Gerald Harris at The Christian Index, the state paper for Georgia Baptists, wrote an editorial called The Calvinists Are Here. You can read the editorial over at Tom Ascol’s blog. The tone of the article seems to indicate that the announcement made in the title is not a good thing. It’s not like answering the door when your treasured friends arrive for a dinner party – honey, the Calvinists are here! Rather, it feels more like what you would say when the awkward brother-in-law shows up – oh no, the Calvinists are here. As Ed Stetzer has observed recently, Calvinism is the latest bogeyman in SBC circles.
With all due respect to Dr. Harris, some in the SBC are looking in the wrong place for the problems with the SBC. Is it really a problem that some of us resonate with the theology of those who founded our denomination (On this score, perhaps a better title for the article might be, The Calvinists Have Been Here All Along)? Is it really a problem that some of us resonate with the solas of the Reformation? Is a view that God purposefully and actually saves sinners and gets the glory for it really a problem for the SBC?
I would suggest that the real issue lies more in the area of a failed church growth strategy built more on technique than the gospel. The problem lies in an infatuation with numbers and success which has lowered the bar for membership and all but banished discipline from our churches. The problem is a provincial attitude which looks with suspicion on those who don’t walk in lock-step with the SBC on every issue.
I love the SBC. It is the only group I have ever been affiliated with. I think God has done and is doing some tremendous things through our churches, agencies, and people. But I am fearful that certain voices, if followed, would inflict us with a theological and ecclesiological stenosis which draws hard and narrow lines that stifle cooperation and foster suspicion. When associations are refusing to fellowship with gospel-centered churches over Calvinism, that is a problem. When state editors are calling out Calvinists as the problem in the SBC, that is a problem.
I seriously doubt that the theological commitments that launched the Reformation, fired the Great Awakening, and stirred the passion of the founders of the SBC are going to kill the SBC today. Of course there are those who would take those commitments in unhealthy directions (hypercalvinists) and their influence should be resisted. But stop and take a look at where we are now. A decidedly non-calvinistic bent in our convention has not exactly resulted in glowing reports. When 50% of SBC members are AWOL from our churches, and we continue to count them as members year after year, something is wrong. Baptisms are down. We cannot send the missionaries whom God is calling because of a lack of funds. It is hard to argue that Calvinism caused that.
I am not suggesting that the answer to our woes in the SBC is to enthrone Calvinism. But neither is it to go on a campaign to trash Calvinism. In fact, to put the spotlight on Calvinism only allows the real culprit to go on undetected while we are distracted. What we really need is a movement of gospel-centered churches who value the sufficiency (not just inerrancy) of the Word and really practice biblical ecclesiology. We need to get over our infatuation with numerical success which constantly tempts us to take the edges off of our message and methodology. We need to value those who love the gospel even when we differ on secondary things like Calvinism/Arminianism.
Baptist history teaches us that there have always been more Calvinistic strands of Baptists and more Arminian strands. Even in the SBC, this has been historically true. Calvinism is not going to harm our convention. But making a huge fight over it certainly will. Let’s call a cease-fire on this issue. Discuss it? Certainly. Debate it? You bet. But draw dividing lines over it? No way. There is no reason to get hyper over Calvinism in the SBC.