vote or any claim at all upon that church, nor should it. The Traditionalist concern in these matters is not so much the individual church’s decision, but the cumulative impact of a growing Calvinist influence upon our mutually owned institutions and agencies. There exist certain stress points in this institutional struggle found precisely in those areas where Traditionalist and Calvinist churches cooperate through direct ministry endeavors the most–areas such as publishing literature, VBS outreach, summer youth camps, seminary training and planting churches in America and around the world.
We can easily exist as one denomination when we are contributing toward theologically neutral areas like disaster relief and world hunger projects. But when we preach and teach and write and evangelize together as a denomination, the theological concerns which separate our individual churches can no longer be avoided. The question becomes, “Will our individual agencies and institutions lean toward an understanding of theology that is Traditionalist or Calvinist?” The examples provided below reveal the difficulty of attempting neutrality in those areas of denominational cooperation where theology matters the most.
- Publishing: If Calvinism claims 10% of the convention and 90% of those involved in The Gospel Project curriculum, are we really to believe this happened completely at random? Even if the first quarter of literature is not overtly Calvinist, one has reason to be concerned that future lessons may not preserve this same neutrality. By introducing Southern Baptists to Calvinism’s brightest stars, the gate has been opened for further Calvinist indoctrination through books and conferences down the road. Granted, the meta-narrative approach to this curriculum is a staple of modern Calvinist preaching and teaching. Should this curriculum manage to offer three years of lessons featuring this approach without even a hint of its usual Calvinist underpinnings, I will be the first to apologize. The point of this example is not to attack The Gospel Project itself, but to illustrate the difficulty in claiming theological neutrality in denominational publishing.
- VBS Evangelism: Calvinists and Traditionalists approach children’s ministry differently. How can Lifeway be expected to synthesize in one curriculum an approach able to satisfy both theological camps? With changes in our VBS musical direction, many will watch to see if a strong evangelistic appeal is still present in the songs and lessons, or if the approach will be softened to reduce the number of what some characterize as premature decisions for Christ that have become such a concern among certain Calvinists. Of course, Traditionalists do not favor false professions and overly simplistic gospel presentations, but are confident in the ability of local church leaders to provide proper decision counseling for kids. Again, the point is not to critique VBS literature, but to illustrate that our theological differences are expressed not only in our publishing but also in our VBS evangelism.
- Youth Camps: Reports from certain Fuge locations this year indicate a strong dose of Calvinist theology was clearly preached in some large group sessions. Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. How can we really expect Fuge to be soteriologically neutral when both camps expect them to share God’s plan of salvation? I can explain salvation to a young person from the view of either the Traditionalist or the Calvinist, but I cannot synthesize the two and do both at the same time, for no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise, they simply contradict each other in very specific ways and can hardly be reconciled. Most of these teenagers come from churches who are not Calvinistic in their theology. To expose them to specific doctrines which their pastors, youth ministers and parents do not espouse, and to do so using camp fees paid by Traditionalist parents and churches, reveals yet another stress point as we struggle in our institutional cooperation.
- Minister Training: Fast forward a few years and those youth at Fuge are now college graduates, called into ministry and preparing for seminary. With respect to the present discussion, will they receive a theologically neutral education at all Southern Baptist seminaries? Or would it not be true that Traditionalists are already encouraging their sons and daughters to attend either Southwestern or New Orleans, while Calvinists are already encouraging their sons and daughters to attend Southern or Southeastern? How could it be any clearer that our theological debate is expressing itself through a series of institutional struggles as each entity in Southern Baptist life responds by favoring either a Calvinist or a Traditionalist approach?
- Church Planting: Assuming that your church is the sole sponsor for a new work, when your committee meets to select the pastor who will plant this new church, would it or would it not select a Calvinist? The church I serve has screened out Calvinists in our last three ministry searches. We would desire to plant a church that believes as we do. If a church selecting a church planter would screen for Calvinism when directly sponsoring the new work, why would it give up this desire when cooperating with other Southern Baptists to sponsor a new work through NAMB? One cannot help but wonder if all our Traditionalist churches truly desire to plant Calvinist churches whose theology and methodology provide such a stark contrast with their own. As we cooperate to plant churches, let us be theologically transparent about exactly what kind of denomination we are building.
At some point, it is fair to ask the question, “Is it good stewardship for me to pay for the institutional advancement of organizations promoting doctrines I do not embrace personally, nor desire to teach my children, nor favor publishing at Lifeway, nor seek to advance through church planting?” It is precisely here, in the practical outworking of our theological disagreements through our institutional struggles, that the same elephant we might overlook in our Sunday School class or church becomes absolutely impossible to avoid at the denominational level.