Thursday, May 29, 2008

What Should Southern Baptists Do with Calvinists?

In the previous post I mentioned the above titled article written by Elmer Towns of Liberty University and published in Theology for Ministry (May 2008). Kenneth Fryer found the article online which makes it more convenient to review (the published version has been somewhat edited). I encourage you to go read it at the link above.

I found Dr. Towns' article to be seriously flawed in both research and argumentation. While he does not caricature the doctrines of grace in the typical ways that characterize many of the opponents of Calvinism, he makes some glaring factual mistakes, fails support some gratuitous assertions and leaves the reader wondering what exactly he is trying to say.

For example, in a footnote that is appended to the acknowledgement that "from the beginning the issue of Calvinism has been an issue among Baptists," Towns' makes this observation:
Leon McBeth in his historic encyclopedia, The Baptist Heritage Broadman Press, 1987 gives several incidences of Calvinism in the history of Southern Baptist. He gives lengthy discussions of the English Particular Baptist in the 17th and 18th century, and their decline (p. 152-154, 171-178). He tells of the Primitive Baptist, or "Hardshell Baptist" including other small sectarian movements, i.e. the "Absoluters" (p. 720), the "Old Liners" (p. 720), the "Progressive" (p. 720) and the "Two Seeds in the Spirit" (p. 720). He describes many smaller attempts of churches and associations to revive Calvinism such as “Sovereign Grace Bible Conference” (p. 771) and "The Banner of Truth" (p. 771-772), "The Sword and Trowel" (p. 773) and the paper The Baptist Reformation Review (p. 773). We are indebted to McBeth for documenting the futility of so many Calvinistic attempts to influence the Southern Baptist Convention [emphasis added].
What does his last sentence mean? The Southern Baptist Convention was formed by men and churches who held to some version of the 1689 Baptist Confession. Is Towns suggesting that the groups he mentions tried (and failed) to "influence the Southern Baptist Convention?" Does he really regard all of these groups as "incidences of Calvinism in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention?" Check the pages cited from McBeth and judge for yourself if Towns accurately represents the author's meaning.

He misunderstands the LifeWay research that was released at the Building Bridges Conference last November. After noting that some "alarmists" have warned that "eventually the Calvinists will take over the convention if the seminaries continue to indoctrinate graduates with Calvinist leanings," Towns evaluates the study this way:
Should people be upset at this trend? The research indicated that "churches pastored by Calvinists tend to have smaller attendance and typically baptize fewer persons each year." While the study suggested that many Calvinists have the same statistics as non-Calvinistic Southern Baptists, it also asserted that the growth of Calvinism is not a threat. However, the study did not differentiate between five point Calvinism, and Southern Baptist pastors who have identified themselves as Calvinistic [emphasis added].
He is simply mistaken. The 2006 LifeWay research asked the question, "Do you consider yourself a five point Calvinist?" the 2007 NAMB research asked respondents to state their level of agreement with the following statement: "I am a five point Calvinist." Towns makes this mistake twice in this article, the second time by asserting, "Stetzer’s report did not distinguish between five point Calvinists and the generic Calvinist [by this latter term Towns means someone who believes in the "sovereignty of God," "salvation by grace" and "eternal security"]." Further, the word "threat" is nowhere in the research document. The conclusion, however, does not the growth of Calvinism, particularly among younger ministers within the SBC.

Towns raises the following big question before addressing four specific questions that he believes will help clarify how the big question should be answered.
Should or should not Southern Baptists attempt to purge itself [sic] of five point Calvinists?
The first clarifying question is this, "Should any Southern Baptist fly under a particular flag?" He asserts, "Most Southern Baptist pastors fly the SBC flag rather high, but some also have other flags," and then names some of them, including the "Bible expostion," small groups," "Sunday School" and "Southern gospel music" flags.

