I know…I know…To some of you that title reads something like "The Michael Moore Plan for Objectivity in Filmmaking." It is one of the great prices paid when you take a stand in a debate that onlookers will tend to place the participants at the poles of the debate and will miss much of the nuance. Thus, compared to those who would sacrifice more on the altar of "Christian unity," I might appear (falsely) not to be interested in unity at all. Compared to those a bit more reluctant to enter a public debate, I might appear to enjoy contest more than collegiality.
Truth be told, I hate conflict. But sometimes conflict can be constructive. The conflict presently ongoing within the SBC concerning Calvinism is, in my estimation, more destructive than constructive. Of course, that call is a subjective one. What is constructive to the builder of the freeway is destructive to the resident of the house that used to sit there.
I should think that, at this point, my colors are clear. The house in the path of the proposed freeway is the SBC, and I live in it. I believe that the historical distinctive beliefs of Baptists are among the plain teachings of the Bible. I have enumerated those teachings (or, at least, those among them that I consider to be most vulnerable) elsewhere. I'm at work in my own congregation to strengthen our obedience to these principles. I believe that it will strengthen any church to obey the Bible at these points. To any degree that my voice can be heard in our convention, I wish to use it to champion these ideas.
Among those who share these distinctive convictions, both historically and in the present, have been both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. In our lesser moments (in my view), Particular (Calvinistic) and General (non-Calvinistic) Baptists have held one another at arms length, maintaining separate affiliations. In our brighter epochs, our emphases upon our ecclesiological commonalities have overshadowed our soteriological differences. The Southern Baptist Convention has served as an example of this phenomenon. This does not mean that the SBC cannot be plotted on a soteriological continuum. Either Hardshellism or Free-Willism have served as a strong motivation for congregations to depart the SBC. But the space that we have occupied on the soteriological spectrum has been far broader than the territory on either end of us.
I wonder whether our situation will long endure, or whether our "blessed arrangement" will prove to be little more than a "dream within a dream." Not being a Calvinist, I believe that some "points" of Calvinism overreach beyond the teachings of the Bible. At least one such point I would characterize not as a an overreach, but as a complete philosophical construction with no strong exegetical basis. So, strictly speaking, I regard Calvinism as an error. I do not, however, count it as anywhere nearly among the graver threats that we face. In fact, I believe that fighting about Calvinism poses a far greater threat to our convention than does Calvinism itself, per se.
I was going to inject here some smarmy comment about how "Some of my best friends are Calvinists." At the very moment that I was considering the comment, I received notice that Ligon Duncan has requested to be one of my Facebook friends (doubtless after weeks of careful research and consideration). So you see, not only do I have Calvinistic friends, but prominent Calvinists whom I have never even met are actually seeking me out for friendship! :-)
My new buddy-buddy status with Bro. Duncan notwithstanding, the tensions at this moment are high. Rather than speculate about what has widened, is widening, or will further widen the divide, let us take a moment to consider what specific things might narrow it.
We can emphasize some things that are more important and could serve to unite us. A really good example is a common commitment to recovering some concept of a congregation of scripturally baptized visible saints. Here is a powerful need among Southern Baptist churches, and one that unites many of the people involved in our most recent conversations. Our near-total loss of this distinctive is, in my opinion, the root disease behind many of our symptoms these days and one of the most pressing questions facing us at this moment.
The question of church membership has arisen tangentially in all of this discussion. Malcolm Yarnell has questioned whether Tom Ascol's church extends communion to someone who has not been baptized (i.e., a Presbyterian). Tom has not responded to this question, but it appears to me that Tom's detractors, Tom's supporters, and everyone in between has concluded that such is indeed the practice at Tom's church. Some think it is awful; some think it is laudatory. Most concede that it is contrary to the wording of the Baptist Faith & Message, although most concede that Tom's church would be far from the first or only Southern Baptist church to have such a policy (explicit or implicit) with regard to the Lord's Table.
