Our differences are theological and generational—and growing.
Five hundred years after Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation with his publicly posted list of grievances against Catholic church leaders and practices, to say the movement made a lasting impact on Christians of all stripes is a gross understatement.
Southern Baptists have certainly been shaped by the doctrines of the Reformation, but the question of just how Reformed we are has created a growing divide in the denomination. As Christians worldwide celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, Southern Baptists continue to wrestle with how deeply we will be people of the Reformation in the next hundred years or two.
In his 2017 book on the Reformation, Alec Ryrie wrote that “like all great revolutions, it had created a new world.” And, like all revolutions, the Reformation has come with its own set of growing pains. Over 500 years, believers and non-believers have struggled with the tenets of the Reformers, leading to the formation of many Christian denominations, and differing strains even within those groups.
Baptists have roots in the Reformation, but often hold with varying degrees of conviction to the five points of doctrine most closely associated with Reformed theology, or Calvinism.
In the past decade, the debate over theology in the Southern Baptist Convention has found a new home: Blogs have given voice to proponents of Calvinism, and also to those who consider their soteriological views to be more traditionally Southern Baptist. The two streams hold separate meetings and conferences, but also gather annually at the Southern Baptist Convention, and have pledged to focus on the primary issues of evangelism and the Great Commission, rather than letting secondary issues divide them.
But exactly what that looks like is unclear, as is how the theological debate in the Convention will ultimately affect Southern Baptist churches. With baptisms trending downward, the questions of why and how and when we do evangelism, and what we say when we do it, have never felt more important.
As Alabama pastor Eric Hankins told the Illinois Baptist, “The controversy (over Reformed theology in the SBC) isn’t driven by pragmatic issues of working together. It’s driven by the growing realization that the two soteriological systems are incompatible.
“Should I want to share the gospel [along] with someone who thinks I have a deficient view of the nature of conversion? We’re going to have to articulate very specifically why we want to continue to work together when we believe very different things, or one side is going to have to make some adjustments in its doctrine.”
Judging from the proliferation of passionate theological arguments shared over the past decade, that’s unlikely.
Diagnosing the divides
“I am not a Calvinist,” Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines wrote in an e-mail exchange earlier this year. Yet Gaines, pastor of a Tennessee megachurch, leads a denomination that most admit is increasingly Calvinistic in its leadership, if not in its pews.
“Without question, Calvinism is increasing in the SBC. How will that affect the SBC in the years to come? I don’t know,” Gaines said in the e-mail interview with Kyle Gulledge, editor of the blog SBC Today.
“I am not a Calvinist. I believe God loves everybody the same, Jesus died for everybody the same, and that anyone can be saved….If someone hears the gospel and is not saved, it is because they chose to reject Christ, not because God chose not elect them to salvation,” Gaines said.
“Many Calvinists would have a problem with what I just said. Yet, I am convinced that what I just said represents the prevailing theological beliefs of the majority of Southern Baptist laypeople.”
Gaines’ words are echoed in the principles that bond Connect316, a group of Southern Baptist pastors and leaders who organized in 2013 around what they called a “traditional” Southern Baptist understanding of salvation theology. At the recent Connect316 meeting in Phoenix, Hankins pointed to the influence of Calvinism in the SBC over the past 25 years, noting, “It’s clear that traditionalists, even though we are the theological majority in the SBC, are the minority in terms of leadership and influence in the convention.”
Much of that influence emanates from SBC seminaries, including arguably the most influential Southern Baptist Calvinist, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Many credit him with facilitating the rise of Calvinism in the denomination. And two of his former staff at Southern are now leading SBC seminaries as well, Danny Akin, president of Southeastern, and Midwestern President Jason Allen.
Together, three of the six SBC seminaries have schooled a generation of pastors in the Reformed perspective. The question is whether any of the remaining three will shift their theological slant when new leadership takes office.
In 2006, Mohler sat down with another seminary president to publicly discuss the growing theological divide in the SBC. Paige Patterson, 74, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a non-Calvinist, was Mohler’s foil in two standing-room only sessions during the Pastors’ Conference in Greensboro,
Baptist Press’ reporting on the conversation between Mohler and Patterson emphasizes both men’s congeniality toward one another, despite their clear theological differences. “This is a conversation among close friends,” Mohler said. Each warned those who would agree with them against vilifying the other side.
“I would caution my non-Calvinist brethren against the conclusion that the doctrine of Calvin automatically means that a person will not and cannot be evangelistic,” Patterson said. “…One of the commands that the Lord gives is to take the gospel to the ends of earth. No Calvinist worthy of his stripe would thereby disobey a command of God.”
Mohler urged Calvinists to remember their first priority. “It is not healthy to have a person who will drive across the state to debate Calvinism but won’t even drive across the street to share the gospel.”
The seminary presidents pointed in 2006 to the key area of impact for today’s theological debate: evangelism.
Competing views on salvation
The level of debate intensified in the years leading up to 2012. Just before the 2012 SBC annual meeting, a group of Southern Baptists released “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” Primarily authored by Hankins, the document lays out “traditional” Southern Baptist understanding on salvation, and calls out some “New Calvinists” for trying to establish their position as “the central Southern Baptist position on God’s plan of salvation.”
In its 10 articles, the statement addresses points of doctrine affirmed by traditionalists, and others they reject. For instance, on the election to salvation, the traditionalist statement says, “We affirm that, in reference to salvation, election speaks of God’s eternal, gracious, and certain plan in Christ to have a people who are his by repentance and faith.