Towns then asks, "So what’s wrong with a five point Calvinist flag?" And answers,
The problem is that most five point Calvinists don't just point to their flag; many become exclusionary of any other view that will not salute their flag and fight for their flag in ecclesiastical battles. These five point Calvinists claim they have the right flag that should be flown over all churches. Some five point Calvinists try to proselyte everyone into their point of view [emphasis added].
Not only does Dr. Towns demonstrate an inability to read published research accurately, he also shows no hesitation to speak in unwarranted generalities based, as a footnote explains, on nothing more than his experience.

Second clarifying question: "Is Calvinism a diversion against the Great Commission and baptism?" Included in this section is the odd statement that "Most five-point Calvinists do not give a gospel invitation after they push to get people saved." What is a "Gospel invitation" if not a "push to get people saved?" As becomes evident later in the article, Towns equates the former with an altar call.

In this section Towns does acknowledge that Spurgeon was a "great Calvinist," but then makes the undocumented assertion that "research doesn’t show he preached often in [sic] the tenets of five point Calvinism."

Towns' treatment of Calvin left me wondering if understands the reformer's theology. He pits the theology in Calvin's Institutes against his expositions of Scripture.
In his early life John Calvin espoused extreme positions on predestination in his theology called the Institutes of the Christian Religion.14 Later in life Calvin seemed to mellow his view of predestination as he studied the Scriptures more thoroughly by writing commentaries on every book of the Bible. As an example, his view on predestination opened when he wrote in his commentary on I John 2:2.
Calvin published the Institutes first in 1536 and revised it 4 more times before the final 1559 edition was published. Towns' footnote in this paragraph (14) is to the 1559 edition. Calvin's commentary on 1 John was published eight years earlier, in 1551. Had the reformer changed his views he would have had ample opportunity to note that in the last edition of the Institutes.

Towns' third clarifying question is this, "Is five point Calvinism a new intolerance?" Fair enough. But the explanation that follows has nothing to do with Calvinism at all but rather address the widespread cultural relativism and ideological intolerance of our day. He concludes with this: "Now anti-Christian views are gaining influence, and they have become intolerant to the Christian church, denying the freedom to teach in public what they have always believed."

What does that have to do with Calvinism?

The fourth clarifying question: "Will five-point Calvinism spread?" Again, I do not follow the reasoning that follows this question. Towns writes,
If five-point Calvinism were an isolated doctrine that could be embedded into a church for only its members to enjoy, that would be fine, but does it preach "the whole council [sic] of God?" As an example, many deeper life pastors find a nugget of truth in the “abiding life,” and their church becomes a separatist congregation from all other churches because they go deeper into the Word each week to find new nuggets. Sometimes, nuggets become the reason to verify their existence. In the same way, five point Calvinists find their doctrine of predestination the main reason for their existence.
Each of these sentences can be dealt with individually (though the first one doesn't seem to make much sense), but their relationship to each other escapes me. For the record, I have never met a five point Calvinist who found his reason for existence in the doctrine of predestination.

Towns suggests that a dandelion rather than a tulip would be a better description of Calvinism because "dandelions spread their seeds across the entire lawn, blown about by the winds of fads and self-examination. And what more do we know about dandelions, they kill the surrounding grass and as they spread across a beautiful lawn, they can destroy an entire lawn [this sentence was edited in the published version in the journal, but not without new grammatical difficulties]."

So, what should Southern Baptists do with Calvinists? Towns acknowledges that it is "alright to be a Calvinist," but quickly adds that "it is not alright to be a flag waving five point extremist that attacks any and every position or church that disagrees with its own." Since I do not know any Calvinist--or non-Calvinist for that matter--who fits this description, I suppose it is safe to assume that every Southern Baptist Calvinist should feel welcome in the SBC, according to Dr. Towns' view.

He also makes the point that it is "alright not to be a Calvinist." Churches that are "dispensational" and that "expose their young to an altar call where everyone - including children and youth - are led to Christ through a tangible conversion experience" do not have to be Calvinistic. I have never come across the language of "tangible conversion experience" before but suppose that he means by that a spiritual experience (conversion?) that is marked by physical movement (walking the aisle).

