Friday, March 07, 2008

Bill Wagner: Calvinists are "less missional"

SBCtoday has posted another of their informative interviews. This time it is with Dr. Will Wagner, former IMB missionary and professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He was the first person to announce his candidacy for the SBC presidency to be decided in upcoming convention meeting this June.

Among the many questions Wagner addressed, one had to do with the resurgence of Reformed theology in the SBC. His answer was rather convoluted. After acknowledging that he finds the question "very interesting," he offers what he hopes is a "blunt" response.
I feel that we as Southern Baptists are a very large organization. And there is ..
There is plenty of room for Calvinists and Armenians [sic] within the Southern Baptists. I think tha we should not really make this that much of an issue.

However, I have spoken to a lot of our missionaries overseas and its a very strange thing because our missionaries have said that we are beginning to get more and more people out on the field who are Calvinistic in their theology, and it is strange, but those that are Calvinistic are not nearly as desirous of winning people to Christ as they are about talking about theology. So I am little bit fearful, that if Calvinism begins to have too much influence, that we might go the way of some of the other Protestant denominations have gone and that is to deemphasize our missions.

Now, I know of a lot of tremendous missionaries who are Calvinists. But I say, by and large, Calvinists have a tendency to be less missional in their approach.
Dr. Wagner seems like a very nice man. He has some thoughtful responses to the questions that he was asked. I appreciate his candor in responding to this one. My own experience has been far different from what he has described. Most of the Southern Baptists I know who are Calvinistic are very evangelistic, and most of the missional guys I know are rather Calvinistic. That holds true for those who are in the states and those who are serving in other countries.

Missionaries from our church helped plant the first church among an unreached, overwhelmingly Muslim people. We have another family preaching the Gospel at one of the international crossroads of Muslims who come from some of the most restricted countries in the world. Another of our families is researching and trying to chart information on unreached peoples that have been overlooked or unknown to modern missiologists. God has recently opened a door for our church to become aggressively involved in evangelistic and church planting efforts among one of the most unreached people groups in the world. We are partnering with other Southern Baptist churches who share our theological and missional convictions.

Again, this may simply be a difference in relationships and experiences between Dr. Wagner and me. However, his suggestion that the SBC may go the way of liberal mainline denominations is, at best, terribly ill-informed. Even a superficial reading of history shows that it is the lessening of Calvinistic convictions, not their resurgence, that has led to spiritual and doctrinal decline among Baptists and other evangelical groups. Listen to Tom Nettles' presentation at the Building Bridges conference or read his article in the soon-to-be-mailed issue of the Founders Journal on, "Why Your Next Pastor Should Be a Calvinist."

I am grateful for Dr. Wagner's willingness to address the question with such a charitable spirit. Obviously, I do not share his fears. The resurgence of Calvinism within the SBC bodes well for our churches and missional efforts. It is leading to a reexamination of what the Gospel actually is, which is leading to a recovery of that Gospel and a more thoughtful, biblical approach to proclaiming it. And that is the foundation of reformation and revival.


James Thompson said...

Maybe he and other missionaries are confusing a Biblical model of evangelism which does not seek to coerce or induce a positive response with being less evangelistic. There aren't enough details to go on but I've been accused of not being missional because I insist on presenting the Gospel in a form that takes longer than 5 minutes to run through. He betrays a problem with his thinking anyways in noting that Calvinists are going out onto the mission field, that's a pretty evangelistic step to take, regardless of your theological persuasion. His comments seem to simplistic to be terribly meaningful, but it makes a nice quotable for those who want to continue opposing the Doctrines of Grace.

Calvinists less evangelistic? Nonsense!

Bob Cleveland said...

I don't know how many times I've already said this, but I'm fixin' to say it again. I've lived in Birmingham for nearly 33 years and EVERY SINGLE TIME someone has approached me with one of the "key questions" ... you know .. if you were to die tonight, etc .. they've been a Presbyterian churchmember. NEVER ONCE a baptist!

And what's more Baptist that BIRMINGHAM?

I guess really educated people can make really stupid statements and really stupid observations.

GUNNY said...

It seems to me such views as Dr. Wganer's can stem from a few things:

1. The assumption that it is so because it's presumed that Calvinists are fatalistic in their approach.

2. Evangelistic fervor can look different for the Calvinist - for example, calling people to Christ, not to the front of a building or leading them to Christ instead of in a sinner's prayer.

3. Experiences with Calvinists that are jaded by lenses that are looking for less missional activity, so things are interpreted as such.

4. Personal experience with people from Armenia who are really more passionate about the spread of God's glory through world evangelization that the people met who are from ... well, Calvinists.

He may be basing it on some combination on all of the above, but it's my hope that we don't give anyone any "ammo" for that 4th category.

