Grading A Decade of Reform School | Part Three

August 24, 2015

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

Click HERE for Part One.
Click HERE for Part Two.

Over the past decade, Southern Baptists have witnessed major efforts to reform our denomination in at least the ten specific areas addressed in this essay. Part Three addresses reform areas nine and ten.

9. Polity
Southern Baptists have traditionally favored a style of decision-making once described by Adrian Rogers as “pastor led, deacon served, committee operated and congregationally affirmed.”[i] Historically, this form of polity has been celebrated by Southern Baptists for its commitment to the biblical witness as well as its fairness to every member of the Body. Historian Joseph Belcher wrote of Thomas Jefferson that he “considered Baptist church government the only form of pure democracy which then existed in the world, and had concluded that it would be the best plan of government for the American colonies.”[ii]

Today, this form of polity is under attack, most often by those who favor an approach closer to that of classical Presbyterianism. In one such assault, Dr. James MacDonald wrote: “congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ.”[iii] In fairness, MacDonald apologized for this outrageous statement, albeit four years later when he was about to address the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination in America to embrace congregational polity, which is most certainly not Satanic in origin.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this debate between polity that is congregational and polity which is elder led/rule (a nebulous distinction if there ever was one) is that while the abuse of congregational polity sometimes allows the bullying of the minister by the congregation, the abuse of elder rule polity sometimes allows the bullying of the congregation by the minister. While space does not permit a full discussion of this phenomenon here, if you are seeking evidence of a tendency toward heavy-handed elder rule discipline by ministers of a certain theological persuasion, all you have to do is Google the names Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler and C. J. Mahaney. You will observe on full display the excesses of a shepherding movement employing an almost cult-like personal submission to the unquestioned authority of the pastor. By contrast, congregational polity views the role of the pastor as “leading under” rather than “lording over.” Let us pray that the many tears of abused church members will wash away this foolish and dangerous reform.

10. Positions
Various time-honored Southern Baptist positions have also been subject to reform.

a) Drinking. First, our traditional position encouraging abstinence from alcohol is dismissed by many leaders of the Young, Restless and Reformed movement. Mark Driscoll has written: “My Bible study convicted me of my sin of abstinence from alcohol.”[iv] Of course, one need not look outside the SBC for a Calvinist who clearly approves of the use of beverage alcohol. Lead Pastor Dean Inserra of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, writes: “It is a cultural vestige of the geographic South, ahistorical to Christian tradition, and an unbiblical position to promote abstinence as the final position.”[v] Please note the official SBC position on alcohol is the one Pastor Inserra considers “unbiblical.” That this approach is growing in popularity should not surprise us in light of the resurgent Calvinism, since it happens to be the classic Presbyterian view.

b) Sprinkling. Second, within some Southern Baptist churches today, we find the position of accepting aspersion (sprinkling) as a legitimate mode of baptism, in spite of the fact that the Baptist Faith and Message clearly defines immersion as the proper mode: “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (BFM 2000, Article VII)

One example would be the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. Although this Southern Baptist Church does not practice aspersion, it nevertheless accepts into its membership Christians from other denominations who have never been scripturally baptized by immersion, thus creating a class of sprinkled Southern Baptists. Their official policy states the following: “While we practice a baptism by immersion at the Village Church, we do not require the mode of immersion for membership. If a person was sprinkled or immersed (or a possible other mode) after conversion, he or she has met our requirement for membership.”[vi]

Other churches have also followed suit and permit members who have never been biblically baptized by the mode of immersion. That this approach is growing in popularity should not surprise us in light of the resurgent Calvinism, since sprinkling happens to be the classic Presbyterian view.

c) Invitations. Third, the use of evangelistic altar calls and especially the praying of a “Sinner’s Prayer” has fallen into disfavor today among reformists. Their view is that of the late Leonard Ravenhill, who often claimed that the sinner’s prayer had sent more people to hell than all the bars in America. While no one advocates a false profession, it is an occupational hazard when any preacher calls men to repent and believe, that some will do so falsely. The prayer itself is not to blame, but rather the impenitent heart. Likewise, many preachers today are reticent to extend evangelistic invitations, lest walking the aisle be viewed as men coming to God rather than God coming to men. This rejection of invitations should not surprise us in light of the resurgent Calvinism, since it is the classic Presbyterian approach.

