Thoughts on the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association Decision
about Pleasant Valley Community Church
Part 1: Attempting to Analyze What Actually Happened
By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
News stories from the Western Recorder, from Associated Baptist Press, and Baptist Press reported last week that the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association in Kentucky chose to deny membership to Pleasant Valley Community Church, purportedly in part because of the strong Calvinism affirmed by Pleasant Valley Community Church. In this article, I want to suggest my best guess of the factors which led to this decision. In Part 2 I want to suggest what could be some implications of this decision for other churches and associations in the SBC.
Some Important Caveats
These are some wise dictums which we should normally heed as guidelines for wise living:
Dictum 1: Don’t get enmeshed in other people’s fights.
Dictum 2: Don’t speak about things about which you have little knowledge, because when you open your mouth you’ll reveal your ignorance.
I’m going to risk cautiously disobeying these wise dictums in order to comment on the denial of the application of Pleasant Valley Community Church to join Daviess-McLean Baptist Association in Kentucky. (I could note that many blog commentators frequently violate both of these dictums). So let me do so with these important caveats:
(a) I do not know anyone on either side associated with this event, nor have I spoken with them personally or communicated with them. The only thing I know comes through published reports and commentaries, and a couple of conversations with persons closer to the situation who have communicated with some of the persons involved. I have not read all of the documents associated with the event. So I am writing based on the limited published information I have seen, along with some hearsay evidence. That’s not very strong evidence in a court of law or in the scholarly world, and as a former journalist I would not publish such unconfirmed opinions as a factual news story. So what I am sharing is just my opinion or speculation based on my best understanding of the limited information I have.
(b) I am not a member of a church in the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association, so I have no real standing in this discussion. This is their decision, not mine. I am simply commenting on the event as an outside observer.
With those important caveats in mind, I will share my perception in this Part 1 of the root causes of this event. As I best understand it, there are two primary contributing causes that led to this event – one more theological in character, and the other more attitudinal in nature. At this point, I am more interested in describing the perceptions involved than the realities involved – that is, I’m attempting to understand what perceptions may have led to this decision. I have no way of judging the accuracy of those perceptions. Perceptions aren’t always the same as reality, but they do impact reality. Again, I want to be very clear that some of this at least to some degree speculation on my part, based on the available evidence. Then, in Part 2, I’ll suggest some implications of this decision in other associations, and propose a way that might help avoid repeated occurrences of similar events in other associations.
The Theological Aspect
The presenting problem, as it has been described in all the published reports, is the theological problem that the other churches in the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association (DMBA) found the strong Calvinism of Pleasant Valley Community Church to be unpalatable. The brief DMBA statement unfortunately offers an overly abbreviated their discussion of this issue, rather than providing a more detailed discussion. As reported in the Associated Baptist Press story, the Credentials Committee noted that the doctrine of Pleasant Valley Community Church was “Calvinistic in nature,” and “affirms the doctrine of election and grace.” Clearly, this alone would not make the doctrine of Pleasant Valley Community Church unbaptistic. Article V of the Baptist Faith and Message is entitled “God’s Purpose of Grace,” and begins with the words, “Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which God regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end.” So belief in election and grace would make a church’s doctrine baptistic, not unbaptistic. The association would have to go into much greater detail than their statement does (at least, the part of it quoted in published reports) to clarify what they found problematic in PVCC’s doctrine. It would have been especially helpful to us outside observers had the association been more specific about the doctrinal issue involved.
However, from what we can discern about Pleasant Valley Community Church, its doctrine was apparently so obviously and distinctively Calvinistic that a more detailed statement seemed unnecessary to the association for this purpose. It was sufficient for the Credentials Committee to note that “we do recognize that it [the theology of PVCC] is vastly different than the majority of churches within the DMBA.” The association voted 104-9 to deny admittance to Pleasant Valley Community Church to DMBA. This wasn’t a close vote. This indicates that the doctrine of PVCC was well known among the ministers in the association, and it was significantly different in some important ways.
It is not surprising that that the overwhelming majority of pastors in this or another association would differ in doctrine from a church that is strongly and exceptionally Calvinist in its doctrine. LifeWay statistics indicate that 90 percent of Southern Baptist pastors are not five point Calvinists. If most associations were minded to deny or remove from membership all Reformed churches, the majority of most associations could do so merely by voting their own doctrinal beliefs. In fact, however, few associations have denied membership to churches over the doctrines of Calvinism, and the pastor who nominated PVCC for membership in DMBA was not a five-point Calvinist. By and large, associations that are made up predominantly of non-Calvinist churches have been accepting of Calvinist churches into their fellowship. So what made PVCC stand out so much from DMBA?