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Tom,

Thanks for picking up this interview. I found one thing interesting about Dr. Wagner's response to the question. Have you noticed the denomination that is underwriting the college he presides over as President? It is Presbyterian. :>)

Also, the convoluted statement about Calvinism was not the only convoluted statement he made. He is a very gracious person and certainly I can see his desire to bring the Gospel to the world. I do have serious concerns for him as SBC Prez.


GUNNY said...

Tim Rogers wrote:
"Have you noticed the denomination that is underwriting the college he presides over as President? It is Presbyterian."

Now THAT is good irony!

Tom said...


I think you and Gunny are correct in your assessment. Some guys have come to view their approach to evangelism as the sum and substance of evangelism. And some--many--Reformed guys reject much that goes under the name of evangelism in our day, not because we are unevangelistic, but because we regard those approaches as problematic and less than biblical. The evidence for our judgment is seen in the massive number of unregenerate church members within our denomination. They didn't get there through Reformed evangelism.


I have heard you tell this story time and again. It is a poignant illustration that exposes the superficiality of claims like those made by Dr. Wagner. Thanks for sharing it again.


Good observations. I concur. Lack of evangelistic passion is an enemy we almost must battle, no matter what your ethnicity! ;-)

Thanks, Tim, for providing that piece of ironic information!


Jonathan said...


I am from a missionary family and I still know several on the field including several in my own family. My comment is based on personal experience, not any objective research.

Most non-Calvinist missionaries emphasize evangelism and 'ministry' and feel that theology is not important. What is important to them is winning souls. They don't understand that winning souls is important but so is theology. They think discussing theology is a waste of time. Here is what I take from Bill Wagner's missionary friends and most non-Calvinist missionaries I know.

1. Talking about theology is called a waste of time because it does not result in new believers. Only evangelism does. Any discussion about theology is perceived as a waste of time to many missionaries. I have even been told by a missionary that all of the discussion about Calvinism is a result of a bunch of seminary professors who don't have anything to do with their time but to sit around and come up with things to argue about. That is how theology is perceived by many; just things to argue about.

2. Calvinists are perceived as being less zealous about winning souls because Calvinists seek true conversion. There is a fundamental difference in how Calvinists view conversion (true conversion) and how these traditional non-Calvinistic SBC missionaries view conversion (saying a prayer). Coming from the perspective of a missionary whose goal is to get someone to say a prayer, I completely understand how they would view a Calvinist who is looking for true conversion as not being as zealous to win souls.

That's my 2 cents worth.


Tom said...


Thanks for your take "from the field." I think you have nailed it. Very well put. Thanks for helping clarify how these kinds of things are often perceived and discussed.


Kevin P. Larson said...

Well, the presence of Acts 29 kills that argument, but I guess we don't talk about that because of the alcohol issue.

Is it maybe that they are not praying prayers with 4 year olds and being virtual paedobaptists?

(sorry to be blunt and rude, but I'm weary of all of this)

Timmy Brister said...


You bring up an important point. The way you do evangelism stems from your understanding of the gospel, and Calvinists understand the gospel differently than Arminians, but this does not make less evangelistic. So much of what we have done in evangelism is easy believism and reducing the gospel to three points or four laws and then repeat this prayer after me. This is not evangelism for a number of reasons, not the least of which you have done injustice to the evangel.

If you look at some of the baptism records of churches with high percentages, and you look at the number of baptisms of children under the age of six, what you see is that the non-Calvinists are more Presbyterian than they think. How much farther do you need to go before we baptize infants? (I'm being serious here).

Being missional includes have a right understanding of the mission of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Holy Spirit. If we believe that Jesus' mission was to accomplish salvation on the cross, and if we believe that the Holy Spirit is the greatest evangelist and applies what Christ accomplished, then your mission will align to a trinitiarian understanding of gospel and mission. On the other hand, if mission begins and ends with man, and the sole determining factor is the free will of man, then it can be argued that they are less missional in a fundamental sense, for they have undermined the mission of God the Son and God the Spirit.

And it just begins there.

Debbie Kaufman said...

This seems to be the new battle cry of those who do not want Calvinism in the SBC. "Calvinists are less than missional." This is the third or fourth time I have heard this statement. When all else fails, try something else. Next year it might be that we don't believe in communion.

Elnwood said...

I would guess that most of us know the Calvinist who is more absorbed in theology than reaching the lost for the gospel. I think a good place to start in dialogue may be to admit that these people do exist, condemn such thinking in no uncertain terms, and distance Calvinism and ourselves from that as much as possible.

SS&SG said...