“We deny that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation.”
Mohler, responding to the statement, said it was time for the two sides to come together and talk. “May God save us from dividing into tribes, even as we gladly and eagerly talk with one another about the doctrines we cherish, and especially when we discuss the doctrines on which we may disagree.”
The traditionalist statement set the stage for a potentially contentious annual meeting in New Orleans, the very year that the Convention was set to take an historic step.
Trying to find common ground
“Calvin’s been around 500 years, and we have to debate this now?” SBC President Fred Luter winningly joked about the SBC theological debate on a visit to Illinois in 2013, nearly a year after he was elected the denomination’s first African American president. “Why do you guys want to do this on my watch?”
Luter’s good-natured handling of the debate surrounding theology was mostly mirrored at the New Orleans convention, as speakers from the podium urged unity despite differences. Messengers approved a resolution on the “sinner’s prayer,” affirming it as a biblical expression of repentance and faith. And that fall, SBC Executive Committee
President Frank Page appointed a Calvinism study committee to come to a consensus—of sorts—as to how Baptists could work together despite theological differences.
Prior to the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston in 2013, the Calvinism study committee released its report. In it, the group, which included Calvinists and non-Calvinists, wrote about what principles ought to govern theological conversation within the SBC, and detailed specific points of doctrine.
The report also included specific suggestions for Baptists operating within the theological tension, like how candidates for ministry positions (and the search committees interviewing them) ought to be “fully candid and forthcoming about all matters of faith and doctrine.”
Mohler and Hankins had a public conversation about their experience on the study committee in the fall of 2013, modeling for seminarians at Mohler’s institution how to have a dialogue about areas of disagreement. When the conversation turned to evangelism, Mohler used the example of John Wesley and George Whitefield—leaders who had different soteriological views, but who shared the gospel the same way, he said.
“I think we can mislead not only others but ourselves in thinking that we have to have an absolutely common unified soteriology in order to tell people about Jesus because, if so, Southern Baptists would have had to stop doing common missions a very long time ago,” Mohler said.
Their conversation also touched on some of the more personal fallouts of the debate, with Hankins confessing that he as a traditionalist had been made to feel like his soteriology was deficient, or that he was dangerous.
Mohler countered that because they disagree, he does indeed find Hankins’ soteriological views deficient (to laughter from the audience), but not deficient enough to disallow missional cooperation.
“I would not want to be in cooperation with someone who’s soteriology I felt was deficient in a way that harmed the gospel and made common evangelism and missions impossible….If I felt that your soteriology was deficient in any way such as that, this isn’t the kind of conversation we’d be having.”
Igniting evangelistic fire in both camps
The 2018 SBC annual meeting in Dallas could be the next time the theology debate is poised to make an impact on Southern Baptist life. Gaines will complete his second and final one-year term as president, and could nominate North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear for the office. Gaines mentioned that prospect in 2016, after Greear withdrew his candidacy to prevent a second run-off election between the two.
At the 2017 annual meeting in Phoenix, Gaines confirmed the account, but declined to speak further because he and Greear haven’t discussed it since, according to the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.
Prior to the 2016 convention, Gaines and Greear were viewed as representative of different parts of the SBC: Gaines, then 58, is by his own admission “not a Calvinist.” Greear, then 43, represents a generation that has increasingly embraced Reformed theology. Before Gaines’ election in St. Louis, The Christian Post online newspaper said in a headline, “SBC votes today on whether Millennial Reformed theology represents the future.”
In the end, unity and a cooperative spirit won out. The candidates met, each seeking a way to avoid division, and both volunteered to step aside before Greear ultimately convinced Gaines to accept his concession.
In 2018, should Greear be nominated and elected, he would be the first of his generation of Reformed thinkers to hold the office of SBC president. He also would have the responsibility that all SBC presidents hold to name the Committee on Committees, which names the Committee on Nominations, which nominates trustees for SBC boards. Gaines recently outlined that process, in answer to a question by SBC Today about how everyday Southern Baptists can have a voice in SBC life.
“If ‘the grass-roots, mom-and-pop Southern Baptist members’ want their voice to be heard, they need to elect SBC presidents that will appoint SBC Committee on Committee members who will appoint people who share their convictions,” Gaines said. “They should attend every SBC annual meeting and vote for the SBC president who will best represent their views.”
Gaines has made prayer and evangelism the markers of his presidency. At the June annual meeting in Phoenix, he encouraged all Southern Baptists to focus on evangelism, “regardless of their doctrinal convictions on the matter,” Baptist Press reported.
“Our world is going straight to hell and we need to be one in telling people about Jesus and not letting these secondary things divide us,” Gaines said during a panel discussion hosted by Baptist21, a network of younger Baptist leaders.
He has appointed a soul-winning task force to reverse the trend of declining baptisms and to renew evangelism in the denomination. Greear is part of the team.
“The main thing we can do to go forward is to focus on winning people to Jesus Christ,” Gaines said in Phoenix.
“If you’re a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist, you don’t know who’s lost and who’s saved. I would just say if you’re going to be a Calvinist be a Spurgeon Calvinist, and let’s go out and tell people about Jesus Christ. The bottom line is this: we’re supposed to ask people to repent and believe in the gospel.”
– By Meredith Flynn with reporting by Baptist Press