The “Pastor of Preaching and Vision” of Pleasant Valley Community Church, recent Southern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate Jamus Edwards (whose picture reflects a handsome young man), downplayed his church’s distinctive Calvinism to the Western Recorder, telling them that the church does not self-identify as Calvinist because it is not “helpful in most contexts” but rather “distracting and largely misunderstood, precisely like it was in this situation with the DMBA.” However, Edwards’ statement seems a little disingenuous in light of a number of factors. First of all, not only did PVCC refrain from using “Baptist” in their name, but also rather than making the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 their confession, the church has its own 60 page doctrinal confession instead, which is unambiguously Calvinistic. For example, the PVCC confession affirms hard determinism:
“From before the foundation of the world, in order to display His glory, God freely and unchangeably ordained all things that would come to pass. From the casting of the lot, to the bird falling from the sky, to the activities of the nations, to the plans of politicians, to the secret acts of individuals, to what will happen to us tomorrow, to scheduling the very day that we will die, God has written our stories and the stories of the entire universe.”
Also in the PVCC confession, God’s absolute predestination of everything that happens includes “the results of His plan of salvation as set forth in the Gospel of Jesus Christ” in double predestination:
“We believe that God’s election is unconditional — from Old Testament Israel to individual sinners. That is, from before the foundation of the world, God chose in His grace to save for Himself an elect people through Jesus Christ. God’s choice of His elect was in no way affected, or conditioned by, some merit or deed that He foresaw these individuals would possess. Neither (as many argue) did God make His choice based upon those whom He foresaw ‘would’ have chosen Him of their own will and accord.”
Another piece of evidence – PVCC’s strong identification with the Acts 29 Network – undermines Edwards’ claim that PVCC does not self-identify itself with Calvinists. Edwards has an interview in the Acts 29 Network website in which he clearly identifies PVCC with that group (giving special appreciation to the influence of Mark Driscoll on his life). Since the Acts 29 confession requires agreement with Calvinistic theology (note Acts 29 doctrine four, being “Reformed” in its view of salvation) as a prerequisite for participation, it appears that Edwards should have at least qualified his statement somewhat. Indeed, it is evident from the article that PVCC sought the approval of the Acts 29 Network before it sought membership in the DMBC.
Furthermore, Edwards states in the interview that in becoming pastor he “inherited an unbiblical leadership model (church government structure).” [Edwards does not describe specifically what this “unbiblical leadership model” was, but one could imagine that it was a polity common in Baptist churches, and perhaps closer to the polity outlined in the Baptist Faith and Message than PVCC’s elder-led polity]. Edwards continues: “In an effort to transition out of this unbiblical model, we took over a year to teach through 1 Timothy and the biblical model for church government. The Scriptures began to do the work and eventually the church body eagerly accepted the elder-led model.” However Pastor Edwards reads 1 Timothy 3, the chapter that discusses the qualifications and responsibilities of the two scriptural offices in a New Testament church, it cannot possibly advocate the Presbyterian elder-led model as opposed to Baptist polity – in fact, the word “elder” doesn’t even appear in that chapter! Edwards obviously appears to be reading his Calvinistic theology into Scripture, rather than allowing Scripture to determine his theology.
So, taking all this evidence into account, it appears that Edwards’ claim that the church did not self-identify as a Calvinist fellowship is somewhat inaccurate. In fact, the church took a number of steps to distinguish themselves from other Baptist churches in name and doctrine, and sought to align themselves with Calvinistic groups before seeking membership in the DMBC. This unambiguous Calvinism was evident to the other churches in DMBA.
This is not the first time or the only issue that the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association has chosen not to be in fellowship with a church whose doctrinal views significantly differed from the other churches in the association. As the Associated Baptist Press story mentioned, DMBA voted 242-24 to withdraw fellowship from the Journey Fellowship (formerly named Seven Hills Baptist Church in Owensboro) because they hosted a group which they viewed as accepting or endorsing homosexuality. So the DMBA does not appear to be on a one-issue “witch hunt” about Calvinism, but is interested that the churches in the association be of like faith and practice in the interest of unity. This concern for doctrinal agreement is commendable. In fact, associations in general tend to be rather generous (perhaps overly so at times) in allowing for doctrinal diversity and respecting local congregational autonomy. For example, Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas has been removed from membership from both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas because of their open advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle, but last I heard, they are still members in good standing with the Tarrant Baptist Association.
