Defining the Elephant
Part 2 of 2
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.
3. The Adversarial Agenda
Some have claimed that we not only have an elephant in the room, but we also have a snake in the grass. The only way to sympathize with such a sentiment is to consider whether a clearly adversarial agenda has been advanced by a network of Calvinist organizations relatively unknown to Traditionalist Southern Baptists, who secretly and quietly seek nothing other than to turn Traditionalist churches into Calvinist ones, a clearly stated goal they simply refer to as reform.
In their defense, it cannot be said that the Calvinists are doing anything they perceive to be wrong. Once one understands that they equate Calvinism with the true gospel of Christianity, any pejorative connotations are removed with regard to motive. Frankly, if I believed the way they do, I would also seek the spread of Calvinism everywhere, including the primarily Traditionalist churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, the agenda is adversarial in nature just the same. In order to explore this further, we will (a) identify five such Calvinist organizations, (b) examine one purpose statement, (c) evaluate our conflicts as interpersonal or foundational, and (d) clarify the uneven rules of engagement that have thus far marked the contest.
(a) Calvinist Organizations
While many Traditionalist Southern Baptists attended WMU meetings or Deacon Body functions, Calvinist groups were busy organizing themselves for what they perceive as a great movement of God among this generation. Granted, with a few notable exceptions, these are not primarily Southern Baptist groups, but their membership consists of many Southern Baptists, and more importantly, their reform goal, which I refer to as Calvinization, extends to all people everywhere, including, of course, the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. To those who claim that groups outside the Southern Baptist Convention should remain irrelevant to this discussion, I must counter that if a group seeks to Calvinize my church and denomination, I care not whether their attempt is from within or from without, they are still seeking to change my organizations, and thus my convictions require the mounting of a defense against their stated intention.
Nine Marks is the group specializing in those ecclesiological matters mentioned above, and is highly concerned with the reform of church discipline, membership roll administration and promoting the use of elders. The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel are exciting evangelical conferences with speakers who are mostly drawn from outside Southern Baptist life. These conferences model preaching styles and content consistent with Calvinist doctrines and emphases. The Acts 29 Network is a church planting organization committed to starting new churches served by pastors (including many Southern Baptists) who are required to be exclusively Calvinist in their theology. Finally, the Founders Ministries is a Southern Baptist organization that has existed for almost thirty years under a purpose statement clearly devoted to the Calvinization of Southern Baptist churches, a purpose which is explored in greater detail in the following section.
(b) Purpose Statement
The purpose of Founders Ministries is the recovery of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the reformation of local churches.
At first glance, it would appear that the Founders Ministries simply wants to accomplish the innocuous goal of making our churches better. I do not doubt, from their perspective, this is exactly what they seek. However, we must consider what they mean. First, by recovery of the gospel, we understand they contend the gospel presently being proclaimed by the vast majority of Southern Baptists is a false or a lost one in need of recovery. Second, by the word gospel they mean the Calvinist understanding of the gospel, which differs in important ways from the Traditionalist definition. Third, notice the desire for reformation, not merely of one single local church, but rather of local churches in the plural form.
We can properly infer if the goal of the Founders Ministries, and other Calvinist organizations, were to be completely realized in its ultimate expression, the clear desire among these various organizations is the complete Calvinization of ALL the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Believing as they do that Traditionalist churches need to be reformed, or Calvinized, it would be cruel of them to leave any unchanged, with only a false or lost gospel in need of recovery. I should hope it goes without saying, from the Traditionalist perspective which disaffirms this lost gospel, their effort amounts to a theological takeover attempt, which must be resisted on the grounds of clearly differing doctrinal principles.
(c) Interpersonal or Foundational Conflicts
At this point, it may be helpful to step back for a moment and take a deep breath, asking ourselves a general question about the manner in which we have thus far engaged in the debate as Calvinists and Traditionalists. Many have suggested that the two sides in this debate have behaved rather poorly, hurling unkind charges at one another and engaging in ad hominem personal attacks. We are left with the implication that our disagreements are, in fact, minor ones that have been blown wildly out of proportion by our crude misbehavior and complete lack of interpersonal communication skills. Against this notion, may I humbly suggest, while we have at times communicated poorly with harsh language and strident blog post comments, what if there truly exists, at the deepest level of our present conflict, a fundamental and foundational disagreement responsible for driving all of the poorly worded arguments and unfortunate mischaracterizations of others? What if we are not merely Baptists behaving badly? What if our fundamental visions for the future of our denomination reveal irreconcilable differences?
(d) An Uneven Contest
It has been demonstrated, on the basis of at least one clearly defined purpose statement, that Calvinists are seeking to operate upon Traditionalists in ways that would transform Traditionalist churches into Calvinist ones, ultimately resulting in the Calvinization not only of our churches, but of the institutions in Southern Baptist life those churches mutually support. In other words, they are seeking reform. It must be noted that although several organizations exist to Calvinize churches that are currently Traditionalist, there is not one single organization actively seeking to Traditionalize churches that are currently Calvinist.
This situation can be compared to a football team’s scrimmage in which the blue team always lines up on offense while the gray team always lines up on defense. Indeed, there are only two real measures Traditionalists have taken in the struggle thus far. First, the Whosoever Will conference and book have broadly defined a theological framework offering an alternative to Calvinism in Southern Baptist life. Second, the Traditionalist Statement has more or less defined the defensive playbook, and signed up an informal list of defensive players.
The response to these measures by Calvinists has been interesting to observe. Having for years encountered little resistance in Southern Baptist life to their surprisingly unrecognized movement, the presence of the gray team’s defensive squad on the practice field has been met with a sense of indignation. Forget for a moment that the gray team is disorganized and has no offense. How dare they show up, define themselves and post a sign up list for tryouts! I believe it is not divisive in the least for Traditionalists to defend the doctrines of their churches and institutions from beliefs they cannot in good conscience embrace. In fact, the next logical step strategically for the Traditionalists would be the creation of an organization whose purpose statement might mirror that of the Founders Ministries by seeking to Traditionalize Calvinist churches in the Southern Baptist Convention whose gospel so clearly requires correction in the opposite direction.
The elephant in our Southern Baptist room does not stem from some overblown doctrinal skirmish or a mere case of Baptists behaving badly. Rather, it consists of a multifaceted theological debate manifesting itself throughout nearly all of our major institutions, being driven primarily by an adversarial agenda embraced by one group of Southern Baptists who are totally committed to reforming another. Seeking a peaceful resolution, let us not underestimate our profound differences, but rather acknowledge that they are as massive and imposing as an elephant.