Calvinism, Cooperation, and the Southern Baptist Convention

Frank Page
SBC Executive Committee

Calvinism is probably the most controversial topic in the contemporary Southern Baptist Convention. About a year ago, the debate reached a new level of intensity with the publication of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” and the responses it provoked from both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Resolutions on the “sinner’s prayer” and cooperation at last year’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans were directly related to the Calvinism debate. In recent months, Calvinism has allegedly been at the center of controversy at more than one Baptist college. I am regularly forwarded links to blog posts by both Calvinists and non-Calvinists that seem more interested in winning a debate than forging a consensus. Twitter is often even worse.

In August 2012, Frank Page of the SBC’s Executive Committee named an advisory committee to “help him craft a strategic plan to bring together various groups within the convention who hold different opinions on the issue of Calvinism.” Dr. Page is expected to report on that committee’s work at this year’s Annual Meeting in Houston. As Southern Baptists prepare for Houston, I want to offer some thoughts on the relationship between Calvinism and cooperation in the SBC. I hope these thoughts are helpful in furthering unity among Baptists on all sides of the Calvinism discussion in our Convention.

Triaging Calvinism

In 2005, Al Mohler published an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Spiritual Maturity.” In his essay, Mohler uses the imagery of medical triage to demonstrate that different doctrines function at different levels of importance when we cooperate with other believers. First-order or primary doctrines are those beliefs that distinguish Christians from non-Christians. Second-order or secondary doctrines are those beliefs that are distinctive to different denominations and often help determine one’s local church membership. Third-order or tertiary doctrines are those convictions that normally two members of the same church can hold without any serious division. While not all Southern Baptists have resonated with Mohler’s approach, I find it helpful for our present discussion.

This is my argument: within the Southern Baptist Convention, Calvinism needs to function as a third-order or tertiary issue for the sake of cooperation. I understand that for many folks, their view of the “doctrines of grace” is actually a second-order issue. I know many Southern Baptists of various theological stripes who join a local church partly based upon their understanding of issues like election, effectual calling, and the extent of the atonement. I think this is perfectly understandable. Nevertheless, in the context of the wider SBC, these doctrines should be understood as tertiary rather than secondary.

In reality, I believe that one’s perspective on Calvinism is already treated as a tertiary doctrine by the vast majority of engaged Southern Baptists. Most of us recognize that the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is intentionally vague or silent on each of the “five points” except for perseverance of the saints. Most of us aren’t bothered that some of our seminary professors are consistent Calvinists, some are moderate Calvinists, and some are decisively non-Calvinists——on each of our faculties. Most of us aren’t too concerned with what our missionaries and church planters believe about election, so long as they are urgently proclaiming Christ to all people. The fact is, when it comes to the SBC, Calvinism already functions as a third-order doctrine for most of us, and has done so since at least the latter years of the nineteenth century. I’m simply asking us to more intentionally work from this understanding.

Let’s Play Nicely

I know this sort of approach will not please all Southern Baptists, especially some who have been the most vocal participants in the Calvinism debate. Some SBC Calvinists invoke language that at least suggests they believe Calvinism is a primary doctrine: “Calvinism is the gospel.” Yes, Spurgeon said it, and everyone loves Spurgeon. Nevertheless, it’s unhelpful and, frankly, incorrect——at least the way many Southern Baptists use the quote. I trust that most Calvinists in the SBC believe one’s view of the doctrines of grace are at most secondary rather than primary.

Furthermore, the not-so-subtle insinuation that non-Calvinists would become Calvinists if they were smarter, or more biblical, or more theologically savvy is both obnoxious and insulting. So too unqualified claims that non-Calvinists are Arminians, semi-Pelagians, or even full-fledged Pelagians. If a Southern Baptist Calvinist can’t bear for Calvinism to be treated as a third-order doctrine that can be accepted, rejected, or modified (within boundaries) by any Southern Baptist, including SBC leaders and opinion-shapers, then he or she should consider partnering with other Baptist groups that are more uniformly Reformed in their soteriology.

