Yes we can but I’m not sure we will. The last few days of August mark the first meeting of an advisory group SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page has called together to talk about different views of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation)—Calvinistic and less Calvinistic—within our convention. Fair disclosure, my wife is the lady among the 16 members so we talk about it at dinner more than you probably do. I agree with Dr. Page that this is not the most important issue we face. He is also wise enough to know that no such group can “settle” such a discussion. But he acknowledges what many of us have noticed—the debate on this issue flavors a wide selection of important matters within our cooperative efforts. I’ve seen it as a controversial question related to church planting partners, pastor searches, Sunday School curriculum, music and worship styles, and missions. The way we handle this difference of viewpoints seems to move the compass a bit on many aspects of our cooperative work.
It does not have to be as determinative as we have made it. Within the bounds of biblical inerrancy, within the bounds of the Baptist Faith and Message, our interpretation of difficult passages dealing with God’s work of salvation should be a matter of respect and tolerance. That is not to say it does not matter, but that it should not overtly or subtly be a test of fellowship.
“But …” you say. I know. Pastors or denominational leaders may come in and try to remake us according to their viewpoints. Some pastors are blackballed because of where they graduated from seminary. Leaders occasionally try to swerve a church toward a new sort of polity or worship. I know. But these things have always been so.
Is a denominational leader who wants to jigger with the Cooperative Program less controversial than one who advocates for or against Calvinism? How about one who wants to change the way we do missions? We call leaders because they have a vision for our church or denomination. Of course they are going to advocate for it. The time to decide if we affirm that vision is during the appointment process.
Prospective pastors have always been sorted positively or negatively according to the contents of their resumes. One of my first experiences as a candidate for a ministry position was exactly this way—the interviewer handed my resume back to me because of my college and its president. Then, and now, I see that as a moment of clarity. Perhaps that church missed out because their representative did not learn more about me, but maybe we just avoided more tumultuous future disagreements.
Pastors who make drastic or thoughtless changes when they enter a new church have a problem quite apart from their views on soteriology. Deal with the real problem without blaming the pastor’s theology. I’m not sure it’s fair to blame just one part of a person’s doctrine for a lack of good sense, bad preaching, theological ignorance, or any number of other church flashpoints.
A church that is disappointed to discover that its new pastor holds undesirable doctrines or philosophies of ministry has either been lied to by the pastor candidate or ill-served by a hasty pastor search committee. Again, those are character or behavior problems rather than simply theological ones.
Let me offer three quick ways forward. One of them we’re already committed to, the others to a lesser degree.
- We should talk. We debated this more or less amiably until the 1990s. The debate often had a corrective effect on programmatic views of evangelism, manipulative altar calls, impractical theology, and so forth. In some quarters the discussion has become more aggressive and rancorous. Nonetheless, we should continue to seek better understanding of our salvation. The best way I know to do that is to stay engaged with those who interpret the Bible differently than ourselves.
- We should talk respectfully. In order to do that, we must seek to speak of those who disagree with us in the same manner we would speak to them. It is too easy to let our mouths run free when we are with our own tribe. Unless you are willing to say to an actual living Calvinist that you consider him, by definition, to be a threat to the missionary heart of our convention, don’t say it of him, or them. It’s a false generalization. Unless you really consider non-Calvinists to be, by definition, theological naïfs and are willing to say so to actual, trained, experienced non-Calvinist Bible scholars, don’t suggest that they are such when speaking of them or their views, because this too is false. What we’ve called respect has too often been mere politeness, a ploy to get the knife inside our adversary’s guard.
- We should talk about something else. See my first suggestion. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about this wonderful aspect of our doctrine. The disagreement over some details of soteriology is not all we have in common though. There are many other things upon which we may agree or disagree. Yes, I know we talk about other things, but the discussions that draw a crowd or light up the blogs most often come back to Calvinism. It’s time to broaden our interests.
Unless you’re reading this online before the Aug. 29 advisory group meeting, the first meeting is past and we have probably seen a press release on their first of three scheduled discussions. I’m rooting for the group to provide some wisdom that will allow us to talk in the ways mentioned above. I’m happy for us to talk about Calvinism, eschatology, church polity, missions strategy, and other sparky topics until Jesus comes. I’d be even happier if we’d develop the maturity to profit from engagement with one another without needing to win the argument.