In the final analysis, Towns does not answer the question his title sets out. While I can understand the difficulty in publicly doing so, I wish that his article had not promised more than it delivered. What he has written does not offer much help to the kind of fraternal exchange that needs to take place within the SBC on this issue.

What would be wonderfully beneficial is a thoughtful, expository explanation of the convictions that men like Towns hold in contrast to historic, evangelical Calvinism. Perhaps the John 3:16 conference will do that. I certainly hope so. That type of effort could promote genuine engagement over the Word of God. Every Christian--Calvinist or not--can support that.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Elmer Towns on the Conservative Resurgence

Elmer Towns serves as the Co-founder and Dean of the School of Religion at Liberty University. In the recent issue of Theology for Ministry (Vol. 3 No. 1), the theological journal of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he has an article entitled, "What Should Southern Baptists Do with Calvinists?" (EDIT: thanks to Kenneth Fryer for the link) It appears just before my article entitled, "The Way We Were and Are Becoming Again: The Revival of the Doctrines of Grace in Southern Baptist Life." This issue of the journal is dedicated to "Contemporary Movements in American Christianity" and Dr. Daryl Cornett, the editor, wanted to include contrasting views of Calvinism in the SBC. It is safe to say that he accomplished his goal.

I plan engage some of Dr. Towns' thoughts in future posts as I have time. But as I read his article last week, I was struck by the following paragraph that gives his view from Liberty Mountain on what happened in the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention that publicly began in 1979. He quite obviously views it as a fundamentalist victory.
In the last twenty-five years Southern Baptists have fought the battle of perceived liberalism within its ranks and bureaucracy, and most would agree that the fundamentalists have won that battle. Beginning with the election of Adrian Rogers in 1979, one self-identified fundamentalist after another has become president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and in turn they have controlled the nomination and election process of the various boards and seminaries. In due time, boards mandated that liberal-leaning individuals were not nominated to positions, and fundamentalists turned the various boards and committees toward fundamentalism.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue

Broadman and Holman just released the new book, Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, which is a collection of the papers presented at the Building Bridges conference last November. Ray Clendenen and Brad Waggoner have done a great job compiling and editing the presentations. They have also added a Glossary of theological terms by Shawn Wright as well as 3 appendices (authory, subject and Scripture), all of which will make the book much easier to use than it would have been without them.

The audio of the conference has been available since shortly after the meeting. Now that this book is published, anyone can have ready access not only to the words of the speakers but also to the research on which those words were based. Despite criticism from certain sectors of the SBC that the conference received (and continues to receive), this book demonstrates the ability of brothers to come together to speak plainly and respectfully about important issues on which we do not see eye-to-eye. I highly recommend it.

Freedom Never Cries

This patriotic song by Vladimir John Ondrasik III ("Five for Fighting") struck me as a fitting tribute to our troops as we celebrate Memorial Day. Though the Kingdom of God must never be confused with any national entity and nationalism is no more fitting for a new covenant Christian than it was for Jonah, followers of Christ are nevertheless called to give honor to those to whom honor is due. Our military troops who honorably serve our nation--and those who have died doing so--are among those to whom honor is due.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Resolved: Southern Baptists need to get serious about ecclesiology

As we move closer to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting it might be helpful to consider once again the rationale behind my resolution on integrity in church membership. This is the third consecutive year that I have submitted it. As noted in a previous post, another resolution (written by Malcolm Yarnell) that addresses some of the same things is being submitted this year by Bart Barber. I have also heard that other related resolutions may be submitted as well.

As I have repeatedly stated, I agree with everything that the Yarnell/Barber resolution says. It is much broader than mine and takes a different approach to what we all agree are important issues. It has garnered lots of support which indicates that a growing number of Southern Baptists are recognizing the need to get serious about our commitment to regenerate church membership. That is a hopeful sign.

I have been asked what I think will happen at the Indianapolis convention next month regarding these resolutions. Well, I am no prophet, but I fully expect that some kind of resolution will make it out of committee this year. After the less-than-stellar reasons given the last two years for not allowing the convention even to vote on it, I believe that this year's committee will want to avoid being put in the position of having to explain why they refused to allow a vote on an issue that is obviously of great concern to many Southern Baptists.

