Sunday, June 17, 2007

Florida Baptist Truth Project: Send Amazing Grace to Florida Baptist Pastors

As I reported last week, Dr. John Sullivan, Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention, recently mailed out Dr. Jerry Vines' sermons entitled, "Baptist Battles," to every Southern Baptist pastor in Florida. Included in that series is an error-filled message entitled, "A Baptist and His Election: Calvinism."

Many pastors and other concerned Baptists have contacted me to express their displeasure over this action. Several have suggested that, in the interest of unity and fairness, the Executive Director should mail out material that presents the other side of the issues that Dr. Vines addresses. As the pastor of a cooperating Florida Baptist Convention church, I certainly agree with that suggestion. But as one who has witnessed this kind of misrepresentation from denominational leaders over the last 25 years, I am under no delusions that this will happen.

While no cooperative program money was spent to send out Dr. Vines' sermons, Dr. Sullivan reportedly was able to finance the mailing with the help of Eddie McClelland, President of Florida Baptist Financial Services. According to the article linked above, Mr. McClelland said that he was asked to raise money for this project. Dr. Sullivan, he said, asked him for a gift. He was unaware of the exact nature of the project. According to the article, he said, "I did not know it was political. Our agency doesn't get involved in politics. We serve all Florida Baptists."

I have been in contact with several Florida Baptist pastors (as well as many Southern Baptist pastors outside the state of Florida) who are very disappointed that those CDs were mailed from our state offices. A similar gaffe was made last year by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Their Executive Director apologized once he realized how inappropriate that action was.

At the suggestion of my brother, Bill, I have made a special arrangement with the producers of the Amazing Grace DVD to secure and distribute copies of this tool to the very pastors who received the "Baptist Battles" CDs. Subtitled, "The History and Theology of Calvinism," this two-disk DVD presentation contains more than 4 hours of professionally produced interviews, quotes and explanations of the issues surrounding the doctrines of grace. Among those interviewed are Dr. Tom Nettles, the most prominent historical theologian among Southern Baptists today. Also, Pastors Walt Chantry, Walter Bowie and yours truly contribute to the DVD. For a sample clip, go here.

It will only cost $20,000 to get a copy of this powerful presentation into the hands of every Southern Baptist pastor in Florida. A special fund has been established by Founders Ministries for this very purpose. Let me encourage you to contribute to this project, as you are able and are led by the Lord, to help give Florida Baptist pastors the other side of the story--the side that was seriously caricatured by Dr. Vines' sermon.

You can send your tax exempt contributions to:

Founders Ministries
PO Box 150931
Cape Coral, Florida 33915
ATTN: Florida Baptist Truth Project

You may also contribute online by using the button below.
Riverbend Church of Ormond Beach, Florida, under the leadership of Dr. Roy Hargrave, has offered to match up to $5000 that is given by July 8. That means that your gift can be doubled if you give in the next two weeks.

In addition to supporting this effort by giving, I am asking that over the next several weeks you commit to fast and pray that the Lord will use this project to renew and rekindle a deep love for His Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ not only in the churches of Florida but beyond them throughout the whole Southern Baptist Convention. Specifically, from June 24 through July 31, pray that those who receive this DVD would honestly watch it and open their hearts and minds to the truths from God's Word that it presents. Please encourage or lead your church to join in this prayer effort, as well.

Let me reiterate the purpose of this effort. The historic Southern Baptist understanding of salvation was blatantly misrepresented in the sermon sent out to Florida Baptist churches by our state Execuive Director. A growing number of pastors and churches in Florida believe the Bible teaches exactly that historic perspective. Thus, we and our churches were severely and widely misrepresented and the truth that we proclaim was caricatured to our fellow pastors and sister churches by our own state convention leadership. In an attempt to right this wrong, we are asking for all who love the doctrines of God's sovereign grace and are weary of seeing them distorted beyond recognition by Southern Baptist leaders to join with us in making the Amazing Grace DVD available to Florida Baptist pastors and churches.