Those non-calvinist missionaries who place evangelism over theology, have made a false disjunction. Unless you have a coherent theology, you can not fulfill the great commission. The great commission is about making disciples of our Lord. But unless you have a robust theology, you also cannot have a real discipleship program. Telling someone about who Jesus is demands a understanding of theology. Part of the problem I think that the SBC is having is a lack of discipleship. We think evangelism ends when the other prays a prayer.
Stephen Stanford

S.J. Walker said...

I wonder what Whitefeild, Edwards, Bunyan, Calvin, would have said to these claims made in their times.

A Lion Has Roared!

GeneMBridges said...

However, I have spoken to a lot of our missionaries overseas and its a very strange thing because our missionaries have said that we are beginning to get more and more people out on the field who are Calvinistic in their theology, and it is strange, but those that are Calvinistic are not nearly as desirous of winning people to Christ as they are about talking about theology. So I am little bit fearful, that if Calvinism begins to have too much influence, that we might go the way of some of the other Protestant denominations have gone and that is to deemphasize our missions.

Here's the other side of that story. What Dr. Wagner does tell us is the reason some missionaries might have such an interest in talking about theology.

1. They're trying to plant well grounded churches, not churches that, frankly, look like most of the SBC.

2. But, more importantly, on the international mission field, our missionaries are encountering all manner of theological errors, some worse than others. The Word of Faith people are extremely active in this regard.

3. Many of these folks serve in places that don't have access to the centuries of theological writing we have in the US and even Western Europe. Consequently, they don't have access to the 2000 years of tradition and teaching that informs much of what we believe and teach today, even as believers in Sola Scriptura. They have to teach much of it "from scratch" to these folks.

4. Apropos 3, all manner of ancient heresies manifest themselves anew in these places. I have a friend teaching @ Fudan University in China and he can attest both the fact that the people don't have access to Christian teaching and history and the fact that these heresies dot the landscape. The way we combat them is by "teaching theology," which I would add, he is doing in China right now himself.

5. I have personally received emails, since I'm part of an apologetics blog, from folks abroad asking for help. Has Dr.Wagner? By "help" I mean, "Help, such and such error is here, and we need some resources to combat it." I've also gotten some emails from Calvinists (not missionaries, but indigenous people) abroad telling me things that have happened to them. Anti-Calvinism is quite virulent in many places, like Southern Europe. It makes the likes of what we'll see at the John 3:16 conference tame. Some poor folks are being put out of their churches for not being Arminians, and they don't have anywhere else to go. At least in the US an RB who gets fed up with his Seeker Friendly Baptist church can head to the PCA or an RB church or a Founders SBC church.

Rev. said...

I don't doubt that these newer missionaries want to discuss theology, but I wonder how much of that theology is deeply embedded into salvation itself. Are they discussing justification and such on a deeper than surface level that the older missionaries aren't accustomed to? Are they trying to explain more of who God is, who Christ is, etc., as they are engaging the cultures in which they minister? Are they taking time to have theological discussions, as the Apostle Paul did in Acts 17, rather than the "30 Second Shake n' Bake" Evangelism approach? OR, is it that some missionaries are more concerned about discussion theology than evangelism? Knowing the process one must undergo to be assigned by the IMB, I doubt that is the case, but it is a legitimate question nonetheless. I hope we don't have any folks out there like that. If there are, let's bring 'em home and use them to help establish some church plants.

Don't usually advertise my own gig, but you might be interested in my latest post (related to this topic): "New Strain of Calvinism"

Mark said...


Bill made a formal response on his blog to clarify his position on Calvinists and their missional fervor:

Hopefully this will clarify things a big.

Micah said...

It always strikes me as odd when a person with a doctorate degree decides to opine on the Calvinist/Arminian discussion and yet seems not to know that Armenians are people in Eastern Europe whereas Arminians are those who generally follow the ideas of Jacob Arminius. Secondly, the constant claim that there is 'room in the SBC for folks of both persuasions' seems to miss the foundational difference between the two systems. It is reminiscent of those who want to claim that there is some "middle ground" between the two systems. Surely there's a person of Arminian persuasion out there who can actually talk about Calvinism without the strawmen? Is it too much to ask?

shadrach said...

Being actually on the field as an SBC M, I would liek to affirm what I see in Jonathan and Gene's comments. I am baised by being an affirmer of the doctrines of grace, but what I see in my own life and the lives of those around me is that the Calvinists tend to be younger, short-term, and out to make the most difference possible in the shortest amount of time.

Our more seasoned fellows tend to use a broader approach to seed sowing which, from their experience, tends to bring out the people of peace. The newer, Calvinist missionaries tend to invest themselves in just a few people and hope to change the world through a very strategic, specific focus. One issue is that this approach tends to take longer and not see as many 'hands raised' as the other. That may lead to the idea that these Calvinist missionaries are not as evangelistic in their approach.