Some SBC non-Calvinists need to tone down their rhetoric as well. The calls for Southern Baptists to “take a stand against” or “smoke out” Calvinists, the argument that unconditional election or (especially) limited atonement is “another gospel,” the equating of Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism, and the argument that Calvinists aren’t evangelistic are hurtful and (in the latter three cases) simply inaccurate. So too the argument that Calvinistic Southern Baptists are “more Presbyterian than Baptist.” Historically and confessionally, the SBC is broad enough to include everyone from five-pointers to one-pointers.

Also troubling is the argument by some that Christ-centered expositional preaching, an emphasis on the glory of God or the sovereignty of God, and Bible Study curricula that focus upon the gospel are somehow inherently Calvinistic (and thus bad). None of these concepts are, by definition, Calvinistic. Indeed, many non-Calvinists are firmly committed to each of these emphases because they are more about basic Christianity than incipient Calvinism. If a Southern Baptist non-Calvinist can’t bear for Calvinists to thrive and sometimes even serve as leaders in the SBC, then he or she should consider partnering with other Baptist groups that are more uniformly non-Calvinist in their view of salvation.

Moving Forward

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe this issue is important and worth discussing. In fact, I publicly called for more engagement of this issue at the Building Bridges conference in 2007 and the related book that was subsequently published. I’m all for a Christ-like family conversation among all interested Southern Baptists of good will. However, I sincerely believe this is not an issue worthy of denominational infighting or schism.

Last June, I wrote an essay titled “My Hope for Unity in the SBC.” In that essay, I argued that Southern Baptists should unite around four priorities for the purpose of cooperation: 1) biblical inerrancy; 2) an evangelical view of salvation; 3) a Baptist view of the church; 4) and a commitment to the Great Commission. I then wrote the following words:

I remain convinced that if we all agree to unite around these four priorities as they are framed in the Baptist Faith and Message, we can continue to live together and labor together as Southern Baptist Christians. We all need to be open to correction, maintaining a teachable spirit. We all need to forebear those who disagree with us over debatable matters. We need to focus the vast majority of our energies on the matters we share in common, not the issues upon which we disagree. And we need to demonstrate to the world that Southern Baptists care about more than simply fighting among ourselves and trying to win arguments.

Today, nearly twelve months later, I still stand by those words. It’s time for Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists to take a deep breath, ratchet down the heated language, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and recommit to cooperating together for the sake of the Great Commission. Calvinism has been and needs to remain a tertiary issue in the SBC. Now let’s move forward together in advancing the gospel among people here, there, and everywhere.

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  1. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    The key term is not “importance,” but “functions.” All doctrine is equally important, but not all doctrines function at the same level of import when questions of cooperation arise. We have to make good-faith decisions about which doctrines to elevate and which to downplay. While I agree with you that the reason for this is because some doctrines seem more certain than others (in terms of their relative approbation by different groups of Christians), I think my point stands. Third order doctrines function at a lower level of importance than second order doctrines when it comes to cooperation.


  2. Todd   •  

    I assume I am on the “other side” from Tom Fillinger, but I could not agree more with his remarks. I embrace certain paedobaptists as true believers and brethren in Christ, however serious difference in doctrine keep us from partnering in church-planting and missionary-sending endeavors. It seems some in the SBC have differences that call for separation from the cooperation.

    The problem I have is knowing if I need to separate. There is no statement of clarity that allows me to wholeheartedly get onboard. The BF&M is so ambiguous that no SBC supporter knows what their own missionaries might believe. And we must admit that our personal belief changes the message presented (sometimes considerably). I’ve heard missions reports that span the gamut from “they weren’t Calvinists so I told them they were all lost” to “we led the entire congregation of thousands to repeat a prayer then assures them they were saved.” I can’t support either of those messages, but my dollars to association, state, and SBC surely sometimes do.