We have no interest in division or in being contentious. We do have an interest in truth. We believe what we believe because we think the Bible teaches it. We understand that not everyone shares our convictions. But we desire of ourselves and ask of others, not to misrepresent the views of their brothers and sisters with whom they disagree on these vitally important issues.

For the cause of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, please pray that His truth will prevail and that we will all be humbled before it.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Denominational integrity and controversy in the Florida Baptist Convention

On Thursday, May 29, I received a phone call from Ryan Helms, pastor of New Zion Baptist Church near Bonifay, Florida. Ryan is a faithful bi-vocational pastor who has labored for 6 years shepherding this rural congregation with expositional preaching and loving pastoral care. As one of the church's members told me recently, because of their deep love for their pastor, they would follow him anywhere he led them as long as it was according to the Word of God.

Ryan called me to tell me about a meeting that had taken place a week earlier in the Holmes Baptist Association in northern Florida and to ask me if there was division in our local Baptist association. In April, the Director of Missions of Holmes Association (in which Ryan's church participates), arranged for staff from the Florida Baptist Convention to lead a conference for their associational officers to learn how to use the church planting training for small church revitalization. The conference was to be limited in scope and exclusively for the associational leadership. The concern was to promote church health through church planting training. It was scheduled for May 22.

Shortly after arranging this conference, the DOM resigned his position in order to go plant a church in the midwest. The pastor of First Baptist Church of Bonifay had become upset with this DOM due to his perception of the DOM's Calvinistic convictions. FBC announced that they were pulling their financial support from the association after Paul left because the association "lacked purpose." Three weeks before the scheduled church health conference, Kent Lampp, the acting moderator received an email from Rick Lawrence, Director of Church Planting Department for the Florida Convention, informing him that he must invite the pastor of the FBC to attend the May 22 meeting, despite the previous explanation that the meeting was to be small and exclusively for associational officers. After some emails back and forth, Kent invited the staff of FBC to attend.

Two days before the meeting, the moderator was informed that Cecil Seagle was also going to attend the meeting. Mr. Seagle is Director of the Missions Division and South Florida Urban Impact Ministries for the Florida Baptist Convention. When the May 22 meeting came around, Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Seagle were accompanied by Jim Robinette, the Director of Church Planning and Revitalization Department for the Florida Convention.

These 3 executives from the state convention met with 6 ministers (two of whom were accompanied by their wives), including the pastor and staff member from FBC, Bonifay. The meeting, according to Pastor Helms, never addressed the announced topic. Nothing on church health. Nothing on church planting training. Rather, as copious notes from that meeting state,
Florida Baptist Convention staff had communicated that this meeting would be about small church health. Paul Fries (former DOM for HBA), had requested that key staff be taken through the church planting training and use it as small church renewal. Attendees had no idea that associational division would be a topic of discussion. The meeting began as a purpose development for the Holmes Baptist Association. This was discussed up to the dinner.
These notes were taken during the meeting and six of those in attendance reviewed them and revised them for accuracy after the meeting. All six have declared them to be a very careful and accurate recounting of what happened that night. You can download a pdf of the complete notes here. I am making them public with permission from Rev. and Mrs. Kent Lampp-Moderator of Holmes Baptist Association, Rev. Eddie Eaton-Missions Director of HBA, Rev. and Mrs. Ryan Begue-Director of Evangelism, HBA, Rev. Ryan N. Helms-Director of Discipleship, HBA.

Those notes indicate that the meeting quickly devolved into a session given over to concerns about Calvinism and those who hold to the doctrines of grace, particularly in the state of Florida. Once I got a copy of these notes, and verified that six participants had all agreed that they are a very accurate representation of what was said at that meeting, I called Cecil Seagle at the Florida Convention offices on June 4 and again on June 6. He returned my call on the afternoon of the 6th.

