Aspect 6(b): A Mission Centered on the Gospel (spats, straw men, infighting)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Numerous spats center on method and practice. In such cases, it is wise to ask whether the practice at hand is based upon biblical command, apostolic precedent, or local tradition.[1] If it is based upon biblical command, then there is no question that it must be obeyed. If it is based on apostolic precedent, then it demands our attention but nonetheless is not a biblical injunction. We pay close and careful attention to apostolic practices, but some of those practices were contextual (such as taking missionary trips in wooden boats without electricity) and may be modified for today. If it is based on local (non-universal) traditions that have been handed down from believers in times past, we may respect those traditions, and seek to understand why they were formed and whether they might be helpful for us today, but we are not beholden to them.

One of the most lively and long-running of Baptist controversies centers on the issue of Calvinism. Entire forests have been chopped down to provide paper for Baptist pens to argue this issue. On the one hand, there are some Calvinists who would not work together for the gospel with a non-Calvinist, because a non-Calvinist “does not truly preach the gospel.” On the other hand, there are some non-Calvinists who caricature all Calvinists as hyper-Calvinists. Nearly everybody in Baptist life has an opinion on this issue, and many are willing to dispense jokes, caricatures, and sometimes even slander toward their opponents. It is our opinion that the areas of disagreement between Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists are usually not even secondary, but tertiary. Calvinists should be able to recognize that non-Calvinists are preaching “the gospel” even if they disagree on the particulars. Non-Calvinists should not dismiss all Calvinists as hyper-Calvinists because they are not. Historically, Southern Baptists have partnered together in spite of differences on this issue, precisely because it is not primary.

Distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials, and managing to keep fellowship and partnership without compromise, is not easy. We must pray for God’s wisdom in doing so. “We need to recognize,” writes David Dockery, “that in essentials of the Christian faith, there is no place for compromise. Faith and truth are primary issues, and we stand firm in those areas. Sometimes we confuse primary and secondary issues. In secondary issues and third-level and fourth-level issues, we need mostly love and grace as we learn to disagree agreeably. We want to learn to love one another in spite of differences and to learn from those with whom we differ.”[2] But distinguish we must. We cannot allow ourselves to be sidetracked, or worse, shipwrecked, because of unnecessarily heated or extended argument over particular issues. For the sake of the billions who have never heard the gospel, we must rid ourselves of fundamentalist infighting that distracts from, and contradicts, the proclamation of the gospel.

[1] By “apostolic precedent,” we mean those practice of the apostles that are described in the New Testament. Some apostolic precedent is to be imitated (e.g. church planting) while other apostolic practices are neutral and context-specific, not necessarily applying to us today (e.g. writing on parchment with large letters, taking our mission trips on wooden boats).

[2] Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 144.

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  1. Mike Gore   •  

    I guess I have to ask the question at my young age, but how does this work with our very different theological perspectives? Calvinists and Non-Calvinists do not seem to be fighting on non-essentials. We differ on our views of God, man, sin, salvation, the work of the Spirit, etc. These issues aren’t non-essentials, but deep foundations of the Christian life. I am not saying we cannot work together, but it seems once again we are trying to sweep the issues under the rug for unity. These issues are not secondary or below issues. These issues shape the way we read our bible, the way we preach, the way we worship, they way we live, and the way we reach out to the dying world with Jesus.

    I think the issues are more important than we think.

  2. Tim Rogers   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    So, would believers baptism be a particular issue that allows us to be sidetracked, or worse, shipwrecked, because of unnecessarily heated or extended argument?


  3. chadwick   •  


    Good word! :D

  4. Joel Rainey   •  

    These issues are important . . .important enough to discuss and debate in a way that results in “iron-sharpening.” The point of this article, as I understand it, is that these issues are not so important as to result in political posturing, unBiblical division, and the sort of conflict that detracts from Gospel proclamation to the nations.

