Though I’m writing this post specifically for the benefit of members of my own church (Stevens Street Baptist in Cookeville, TN), hopefully this will have broader appeal as well, even outside the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Debate? What debate?”
That’s probably what most people around here would say in response to the title of this article. We tend to steer clear of the various debates that go on within the Convention… like the potential name change (to “Great Commission Baptists”) proposed at last year’s SBC annual meeting, or the Great Commission Task Force debate from two years ago. For better or worse, we don’t get caught up in those conversations.
While I believe there was merit to both of those discussions, they didn’t really mean that much to the average Baptist on the street, so it didn’t matter much that we weren’t paying attention. This year, however, there’s a debate going on that really does matter to Southern Baptists everywhere. It started a few weeks ago, and will probably figure heavily in the events that will take place at this year’s SBC annual meeting, which takes place in New Orleans this week.
Here’s the debate in as close to a nutshell as I can get it:
Ever since the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence that began before my birth — but especially within the last decade — Reformed/Calvinist doctrine has been gaining influence within Southern Baptist churches. The SBC’s flagship school (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has had a decidedly Reformed theological bent since Albert Mohler became the institution’s ninth (and current) president in 1993. Increasing numbers of young SBC pastors and lay leaders now identify as Reformed in their understanding of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation).
While there should be no reason that Reformed and non-Reformed Southern Baptists cannot fellowship and serve together in ministry, there has been growing animosity between some (on both sides), which has been thrust into the spotlight by the recent publication of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”. This document, which has been signed by quite a few prominent Southern Baptists (including five former SBC presidents and two current seminary presidents; see the list of all signers), aims to draw a distinction to Calvinist doctrine and outline a set of affirmations which they claim represent “the vast majority” of Southern Baptists.
This has sparked a lot of helpful discussion online, and nothing I could write about the document itself would add much, so at the end of this post I will simply direct you to what I have found to be the most balanced and thoughtful contributions. But what I can do is show you why I hope that many members of my church (and others like it) will get involved.
One thing that pretty much everyone who has chimed in seems to agree on is that nothing is more important than the Gospel. Amen! So while as a Reformed Baptist I disagree strongly with much of the content of the statement, I agree wholeheartedly with its authors that how we articulate the Gospel is a critically important issue. Because of this, I am thankful that this much-needed discussion is happening, and that the vast majority of the debate has been civil and charitable.
The real problem in the SBC is quite apparent at the local level, and Stevens Street is no exception: Many Southern Baptists cannot clearly articulate the Gospel. I’m not talking about the distinctions between Reformed and non-Reformed understandings of certain doctrinal points; I mean the bare-bones essentials! Whatever the causes may be, the fact is that the doctrinal literacy of the average SBC church member has become very watered down, leaving countless professing believers unable to discern between orthodoxy and heresy.
This is made painfully clear here in Cookeville by the fact that large numbers of lifelong Southern Baptists have joined churches and/or been influenced by books marked by teaching that is not just contrary to the Baptist Faith & Message, but which stretches the bounds of orthodoxy to the limit. Even larger numbers of church members continue to fill pews in Baptist churches without any real grasp on the Gospel (which does not necessarily mean that the Gospel is not being taught).
So whatever the immediate outcome of the current debate ends up being, I hope that the long-term result is increased clarity and biblical fidelity in the teaching of the Gospel in Southern Baptist churches, and increased doctrinal understanding by lay members of those churches. It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about The Gospel Project, LifeWay’s new curriculum that looks EXCELLENT, and is sure to be adopted by large numbers of SBC churches (including Stevens Street).
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:19). I believe that, as painful as it is to have factions within the SBC family, the result will be the advance of the Gospel.
This is a conversation worth having, and if you’re still reading, I invite you to join it. Following are links to the most pertinent articles. I welcome your comments after you’ve had a chance to read up on the debate!
- A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation — Straight to the source.
- The FAQ’s — The best summary of the finer points of the debate. Consider this the “Cliff’s Notes” version if you don’t have time to read anything else.
- Southern Baptists and Salvation: It’s Time to Talk — Al Mohler’s response has been the most influential response from a Reformed perspective. Clear, concise, and charitable, he acknowledges the legitimacy of many of the concerns of non-Reformed Baptists, but also points out the errors in their means of addressing those concerns.
- It Is Time to Discuss the Elephant in the Room — Jerry Vines, one of the former SBC presidents to sign the document, provided a fitting counterpoint to Mohler’s article by defending the statement against Mohler’s charge of semi-Pelagianism, while affirming Mohler’s call for civil discourse about the subject.
- Commentary and Observations from Tom Ascol — For those who really want to get into the nitty-gritty, Ascol’s ongoing response (the final part of which was published today) is very detailed and instructive. He closely examines each of the statement’s affirmations and denials and provides a thorough response.
- So Why All the Labels? — Voddie Baucham takes a different approach to the issue, discussing why he feels terms like “Calvinist” and “Arminian” are helpful and clarifying. I agree.