The reason I called him is because the six witnesses from the Holmes Association said that Mr. Seagle expressed concerns about me in particular after he took over the meeting to speak against the evils and dangers of Calvinism in the SBC. According to these six--5 of whom are not Calvinists!--Mr. Seagle referred to the "Founder's Club" and my blog and the influence we are having. Particularly, the notes indicate, I am responsible for seriously dividing my local Baptist association over the issues of the doctrines of grace.

That accusation was very alarming to me and my fellow elders, since we have been under the impression that Grace Baptist Church has a very harmonious relationship with the Royal Palm Baptist Association. Before calling Mr. Seagle we met with Everett Rafferty, the DOM for the RPBA and asked him to speak to this charge. He said (and he gave me permission to quote him), "There is not a shred of truth to it." Everett said that we have one of the most unified associations in the state and that my theology has never been a problem in the association.

I was prepared to report this to Mr. Seagle when we spoke, but he denied ever having made that accusation. He said that Ryan Helms completely misrepresented what happened in the May 22 meeting and that he was at that meeting at the direction of Dr. John Sullivan, his boss. He assured me that he had never had a conversation about me or my theology, that he was not "anti-Tom Ascol," or "anti-Calvinism." In fact, he told me that he did not see how anyone could read the Bible without recognizing that Calvinism has a great deal of truth in it. This surprised me, due to what the notes said, and what others have reported about Mr. Seagles' views on this matter over the years. Nevertheless, I am always willing to give a man the benefit of the doubt. So, I asked Mr. Seagle how we should account for the discrepancy between his report and what was written in the notes of the meeting. He portrayed it simply as a difference of opinion between him and Ryan Helms.

Of course, as I reminded him, that is not an accurate portrayal of this impasse. What we have is the testimony of 6 witnesses that contradict his own testimony. He indicated that the number of witnesses did not give him any reason to back off of his denials.

I have since learned that, at the request of the associational leadership, Pastor Helms called Mr. Seagle before I spoke to him, and asked Mr. Seagle to apologize to the Holmes Association for several specific things, including slandering the former DOM, Paul Fries, being deceptive about the purpose of the meeting and attempting to lead the association in a discussion on disciplining Calvnists. Mr. Seagle believes he owes no apology to the association.

I understand that today Dr. Sullivan told leadership in that association that he stands by Mr. Seagle and does not believe that he did anything wrong. He has stated that as far as he is concerned the matter is over.

This whole series of events is tragic for several reasons. I will only outline them here. But it does not take much biblical wisdom or Baptist conviction to fill out the details.

1. The May 22 meeting gives the appearance of being a set up by the state convention. It was announced to be about church health, but became a meeting about Calvinism and associational divisiveness. It looks like the meeting was hijacked by those whose job it is to serve the churches that had invited them to meet in the first place. This is a severe violation of Baptist polity and is an assault on the autonomy of local churches.

2. According to the six witnesses, a denominational employee, who works for them and their churches, attempted to intimidate them with accusations about people and theological positions. One of the people mentioned was the much-loved former DOM, Paul Fries. The pastors did not accept it when his character was called into question, something which, from all appearances, Mr. Seagle did not anticipate.

3. The discrepancy between Mr. Seagle's version of what happened at the meeting and that of the six witnesses raises serious issues of integrity. If the state office attempts to sweep this under the rug for the sake of friendships or a supposed "peace" or "unity," the consequences will be devastating. Such a coverup will undermine the kind of trust that is absolutely essential if a convention of churches is to move forward in cooperation. This truth will not be difficult to ascertain. It is done every day in courtrooms across our nation. Simply get the principal parties together, let them each testify and see where the preponderance of evidence leads. Where inaccuracy is discovered, correct it. Where sin or deception is discovered, rebuke it. But do not turn a blind eye toward all of this and announce that it is over. That would be a collosal failure of leadership and dishonoring to the God of truth. Followers of Jesus are to be lovers of truth. Let's pursue it together and if it is discovered that some who are among us are standing against the truth, then, as brothers, let's seek to correct and restore them.

