In the past year a number of prominent leaders within our Convention have been passionately speaking against Calvinism and Calvinist churches. Most of the time a straw man is set up and knocked down. It is very easy to dismiss a caricature of Calvinism rather than the exegetical work that tradition has produced. Lately I have been hearing ridiculous charges leveled against this small but growing segment of our Convention. It goes something like this; "You people are semi-Presbyterian, anti-evangelistic, church killers." I believe we need to engage and challenge these assertions, though I will not do that in detail here. I will respond to them, but I primarily want to make one point - what I believe the real problem is in our Convention. Presbyterianism is a branch of Christianity that traces its heritage back to John Calvin. They practice infant baptism and hold to a form of church government that is a hierarchy. Each church is controlled by the elders, and each church must answer to a local Presbytery, which answers to a General Assembly. In one sense, the essence of Presbyterianism is church order, not soteriology. Many Presbyterian churches, and even whole branches, have distanced themselves from Calvin; yet they remain "Presbyterian."
In no sense are we, as Calvinist churches in the SBC, Presbyterian, or even semi-Pres'. By definition our churchnes are autonomous and do not answer to a presbytery, synod or general assembly. The presence of elders is not anti-baptistic either, for many of our Baptist churches throughout history have used elders as a part of their church government. For an excellent treatment of this check out Mark Dever's work here. of course we do not believe infant baptism is a valid form of baptism. Baptists affirm credo-baptism; immersion in water, as a believer, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
That Calvinists are anti-evangelistic is perhaps the most common criticism. To be honest, most of the time this comes from those who do not understand that many of our greatest missionaries and evangelists were "five point Calvinists." John Bunyan, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey just to name a few. A cursory reading of Baptist history will reveal Calvinists to have been very evangelistic and motivated to share Christ because of the doctrine of election (I may elaborate on that in a subsequent post). Though we may not use the "altar call," we do publicly invite people to repent of their sins, believe in Jesus Christ and find forgiveness for their sins. We call people to respond today, and we do so with urgency. If you want to see pure Calvinism work itself evangelistically read some puritan sermons.
Are we church killers? Certainly no more than anyone else. A look at our own Convention's stats will reveal bloated numbers of "conversions" with two thirds disappearing into the ether never to be seen again. Many Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or declining, many of our church plants are failing, and all of this with a very small percentage of Calvinist theology in the mix.
Here is my point. You see, I don't think our big problem is Calvinism, nor do I think it is Wesleyan or Amyraldian theology. I don't even think our problem is arrogant big-mouths who pick fights with those they disagree with creating division with little justification. We have a little of all of this in our Convention, but something else is killing us.
Our problem, both for the Calvinist and the non-Calvinist, is a lack of "heart religion." Our problem, both for the Calvinist and the non-Calvinist, is a lack of "heart religion." Many Calvinists fashion an idol out of the gold of pure theology and bow down to it. We are sometimes more in love with a system than we are with God and neighbor, and therefore do little more than indoctrinate the converted. It is easy for us to become proud because we
are right so strongly believe we are right. Others are more in love with programs, presentation, and growth (not conversions). They bow at the altar of worldly success and forget about the two greatest commandments. They become proud because they have the numbers.
The weakness of our churches in the SBC have little, if anything, to do with Calvinism or superficial church growth strategies. Our weakness comes from a lack of love. I believe this to be true because God has used people, both Arminian and Calvinists, to advance his mission. DL Moody was powerfully used by God, a man who admittedly was no great theologian, and one with whom I find many theological shortcomings. But he clearly loved God and his neighbor and was useful as God's servant. Spurgeon, George Whitefield, John Wesley and Billy Graham have all been instruments of God on the grand scale despite the variances in their theological convictions.
You see, I don't believe our screwed up theology can hinder God's work. He saves in spite of the errors in my doctrine, and he will save in spite of yours. This does not mean theology is irrelevant. On the contrary, if we truly love God we will seek to know him and make him known. This lies at the heart of theology. We must discuss, debate, disagree, and perhaps persuade - but in it all we should be able to cooperate together.
I would perfer to see more humility among all of the brothers, starting with me. We should be able to see our own problems before we see other's. We should be repenting together because of the greater sins we have in common. I pray that we will, and that God will revive his people.