    I happen to have a different point of view on the issue of Calvinism than Drs. Akin and Ashford, and we have discussed it before personally in a way that was mutually challenging and beneficial. I say that to point out that these men do not sweep issues like this “under the rug,” and I do not believe for a second that this is the approach they are advocating. I would say (and I think they would agree) that we need to arrive at a place where these issues can be discussed without drawing lines of demarcation, fixing bayonets and going to war with each other. We may disagree about the particular roles played by God’s sovereignty and our personal choices respectively. But at the end of the day, we agree that people are under the judgement of God, Christ died as a substitute for sin, rose bodily, and calls all men everywhere to repent and believe. We agree that without such repentance and faith, these will spend eternity separated from God in hell, and we agree that the church and her missionaries are the means by which God intends for them to hear.

    With these common understandings, I would gladly go to the mission field with either of these men, share Christ alongside of them, and if neccesary, die with them for the sake of the Gospel. Debates that detract us from that common commitment are inconsistent with the history of Baptist cooperation, unfaithful to the missional heritage we have been granted, and treason against the commands of our High King.

    Bravo gentlemen, for issuing this challenge!

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  6. Benji Ramsaur   •  

    I think there needs to be a distinction between what needs to be the fences in the Southern Baptist playground and the freedom to play within those fences.

    For example, I think substitutionary atonement needs to be a fence–a boundary–that folks do not need to climb over. However, I also think there needs to be room to play concerning whether it is limited or particular.

    Accordingly, I think persuasion within the boundaries needs to be free game. In other words, folks from both sides of the atonement debate need to feel free to persuade the other side without experiencing some form of intimidation.

    Intimidation can flow from insecurity in my opinion.

  7. Gary Buffaloe   •  

    I agree with the comment above that the debate between Calvinists and non-Calvinists is not over tertiary issues alone. Perhaps there are some sub-issues that can be dismissed as tertiary, but can Calvinists partner with non-Calvinists if they do not believe non-Calvinists are preaching the gospel? If a person is convinced that another is not preaching the gospel, then isn’t he obligated by Scripture to speak out against the one he believes is a false teacher?

    That is not to say that all or most non-Calvinists preach a false gospel, but there are several reputable pastors in the SBC who teach that men can earn salvation by reciting a prayer. I do not believe a Calvinist can put aside his theology to partner with those teachers (who are many).

  8. Spencer   •  


    You are correct that there are many important issues which relate to our view of the meaning of “election” in Scripture and how that takes place. It is significant in many aspects of our Christian life.

    The point of the post is that Calvinism is not the most important thing. Either view (or any of the hybrid views) of election has tension built into it; that is, there are doctrinal edges which don’t fit neatly into the system. Why? Because it is a system discerned by man, through intense study of Scripture. I certainly tend toward one view rather than the other, but I can certainly accept that the other side has some support and (at least) I can understand how they were mistaken and accept it as an honest, well intentioned mistake. I can still work together for Christ’s kingdom with them, in a way that I certainly cannot with a Unitarian, for example.

    I suggest you read a very helpful essay by Dr. Mohler, you can find it as the last chapter of Dr. Akin’s theology text or at this link on Dr. Mohler’s website:

    I think that you find a good explanation of why a Calvinist can work with an Arminian for the gospel.



  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Mike, you are right that areas of disagreement b/t Calvinists and non-Calvinists are important. YOu are also right that we shouldn’t sweep them under the rug. But I add to that the fact that Baptist Calvinists and Baptists non-Calvinists have cooperated for the sake of mission (and for that matter, cooperated under the banner of a Conservative Resurgence) and should continue to do so.

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Tim, you asked about believers baptism. It is by definition, a Baptist essential. It, along with regenerate membership, defines us. One cannot be a baby-washer and be a Baptist. So, if a church decides to become an baby-washing church, that certainly derails our partnership at the convention level. However, it does not derail other types of cooperation. When I worked in Asia, we cooperated with different types of evangelicals for Bible translation, prayer, etc. Also, I think we’d all agree that disagreement over believer’s baptism doesn’t derail friendships between believers, etc.

  11. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Joel, Benji, and Spencer: Right on.

    Gary: I agree that “mechanical” and “magical” views of salvation are not consonant with biblical teaching on salvation. Reciting a prayer doesn’t save a person.

  12. Tim Rogers   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    Also, I think we’d all agree that disagreement over believer’s baptism doesn’t derail friendships between believers, etc. Agreed. Rejecting a partnership in church planting because of baptismal issues neither should derail friendships between believers.


