From time to time, people make the erroneous assumption that because Connect 316 embraces theological convictions that are not Calvinistic, we must somehow favor sowing discord and causing conflict. Of course, that’s not the way we see things at all. In fact, our goals are exactly the opposite, to bring healing and strength to our convention through open and honest dialogue about our differences, to provide a ministry fellowship for Southern Baptists who may have felt alienated and disenfranchised by the trending Calvinism, and to continue to love one another and spread the gospel together.
Why do some people assume the worst of ministry fellowships like ours? Why might they contend, for example, that we are not merely non-Calvinist but that we are actually anti-Calvinist? What definition of unity requires that the Calvinistic trend be permitted to roll along unchecked with a full head of steam while any counterbalancing Traditionalist trend must be forced to hide under a rock somewhere to avoid the charge of breeding disunity? Four considerations are worth noting.
1. The language of the debate, for now, is still framed from the Calvinistic perspective.
Southern Baptists in my wing of the convention have a clear theological stream. We can trace it to the Anabaptists in Switzerland in the 1500’s, the General Baptists in England in the 1600’s, the Separate Baptists in America in the 1700’s and the Traditional Southern Baptists like E.Y. Mullins, Herschel Hobbs and Adrian Rogers in the 1900’s. (Of course, our Calvinistic friends have their stream as well.)
Although we have a well-defined theological position, we lack an appropriate name that everyone is willing to accept. Among the best options I have heard are Extensivist, Volitionist and Traditionalist. (The latter may be the most common, but it has not yet completely taken hold.) Thus, we are susceptible to the charge that we are talking about the one topic of Calvinism, and we are the people against it. Such a view, unfortunately, will always paint us into a contrarian corner until our name is established.
The truth is a bit more complicated. We are not talking about one topic, but two—namely, Calvinism and Traditionalism. As each side promotes its own convictions, we will necessarily oppose the other view, but it makes no more sense to say that we are anti-Calvinist than to say that they are anti-Traditionalist. There are two theologies being discussed, and these ideologies themselves create the conflict.
2. We all have different styles of conflict management.
Some people are not especially curious about doctrinal discussions or the trends among denominational leadership. They just don’t care about such things, which is their right. But it is not a sin to care about the direction of our convention. And it is not a fault to contend for one’s theological views. There is a certain personality who simply wants to say, “Who cares about all this? We’re all not going to agree. We’re not going to change anyone else’s mind. Let’s just move forward and never talk about this ever again.” They would celebrate such an approach. This is actually their version of peace—a peace born, not of mutual understanding and respect, but of stifling conversation as tensions continue to simmer below the surface. This leads to a build up of pressure that has no release unless it can be expressed. When we suppress all dissent in the interest of unity, we are not handling conflict in a healthy manner. When we share our concerns, it is not the sharing itself that causes the conflict. The conflict is already there.
Connect 316 helps to promote unity not by ignoring our differences, but by celebrating them in the context of tolerance and cooperation in our convention. This does not mean that we necessarily agree with everything going on. That’s why we partner together, seek mutual understanding, pray, serve and try to make the convention better than it is now. We believe in a brighter tomorrow, one in which no Traditionalist needs to feel like a second class citizen in his own denomination. It has been said that “Peace is not the absence of conflict but the ability to deal with it.” Again, we did not cause this conflict. We are simply addressing it—and our goal in doing so is to bring about a healthy resolution.
3. We are insulted when tribalists suddenly denounce tribalism.
One can hear voices today saying, “We must not form all these groups, wings or organized ministry fellowships. Such groups only create division in the convention and set back the cause of cooperation. Let us dispense with such tribalism.” Sorry, but Calvinistic tribes have formed over the past thirty years without having to endure any such warnings. The Founders, Nine Marks, Acts 29, The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel and Baptist 21 have all been permitted to organize, promote their events and their causes, develop a following, network with one another and become influential in SBC life.
Against six such Calvinistic organizations—all of whom welcome a good number of Southern Baptists—we can only list one such Traditionalist organization—Connect 316, the newest theologically driven ministry fellowship out of all the ones mentioned. Let us not move the goalposts of denominational unity etiquette now that all the Calvinist tribes are established, well organized and in full control of the SBC. How hypocritical, in a six to one ratio of tribes, to complain that only the one is responsible for creating some kind of special division within the denomination—as if the other six had not already done so.
4. The Southern Baptist Convention will fly higher with TWO healthy wings.
Undoubtedly, there are some who wish that we did not have denominational wings at all. They are upset at the very existence of “us” and “them” conversations. This is usually a manifestation of naïveté mixed with idealism. I am sorry to break it to you, folks, but there is a well organized, strong and healthy Calvinistic wing in the Southern Baptist Convention. They are publishing books, pushing initiatives, electing their own as leaders and moving forward to bring about reforms they believe in. I don’t blame them for doing so. They have every right.
However, those of us whose convictions differ from these Calvinists possess the very same right to organize, plan, network, hold conferences, promote resources and make every attempt to strengthen our own wing of the denomination—without any false charges of tribalism or fostering disunity or creating conflict or sowing discord or any other such nonsense. We are doing precisely the same things they did—only we are doing them thirty years later, at a time when they are well established and we are not.
Connect 316 wants unity in our convention, but not the kind of unity that comes at the expense of our very existence or through sacrificing these firm convictions on the altar of a fake unity that pretends everything is fine, when below the surface, problems and conflicts are mounting that beg for resolution. The unity we seek will come as dormant theological Traditionalists rise to provide a more robust defense of our theology, as we become more engaged in the issues of denominational life, and as we carry on the traditions of our own theological stream and firmly defend them.
Calvinists should welcome the formation of a Traditional ministry fellowship like Connect 316, if only for our faithfulness to the adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Calvinists are the ones who taught us how to form a group within the overall organization of the SBC, a place where like-minded brothers can find great encouragement in promoting the gospel as we understand it. It is hard to imagine that they would deny to our side in this debate the very approaches they themselves used.
Just as a bird is only able to fly properly when both of its wings are healthy, Southern Baptists are not doing very well right now, and at least part of the problem is that our Calvinist wing, though perhaps fewer in number, is far stronger and more influential than our Traditionalist wing. If Connect 316 can promote a stronger and healthier Traditionalism in SBC life, then we will have served the cause of unity by bringing back disenfranchised Baptists, giving a sense of belonging to those who have felt alienated and out of place in this Calvinistic culture, and restoring greater balance in the life of the convention. As our wing of the denomination heals, the entire SBC will be better for it, and Calvinists too will benefit from a convention whose brand of unity deals openly with problems rather than ignoring them.