My hope is that a healthy combination of the two resolutions will emerge from the committee. For me, that would include, along with the basic affirmations of regenerate church membership and church discipline, three things: 1) a clear statement on the rationale, 2) a clear call for repentance for our past failures in this area and 3) a clear encouragement to denominational servants to be supportive of churches that seek to recover meaningful membership.

The rationale is important because if we do not acknowledge our problem, then the force of the resolved statements is diminished. The problem in the SBC is not that we have failed to affirm our commitment to regenerate church membership. We are on record in the Baptist Faith and Message that we do affirm it. Our problem is that we are not practicing what we profess and confess. By and large, our churches have drastically failed to maintain much of a practical commitment to our belief that the church is to be comprised of born again believers...only.

If a church only has 75% of its covenanted members actively participating then Baptists should regard that as a problem. But when only 35-40% of the members even regularly attend corporate worship once a week, its not just a problem, it is an ecclesiological catastrophe. It does not matter how many times we reaffirm our commitment to regenerate church membership as long as this tragic situation is not openly, plainly acknowledged to be a direct failure to honor God's Word in its teachings on what a church is and how it is to operate.

When our failure is acknowledged, then the only proper response for Christians is to repent. And if this is so, then why should we not say it and plainly call for it? Our Lord did not hesitate lovingly to call churches to repentance (read Revelation 2-3). Why should His followers be hesitant to do so?

Of all the complaints that I have heard about my motion the one that I find the most remarkable has to do with this--that it specifically, unashamedly calls for repentance. I don't understand the hesitancy, nor do I get why any Christian would be offended by such a call. The Gospel of Jesus Christ sets us free to repent. Christ died for our sins. He endured God's wrath for our ecclesiological failures as well as for our other sins. The Christian life is all about repentance and faith. We repent and believe every day. I don't have to pretend that I am better than I am--indeed, to do so is to cut myself off from the very grace that I need--because my standing with God is not based on my performance but on Christ's.

If we need to repent--and any failure to keep God's Word requires nothing less--then why should we not plainly admit that? I hope that the resolutions committee will see this the same way and will include plain language calling for repentance on any resolution that comes to the convention.

The need to encourage denominational leaders to "support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior's teachings on church discipline, especially when such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches" (as my resolution states) is important because too often the exact opposite has happened. When a church begins to take membership seriously once again and the statistics drop (when the membership roll goes from 900 to 200), some denominational employees might be tempted to speak and act in ways that disparage that church and its pastor rather than offering the encouragement and support that they need.

If these matters are included in a resolution that gets recommended to the convention, I will happily vote for it. If the resolution that comes before the convention does not have these emphases in it, then I will attempt respectfully to offer appropriate amendments from the floor.

Only the Lord knows what will happen. As I have said for the last two years, the passing of a resolution is not my goal. My desire is to see this issue highlighted in such ways that it can no longer be ignored so that pastors and churches will humbly return to the biblical practices that we say that we believe as Baptists. In many respects, that is already happening, for which I am very grateful to the Lord. If the passing of a resolution this year can further that cause, then I pray the Lord will bring it to pass.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Interview on the resolution

Paul Dean and Kevin Boling, hosts of the daily talk radio show, Calling for Truth, have asked me to join them Monday, May 19, 2008 1 PM Eastern time for their program. We are scheduled to talk about the resolution on integrity in church membership that I have submitted to the Resolutions Committee of Southern Baptist Convention.