  13. John   •  

    For the “young ones” who think Calvinism defines our concepts of God, man, salvation, etc.: You haven’t gone far enough into history. You can’t stop at Calvin to determine your ability to worship and witness with another believer.

    I’d recommend returning to a prayer lifted in a room in Jerusalem in c. A.D. 33, where God Himself prayed for the unity of the Church. You can read His words in the Gospel of John (the Apostle, not Calvin), chapter 17.

    The Church, while united, defined the key doctrines of our faith. Calvin would never claim to have defined them; he clearly understood and proclaimed that he inherited the doctrines from the ancient, undivided Church. Why else would he have used the Apostles’ Creed as the organizing structure for his “Institutes?”

    John 17 is as Scriptural as Romans 8-11. However, I’ve already stated my opinions regarding our ignoring of Jesus’ prayer in the discussion on point 6(A). I’ll let my previous comment stand here as well.

  14. Steven Speagle   •  

    Drs. Akin and Ashford:

    I appreciate your posts here that help keep SBC laymen advised as to what it happening from your perspectives, specifically with regard to the GCR. With respect to your two most recent posts to this blog (Aspect 6(b): A Mission Centered on the Gospel (spats, straw men, infighting) (“Post 6(b)”), and Aspect 6(a): A Mission Centered on the Gospel (factionalism, non-fellowship, theological triage, liberalism, fundamentalism, Calvinism, contextualization) (“Post 6(a)”)), largely agree with the content of each post. However, I get a little confused when I read Post 6(b) in light of Post 6(a).

    In Post 6(a) you cite Dr. Mohler’s excellent and well reasoned methodology for theological triage. In his article, Dr. Mohler states that the denial of the doctrine of justification by faith is “a denial of the Gospel itself.” I believe that Dr. Mohler, and likely both of you, would affirm that denial of any other first tier or primary doctrine would likewise be a similar denial of the Gospel itself. Indeed, you state in Post 6(a) that “Without believing such doctrines . . . one’s belief is not Christian.” Thus, it appears that primary doctrines are those that are essential for Gospel declaration and ultimately conversion.

    Secondary doctrines, you say, “significantly affect the way in which churches and believers relate to one another.” Likewise, tertiary doctrines are doctrines that, while differing on, Christians can “keep the closest of fellowship.”

    In Post 6(b) you state that we, as Southern Baptist, must be able to distinguish between essential and non-essential doctrines. From the context this would appear to be reaffirming that we need to be able to distinguish between primary and secondary doctrines. You further conclude by stating that “we must rid ourselves of fundamentalist infighting that distracts from, and contradicts, the proclamation of the gospel.”

    My concern is this: if we do as you say and distinguish between the essential doctrines (i.e. those doctrines that are elemental to the Gospel; primary doctrines) and non-essential doctrines (i.e. all other doctrines; secondary and tertiary doctrines), and rid ourselves of those things that distract us from the proclamation of the Gospel, would we not be ridding ourselves of the secondary and tertiary doctrines? If we rid ourselves of all non-essential doctrines when we partner to do missions, or church planting, or evangelism, are we not ridding ourselves of doctrines that are not merely dear to us as Southern Baptist (such as baptism by immersion) but more importantly getting rid of many of the things that Jesus commanded us to do?

    I understand Dr. Ashford’s response to Bro. Tim in the Post 6(a) string that we must distinguish between those that deny a secondary doctrine and those that misinterpret a secondary doctrine. However, I must wonder how much difference we believe there is in the implication of the two positions. Certainly those that deny what is clearly taught in scripture are sinning. However, if we truly believe our secondary doctrines are commanded by scripture, would we not believe that the misinterpretation of them is a sin as well.

    Dr. Ashford uses the example of baptism and states that “if somebody denied baptism he would be denying the commands of Christ, which would be tantamount to denying scripture.” Could, and indeed shouldn’t, we say the same thing about those that baptize infants? If we truly believe that scripture clearly teaches that baptism is the immersion of the believer would not those that do otherwise be just as guilty of denying Christ’s commands as those that deny the doctrine at all? Dr. Mark Dever, a man I am confident we all trust seems to believe so. In his March 2009, 9 Marks e-Journal Dr. Dever wrote that “I have many dear paedo-baptists friends from whom I have learned much. Yet I see their practice as a sinful (though sincere) error from which God protects them by allowing for inconsistency in their doctrinal system, just as he graciously protects me from consistency with my own errors.”

