Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Frank Page on Calvinism and Southern Baptists

SBC President, Frank Page, wrote an article for Baptist Press yesterday entitled, "Calvinism and Southern Baptists." He cites the recent Building Bridges conference and the research on the growth of Reformed theology within the SBC that LifeWay released in conjunction with that coference. Of the former he says,
Though I was unable to attend the conference, except for a very brief time of greeting, it is my understanding that the conference was a wonderful event where solid, healthy discussion took place.
Of the latter he comments,
The research portrays what many have imagined to be true. While around 10 percent of rank-and-file Southern Baptist pastors would consider themselves to be five-point Calvinists, a sizeable portion (29 percent) of recent seminary graduates would identify themselves in that particular way. In fact, over 60 percent of graduates of one of our seminaries identify themselves as five-point Calvinists.
In light of this theological renewal (at least, that is what I regard it to be), Dr. Page offer the following helpful opinion, "I believe that the issue of Calvinism is one that can be discussed within the family of Southern Baptists. I believe we need to have honest, open dialogue." So do I, and I greatly appreciate Dr. Page openly and honestly addressing it.

Echoing encouragements from Paige Patterson (and Danny Akin), Dr. Page encourages prospective pastors to be forthcoming about their theological commitments with regard to the doctrine of salvation and every other doctrine when dealing with pastor search committees. He also admonishes search committees to be very clear about "what they will allow regarding teaching in this area [of Calvinism]."

I add a hearty "amen" to his statements. But I also think it is necessary to inject a huge does or realism into the discussion at this point. Many of our Southern Baptist churches have not been very well taught on basic doctrinal issues. It would unkind and unproductive, therefore, for a pastoral candidate to employ theological jargon in a thoughtless way when interviewing with a search committee. Such language can be intimidating to some sincere believers and confusing to others. The goal is genuine understanding. Therefore both love and wisdom dictate speaking plainly and simply about one's doctrinal commitments when in the interview process.

In defense of my Calvinistic brothers, I need to point out that, too often, calls for them to "lay their cards on the table" actually thrust them onto the horns of a dilemma. What some mean by this is that you must bring up the term, "Calvinism" in your interview, or else you are being dishonest. I don't believe that is true. Furthermore, if a brother does mention the term then he is liable to be accused of "pushing" Calvinism. But if he doesn't, then he is being dishonest. It is, to say the least, an untenable position.

I encourage men to provide the search committee with a confession of faith that represents what the candidate believes. This can be a recognized confession or one that he himself has written. But it ought to be more thorough than brief. Don't try to hide your convictions. To do so is cowardly and dishonest and has no place in Gospel ministry. Try to explain your views in clear, concise language. If "Calvinism" as a term comes up, fine. Define it accurately and address it. If it doesn't come up, don't feel compelled to mention the word as some kind of test of honesty. Just be very clear about your biblical convictions.

In addition to Dr. Page's calls to both churches and pastoral candidates, I think it would be appropriate to make a similar call to denominational employees. They need to be scrupulously honest when speaking about the issue of Calvinism and Calvinists within the SBC. Enough caricatures and misrepresentations have been hurled about by denominational servants over the last few years to last for a lifetime. It is shameful and should be stopped. Also, those in such positions should be very careful not to impose themselves on local churches as if they were operating as bishops in an episcopacy. Local churches need to remember our Baptist polity and refuse to allow this to happen.

Finally, Dr. Page's concluding statements should be heeded by all:
It is incumbent upon all Southern Baptists that we study the Word of God clearly to see what it says about the salvation given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us be peaceful, Christ-like in our discussions, but let us be diligent in our study.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A signed letter to an anonymous professor

I posted the following comment on SBC Outpost in response to an anonymous letter posted there, purportedly by a professor at one of our 6 SBC seminaries. The author accuses Drs. Al Mohler and Paige Patterson of actions that he believes have dispirited faculty and administrators at Southern and Southwestern seminaries. Perhaps some of what he writes is true. Perhaps it is not. Here is what I wrote there in response.
I agree with the author of this letter on one point: His anonymous letter is an act of cowardice. What he has admitted is that he values his salaried position more than he values integrity and truth. if his accusations and charges are true then they are serious enough to declare openly and honestly. Sign your name, friend. Show your fellow Southern Baptists that you value truth and integrity more than money. Continued anonymity discredits everything you say and I, for one, refuse to put any credence in anonymous accusations.
It is time for those who care about the SBC to play the man, speak truth in love and leave the consequences to God. Boyd Luter says that this kind of anonymous post over at the Outpost is "barely even a work in progress" and calls it "a new idea" that he does not quite yet know how to handle. For what it is worth, I recommend that the Outpost handle anonymous letters by encouraging the authors of them either to man up or remain quiet in order to keep your paycheck while realizing that you are a part of the very problem over which you profess concern.
I have more to say on this issue and so I will express my thoughts in a letter of response to the anonymous professor.