Having explored at some length the reform decade of 2006-2015 in Southern Baptist life, including ten very specific reform measures, one is hard pressed to name a single major contribution that can be attributed to this shift. Certainly things have changed, but they have not changed for the better. We are reaching fewer people. We are giving less money. Baptisms are down. Annual church reporting is neglected. Attendance at meetings has waned. Our culture is more confused than ever about our convictions. Most of all, we lack transparency and trust—with leadership shielding us from relevant facts for a decade and a half.[vii]

The closest thing we have to a success is the fact that we may be planting more churches. However, as we have seen, it is not at all clear that these churches are promoting either the polity form practiced or the salvation doctrine espoused by the majority of SBC churches. Are Southern Baptists using outside Calvinist dollars to plant our churches? Or are Calvinist outsiders using Southern Baptist dollars to plant their churches? Save your breath if you wish to scold me for my lack of kingdom-mindedness! Just as I am under no obligation to pay the bills of another denomination, neither am I required to bankroll the “Presbyterianizing” of the next generation of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Perhaps the best way to conclude is simply to take a step back and ask ourselves: “Why have we been imitating Presbyterians and young Calvinist evangelicals?” Have they truly been more successful than Southern Baptists in reaching people? Or have they merely been more successful in persuading vast numbers of young Southern Baptists to embrace their theology? If their results are no better than ours, then this reform decade has been an experiment in foolish and counter-productive imitation. Let us stop pretending to be something we are not. Let us finally drop out of Reform School. And let us get back to being Southern Baptists once again.



[i] Rogers, Adrian. Kingdom Authority. Broadman & Holman: Nashville, 2002, pp. 169-188.
[ii] Belcher, Jospeh. Religious Denominations of the United States. John E. Potter: Philadelphia, 1856, p. 184.
[iii] MacDonald, James. Congregational Government is From Satan. June 10, 2011.
[iv] Driscoll, Mark. The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out without Selling Out. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2004, p. 146.
[v] Lumpkins, Peter. “Alcohol Today, Alcohol Tomorrow: Are Southern Baptists Any Closer to Agreement?” SBC Tomorrow, September 18, 2014.
[vi] The Village Church. “Baptism at The Village.” PDF, p. 10.
[vii] “GCR Recordings to be Closed 15 Years.” Baptist Press. June 8, 2010.

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

 characters available

Bill Mac

elder led/rule (a nebulous distinction if there ever was one)

It’s not a nebulous distinction at all, unless you are unable to distinguish between the concept of leading and ruling, which clearly you aren’t since you affirm the term led when quoting Adrian Rogers. It seems you object to the term elder which is odd because most scholars that I have read make no distinction between the terms pastor, elder, and bishop. Actually I suspect your objection to the term elder is because it is associated with Calvinism.

Mega-churches are definitely a pre-reformed-resurgence phenomenon and you can’t tell me they are congregationally governed, even though most don’t use the term “elder”. Do mega-church congregations get to decide anything other than perhaps vote on the budget and the pastor? Our church (non-reformed, Yet multiple elder-led) recently decided to start an AWANA program. The congregation discussed it, and voted on it. Does this happen in mega-churches? Does it happen in SBC churches that are bigger than the average? In many cases I doubt it.

I can’t help but think for some people this is a power thing. Plural eldership spreads the perceived power and some folks don’t like it. (I say perceived because pastor/elder should not be a position of power). They don’t want to share power. I have also seen power reside in the deacon board (also wrong).

At our church the elders are responsible for teaching / preaching / vision / weddings / funerals / visitation, etc. They are not allowed to moderate business meetings. They don’t hire or fire. The deacons perform administrative and maintenance functions. They can get things fixed but any new initiatives must come to the congregation. That’s elder-led congregational polity.

Are some disguising elder-ruled as elder-led? Most likely, but I’ll bet you have to draw a bigger circle than around the reformed. It’s been in place for years, just wearing a different skin. Ironically, mega-church pastors have traditionally and continue to hold the most power in the SBC.

    Rick Patrick

    My parenthetical comment was an aside, not a main point, designed merely to suggest that those who claim they are elder-LED can (and often do) easily devolve into elder-RULE when said elder wields unaccountable power. (See Driscoll, Mahaney, Chandler and MacDonald.) It’s not so much a disguise as it is a practical, slow fade.

      Bill Mac

      I think the key here is to look at the membership covenant. If it is long and requires you to sign something, run.


As our society careens toward celebrity worship, entitlements, handing over our responsibility to make individual choices about our lives, etc, it is especially sad for me to see people fall for the same trajectory at church. Collectivism is a costly and infectious disease that produces benevolent dictators or tyrants. People simply do not mature and grow in that environment. And we have seen a generation of young SBC men salivating to be in charge, like their gurus, “for the Gospel”. Their gurus cannot even admit what a disaster it was to promote, support and defend Driscoll/Acts 29 for so long. Same for Mahaney. Now we are seeing the same with 9Marks style church discipline.

The irony of it is how bad this trajectory is for those who want the power and control. They are in serious danger although it must feel like heady stuff at the time. They might even convince themselves of some special anointing over others from God. It is the “normal” of their tradition. And as long as the money flows, we will continue to see it.

