HOUSTON (BP)—Members of an advisory committee on Calvinism say that with their report now issued, the “next step” in cooperation and unity is up to individual Southern Baptists.
Twelve of the 19 members of the committee appeared together June 10 in the exhibit hall’s Cooperative Program booth, answering questions from messengers. The 3,200-word report, which urged Southern Baptists to “grant one another liberty” and “stand together” for the Great Commission, was unanimously approved and released in late May.
“It’s really up to all of you as to what happens with this,” committee member Tammi Ledbetter told an audience gathered around the CP booth. “We can talk it to death, and I think we probably have. What matters is what you do with your life in the way you relate to other people. And every time you have a conversation about this document or you have a conversation about a fellow believer … how you handle yourself will make the whole difference.”
The hope is that both sides will put the focus “back on winning people to Jesus,” added Ledbetter, managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN and a member of Inglewood Baptist Church in Grand Prairie.
Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and a committee member, agreed.
“So much of this comes back to what Tammi said — our own personal attitudes and dispositions,” Akin said, adding that Southern Baptists need to be “men and women of honesty and integrity.”
“If we will pursue those types of agendas in the days ahead, I believe we can come together for the very purpose on which we fought the conservative resurgence — that is, standing on an inerrant Bible to get the gospel to every person on the planet.”
The advisory team — not an official committee of the convention — was assembled by Executive Committee President Frank Page in August 2012 to advise him on developing “a strategy whereby people of various theological persuasions can purposely work together in missions and evangelism.” The committee was composed of Calvinists and non-Calvinists from different walks of life in the convention.
“There has been a lot of talking about one another, and I decided it was time to talk to each other,” Page said during the panel discussion, acknowledging he “had doubts” about whether the committee could come to an agreement on a report.
“I am not naive. I know there are still differences,” Page said. “There are people on this group that have strong wills, strong opinions. I am among that group. But I just want to see us work together so men, women, boys and girls can be won to Jesus.”
The writing committee consisted of Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss., and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Mohler is a Calvinist; Hankins is not.
There were “several drafts” written before the final report was released, said Union University President David Dockery, the committee chair.
“Everyone had an opportunity to participate in the final document,” Dockery said. “Everyone had an opportunity to make suggestions.”
Hankins said he wants Southern Baptists to “grant one another liberty” and “cut out the meanness.”
“We sought to have something that would call all Southern Baptists together around the gospel,” Hankins said. “We sought to have something that would clearly express that there were real differences [while recognizing] we still want to partner together for the cause of Christ and the announcement of the gospel all around the world.
“We hoped to have a document that would … return us to a time period that we were in not so long ago in which we shared theological differences, but the rhetoric wasn’t so harsh,” Hankins said.
Said Mohler, referencing the year of the Southern Baptist Convention’s formation, “If you go back to 1845, there were people like me in the room, and there were people like Eric Hankins in the room. And they wanted to be in the same room together, because they wanted to send missionaries together, and they wanted to do great things for the Great Commission together.”
Page said he sees a level of “anti-Calvinism” in the convention “that frightens me.” On the flip side, he said, a Calvinist friend recently told him that the “extreme Calvinists” were driving the friend “crazy.” There is “vitriol” on both sides, Page said.
“It was my opinion that we need to deal with this because I think we’ve come to the point where trust is hitting a new low,” Page said. “We need to act on this to say, ‘We’ve co-existed for a long time, but it will only work when we do what we’ve said [we should do] — talk to [one another], not at, not about.'”
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and a committee member, said, going in, he wanted to see the document reflect the strong belief that both sides are responsible for and “involved in winning people to Christ.” He also wanted it to urge “honesty” on the part of potential pastors for church leadership roles. The report met his goals, he said.
“Just be honest. Be forthright, up front,” Patterson said, speaking to those who submit resumes for church positions. “The document calls for that. All of us agree to that. We have tried to model that to the best of our ability.”
David Allen, dean of Southwestern’s school of theology and a member of the committee, said that when discussing the subject of Calvinism, it’s important that neither side “misrepresent one another’s positions.”
“It’s very important that we respect what someone says they believe and allow them to define what they say they believe,” Allen said.
Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and a committee member, said one way to have dialogue with “someone you disagree with” is to get together and “try to state things [you think] the other person agrees with you on.”
“You come around to having to understand what the other person says,” Dever said.
During a question-and-answer time, the panel was asked if both strands of theology can exist in the same church or whether a church needs to take a stand on one particular side.
Steve Lemke, provost and director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, noted that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists teach at NOBTS. Lemke served on the committee.
“There is a natural tendency for people who are likeminded to share together,” Lemke said. “So probably the direction and interest and theology of the pastor is going to affect the sort of persons that join that church.”
But there are churches that have a “great deal” of theological diversity, Lemke added, and who have Calvinists and non-Calvinists among their staff and congregation.
“I think it’s possible [for both sides to exist] within the same fellowship,” Lemke said. “That may cause some tensions. But I think it’s a good thing within the body of Christ to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Stephen Rummage, pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., and a committee member, said the report “can really serve as a model for local churches” to “navigate through how we think about these issues and how we relate to one another.”
“We’re not going to treat one another as though we have deficiencies or as though we are somehow less because we have this position or that position,” Rummage said.