Dear Sir or Madam:

After reading and rereading your letter what has become sadly obvious to me is that it demonstrates little understanding of biblical integrity and boldness. The accusations that you make under the cover of anonymity lack courage, plain and simple. You admit your reason, as if doing so justifies your action and alleviates your cowardly action.
I am writing to you anonymously because I do not want to lose my job as a seminary professor. Not that I feel worthy of being fired for what I am doing, but because I am concerned my president might do so for exposing these matters. No doubt some will equate my anonymity with cowardice. But of one thing I am sure: doing this has required more nerve than my years of silence watching good people--and the SBC--being hurt.
Your admission is an indictment of your failure of nerve. You have decided that maintaining a paycheck is more valuable than directly engaging the issues that cause you concern. So, rather than honor Jesus Christ in handling your concerns the way the Bible says to handle them, you sit in the shadows, under the cover of darkness and work like a sniper. Galatians 6:1, Matthew 18:15-18, and Paul's example in Galatians 2:11-21 all rebuke your way of handling your concerns.

While it may have required more nerve for you to write an anonymous letter than to sit back for years in silence while watching good people being hurt, your present action is nothing to applaud. In fact, it is to be greatly lamented by everyone who not only affirms inerrancy but is simple enough actually to believe that our inerrant Bible ought to be obeyed, even when doing so jeopardizes one's job.

You liken your actions to those in the conservative resurgence years ago who informed Southern Baptist church members of problems in our seminaries and institutions.
In the past the SBC was spared disaster when rank and file Southern Baptists became informed of how truly liberal our seminaries had become. Courageous trustees did not simply rubber stamp the presentations of liberal seminary administrations. Instead they investigated the concerns of Southern Baptists and took appropriate action when needed. Thank God! Though the issues now are different, courageous trustees are still needed for the long term health of our seminaries and ultimately our convention.
Courageous professors are also needed. But your method of informing Southern Baptists is far different from those who led out in the resurgence decades ago. Jerry Johnson did not make his accusations of problems at Southern Seminary anonymously. Tom Nettles and Russ Bush did not make their accusations anonymously. Paige Patterson did not make his accusations anonymously. They signed their names on their charges and were willing to endure the consequences, regardless of what they might be.

In 1980, when I was still a seminary student and just coming to understand the issues at stake in the denominational struggle, Dr. Patterson gave me a few hours of his time at his study in Dallas. When I asked him what he had learned thus far in his efforts to bring these issues to light, he said, "I have learned what I would never have imagined to be true--that so many Southern Baptist pastors are cowards." He went on to explain that a common refrain he was hearing went like this: "I am with you, brother. I believe in inerrancy and think we need to take a stand, but because of my position, I am not able to come out and speak on this openly."

I was young and idealistic then and shuddered at the thought of trying to minister with that kind of pressure. Now I am old and realistic and I realize that such pressure is self-imposed and arises from unbelief. I am not suggesting that I am in any way above those temptations. Rather, I am saying that they are temptations to sin and must be fought vigorously.

You also distance yourself from the "insensitive presentations and even coarse language" of some bloggers who have raised concerns similar to your own. I agree with you that some of the things that have been written on blogs have been over-the-top and are regrettable. But one thing that can be said about the bloggers who have done this--they signed their names to what they wrote. Some have readily provided substantial documentation for claims they have made. They didn't shoot from the shadows.

You obviously wrote this letter because you believe that in doing so you are bringing to light some serious problems in our SBC seminaries. The kinds of things that you mention ought to be addressed and not swept under any rug. What you have also unwittingly done is to display a far more urgent and serious problem than concerns me greatly. Simply stated, it is this: our future generations of pastors are being trained by professors who care more about their salaries than they do God's truth and honor! That, my brother or sister, is a problem of staggering magnitude.

I trust that you are in the minority among our Southern Baptist professors. You write, however, as if you would have us believe that that is not the case. I hope you are wrong. I hope that most of the professors whom we are employing to teach future pastors are made of stronger stuff than either to turn a blind eye to serious problems or to address them from the cover or anonymity.

You make this appeal to your readers:
My prayer is that you will consider whether the message is true rather than the praiseworthiness of the messenger.... I hope you likewise will not turn a deaf ear to me and other seminary professors who might find the courage to speak up.
If your message is true, then sign your name to it. It is hard to imagine a servant of the crucified Savior being unwilling to endure repercussions for speaking the truth openly in pursuit of His glory and honor. Follow the Scripture that you teach. Be an example to your students and your fellow Southern Baptists in demonstrating how to handle such serious matters in a biblical way.

Finally, I assure you, I and others will not turn a deaf ear to you and your colleagues if you ever do find the courage to speak up about sinful matters that need to see the light of day. Keep looking for such courage. Thus far, it has eluded you.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More on integrity in church membership

Check out Gene's insights at Triablogue. Curiouser and curiouser.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

BP reports Baptist Organization inflating numbers

It's true. Baptist Press published this article exposing the inflation of membership statistics by the denomination...the CBF denomination, that is. I wonder if we will ever see a story like this that focuses on integrity a little closer to home?

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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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