It takes a wise and mature person to want to see others grow, mature and move on past them. And for people to take responsibility for their lives and their families. Sadly, we see little of this coming from our government or our churches today. Government wants to control our physical lives while church leaders claim to hold the keys to our salvation and be our human mediators. They are both careening toward the same oligarchical ends.

Where is Christ and what the resurrection was all about?

    Bill Mac

    Lydia: The SBC has always been in many ways a celebrity driven phenomenon. Mega-church celebrities have always dominated our leadership, with no end in sight. That’s why I find it somewhat ironic that we are decrying the loss of congregationalism. I would be astonished if most megachurches have anything but the thinnest veneer of congregationalism.

    I’m anything but anti-Calvinist, but I think you would have to be blind not to see that the recent problems with abusive leadership and outrageous membership covenants are pretty firmly in the Calvinist megachurch camp. I make no bones about not liking the mega-church structure, and it seems that mixing Calvinism with megachurches is often a particularly toxic mix.


      “Lydia: The SBC has always been in many ways a celebrity driven phenomenon. Mega-church celebrities have always dominated our leadership, with no end in sight. That’s why I find it somewhat ironic that we are decrying the loss of congregationalism. I would be astonished if most megachurches have anything but the thinnest veneer of congregationalism.”

      Mega churches are a recent phenomen within the SBC –historically speaking. In general, any church over 600 was considered huge even back as recent as the 70’s. There were exceptions, of course. .

      You won’t find me defending mega churches who operate on loads of money and cult of personality. So is that your argument concerning congregationalism? Pointing out another place where it is impossible to practice?

        Bill Mac

        Just pointing out the irony of lamenting the loss of congregationalism blamed on Calvinism when it is all but celebrated by our devotion to megachurch celebrities.

        I think it is right to lament the loss of congregationalism, but it started long before the Calvinist upswing, and even now there may be more megachurches in the SBC than there are elder-ruled congregations.


          “I think it is right to lament the loss of congregationalism, but it started long before the Calvinist upswing, and even now there may be more megachurches in the SBC than there are elder-ruled congregations.”

          Mega churches, in general, operate like non profit religious organizations but with much less financial scrutiny. You have the president (pastor) and the volunteer board (deacons or elders). There really isn’t a lot of difference except how they present the structure. People who go to a mega churches as pew sitters most likely don’t want to be too involved in the direction of the church and have a say/vote. Sadly. And now, the generation that started the seeker mega model are aging out and those who helped build those systems—their legacy’s are in the hands of those who are best at the closed system approach. Something becoming very popular in evangelical churches these days. And within our government, too.

          So….. Here comes the YRR proclaiming that “elder led” (rule) is the most biblical. (yes they claim that a lot) and sometimes even covertly leading some churches that way without being upfront or having a vote. Patterns of behavior.

          I think the case can be made there is no official human heiarchicial structure for the Body of Christ in the NT. There is an official declaration about exercising gifts and spiritual maturity, though. Sometimes we just have to use common sense when reading it. Having a title conferred by others on ourselves is pretty meaningless in God’s economy.

            Bill Mac

            The pastor has to ask himself “Am I here to lead, or to serve”. The answer can be both, but the rub is where the emphasis is placed. If you think the congregation is accountable to you, instead of vice-versa, then the people in the pews need to run.

Scott Shaver

Rick points out “confusion over culture” and I agree.

Not to worry, in the end I’m confident that neo-calvinism will NOT prove to be a dynamic match with either today’s religious culture or its composite sub-cultures.

Crepe paper is useless for building mending sails.

Herb Miller

It was not too many years back when Presbyterians (PC-USA – see: pretty much lost their own denomination to liberals who promoted non-Biblical doctrine. However, because each local Presbyterian (PC-USA) church does not own its own property (see:, the non-liberal PC-USA members cannot keep their buildings, even if they withdraw from their denomination – what a setup. And, since at that time the SBC was about the only real conservative denomination, I believe that many of the PC-USA members fled to the SBC.

No wonder there is a greater influence on Calvinism/Presbyterianism in the SBC. Maybe we should call it the SPC. I believe that is what they want.


    Herb Miller:

    I believe the SBC should change it’s name to CBC(Calvinist Baptist Convention) instead of SPC.


“One is hard pressed to name a single major contribution that can be attributed to this shift.”

OK, I’ll bite. Perhaps it should be mentioned that in the areas of (a) premature baptism of very young children, and (b) the conversation about reviving biblical church discipline, and the related conversation about what our membership numbers actually mean; It seems to have been primarily the calvinists who raised these issues…issues that even many non-calvinists agree needed to be raised. Yes, some calvinists took these things too far, both in rejecting invitations to salvation, and in imposing authoritarian discipline procedures…but that doesn’t mean the conversations didn’t need to happen.

So perhaps, even IF one were to accept ALL of your points as valid, the score for Calvinism is at least:
+2 -10 = -8?


