Thursday, March 11, 2010

Making Labels (Smoking Out Calvinists, Pt 2)

In several of the older churches in my association, a room just off the foyer to the sanctuary is dedicated to a display of the church’s formative documents. Minutes of the organizational meeting include a list of all the members, who the pastor was, who served as deacons, and who served as elders. The Statements of Faith for these churches closely track the Philadelphia Confession (1742), the Second London Confession (1689), or at least affirm doctrines of grace, with copious favorable references to “election” and “predestination.”

Despite the fact that many contemporary members – should they venture into these rooms and read the documents in them – would stroke out at the notion that their church once had elders and once approved such “Calvinistic” concepts – these documents accurately reflect the truth that Southern Baptist life has been characterized by a strong Reformed, Calvinist, Doctrines-of-Grace element from its inception.

On the other hand, there have also been faithful believers in the SBC who have not accepted all of the Five Points of Calvinism (or Reformed doctrine, or the Doctrines of Grace), who have nevertheless engaged the church’s mission to proclaim God’s glory through making disciples of all nations right alongside Five-Pointers and others who not only tip-toe through, but frolic in, the T.U.L.I.P.s. For example, I worked with a friend in college ministry and on mission trips who claimed to be a 1-Point Calvinist (Perseverance, I think), with no adverse effects on the ministry and no after-hours fisticuffs.

Given this historical context, it is somewhat surprising that there would arise such acrimony against all things Calvinistic. (See “Smoking Out Calvinists” in this site and Tom Ascol’s article.) There are, to be sure, church members and pastors who hold to Calvinism and who haven’t quite left the “cage stage” of their understanding of the Doctrines of Grace. Real and significant problems have attended their congregations and pulpits where charity has not tempered their zeal.

Yet the lack of charity is not a malady exclusive to Reformed circles. Arminians and semi-Pelagians can be just as hostile and unyielding. A thoroughly Arminian Sunday school department leader adamantly refused to go along with anything proposed by the Director because he was (so she thought) “a Calvinist”, hindering the function of the group even in matters not dealing with the disputed doctrine. An official state SBC conference speaker referred to Calvin as a “shade tree theologian” only interested in peddling his Institutes and presumably considered him a greater threat to evangelical Christianity than Islam and false converts.

A church search committee has every reason to avoid calling a pastor who will “split the church.” Yet it is avoiding its “sacred duty” when it supposes that it can check off a few boxes on a “watch list”, or ask a prospective pastor “Yes or No: Are you Calvinist?” and justifiably label him a church-splitter to be studiously avoided.

The problem for churches and pastors today is that both sides of the soteriological divide have been characterized by such inaccurate stereotypes. Not all Calvinists preach from a T.U.L.I.P. soapbox, seeking to browbeat and arm-twist every congregant to his brand of soteriology. Not all Arminians or Wesleyans picture Jesus wringing his hands and fretting over his impotence to save men without their cooperation.

What can a church and its pastor search committee do to ensure they address their legitimate concerns fairly and appropriately? I address that next in “Checking Under the Hood (Smoking Out Calvinists, Pt 3).”

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