This issue is not about Calvinism. It is about integrity at every level of our denominational structure. Here is what I hope will NOT happen:

1. Attempting to turn this into a Ryan Helms vs. Cecil Seagle misunderstanding. There are 6 witnesses who testify to the accuracy of the notes of the May 22 meeting. Mr. Seagle says that he is not guilty of the things that those notes indicate he did and said. Dr. Sullivan, who was not at the meeting, has indicated that he is standing by Mr. Seagle and that the matter is closed. It is not closed. Florida Baptists deserve to know if their servants, whose salaries they pay, are undermining the autonomy of local Baptist churches in the way that the Holmes Association notes indicate.

2. Attempting to turn this into a disagreement over Calvinism. Though what Mr. Seagle reportedly did and said has serious implications about the Florida Baptist Convention's attitude toward those pastors and churches in the state that believe the doctrines of grace, that is not the issue. The issue is all about Baptist polity and, more importantly, integrity at every level of our denominational structure in the state. It is worth noting that 5 of the supporters of the notes of that May 22 meeting are not Calvinists! The issue raised by these events transcend our doctrinal differences at this point.

Here is what I hope WILL happen:

1. That Dr. Sullivan will call for a meeting of principal parties in this controversy and, face-to-face, faciliate a search for the truth of what really happened in the May 22 meeting. My prayer is that anyone who is misrespresenting truth will be humbled and so confident in the Gospel that he or she will repent and demonstrate the power of God in the lives of His people.

2. That the state convention leadership will take this opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to our long-cherished Baptist polity of local church autonomy and commitment to integrity among all its staff.

3. That the Holmes Baptist Association will have its hope and confidence restored in the Florida Baptist Convention.

4. That all Florida Baptists will be motivated to pray for our churches and state denominational servants, that the Lord will enable us to move forward in evangelizing our great state with its residents and guests from around the world.

Pray that the Lord will overrule these events to bring about good to His people and glory to His name, and that repentance and forgiveness will prevail in the fractured relationships between those involved.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Florida Pastors sent anti-Calvinist propaganda

Just before leaving the state of Florida on my way to Texas for the Southern Baptist Convention next week, our family stopped to visit dear friends who live in the panhandle. As we shared dinner in their home with another pastor and his family, I was informed of a "care package" that arrived today in the mailboxes of pastors throughout the state.

It seems that Dr. John Sullivan, the Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention, has mailed a set of Jerry Vines' sermons entitled, "Baptist Battles," to ever pastor in the Florida Baptist Convention. These are sermons that Dr. Vines preached at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, GA last year. One of those messages is entitled, "Calvinism, A Baptist and His Election." I reviewed that sermon not long after it was preached.

I ended my assessment of that mistake-laden message with these words:
One final observation: Dr. Vines' message screams for a response from denominational leaders who never hesitate to issue warnings to Southern Baptist Calvinists whom they label "Calvinazis" and charge with being more willing to fly across the country to debate Calvinism than to cross the street to witness to a lost person. Wouldn't it make sense that those who issue such warnings should feel some compulsion to issue them in both directions? Will this kind of complete misrepresentation of the theological heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention and the theological convictions of thousands of Southern Baptist pastors be given a pass by denominational leadership? If recent history is any indicator, that is exactly what we can expect.
Little did I know. Not only has the denominational leadership of my own state convention given Dr. Vines a pass on this sermon, they have used God's money to send it to every Southern Baptist in the state!

This mailing comes on the heels of a very egregious attempt last week by a state convention executive to intimidate pastors in a local association in our state over the issue of Calvinism--a matter into which I have been drawn and that I am in the midst of personally investigating in hopes of seeing it resolved. So far I have been unsuccessful in getting this person to return my phone call. At least one pastor who has spoken with people in the denominational state office about this affair has been disappointed in the response.

I don't know what is going on in Jacksonville, but I hope to find out. This much is clear: the mailing of Dr. Vines' sermon on Calvinism is a clear indication that the Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention has an agenda to demonize the ministers and churches in our state who believe what the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed regarding the grace of God in salvation. This is a serious matter. Very serious.

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