By Dr. Rob Peters, Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC
A frequent question among Southern Baptists is whether Calvinists and non-Calvinists can work on the same church staff. My answer is: it depends.
It can be done, but it takes intentionality.
What’s the Issue?
In 2013, the Calvinism Advisory Committee submitted a report providing the SBC guidance for working cooperatively, despite differences in soteriology. This document helped our denomination greatly. Yet what remains in question is how to address these issues practically within individual churches.
The SBC clearly has a growing Reformed influence. A 2012 LifeWay study found that 30 percent of SBC pastors consider their church to be Calvinistic. One reason is that many popular pastors and writers approach contemporary issues from a Reformed perspective, producing many young Southern Baptists who are comfortable identifying themselves as “Reformed.” Of course, all Protestantism embraces some degree of Reformed theology, since our origins stem from the protest (protest-antism) of the Catholic Church.
Despite more Southern Baptists self-identifying as Reformed, however, most Southern Baptists still do not define themselves as Reformed. Even those who do consider themselves Reformed tend to be more “Reform-ish” than fully Calvinistic. I say “Reform-ish,” because the vast majority of Southern Baptists embracing Calvinism do so without embracing all that John Calvin, Theodore of Beza, and others in this tradition taught.
Merging varying soteriological views is complex. The size and diversity of many Southern Baptist churches leads to any number of soteriological positions within the membership and pastoral staff. The congregational nature of most Southern Baptist churches also magnifies the importance of this issue. When church governance and the teaching ministry of the church rests within the congregation, conflict arises more readily. Additionally, social media now provides a platform for every individual to promote their views, adding to the potential for conflict 140 characters at a time. The potential for fragmentation is enormous.
The real question is whether we can find unity in our diversity, through agreement on a basic, foundational theology of salvation.
The key for the local church will be how the lead pastor approaches this issue. If he has a desire for unity, then unity will likely be found. If he sees the issue as one of first importance, then division will likely result. Those with hard edges on either side of Calvinism will probably not be able to genuinely cooperate with those holding different views.
Clearly, navigating the waters of church life with differing soteriology will be challenging. However, we are not the first generation to face this challenge. And one thing drives us to be unified: our mission. For those who believe there is more that binds Southern Baptists together than divides us, and that cooperation is beneficial for the Kingdom, I would answer the initial question this way: It depends on three issues.
It depends on how you define Calvinism.
Most Southern Baptists are somewhere on the spectrum of Calvinism, with most avoiding the extremes. Essentially all Southern Baptists believe in the total depravity of humanity and the perseverance of the saints. But no Southern Baptist that I know of believes that evangelism is unnecessary, practices paedobaptism, or embraces Calvin’s church-state beliefs.
So, with the extremes eliminated from the spectrum, it is essential to define what we mean by “Calvinistic” or “Reformed.” The five points of Calvinism (from the Synod of Dort) are helpful as an outline for discussion, but it is imperative to define the specific words used to discuss these doctrines. Many people assume that everyone is using the same definitions, which is a dangerous assumption and increases the likelihood of conflict.
When discussing doctrines of grace, for instance, many retreat into the code language of their soteriological tribe, finding safety in jingoistic shibboleths. Identifying with respected, articulate teachers may provide security, but it does not always promote understanding. Because the issues are complex, we can choose to not wrestle with them and instead defer to the positions of our heroes. They often “retweet” a social media version of a position, when serious thought, substance, and wisdom are required.
To be honest, most pastors, let alone church members, cannot argue the intricacies of their soteriological position! They are either not versed in the nuances because they haven’t done the necessary hard work, or they have defaulted to a cult of personality of someone they admire. Neither are helpful for honest dialogue or true spiritual and theological development.
Code words do not allow for authentic spiritual exploration when it comes to the doctrines of our faith. They can, instead, simply function as “shibboleths” whose only function is to identify the other. A much more helpful discussion can take place when code words are set aside and biblical truths expressed in biblical language become the foundation for discussion. This avoids unnecessary conflict over man-made systems of theology. It drives us back to Scripture as the standard for our faith and practice. Discussing our soteriological beliefs through the lens of biblical language will result in fruitful dialogue and personal theological growth. Good and vigorous discussion, and even debate, that is biblically-based will yield both doctrinal clarity and respect for others.
It depends on humility and grace.
It has been said that handling this topic in denominational life requires “table manners.” If it requires table manners within the denomination, it requires house manners within a church. Living together is far different than sharing a meal. Inside the church, we do ministry together, worship together, and share life together. Therefore, we need theological humility and grace in our relationships.
We are, every one of us, works in progress. No matter how much education we may have, we would all do well to remember that we “know in part” and “see through a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). Ministering together in a learning church without being fearful, angry, or condescending towards others is truly Christ-like.
Scripture speaks of both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility; within this tension, God intends for every Christian to struggle, mature, learn, and grow. To be condescending towards others while this takes place does not produce the soil in which strong churches and leaders grow. Instead, we as brothers and sisters must be long-suffering with one another, bearing with one another in love. A tone of respect, appreciation, and humility would reflect the spirit of Christ more than much of the current rhetoric.
Dividing our churches into micro-communities along the lines of every nuance of soteriology would leave every church small and divided. Haven’t we seen enough of that? The decision to join a church is a decision to charitably disagree with some in the church on some issues. However, what we disagree on should pale in comparison to what we agree on: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It depends on the importance of the Great Commission.
Reformed and non-Reformed Southern Baptists have both impacted the Kingdom significantly. The Calvinistic trend in Southern Baptist life has brought about a renewed emphasis on the gospel, while God has used non-Reformed leaders to lead the SBC in accomplishing some of its greatest evangelistic and missional work.
Imagine the impact if all Southern Baptists both loved the gospel and did something with it. Such a merging of Wittenberg and Herrnhut could make Southern Baptists the most effective theologians and missionaries the world has ever seen. Wittenberg and Herrnhut are not far apart geographically, and I suspect that, on the full range of soteriological positions, most Southern Baptists are not as far apart as they might think.
We do not live in simple times, so thoughtful biblical theology must reside within the church. We also live in desperate times, in the midst of a world lost and separated from God, so Christians must be mobilized to share the gospel. The more desperate our times become, the more brothers and sisters in Christ must unite around the mission, regardless of some form of soteriological difference.
The issues facing most Southern Baptists today are not new. The 33 delegates who joined together at the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia on May 18, 1814, faced similar challenges as they sought to unite for the work of the gospel. Their commitment to “diffusing evangelistic light through benighted regions of the earth” provided a greater reason to unify than to remain divided. I believe Southern Baptists can unify not only at the denominational level, but also within our local churches, for the sake of the gospel.
I close with the words of the Apostle Paul, whose words to the Ephesians apply to us still today, in this issue as in many others:, we must…
“…walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).