Tom is not an employee of the Southern Baptist Convention nor of any of her entities. I don't see that he has anything to lose from just 'fessing up about whoever this guy is. His squirming and suggesting that Malcolm is using "innuendo" are helpful neither to Malcolm nor to him, in my estimation. One presumes that this person is a regular attender. Tom can take credit for refusing to extend church membership to this person apart from baptism (again, presuming a lot about the situation), and he can concede his differences with our statement of faith at this particular point.
And along the way, perhaps we could open up a conversation that relates to our quest for more meaningful church membership: What about all of these people who regularly attend a church but never join for some reason or another? Is it healthy or holy to skirt around on the periphery of a congregation without making a commitment? If people will not join my congregation, do I have some obligation to encourage them toward either yielding to the teachings of the scripture or moving on to somewhere else? There are quasi-members who function in every way like members but don't join. Then there are quasi-members who join but function in every way like people who aren't members. Doesn't one blur the meaning of membership as much as the other? I think that it does.
Tom Ascol has strongly implied that Malcolm's home church does not practice regenerate church membership. It is a claim that echoes the sentiments of Tom's associate, Timmy Brister, just in advance of the SBC annual meeting earlier this year. The pastor of Birchman is a dear friend, as is Malcolm. And I am a dear friend to myself. :-) But for both of our churches, I think we can all agree that the ratio of participation to membership indicates that we have been carried along by the same currents that have been steering most of the churches in our convention.
I do think that Malcolm and I (as well as my pastor-friend at Birchman) can accurately say that we were no part of developing this problem and have made some progress toward being a part of the solution. Malcolm is helping to develop a Covenant to help his church move forward in this important way. I am confident that 2009 will witness major strides in our progress here at FBC Farmersville. Part of the greatness that I see in Bob Pearle and Malcolm Yarnell and Bill Henard is that they are the kind of men capable of providing this kind of leadership to established churches.
And along the way, maybe we can open another conversation that relates to the quest for more meaningful church membership: How can we lead historic congregations and larger congregations to know a better concept of church membership? I'm thankful for the way that some of our church plants and some of our smaller churches have admirably tackled the church membership issue. Some of them, having done so, have grown to be large churches (a vindication, in my opinion, of the positive effect that this kind of reformation and revival can bring).
But what about the historic church that has drifted away from a robust concept of church membership, but is otherwise not "in trouble"? These are churches that are fiscally successful, have good infrastructure, are involved in evangelism and missions, hold to sound theology, have good worship, and are in so many ways model churches. But these key historic Baptist concepts of biblical church discipline and covenantal duties of membership have been lost somewhere along the way. These churches didn't lose their historic concepts of church membership in a week, and they aren't going to regain them in a week. Do we give up on these churches?
Certainly, attacking people who believe in regenerate church membership for belonging to these churches is not a helpful idea. What are we saying, that Malcolm Yarnell should take his ideas about biblical church membership out of his church, stop working to give good leadership there for a stronger direction in the future, and go to some safe and easy place of ministry and membership where he need not work to better his church? That's a surefire recipe to guarantee that none of our historic and larger churches ever improve their practice and theology of church membership. Anyone who really cares about seeing positive change in the SBC in this direction ought to refrain from such remarks.
Another area that can unite us is a commitment to revitalized personal and corporate evangelism.
We desperately need help in this area, because we all know that most Southern Baptists aren't sharing the gospel at all. Of course, the leaders sounding the alarm about Calvinistic threats to evangelistic prowess are not the folks who haven't shared the gospel with anyone else. And they would be among the first to concede that the SBC has serious problems in those areas, and that those problems have absolutely nothing to do with Calvinism. Perhaps, in their heartfelt passion for seeing evangelism grow within the SBC, although they know that Calvinism has had nothing to do with bringing us to the crisis that we face today, they worry that any theological move away from evangelistic urgency will be just enough to kill an already critical patient.