    I have close pastor friends who weigh in differently on the 5 points. We have talked through the gospel enough that I know where we agree and have confidence that they preach the gospel. I want to have that confidence in all of the SBC pastors, missionaries, seminary leaders and profs, etc. Is that too much to ask? The gospel is not an issue, it is THE issue. If we don’t get it right, then I don’t care to cooperate based on baptism and church polity.

    Let’s get wordy like our fathers were – not for the sake of words but for precision. Let’s say that Calvinists who cooperate must affirm the responsibility of all men everywhere to repent and believe and preach that call. Let’s say that the other group must affirm God’s sovereignty and preach salvation through Christ’s finished work without man’s effort whatsoever. I may still want to discuss finer points of soteriology, but it will be with a different tone. Then we’re not fighting for the purity of the gospel, rather we’re iron sharpening.

    I may be missing your point (all of you), but this is where this pastor struggles. May we not rush to playing nice until we clearly establish the boundary that cannot be crossed.

    I do believe that there will be agreement in gospel purity in places that may surprise many. I also believe that false teachers will be exposed through such clarity.


  3. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I would also reject both of the extremes you mention in the missions example you give. Where I think we would disagree is that I think the BF&M, though vague in some areas, is clear in the two areas you mention: the free offer and the finished work of Christ. But let’s say I’m wrong. I think we should wait and see what Dr. Page’s committee presents to us. Word on the street is that it is a consensus statement. If that is true, I would be shocked if it didn’t clearly addresses the two points you raise plus (perhaps) many others. Thanks for your comment.


  4. Ian Watkins   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    I think one of the amazing things about the SBC is that we have historically worked together (both Calvinists and non) for the work of the Kingdom. I have friends on both sides of the debate, and love them all equally. I could work alongside either side as long as the Gospel is shared and Christ is central.

    And one thing that drives me crazy is the “you must be less intelligent because your not a Calvinist” attitude that comes at times. Couldn’t be further from the truth. I know many extremely intelligent men who are not Calvinists, along with several that are Calvinists.

    Good article.

  5. Pingback: Confessions, Cooperation, & Calvinism… Oh, My! – SBC, Renihan + More | The Confessing Baptist

  6. Mike Bergman   •  

    I guess as your token Baptist Calvinist, I pastor a church that was largely ignorant of the doctrine of election and held strawman views of predestination. If I am to preach and teach sound doctrine how can I do so without betraying my heart convictions and conscience? I have been told that it seems that I am forcing this down their throat, That is not my intention. Every church church contains various stages of sanctified believers. My way is to teach the truth as I understand it and allow the Holy Spirit freedom to convict and grow as He sees fit. You have no idea how many times I have heard the phrase that finally people have found a church that feeds them and not get a steady diet of John 3:16 by the way I believe. A topic I have not heard discussed is the role that dispensationalism plays. in all of this. I in our association I am one of four out of twenty five Baptist reformed pastors and one of two Baptist Covenant believers. That makes me amillennial. Most people pitch a bigger fuss because I am not dispensational. Back to the question, I have no problem cooperating with pastors who do not agree with me and loving church members who disagree. But when you preach through Romans, Ephesians, Peterine Epistles ect plus many of the Old Testament books you just cannot avoid teaching salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone guided by Scripture alone. To do less would be to deny my Lord and make my self a spiritual coward. In season and out of season correct teach, rebuke with all authority. By the way In my experience it is the non Calvinists who cannot accept the other.

  7. Emerson   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    I think making distinctions about the different levels of doctrinal importance you, Mohler, and many others before have made is key to any sort of cooperation between Christians. It seems a lot of the debate that occurs today among Christians stems from an inability to consider the central doctrines that determine what is Christian or not (Trinity, gospel, sin, atonement, etc.), doctrines that determine local church life (Scripture, polity, men and women’s roles, conversion, election, sacraments, etc.), and doctrines that shape us in ways that don’t necessarily demand differing local church fellowship (eschatology, scope of the atonement, perseverance, spiritual gifts, etc.).

    However, I think you and many of the SBC leaders are profoundly mistaken about one of two things. Either you fail to see that Calvinism (or the Reformed Tradition) clearly is a theological tradition that prevents Baptists from working together or that what you mean when you say Calvinism isn’t really Calvinism at all.

    I say this because Calvinism is not just the 5 points of TULIP. It is a whole tradition of understanding Scripture that covers all of life, and it is a tradition that Southern Baptists have largely taken exception to (at the very least) in terms of how the covenants of Scripture fit together, the implications that has on ecclesiology, and subsequently how law and gospel relate, hermeneutics, and more. This being the case, Calvinism is incompatible with the SBC because it goes well beyond the BFM2000 as a theological tradition.

    But if Calvinism simply means the 5 points of TULIP, you are still mistaken because even the 5 points span the theological triage. The doctrine of sin expressed in total depravity is a first order issue. To reject total depravity as the Reformers articulated it should bring a serious cloud of doubt over the soundness of a person’s or church’s doctrine. Several letters of TULIP are second order doctrines that certainly impact local church life. And yes, at least one letter in TULIP is a third level issue that probably doesn’t impact local church fellowship.

    But it is simply appalling to me that you and others suggest that Calvinism is a third level issue (whether you are referring to TULIP or Reformed Theology as a whole). The number of educated people making this argument suggests to me that your reasons for making these arguments are stem not from ignorance but an overwhelming concern for institutional unity and politics (which is different than Christian unity which can allow for various denominations/institutions/associations with charity and love toward one another).

    I would love to hear (because no one has yet made this clear) how exactly the 5 points of TULIP or Reformed theology as a tradition fall into the third level of importance and shouldn’t impact partnership as a denomination or in local churches when so many Christians historically have found that not to be the case and when even now the experience of so many in the SBC is finding this not to be the case. At the very least, when people support missionaries to plant churches here or abroad, they want them to go about church planting in a way that fits with their convictions on central and second level issues.

    Your comments about those who aren’t comfortable with leaders from the other side of the issue needing to move outside the SBC is actually right on target. I think this is what the SBC will continue to see happen.


  8. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    When Baptists talk about Calvinism, they normally mean a Calvinistic view of salvation (the “five points”). It goes without saying that Baptists reject Calvinist ecclesiology and the historically Reformed understanding of church and state. There have been Baptists who accept a Calvinistic view of salvation, with varying degrees of nuance, since at least the 1630s.

    Baptists across the spectrum on Calvinism have been cooperating since the eighteenth century. In America, the First Great Awakening resulted in some diversity on the “doctrines of grace,” especially the idea of a limited atonement and irresistible grace. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Baptists had embraced a policy of neutrality on those issues in their confessional statements. By the late 1800s, Southern Baptists in particular had become increasingly neutral on the middle three “points” of the TULIP, allowing for folks more or less consistently Calvinistic to take part in and even serve as leaders within Southern Baptist life.

    In Britain, Baptist Calvinists and Arminians (and folks in between) began cooperating more closely during the 1830s. By the 1890s, the two largest Baptist groups, each of which historically leaned in one direction or the other, had combined into a single denomination that was neutral on these issues.

    Baptists are all over the map on the doctrines of grace because, unlike some other traditions, we don’t have a widely embraced confessional view on these matters. We are an ecclesiological renewal movement, which means we exercise greater latitude in matters of soteriology than other groups. We have been treating these matters as tertiary for ages. I’m arguing we should continue that policy.

    I regret that you find my opinions appalling. I’m afraid there isn’t much I can do about that.

    Thanks for you comment.


  9. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Thanks for sharing your very strong opinions about the biblical validity of Calvinism. I hope you understand that many Southern Baptists love the Scriptures just as much as you but disagree with you in these matters. We need to exercise a great deal of charity when we talk about our interpretations, remembering that Christians (including Baptists) have been debating these matters for a pretty long time (like 1500+ years).


  10. Emerson   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    I appreciate the response, and I agree with your summary account of Baptist history. In fact, I think your account of Baptist history in America and the SBC in particular proves the point I am trying to make.

    You stated the key issue: “Baptists are all over the map on the doctrines of grace because, unlike some other traditions, we don’t have a widely embraced confessional view on these matters. We are an ecclesiological renewal movement, which means we exercise greater latitude in matters of soteriology than other groups. We have been treating these matters as tertiary for ages. I’m arguing we should continue that policy.”

    My point is that many SBCers are coming to see the shortcoming in an ecclesiology that is reduced to partnering in carrying out the Great Commission understood in a broad way. The SBC has reduced its mission to the lowest common theological denominator, and for many of us who are reading in and learning from the Reformed tradition, we are coming to see that faithfulness requires a much wider type of faithfulness which in turn demands a tighter connection between ecclesiology and soteriology. Just because Baptists have not made an issue over Calvinism for a long time doesn’t mean they were right to do so. It’s odd that an SBCer would make an argument from tradition and not Scripture.

    I understand that you are arguing that Baptists should continue their policy. But my point is that there is no theological argument being made as to why that policy should remain other than “it has always been this way with Baptists.” You are simply asserting that the 5 points don’t fall into the first and second levels of doctrinal importance. How is total depravity not a first level issue? How is irresistible grace not a second level issue that shapes preaching and evangelism in the local church?

    From a theological perspective, many of us are trying to show that our theological convictions should lead to a different type of partnership between churches and that this isn’t bad or somehow against Christian unity. It is rather for the sake of unity that Christians of significant theological difference (differences that reach first and second levels) should form different partnerships (something Abraham Kuyper argued was a wonderful fruit of Calvinism).


  11. Mike McCormick   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    I appreciate so much the spirit of your article. I recently hired a Student Pastor to serve with me in the church where I am Lead Pastor. He just celebrated his 30th birthday and next week will be his first opportunity to attend the SBC. The last thing I want to have to tell him is not to be surprised when some grown men cannot behave like adults and have kind, dignified dialogue as followers of Christ who are called to lead churches. I pray that as the conversations continue there will be an observable testimony to the love of Christ in the way we treat each other. I hope to see you in Houston, especially at the SEBTS Alumni luncheon. God bless you.


  12. Morris Brooks   •  


    Thanks for your irenic article that calls the extremists on both sides to task.

    To shorten a long story, I came to the SBC out of choice as a young adult, and have remained in the SBC by choice. It has been in my SBC life that due to my own study of the Scriptures that I became Reformed out of personal conviction.

    It is time for the extremists on both sides to put their arms down and find ways to work together as I believe that the American evangelical scene needs a healthy, vibrant, and unified SBC to help lead the way out of the morass that it is in today.

    If you look at the breadth and depth of the SBC, it is truly the original TGC/T4G. We have much to offer the broader evangelical scene, if we can keep from shooting at ourselves, and turn our attention to truly gospel matters.

  13. dr. james willingham   •  

    Brother Nathan: A third tier issue: All five points, all five of the most intensely compelling invitations known to man, the therapeutic paradoxes that led to the First and Second Great Awakenings and the launching of the Great Century of Missions, all set aside now in order to promote unity in missions? Did I read that right? Cause, if I did, it means another hundred years of no great awakening, and I have been praying for such for (it will be this Fall) 40 years. When I began, I was not so sure how the doctrines fit, but when I studied the record and looked at the results I was staggered. Just look at Jesus telling a woman that he was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and that it was not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs (Mt.15:21-28). He also used the same approach in Luke 4:16-31 with his fellow citizens of Nazareth. Their response was an attempt at murder, and yet, I suspect, had they taken the truths as did the woman of Canaan mentioned above, the results would have been the salvation of our Lord’s childhood village. We can hardly let these truths become so peripheral – not if we consider how Dr. Patterson admitted that the doctrine of election produces and promotes humility, that one key ingredient which we as Baptists need and without which we cannot really function. Look at Patterson’s remarks last Fall on Election in SBC Today and my response about a month or two ago. He has provided the means for unity and amity in his remarks as I sought to indicate in my remarks on what he had written.

  14. gary   •  

    Calvinistic Baptists have more in common with Lutherans than they think.

    When it comes to the conversion of an adult non-believer, Arminians, Calvinists and Lutherans are in full agreement: salvation occurs when the sinner believes. Baptism is not a mandatory requirement to be saved. We have theological differences on how belief occurs, but we all believe that the second a sinner believes he is saved. If he dies a second later, he will go to heaven. He is a Christian.

    Our significant denominational differences arise when we talk about the salvation of the infants and toddlers of Christian parents: how are these young children saved? What happens if, God forbid, one of them should die before reaching the age where they are capable of expressing a saving faith in Christ?

    The Arminian answer is this: God saves all infants and toddlers who die, even the infants and toddlers of non-believers. They have no hard proof from Scripture to support this belief, but they believe that King David’s comments about his dead infant gives them support for their position. Infants who die are “safe” in the arms of a loving God.

    Calvinists look at their children in this manner: Their children are either the Elect or they are not. Presbyterian Calvinists will baptize their infants to bring them into the “covenant” (whatever that is!) of the Church but do not believe that baptism has any salvific value. “If my child is of the Elect he will declare himself to be a believer when he is older.”

    A Calvinistic Baptist will not baptize his infant, but looks at Election in the same way as the Presbyterian Calvinist: My child is either of the Elect or he is not. There is nothing I can do but bring him up in the Faith and leave the rest to God.

    Lutherans believe that when God told us to baptize all nations, he meant to baptize ALL those who are of the Elect. Many Arminians and Calvinists assume that Lutherans believe that anyone we run through the baptismal font will get into heaven. Not true! Only the Elect will get into heaven. We baptize our infants in the HOPE that they are the Elect. Is it possible that some of the infants of Christian parents whom we baptize are not of the Elect and therefore will not be in heaven? Yes! But that is a mystery of God that we do not attempt to explain or understand.

    However, we believe we are to do our job of “baptizing all nations” (who are of the Elect) by baptizing our infants and we then leave their Election up to God. We then follow Christ’s command to “teach” them in the Faith as they grow up, but when they are older it will be their responsibility to nurture their faith with prayer, Bible study, worship, and the Lord’s Supper. If these infant-baptized persons abandon their faith and turn their back on God, they may very well wake up one day in hell! Baptism is NOT a “Get-into-heaven-free” card! Salvation is by God’s grace alone, received in faith alone.

    No faith—>no salvation—>no eternal life!

    The Calvinist position on the salvation of infants is very confusing to me. It seems to be a process. A specific event of salvation does not seem necessary for Calvinists. Is there any example in the NT of anyone being saved by a process? As much as I deplore Arminian theology, I do like the fact that they insist on a specific “when” of salvation. They are wrong, however, to believe that the “when” of salvation is based on THEIR decision when in reality it is based on GOD’S decision.

    If Calvinists agree with Lutherans that it is God who chooses who will be saved, and it is God who chooses when to save…which approach seems more Scriptural for the salvation of our children: God saves THOSE OF OUR CHILDREN WHO ARE OF THE ELECT in a one-time event in Holy Baptism OR he saves them in a nebulous, drawn-out process over a period of years? Unless, of course, Calvinistic Baptists believe that their children who are the Elect are born saved… I certainly hope that our Calvinistic Baptist brothers and sisters do not believe that the Elect are born saved as do some hard-core Calvinists.

    In truth, Lutherans and Calvinistic Baptists have quite a bit in common on the doctrine of Justification/Salvation: we both believe that God saves whom he wants, when he wants. We both do not believe in a “free will”. Our difference is that Calvinistic Baptists cannot accept that God would choose to give the free gift of faith/belief/repentance/salvation to infants, instead of waiting until they are older. And why?

    “Because an infant cannot believe!”

    But if we both agree that it is God who chooses us, not us choosing him, why do you limit when God can give the free gift of salvation? Is it possible that you are limiting God from saving infants just because it defies your human reason and logic to believe that an infant can believe?

    Since when is the Almighty God of the Universe limited to operating in the confines of human reason and logic??

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