Earlier this week, I read a blog post on Between The Times (A blog of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). The post involved someone in SBC life calling Ed Stetzer a “traitor” for his leadership of LifeWay’s Gospel Project curriculum. The central issue seems to be that the Gospel Project has used quotes frequently from non-SBC theologians and voices to illuminate theological points.
I have to admit that I really haven’t spent any time at all trying to discover who said this about Ed or the context in which it was said. Ultimately, that really matters little to me. I think the critique is thinly veiled and is adding fuel to the Calvinist/Traditionalist controversy in the SBC. What does matter to me is the tone of the entire debate over Calvinist/Traditionalist Theology in the SBC, and the debate’s practical significance. After much time and reflection, I am ready to declare that I am done with this discussion and the vitriolic rhetoric that seems to surround it coming from people on both side of the debate. To be sure, there are gentlemanly contributors to the discussion on both sides, but there are far too many who are spewing verbal hatred, garbage, and half-truths against brothers and sisters in Christ with whom they disagree. In the end, I believe that we have drawn the lines of “right” and “left” hand theological issues in the wrong places. We are breaking fellowship over issues that should not divide us, and I am skeptical about many of the core reasons.
The central difference in this controversy has the appearance of being over Soteriology, but I am really not sure anymore. I will admit that I am a theological lightweight in comparison to many who are more deeply entrenched on both sides. My Ph.D. in Christian Education is probably the greatest evidence of my flyweight position in what many consider to be a heavyweight battle, but in my simple, practical way of looking at things, I really fail to see why the divide has become so sharp if the gospel is truly our greatest motivation.
Stay with me here. Suppose you are the most Reformed Southern Baptist alive. (I’m not talking about a hyper-Calvinist SBCer–I have encountered as many Sasquatches as I have SBC hyper-Calvinists. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine the missions emphasis of the SBC would be an environment that a hyper-Calvinist could stand.) But, if you are a Calvinist who believes that salvation is all a work of God with no free will participation of man, then how does that belief influence how you interpret you are to live? Or, on the other hand, if you are a fully devoted Arminian SBCer (I have equally never met a single person who meets this description. I can’t imagine that a person with this convictional base would find comfort in the SBC where eternal security is such a position of strong agreement). Nevertheless, if you are an Arminian who believes you can walk away from a commitment to Christ nearly as easily as losing your car keys, how should you live? Really, the answer both questions is simple and the same.
No matter which extreme side of this divide you might inhabit, your behavior should be the same. The thorough-going Calvinist should share his faith with everyone because he is totally committed to the sovereignty of God, and Christ directly commanded us to be His witnesses from home to the ends of the earth. The thorough-going Arminian should behave exactly the same because he is convinced that everyone faces the peril of eternity separated from God because anyone can walk away from Christ at any time. So, fundamentally, while the difference in theological position is not insignificant, it shouldn’t have one whit of effect of the behavior of people in a denomination where our doctrinal differences are within the limits of these polar opposites.
Here is the problem. We aren’t seeing Southern Baptists in either camp actually live out Christ’s command to be witnesses in overwhelming numbers. It’s not the other guy. The problem is me and you and our churches. Our denominational baptism rates are in decline, and they have been for decades. It has become en vogue to lay blame at the feet of Reformed-leaning SBCers. Calvinists aren’t to blame. Calvinist leading denominational agencies aren’t to blame. This problem didn’t begin on their watch nor did it begin on the watch of most of today’s Traditionalist leaders. I have come to believe the real problem is rooted in a mechanical, programmatic approach to teaching/learning/building community/fulfilling the Great Commission that began decades ago. Many of our churches, our agencies and our denomination itself became rigid organizations. As much as many tried to fight it, the perpetuation of the entities at all levels became a significant concern for the people in them and those leading them.
Not everything we have done is wrong and not all churches have fallen into this trap, but the general trend is undeniable. We became too interested in making sure that our organizations remained viable and too unconcerned in the reason our organizations existed, making disciples through the gospel. As a people, we lost sharing Christ as our first love long before the Calvinism/Traditionalism discussion was a blip on anyone’s radar. Folks making this assertion that this controversy is the pressing crisis facing Southern Baptists are perpetuating a red herring. The wheels aren’t coming off the wagon because of theology. The wheels are coming off the SBC wagon because we are more interested in fighting than cooperating. We are more gratified by taking hold of the power, prestige, and budgets of SBC institutions than on obedience to the Great Commission. There, I said it, and I believe it with all my heart.
I believe that God can bring revival to and through churches of the SBC if He chooses, but we have to recognize that He does not need us. We all live and serve as a privilege, and it is high time that we start acting like we remember that as disciples, churches, and as a denomination. God has trusted us as stewards of the gospel and of great resources.
As for me, I am “tapping out” of the Calvinist/Traditionalist controversy in the SBC. There is a world that is waiting to hear the gospel, and there is no doubt about my responsibility there. If you need me, that’s where I’ll be.