You can listen to the program live or find an archived version of it after today at the Calling for Truth website. Click on the "Listen Online" button on the top right. Or, if you are in the Greensville, SC area, you may listen at Christiantalk 660. The phone number to use in order to participate in the conversation is 1-888-660-WLFJ(9535).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pray for Pastor Forrest Pollock and Bell Shoals Baptist Church

UPDATE: It has been confirmed that Pastor Pollock and his 13 year old son died when his plane went down in western North Carolina. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Pastor Forrest Pollock of Bell Shoals Baptist Church has been missing since leaving Brandon, Florida Sunday afternoon in his private plane for North Carolina. He was flying the plane, which never made it to its destination. Search crews on the ground and in the air are focusing on an area near Rutherfordton, NC where an emergency transmitter signal has been detected.

As you pray, remember his wife, Dawn, their 6 children (15-9 years old), the church, and the search crews.

Regular updates are being posted on the church's website.

Monday, May 12, 2008

2008 Founders Conference

Early registration ends soon for the 2008 Founders Conference scheduled for June 24-27 in Oklahoma. Speakers include Ed Stetzer, Voddie Baucham, Tom Nettles, Don Whitney, Andy Davis, Ted Christman and Phil Newton. These men will address issues related to church reformation and church planting.

I cannot think of a more important and urgent need for evangelicals within and beyond the SBC. By almost any method of evaluation many if not most of our churches are in need of spiritual revitalization. The need for new, healthy churches is widespread. The nexus of efforts to address both needs is the Gospel itself.

Register online or email for more information.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Rainer on pastoral malpractice and its remedy

Thom Rainer is the CEO of LifeWay. This article addresses an important issue--the most important issue--facing churches and pastors today, namely, the futility and eternal damage that accompanies the neglect of the Gospel. Wise and good words that are badly needed in our day.

The Gospel remedies pastoral malpractice
By Thom S. Rainer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- I would consider pastoral malpractice among the greatest treasons a minister can commit against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, it is practiced weekly without inhibition.

What do I mean by pastoral malpractice? I mean ministers who stand and preach a gospel other than God's rightful need for punitive justice against our sin and His wrath being appeased by pouring out upon Christ judgment intended for us. He in turn sets us in right legal standing before Himself, through faith in what Jesus has done, while simultaneously giving to us His holy righteousness.

Regrettably, too many evangelical churches have become centers for motivational speaking where congregants learn that "God helps those who help themselves;" that sin is something that keeps us from reaching our full potential, not an infinite offense against the Creator who demands from His creation unblemished righteousness.

The apostle Paul tells us that humans inherently know we are separated from God by our sin and we try to suppress that truth through drugs, sex, greed, power, alcohol, etc. Sadly, too often when desperate individuals arrive in our churches looking for a solution they get messages about how to improve their lives or their relationships, but the Gospel is absent in the remedy. J.I. Packer, in his quintessential work, Knowing God, correctly writes:

"We have all heard the Gospel presented as God's triumphant answer to human problems -- problems of our relation with ourselves and our fellow humans and our environment. Well, there is no doubt that the Gospel does bring us solutions to these problems, but it does so by first solving a deeper problem -- the deepest of all human problems, the problem of man's relation with His Maker. And unless we make it plain that the solution to the former problems depends on the settling of this latter, we are misrepresenting the message and becoming false witnesses of God."

The reality is that fewer people are showing up in our churches to get even a watered down Gospel because the age of attractional evangelism is rapidly dying, as recent research shows. It is not enough to throw the doors open and shout at the culture, "Come in." Gospel malpractice goes beyond the pulpit and is a trait of a complacent church that limits the mandate of the Great Commission to an invitation to come when we are clearly told to "Go!"

How contemporary is Paul's letter to Timothy?

"But know this: difficult times will come in the last days. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the form of religion but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:1-5; HCSB).

I believe with every fiber of my being that the transformation of the church lies within the pages of the Bible. If individuals and churches are going to become effective incarnational witnesses in culture we must dig in. Paul, again to Timothy, says: "…you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

How my heart pleads with God to transform our churches to being training and equipping centers that send people out into culture to be Jesus’ ambassadors. I’m not talking pious moralists who point people to their sins, but servants who through humility and loving relationships point people to an all-sufficient Savior.

We must meet people in their context, but we must share the Gospel. Morality does not reconcile people to God; it comes through the Gospel of Christ.