Navigating Our Topical Storm

January 3, 2014

Dr. Rick Patrick, pastor
FBC, Sylacauga, Ala.

Under the broad heading of “Southern Baptists and Calvinism,” we tend to conflate three distinct topics—etiquette, theology and leadership. Our usual assumption is that some people talk about Calvinism nicely while others do so divisively. Against this notion, may I suggest something else is more often taking place? Our levels of conflict and tension are actually driven more by our choice of topic than by our personalities. Each topic contributes to a different level of intrinsic controversy.

Topic A is Manners—Defining Etiquette.
These are conversations about having conversations. They tend to be cordial and sweet spirited. No one questions the character or attitude of participants. There are no real areas of conflict to iron out. All true Christians promote civility and respectful speech. We discuss ideas and issues, rather than personalities. We remember that our agreements greatly outnumber our disagreements. One example of this topic is the Truth, Trust and Testimony in a Time of Tension Report. While I certainly embrace the report, it is primarily concerned with etiquette. Conflicting theologies are mentioned but not debated. Competing visions are referenced but not promoted. Therefore, after the report was presented, one of the very first questions was essentially, “What now? How does this report impact the denominational questions at the heart of our conflict?” The T5 Report answers, “How can we stop fussing so much?” However, it does not answer, “How can we reconcile our Calvinist and Traditionalist visions for the SBC?”

Topic B is Theology—Debating Calvinism.
If Topic A tells us how to engage in theological discourse, then Topic B is the engagement itself. Scholars write books, speak at conferences and participate in debates. One example of such debate is seen in two similarly titled books—Whosoever Will by Allen and Lemke and Whomever He Wills by Barrett and Nettles. Topic B is intrinsically more contentious than Topic A. Since the two positions are irreconcilable, gentlemen will likely conclude: “Friend, let us agree to disagree.” Disagreements over abstract theological positions can be overlooked as participants demonstrate respect for one another.

Topic C is Leadership—Determining Vision.
Here the topic shifts from etiquette and theology to action plans and agendas. One example is William Thornton’s blogpost at SBC Plodder entitled Where Frank Page’s Calvinist Team Missed the Mark. “Although Thornton made some uncharitable assumptions regarding the motives of committee members in holding closed meetings, he seems to attempt a fair description of the committee’s work, as evidenced by the balance in his companion piece entitled What Frank Page’s Calvinist Team Got Right.” These essays are about leadership, not Calvinism. Specifically, Thornton faults the team for: (1) the oversight of developing a theological statement without a practical strategy, (2) the hypocrisy of scolding bloggers for open conversations deemed unhelpful while hiding behind closed conversations themselves, (3) the ambiguity of also asking Traditionalist candidates to be forthright with churches about theology when this is almost exclusively a Calvinist phenomenon, and (4) the omission of significant realities in the conflict, like churches designating Cooperative Program gifts around Calvinistic seminaries, churches discriminating against graduates of certain seminaries, the call for more proportional soteriological representation on trustee boards and committees, and the rise of elder rule ecclesiology along with a corresponding rise in destructive church discipline practices.

Although some may falsely assign him with a contrarian label, my premise is that Thornton is not being the least bit rude or discordant for asking such hard questions. The simple fact is that it will always be more contentious to question leadership than it is to question theology. With Topic A, gentlemen will agree upon etiquette. With Topic B, scholars will agree to disagree about theology. But with Topic C, there is very little wiggle room for compromise. Leaders must make specific decisions and take definite actions. Rarely is it possible to move in two directions simultaneously. Thus, Topic C is intrinsically divisive—not the people who discuss it, since it recognizes two distinct visions but advocates only one.

Someone may ask, “If questions of leadership are intrinsically divisive, why not avoid them and focus exclusively upon etiquette and theology instead?” Such an approach would be a mistake, for it is both the privilege and the responsibility of Southern Baptists to express deeply held convictions regarding the SBC’s identity, direction and future. Though sometimes unpopular, it is nevertheless necessary to confront the practical problems of denominational division fueled by competing ministry philosophies stemming from theological differences. Writers who choose to address Topic C are not creating conflict but chronicling it. They are not causing division but identifying it. Problems do not exist because they write about them. They write about them because they exist. Our most profound conflicts are actually centered upon institutional leadership and vision. They can only be resolved as we admit their existence and address them directly—even when doing so happens to be inherently controversial.