    I guess my bottom line question is in what areas of ministry, missions and evangelism should we cooperate with those whom we disagree? If we have to agree on second tier doctrines for cooperation, how do we square that with the statement that we should rid ourselves of all things that distract us from the declaration of first tier doctrines?

    Please accept this unnecessarily long post in the way that it is intended: in brotherly love. I cannot articulate how appreciative I am for both of your service to God’s kingdom, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the SBC.


  15. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Tim, I’m not sure to what type of church planting partnership you are referring and therefore unsure if we could all agree to rejecting one. If the “partnership” were a Baptist and a Presbyterian or Methodist planting a church together, we can all agree to reject that. However, if the “partnership” is IMB church planters partnering with Presbyterian church planters for the sake of Bible translation among unreached and unengaged people groups, I don’t have a problem with that. Likewise, if it is North American church planters cooperating with an evangelical church planting network training in logistics, strategy, etc., don’t have a problem. Finally, often the cooperation between church planters is in prayer and encouragement, and in such case I also have no problems.

  16. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thank you for your helpful comments. I agree with you and with Mark Dever that misinterpretation is underlain by sinful wills and minds. But what I want to make clear is that we don’t want to rid ourselves of the secondary or teriary doctrines for the sake of missions, but instead to rid ourselves of unnecessary fighting (not debate or discussion, but fighting) and/or inappropriate attitudes toward one another in relation to those doctrines. For example, although I disagree with some of my brothers over limited atonement, I can cooperate with them for the sake of mission.

  17. Tim Rogers   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    I specifically stated partnering with church plants, so your advocation of partnering with others for prayer, encouragement, and bible translation is not relevant to the point. Let me ask this another way.

    Would you advocate that we partner to plant churches with an organization that holds to the following guideline?

    We do not divide over issues not addressed in our doctrinal statement (e.g. mode of baptism, charismatic gifts, eschatology), but rather allow the elders in our various local churches to define their doctrinal distinctives.


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  19. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Tim, I’ll point you back to my previous comments which are a direct answer to the question you just asked me. I gave wasy that a North American or international churhc planter could have fellowship in church planting. This includes those who would differ on mode of baptism, charismatic gifts, etc.

  20. Steven Speagle   •  

    Dr. Ashford:

    Would you mind clarifying your response to Bro. Tim?

    Your response is a little confusing and implies that an SBC church planter coud have fellowship in church planting with those that differ on mode of baptism, charismatic gifts, etc. This does not reconcile with your response to my previous post where you responded “If the ‘partnership’ were a Baptist and a Presbyterian or Methodist planting a church together, we can all agree to reject that.” If I am misreading your response to Tim, please forgive me.

  21. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Steven, a Baptist church planter will never plant a church with a Presbyterian or an AOG guy. However, if a church planter wanted to, he could share resources with or attend workshops with, people who believe differently than he. Overseas missionaries partner in literature distribution, Bible translation, and sometimes training and strategy workshops. North American pastors and church planters and laypeople do similar things by participating together in Navigators, Campus Crusade, Saddleback network, etc. So if by “partner” one means to plant a church together with, no. But if “partner” means something lesser, such as my examples above, then that is at the discretion of the Baptist church…

  22. Jason Lewis   •  

    I am disappointed in the fact that this article does not go into any kind of detail concerning kerfuffles as promised.

  23. Rick Mang   •  

    I am confused as to how the first paragraph relates to the following ones. I do not believe that you are equating Calvinism with apostolic precedent or local tradition.

    Also, what are the criteria used to distinguish secondary and tertiary issues?

    Thank you,

  24. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Rick, hi and thank you for jumping in the conversation. Sorry about the lack of transition from the first paragraph to the second. The first paragraph is a continuation of the line of thought from yesterday’s post, and the second paragraph then gives an example of one issue baptists have fought over.

    As for criteria for secondary versus tertiary, I think it might be best to view those as being located on a spectrum… I’m planning to address this on BtT soon…

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