Calvinists can stop pretending that our problem in any way is that we offer the gospel of Christ too much, too emotionally, or in the wrong manner. 'Tis a weak gospel indeed that can be foiled by a couple of verses of "Just As I Am" and a preacher standing at the front of a room. Let us agree that, whoever is actually presenting the gospel, even if they are presenting it differently than we are, we will not tell them to stop. Even if you think that adjustments need to be made, the nadir of our evangelistic energies is not the time to be discouraging any zeal for the gospel.
On the other hand, we non-Calvinists can just stop saying that Calvinism necessarily makes a person or a church less evangelistic and/or less missions-oriented. Let's not be like a collection of slugs debating which of us is the slowest. None of us are bound for the Olympic track team, my friend. We're in desperate need of improvement in our commitments to sharing the gospel. I'm of the opinion that less self-loathing and more confidence in Christ will help us all in that respect. But I would call upon those of us who are not Calvinists not to attack Calvinists for supposedly being less evangelistic. For the vast majority of Southern Baptist believers, it is not within the realm of possibility to be any less evangelistic. Living your life without sharing the gospel with anyone is an absolute bottom below which nobody else can go.
Our missions movement is something we inherit from the Particular Baptists, not the General Baptists. Now I'll give you this: When I encounter Calvinists who quote lots of Gill and think very little of Fuller, then I confess that it makes me nervous. All of the other laudatory things that he did notwithstanding, John Gill's name cannot be associated with the spread of missiological vitality among Baptists. But so long as we're talking about Fuller and Carey and Spurgeon, the charge of being derogatory to evangelism and missions just doesn't apply in general to Calvinism.
But however Calvinistic Fuller and Carey and Spurgeon were, they were Baptists ahead of being Calvinists. Spurgeon's sermon on baptism rankled a lot of Calvinistic paedobaptists. It was out of the intimidation of knowing that he would face Carey's Baptist scrutiny that Adoniram Judson dug deeply into the New Testament and found there the immersion of believers only. I think that Tom Ascol's historiography is ideologically driven (in other words, I think it highly unlikely that his next book is going to be a friendly biography of Benjamin Randall), and I encourage him to use it more and more to show how Baptist-before-Calvinist has been an incredibly successful combination for the gospel.
I call us today to the same commitment. Let us be Christians before we are Baptists, but let us be Baptists before we are Calvinists or Arminians or whatever else.
One of the arguments that some Baptists have made in favor of the society method of missionary organization is that societies have more committed memberships. After all, the only people who will be members of the American Tract Society, for example, will be people committed enough to the idea of evangelistic tracts to have donated actual money toward a society to produce tracts. On the other hand, they have alleged that conventions accumulate members who are only interested perhaps in one aspect of the convention, yet gives them authority to direct ministries for which they have little or no vested interest.
Over the past couple of years in blogging, I've written a thing or two critical of various aspects of our Southern Baptist Convention. I've come out strongly against the syncretism inherent to the book, The Camel, which is a product of our International Mission Board. I've fired a volley across the bow of Lifeway Research (and didn't realize until today that they just might shoot back!). I've reviewed a dud of a "tell-all" book attacking NAMB. I've criticized some Executive Board decisions. I've written much in defense and support of our convention, but I've written some things in criticism as well.
But know this for certain. When FBC Farmersville goes out to do missions, we overwhelmingly go out to do it with and as Southern Baptists, and usually with IMB or NAMB involved in one way or another. Our missions giving goes to SBC causes, and the vast preponderance goes through the Cooperative Program. I never recommend a ministry-oriented person toward anything but an SBC seminary. And my retirement and my insurance premiums go straight to Guidestone.
When I speak of or to the Southern Baptist Convention, I do so as someone with a vested interest in it all. I'm committed to our common cooperative ministry. To all of those Southern Baptists who happen to be Calvinists, I am your brother and I want us to move forward together. Let us do so as convictional, evangelistic, enthusiastic Southern Baptists.
Be all the Calvinist that you wish; just be a Baptist first.