Features

Choosing Calvinism?

National | Reformation-minded Southern Baptists seek to return the SBC to its historic roots

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

When Pastor Tom Ascol of Cape Coral, Fla., looks out across the Southern Baptist Convention, he has mixed feelings. The SBC seems healthy enough. With 15 million reported members, it remains the nation's largest Protestant denomination. It has more than 4,000 foreign missionaries serving in 175 countries and about that many domestic missionaries. Giving is up. Some 10,000 students were enrolled in the SBC's six seminaries this year. The schools, along with SBC boards and agencies, are under the control of theological conservatives, thanks to a takeover that began in the late 1970s. But take a closer look, and troubling signs can be seen, says Mr. Ascol, who doubles as volunteer executive director of a theological reform group known as Founders Ministries. Studies show that only half of the 15 million members contribute to a church or attend a church service at least once a year, he notes. Many members have moved away but are carried on the books as "nonresident members," and 20 percent are listed as "inactive." "Shallow evangelism," he complains, "has filled our church rolls with unconverted members." Moral relativism has taken its toll, too, Mr. Ascol adds; many members exhibit a lack of true spiritual commitment. Church discipline has largely disappeared: Members can live in open immorality with no response from their churches, he says. "What did Baptists at the turn of the century have that we don't?" he asks. "Doctrine. Not just any old doctrine-but sound doctrine." To Pastor Ascol and his colleagues at Founders Ministries, "sound doctrine" means the historic "doctrines of grace," the core theology of John Calvin, the 16th-century Swiss reformer. Revered preachers Charles Haddon Spurgeon, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, and missionary William Carey were all Calvinists, Founders folk point out. Founders Ministries began as a small conference in 1983 to explore theological renewal in the SBC. Similar conferences have been held every summer since then and now attract hundreds of pastors, teachers, students, and lay leaders. The conferences are held at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., but regional conferences also are sprouting. Founders publishes a journal and maintains a website (www. founders.org). Founders' leaders say they want to see far more expository preaching in SBC pulpits, more substance in evangelism, discipline in the pews, and "biblical re-formation" of members. However, the going is slow. Many pastors and churches are engrossed in studies and efforts to replicate the Willow Creek and Saddleback Community Church megachurch models of growth and ministry. Also, once-ostracized charismatics in the SBC are beginning to gain acceptance and are promoting renewal that emphasizes "spiritual gifts," not theology. (Hundreds of SBC pastors were in the large crowd that attended a recent "Fresh Oil and New Wine" conference at Central Baptist Church in Chattanooga.) And there is outright resistance to Calvinism on the part of many clergy, teachers, and leaders throughout the SBC. Some use "Calvinism" as a descriptive "pejoratively to refer to fatalism and falsely say that it is opposed to evangelism," Mr. Ascol says. "Nothing could be farther from the truth." But others are more studied in their opposition. They say that the biblical doctrine of election as enunciated by Calvin, wherein God chooses some to be saved, leads to "reprobation"-some people are bound for hell, and it is useless to try to change the outcome. Under Calvin's view of the will, incapacitated by depravity, a person becomes essentially a robot, they argue. Such teachings, they warn, threaten the basis of evangelism. (Many Baptists adhere to the view that election is in some way linked to God's omniscience, and man, though fallen, nevertheless has the capability to choose between spiritual options.) In defense against the purported dangers of their position, the Calvinists argue that God uses means, such as human evangelism, to bring about His will, and that the Bible portrays faith as an absolute gift from God. They keep pointing to London preacher Spurgeon and other soul-winning Baptists in the 1800s whose theology propelled, not impeded, their ministry. Among those who have locked horns on the issue are Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Seminary and one of the architects of the conservatives' rise to power in the SBC, and Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky., the SBC's flagship theological school. Mr. Patterson has been vocal about his opposition to Calvinism. The pair conferred recently about their differences, and last month Mr. Patterson addressed Southern's faculty and students. Sources told WORLD he delivered a conciliatory message. He emphasized that SBC's Calvinist and non-Calvinist conservatives have much in common, the sources said, and it would be tragic if the disagreement caused a split. The clear message: Cool it. Mr. Ascol's mixed feelings aren't likely to go away soon.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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