I see benefits to both sides and try to find a balance. One of my colleagues recently quoted a friend of his as saying (roughly), 'the best way to value your time on the field is to ask: Did I spend time in the Word? Did I obey God's direction? Did I spend time with lost people?'

I think that's a pretty good summary.

GUNNY said...

Micah said...
It always strikes me as odd when a person with a doctorate degree decides to opine on the Calvinist/Arminian discussion and yet seems not to know that Armenians are people in Eastern Europe whereas Arminians are those who generally follow the ideas of Jacob Arminius.

These are the same people who love to study the book of "Revelations" in the Bible.

They probably also say "I could care less" when they really mean, "I couldn't care less."

I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't realize that "Raise" is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object. "Rise" is intransitive. (E.g., You rise from bed. You raise your glass.)

AND they probably use Revelation 3:20 as a heart-tugging evangelistic plea!


Josh said...

Considering the comments of Dr. Wagner, I must say that I received Christ by a Gospel presentation given through a tract and by means of the "Sinner's Prayer." Having experienced this, I would not neglect the fact that people can be saved by Gospel tracts and by an individual presenting the Gospel in hopes of the completion of the "Sinner's Prayer." All this aside, I also understand that I am not saved because I prayed a prayer, because I read a tract, or because I walked an aisle. In fact, I believe that the "Sinner's Prayer" was more of a way to work out a new attitude of repentance and faithfulness to God rather than a particular moment of salvation. It seems with emphasis on the "Altar Call" and the "Sinner's Prayer" devoid of any meaningful theology, we have created a new kind of Christian: A backslider. How often we hear that term relating to some "Christian" who persists in a lifestyle of sin. The very fact that Calvinists are so evangelistic (sharing both the whole counsel of God and not using some man-made gimmick to effect salvation) is the major reason I first began to examine the claims of the Doctrines of Grace in accordance with Scripture. The other side of both the giving of the "Altar Call" and recitation of the "Sinner's Prayer" is that many who use these methods as their primary tools of evangelism are too quick to affirm the new "believer" in the certainty of salvation before having viewed their fruits. Really, the issue seems to tie together the tenets of Calvinism. Believing man is capable of coming to God on his own, believing that God chooses us because we will choose Him, believing that anyone can be saved if we just coerce them enough, and believing that God cannot draw us unless we allow Him only causes man to create methods in which we can do all the work so that we can get all the glory. Are we to work? Yes. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. So we are to preach the Gospel with fervency. However, God is both the author and finisher of our faith, solely responsible for effecting salvation, but yet not removing our responsibility to Him in our obedience to that Gospel and the preaching thereof.

Mike said...

I read a quote this week from Francis Schaeffer that seems appropriate at this point:

“It is because we are committed to Evangelism that we must speak in antithesis at times. If we do not make clear by word and practice our position for truth and against false doctrine, we are building a wall between the next generation and the gospel. The unity of evangelicals should be on the basis of truth, not evangelism itself. If this is not so, "success" in evangelism can result in weakening Christianity. Any consideration of methods is secondary to this central principle.”

Jim Pemberton said...

He presents a false dichotomy between evangelizing and talking about theology. You can't evangelize without presenting theology. I for one like to talk about theology so my presentation of the gospel is accurate.

There is a difference between the Arminian "decisionism" and the sanctification that make a disciple's salvation certain and firmly rooted in the righteousness of God, His truth and our imitation of His sacrifice in love. Such provides the depth of spiritual maturity necessary to transform lives and communities for the long haul.

There may have been groups of Christians that held to reformed theology as a social principle that didn't bear the Great Commission seriously. However, I contend that one doesn't come to reformed theology as a matter of conviction without recognizing the GC as our marching orders in this life.

Strong Tower said...

I thought it curious that he said we are getting more, and more Calvinists in the missions field. Excuse me if I am dense, but doesn't that mean were getting less and less "non" Calvinists in the missions field, and wouldn't that necessarily mean, that Calvinists are more missions minded, and therefore, more evangelistic.

It is true, the break point in evangelism is that we see it as not just stopping at the popping out of the water. We see it beginning in the byways and highways, the bars and the barrios and continuing on into the pew until death do us part.

Long live regenerate membership!

Just some thoughts.

SS&SG said...

Lack of evangelistic zeal is sinful, Calvinist or not. The commission is too clearly given in scripture and the example too clearly set by the apostles for there to be any doubt. A lack of evangelistic zeal stems from not exalting Christ in our hearts. When our passion is for the glory of God we will pray as Moses that God save for the sake of his name(deut.9), and sing with the psalmist that God lead us in righteousness for the sake of his name(ps.23), and preach and even die as Paul for the glory of God.
Sam G

Mark said...

Hi Tom. Bill Wagner recently participated in a conversation with a Dr James Galyon, who holds strong Calvinist beliefs and dialogged with Bill about it. It might be of interest to you: