Open Letter to Southern Baptist Laypersons
by Dr. Rick Patrick, pastor
FBC, Sylacauga, Ala.
Dear Southern Baptist Laypersons,
In 1985, a gathering of more than 45,000 Southern Baptist clergy and laypersons met in Dallas, Texas, for our largest SBC annual meeting ever. Historians tell us this was the largest deliberative body in the history of the world. At stake was the future of the Southern Baptist Convention, particularly our view on the inerrancy of Scripture. Some leaders were embracing liberal theology — questioning the historicity of Adam and Eve, interpreting the early chapters of Genesis as allegory, and disregarding the theology and principles of the people in our pews who were paying their salaries.
Our convention was saved from liberalism when laypersons got involved and leaders were reminded that they were accountable to the people. The time has come to remind our leaders of this critical fact once again, for if left unchecked by Southern Baptist laypersons, the very same organizational system that would have placed us under liberal control in the 1980s will place us under Calvinist-Evangelical control today.
This is already happening, although most Southern Baptist laypersons are not involved, either due to apathy or ignorance. If Southern Baptist laypersons do not care about our denomination any longer, very little can be done. However, if our problem is ignorance, we can better inform the laity about our present conflict, which masquerades as nothing more than a theological debate. Make no mistake. It is something much more than that.
The SBC is changing and laypersons deserve to know. The debate over Calvinistic theology is not precisely the issue. Calvinists have always been among us, and they are certainly welcome in our convention. The issue, more specifically, is the apparent exclusion of those who are not Calvinistic from leadership vacancies in the Southern Baptist Convention as they become available. This disproportionate institutionalization of Calvinism in our seminaries, agencies, entities and boards is changing the SBC.
If Calvinism is the minority view in our convention as a whole, why should it be the majority view among newly elected and appointed entity leaders? Of course, if nothing is done to curb this trend, it will continue unabated. The Calvinists in our convention have been quiet with their rhetoric, but audacious with their actions, as I demonstrate below. This strategy of speaking softly and carrying a big stick has easily defeated those of us who have countered with more outspoken rhetoric and relatively timid action.
I know from experience that addressing this growing Calvinist influence elicits charges of being a conspiracy theorist as certainly as the sun rises in the east. Fortunately, facts are our friends, and the growing influence of Calvinists in the SBC is indeed a fact. I am not addressing the motives of Calvinists in this growing influence. I do not suggest any sort of secrecy as they grow in influence, as if they were meeting in underground dens to plot strategies, according to the usual caricature. Perhaps they are accidentally taking over the convention. It really doesn’t matter, for I am not addressing motives or tactics, but the undeniable fact that Calvinists are growing in influence disproportionate to their representation among the people of the Southern Baptist Convention.
You may ask, “How can the minority possibly be leading the majority?” It can happen when the minority is very well informed, very well organized and very well represented at the annual meeting and in other boards and committees. Frankly, these conventions have been dominated by ministers and denominational workers whose travel costs have been covered through the expense accounts of religious institutions. How many of our laypeople really want to pay a thousand dollars out of their own pockets to go to Baltimore, Maryland, or Columbus, Ohio, for a two-day Baptist business meeting?
Unfortunately, among our clergy and denominational workers alone, we do not appear to have enough votes to influence the convention in the direction of our membership base. Last year, for example, we elected as a convention officer a Calvinistic seminary student with only a few years of ministry experience over a very respected and well known Southern Baptist evangelist with decades of ministry experience. The minority can lead the majority when they are organized, informed and in attendance.
If SBC laypeople returned to our annual meetings in significant numbers, we could easily return the convention toward the principles and philosophies that have defined us for decades. If they do not return, the Southern Baptist Convention may never be the same. In fact, the SBC is beginning to resemble something I barely even recognize. What evidence exists to support my allegation that Southern Baptists are changing in ways that deserve the attention of our laypeople? What are these incontrovertible facts that point to a growing Calvinist-Evangelical influence unknown to most laypersons?
1. Theological Discrimination: Unless one is Calvinistic generally or possesses close personal ties to Dr. Al Mohler specifically, one need not apply for leadership vacancies in the SBC. As this graphic clearly reveals, the last six out of seven SBC entity leadership vacancies have been filled by those with Mohler ties. More recently, of the five newly elected staff members at the ERLC, only two appear to have degrees from any Southern Baptist seminary, and they both graduated from the same one—Southern, of course. Of the five other SBC seminaries, none is represented.
2. Non-Southern Baptist Leaders: I believe most Southern Baptists take for granted that leaders in SBC organizations like LifeWay and the ERLC are all Southern Baptists. However, such a notion is false. At the time of their hiring, neither the LifeWay Media Content Strategist, nor the LifeWay Small Group Training Specialist, nor four members of the Creative Team for The Gospel Project Sunday School series, were even members of SBC churches. Furthermore, when hired, one newly elected Vice President of the ERLC was not even a Southern Baptist, although I have been assured that he plans to join our denomination in the very near future. Personally, I believe it is reasonable to expect Southern Baptist organizations to fill their leadership vacancies with persons who are already active Southern Baptists before they are hired to lead in the SBC. Can we not find one talented and qualified leader among our 16 million Southern Baptists?
3. Non-baptized Baptists: Since the word “baptize” means “to immerse,” and since we find no other mode of baptism in the Bible, those who have not been immersed have not been scripturally baptized. Traditionally, the only legitimate and acceptable SBC mode of baptism was that of immersion. This is no longer the case. Quite a few churches now accept as members those whose Believer’s Baptism was by sprinkling or pouring. For example, The Village Church, with several campuses in the Dallas area, clarifies their view on page ten of a publication on baptism: While we practice a baptism by immersion at The Village, we do not require the mode of immersion for membership. Pastors and churches must now be aware that those who transfer their letter from another Southern Baptist Church may or may not have been immersed following their profession of faith. Incredibly, today’s Southern Baptist Convention includes non-baptized Baptists.
4. Alcohol Toleration: I remember well the moment when I first suspected that the convention was in the throes of an enormous theological shift. At the 2006 convention in Greensboro, North Carolina, I witnessed a 30-minute debate on the convention floor over the use of beverage alcohol, with some urging that we abstain completely to avoid causing our brothers to stumble, while others supported the use of beverage alcohol in moderation. When the vote was taken, 80 percent favored abstinence while 20 percent favored moderation. This trend toward the acceptance of beverage alcohol use in moderation, although not the traditional Southern Baptist view, is indeed the position favored by many Presbyterians and Calvinistic evangelicals.
5. Hybrid Church Planting: According to the North American Mission Board, the SBC plants only Southern Baptist Churches who give through the Cooperative Program and adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Actually, there is much more to the story, for within the description stated above one finds two types of church plants, not one.
Type A might be called a “Pure Southern Baptist” church plant, in which the sponsoring partners who provide resources such as training and financial support are all Southern Baptists. Such partners might include one or more churches, a Baptist Association, a Baptist State Convention and NAMB. By contrast, Type B might be called a “Southern Baptist / Extra-denominational Hybrid” church plant, in which at least one sponsoring partner is part of a network accountable to leadership structures outside traditional Southern Baptist channels, such as Acts 29. Historically, we have not planted these hybrid churches. Now that it is common practice, the membership of the Southern Baptist Convention deserves to know exactly how many of our church plants are Type A and how many are Type B. Thus far, NAMB has not asked our church plants to provide this information, even though it has been requested by messengers on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is hard to imagine that NAMB is unable to give us this information, since it could be acquired through simple research. It is equally hard to accept that NAMB is unwilling to give us this information, since as a matter of good stewardship, our church members deserve to know exactly what type of church plants their sacrificial contributions are supporting.
6. Infant Damnation Controversy: Dr. Gerald Harris serves as Editor of The Christian Index, the newspaper for Georgia Baptists. In an editorial dated August 22, 2013, he examined one specific statement in the Truth, Trust and Testimony in a Time of Tension Report presented at the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention: “We agree that most Southern Baptists believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven through the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, even as they differ as to why this is so.” Essentially, Dr. Harris questioned the use of the word “most.” He wants to know: “What Southern Baptists are there who do not believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven?” Because we can trace the practice of infant baptism among Presbyterians and Catholics to this doctrine of infant damnation, it is worthy of our attention as Southern Baptists. If indeed there are infant damnationists in Southern Baptist life today, then it follows that infant baptism may not be far behind. Since many Calvinistic Southern Baptists are already closer to Presbyterians in their views on salvation doctrine, church government and discipline, the end times, worship patterns and evangelistic practices, the ordinance of baptism is practically the only brick left in the wall to separate these Calvinistic Southern Baptists from Presbyterianism.
7. Rejection of Congregationalism: Whenever the minority leads the majority, a red flag goes up in my democratic mind, steeped as it is in the congregational form of polity. However, for those who embrace a form of polity such as Elder Rule, common among many Calvinistic Southern Baptist fellowships, the concept of a few wise people telling a whole bunch of less godly folks what to do presents no moral quandary whatsoever. James MacDonald, a key advisor for The Gospel Project, recently said: “We believe that the Bible teaches that the authority of the church is vested in the elders. And that when the elders speak collectively and in agreement, they speak for God to our church.” This approach is not exactly the proverbial “My way or the highway.” It’s more like “Our way or the highway.” There is very little appreciation here for the priesthood of the believer. MacDonald has also written an article entitled, “Congregational Government is from Satan,” in which we are encouraged to “send congregational government back to hell where it came from.” Please note that congregational government is the form of church polity currently practiced by the majority of Southern Baptists, the same people who pay LifeWay as it promotes MacDonald’s theology attributing our polity form to the Enemy.
8. Rejection of Evangelistic Practices: Southern Baptist layperson, do you know that there are SBC leaders among us who discourage altar calls? Usually, it is a Calvinistic minister who opposes the altar call as unbiblical, and may even claim that it promotes man coming to God rather than God coming to man. In similar fashion, one often hears the use of the Sinner’s Prayer in evangelism denounced. My favorite quote of this sort may be attributed to Calvinist evangelist Paul Washer: “The sinner’s prayer has sent more people to hell than anything on the face of the earth.” In fairness, I certainly agree that the sinner’s prayer has at times been prayed prematurely or insincerely by one who has not genuinely experienced heartfelt repentance and faith. However, I do not lay this fault at the feet of the sinner’s prayer itself, for millions have prayed just such a prayer expressing their faith in Christ in a manner that is completely genuine and sincere. The main thing to realize here is that historically celebrated Southern Baptist evangelism practices are now being discredited as instruments that are sending people to hell.
What is the state of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2013? One seminary gives us all our new leaders. Newly hired denominational executives are not even SBC. We have non-baptized Baptists. We have Baptists who support the use of beverage alcohol. We use SBC funds to plant churches whose leaders are accountable to networks outside the SBC. We have Baptists who believe in infant damnation. Our polity form is said to come from Satan, while our evangelistic practices are charged with sending people to hell.
Southern Baptist layperson, if none of this disturbs you, please return to your easy chair. But if you are willing to help us stem this tide, to preserve our Southern Baptist identity, to correct our course from this Calvinistic-Evangelical drift, then please get involved. We truly need you. Unless you rise up, the institutions of the SBC will fall completely into the hands of reformers who are redefining daily what it means to be a Southern Baptist. Please come to the conventions, vote on the issues, elect traditional SBC officers, write letters to trustees, serve on boards, inform other Southern Baptists and help us resist these reforms. If you are willing to network with others who embrace the Hobbs-Rogers theological tradition in SBC life, then please visit www.connect316.net.