However, returning to the DMBA issue, as we often discover in counseling, it is often the case that the “presenting issue” cited as the problem at the beginning of the conversation turns out to be not the major issue when the problem is explored in greater depth. It becomes evident that there is some other deeper issue which is the most basic problem. While I’m confident that discussions about Calvinist doctrine were an important aspect of these discussions, it seems to me that the doctrinal issue was more of a “presenting issue” than a “real issue.” That leads me to the next section, the Attitudinal Aspect.
The Attitudinal Aspect
As the Baptist Press story on this issue underscored (and this has been confirmed to me by persons familiar with the situation and have talked with some of the persons involved), although it appears that there were doctrinal issues involved in denying membership to PVCC, the issues involving Calvinism did not appear to be the primary problem. (The Baptist Press story brought out this attitudinal aspect more, while the Associated Baptist Press story underscored the theological aspect of the decision). Indeed, according to published reports, the association’s Credentials Committee said, “Ultimately, we were not satisfied that Pleasant Valley Community Church would be sympathetic with the purpose and work of the body of the DMBA,” and expressed concern about “an overall lack of the key elements of cooperation found in patience, humility, kindness, compassion and gentleness” from PVCC.
The Daviess-McLean Baptist Association committee openly acknowledged in their documents that the Pleasant Valley Community Church’s doctrine was not heretical or aberrant. According to published reports, the Credentials Committee findings stated that “We believe the teaching of Pleasant Valley Community Church to be sound in their doctrine,” and that “We know the doctrine is not heresy.” Clearly, then, the association had no question about the fact that PVCC was not aberrant or heretical in doctrine, but they did “recognize that it is vastly different than the majority of churches within the DMBA.” So, although the “presenting issue” in this case was doctrinal, it would appear that this was not just the doctrinal issue, and in fact, the issue clearly appears to be primarily one of fellowship, not doctrine. It may be (and this is just my speculation) that the mention of Calvinism in the decision was directed more toward the nexus of negative attitudes and actions sometimes associated with some neo-Calvinists than purely the theological issues per se.
One public relations or image problem being experienced by contemporary neo-Calvinism is that the negative attitudes and actions of a few have come to stereotype the whole. This is not an observation made only by persons on the opposite side of this issue. Calvinists and other non-agenda driven friends such as Ed Stetzer, Joe Thorn (and here), Dave Miller, William Thornton (and here), Howell Scott, and others have expressed concern and even embarrassment about some neo-Calvinists who express these attitudes. As they correctly note, these attitudes give “angry Calvinists” (and their Lord) a bad name. It was a high Calvinist who taught me the term “Calvinazis,” referring to a fringe group of neo-Calvinists who sometimes exemplify strongly negative attitudes and actions at times. They characterize persons of this ilk as sometimes being angry, argumentative, arrogant, belligerent, combative, contemptuous, divisive, and schismatic. By no means are these attitudes represented by all or most neo-Calvinists, and nor am I suggesting that these attitudes were necessarily represented by anyone associated with PVCC. However, it is the nature of such stereotypes that the negative attitudes and actions of a few can color the reputation of the many. In this cyberspace age, a pastor of a small Reformed church plant can have as much or more impact through the evangelical blogosphere as larger church pastors and respected leaders. The extreme actions of a few color the perceptions of the many. Hence there is need for more circumspect neo-Calvinists to attempt to control those within their own fellowship who are more extreme in expressing these negative attitudes and actions (as many of the articles cited above sought to do).
The 104-9 vote by the messengers of local churches in Daviess-McLean Baptist Association to deny admittance to Pleasant Valley Community Church suggests that DMBA had experienced some problems with the attitudinal perspectives expressed by PVCC in a way that made the churches in DMBA reluctant to enter into fellowship with them. This was evidently why, despite acknowledging that PVCC had no doctrinal error, the member churches of the association agreed with the Credentials Committee that “ultimately” there was reason to doubt that “Pleasant Valley Community Church would be sympathetic with the purpose and work of the body of the DMBA,” and that PVCC demonstrated “an overall lack of the key elements of cooperation found in patience, humility, kindness, compassion and gentleness.” It was evidently the offensive attitudes that were exhibited by PVCC (as perceived by the member churches of DMBA), perhaps some of the attitudes stereotypically associated with some neo-Calvinists, which led the DMBA to choose to deny membership to PVCC in DMBA. The churches of DMBA (by overwhelming numbers) evidently valued harmony and unity in the association over the inclusion of a church whose leadership had already given the churches in DMBA a perception that they were lacking in cooperativeness and gentleness of spirit.
Let me say again that my knowledge of this situation is limited and from outside the situation, so it is possible that I may have read the situation incorrectly. But this is the sense I got from reading the published reports and talking with people familiar with the situation. In Part 2 of this article, I will suggest some possible implications of the DMBA decision for future similar situations in other churches and associations in the SBC.