    Scott Shaver

    Who defines “premature baptism”? How is it defined?

    Discussion of this issue on the premise posed (positive contribution of Calvinism) has done nothing but throw up dust in the SBC and allow right of way for the baptism of infants.

    Thanks a lot for the “discussion”.


      Dr. Olson’s article below addresses this topic a bit as well, and I agree a lot with his assesment.

    Rick Patrick


    I am willing to yield both your point and your arithmetic—Minus Eight it is!


    Andy, I can remember when the ” church discipline ” issue was presented as cleaning up the rolls. Who ever thought it really meant exerting such control over people with salvic keys and human mediators?

    The *conversations” happened… it is just that the real long term intent was often left out. Like adding the “s” to the BFM2000 priesthood of the believer. But people trusted and went along.

    There are patterns some now want to play down as simply….some went too far.


While I agree that there have been changes in the SBC in my 10 years of ministry from what I grew up with, I think we should be careful not to lay all or the majority of blame at the feet of Calvinist. Especially in the areas of the two points in this post. I have seen the devil work and cause havoc in both forms of church polity. I have seen a congregational ruled church get hijacked by some members who didn’t show up on a Wednesday or Sunday night normally, but they did when there was a business meeting and something they didn’t want to pass was going to be voted on. In fact it has happened to me personally. And I have also seen from afar without direct knowledge of the entire situation the elder-led form of church polity become authoritarian and hurtful. With regards to the positional changes mentioned here, again I have seen these changes not just in Reformed/Calvinist churches. In fact a church that is just 20 minutes from the church I pastor has changed their stance on alcohol and the pastor does not give a direct invitation at the end of every service. This particular church and pastor, who is a dear friend, is not Calvinist in his beliefs or practices. I believe Andy brings up two good points on premature baptism and church discipline being two things that the Calvinist spurred the conversation in the SBC.

My point is that while the Calvinist push in the SBC may have created some issues and problems, but I don’t believe the problem is Calvinism as much as I believe it is a personal, sin nature problem. We as Traditionalist can point the finger and blame the Calvinist all we want, but we must also admit to our own demons. There are men in leadership positions from both theological belief systems that have abused the authority given to them by God, and they have hurt the cause of the Gospel. And one final point, I believe we need to make sure that we are extending grace and forgiveness to those who fall into sin, if for no other reason (and there are other reasons of course) than God has extended us grace and forgiveness when we have sinned (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). I am speaking in the area of those pastors who overstepped their pastoral authority in church discipline. I want to say up front, that they were wrong in what they did and the Bible does not condone what they did. However, at least in the case of Chandler, there has been confession and a request from him personally for forgiveness. He has said publicly that he and the elders of the Village Church were wrong, and that they are trying to reach out to those they know they have hurt as well as invited those who have been hurt that they didn’t realize were hurt to come and talk with them. Maybe this is naive of me, but I have no reason to disbelieve Chandler on this. If time bears out another story then we will have to go from there. The Bible tells us that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of our sins (1 Jo. 1:9). If God has forgiven and has removed them from us as the Bible says He has (Psa. 103:12; Heb. 8:12), then I believe it is on us as brothers and sisters in Christ to forgive them, learn a lesson from their sin, pray for them, and move on. I am not suggesting by the way that Rick or anyone else is holding this against them or trying to come off as “holier than thou”, I just wanted to say for myself, that I want to extend grace and forgiveness to others when they sin, because God has extended it to me, and I hope others will extend it to me when I sin against them (and I have and still do). One thing we talk about in our church is Agreement in the majors, liberty in the minors, grace and love in all things (not original to me by any means). There’s my two cents. May we all pray for one another as we know that we are engaged in spiritual warfare daily, and those in leadership certainly have a huge “X” on them.

    Rick Patrick

    Thanks, Justin. Very well said.

    Scott Shaver

    With all due respect to Roger Olson, he seems to take an almost reverse approach to a pastoral utilitarian ethic. Instead of the “greatest good for the greatest number” in terms of perceived significance or confusion over the symbol in question (i.e. belivers baptism by immersion), He seems to pit the desires and wishes of one family over against the significance of the ordinance in both the faith tradition and collective conscious of his own BAPTIST congregation (i.e, the majority).

    You are right Andy. This is interesting.


      I’m confused by your comment. Dr. Olson is arguing AGAINST this practice by this baptist pastor. His point is that if this pastor wants to baptize infants, he should simply admit that he is no longer a baptist.

      Or perhaps I am mis-reading your comment.

Scott Shaver

My sincere apology to Roger Olsen, Andy and other readers of this thread:

I misread and gave Olsen credit for the views/rationale of the pastor doing the infant baptism as a “symbol”. Olsen and I on exactly the same page after re-reading.

Is the rationale of the pastor then that I question.

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

 characters available