SBC Tomorrow welcomes William Harrell as guest contributor*
With the recent public lament uttered by Dr. Frank Page, President of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), wherein he publicized the contention between Calvinism and non-Calvinism in the SBC and the disruption he’s noted around the convention over the Calvinism issue, coupled with Dr. Al Mohler’s controversial words in an interview about the new Calvinism—an interview in which Mohler fairly well dissed all other theological options other than the “Reformed” view which he embraces and promotes at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I thought it good to publish the following piece by William “Bill” Harrell. Some will be angered; others will be edified; some like our EC president will agree it’s needed >>>
We Are Right and You Must Agree
For those involved in the work of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the effort to bring the SBC back to the theological position of some, but not all, of its founders has taken on a growing new life among us.
What I am going to say about this will undoubtedly be misunderstood by some. Others will ignore what I say. There are some who just aren’t into the whole thing. Still others, especially those who are sympathetic to the movement, will simply try to find something for which to respond in a negative way.
Let me “steal a little of their thunder” at this point. While I am a pastor and Bible student of the last thirty-seven years, I get the feeling at times some of my Calvinist brothers perceive me as simply “ignorant and uneducated” and therefore, “can’t grasp” the positions of those who hold Five-Point Calvinism as their theological model. Apparently I am “unread”, having never read any of the cited confessions and certainly too “dim witted” to grasp anything that Spurgeon, Whitefield and others have espoused concerning Calvinism.
Like it or not, that is the kind of thing that is thrust upon someone like me. Indeed I also get the feeling that, once Calvinism is properly explained to me by my Calvinist brothers, they fully expect me to switch my theological positions and join the ranks of the Five-Point Calvinist group!
I'm reminded of the Charismatics in the mid 70’s who implicitly stated that “when you have our experience then you will be as spiritual as we are and you will have arrived.” Didn’t work then. It isn’t about to now.
Recently I was talking with a very dedicated Christian man who is a Calvinist although not a five-pointer of the more modern day radical variety. We have been very good friends for a long time and the Calvinism thing has never been a problem for either of us.
Why was it not a problem given the hyper state of the discussion in the SBC these days? The reason it is not a problem for my friend and me is twofold. First, we BOTH accept the fact that the other is saved. In the course of a good, friendly but lively exchange, I asked him a question that is very pertinent: ”Do you think I am saved?” He answered, “Absolutely.” Then I said, “Well, I think you are saved also.” What follows is simple common sense. If he thinks I (a non-Calvinist) am saved, and I think that he (a Calvinist) is saved then salvation is not the issue. Instead, the core issue is one’s theological model and methodology.
Secondly, we both agree that it takes repentance and faith in Christ in order to be saved. That is the bottom line of our fellowship; not whether I adopt his theological model or not.
So, just how does this apply to the conflict over Calvinism in the SBC? As I see it, the issue that is troubling the SBC is the insistence that a person and ultimately the convention agree with the Calvinist position concerning the process of salvation. In other words, we are right and you must agree. That is, one must conform to their position.
My question is, “If I said to these individuals, Okay, I accept your Five-Point Calvinistic model,” would the disagreement and animosities cease to exist? Does one mean to tell me that if I would simply start agreeing with the Calvinists and adopt their theological position that all would be well? If I would agree with them then all the sniping and blasting directed toward those poor “misinformed” non-Calvinists would suddenly disappear?
Are the Five-Pointers actually willing to put the Convention through all the rhetoric and vitriolic verbiage just to hear people say that they capitulate and adopt their approach? If that took place would everyone be happy and would all the plotting to take the Convention back to the theological position of some of the founders of this great body of believers cease when, in reality, the vast majority of the people of the SBC do not hold to that particular theological model and, as an overall group, have not held it for a long, long time?
My difference of opinion with the Five-Point Calvinists is not founded upon the fact that they hold their position. I too, hold many of the same beliefs as they do. My disagreement with them is centered around the way that many of them go after churches in order to get them into the Calvinist camp.
A couple of years ago, I was taken to task in the blogosphere for simply pointing out that a Calvinist should not accept the call of a non-Calvinist church, failing to inform the people of his leanings and slowly but surely prod them in a surreptitious way toward his Five-Point position in an effort to get them to adopt his theological model. What happens in a host of cases--actually most of the ones about which I am aware--is that the church does not want to go there. Inevitably, a church fight erupts which splits the church, divides families and causes general confusion.
Conversely, I do not think a non-Calvinist should accept the call to a Calvinistic church and surreptitiously attempt to change it either. I was simply calling for the same thing that several of our noted convention leaders and others had called for--integrity in dealing with a church that is trying to call a person to lead them. And integrity demands we give the church the privilege of calling a person who agrees with them doctrinally without having to go through all the theological gymnastics in order to make sure of the theological position of their pastoral candidate.
More and more churches are finding that they have to be very specific in the questions they ask in order to get at the truth of a person’s position because many of our Calvinist brothers know the Five-Point position won’t fly in the majority of the churches in the SBC and they become very adept at talking around the issue while making the pulpit committee feel comfortable with them. This should not be done by Calvinists or non-Calvinists.
I might also point out that the non-Five Pointers such as myself and the vast majority of the people of our convention, did not create the current issue in the SBC which is becoming very divisive. It was created by the aggressive Five-Point Calvinists who insist that people agree with them and who are willing to push the issue to a breaking point just to hear people say that they will adopt their stance. I would hasten to add that not all Calvinists are part of those who hold such a position.
One of the major problems is that Calvinism has been taught more and more in the last few years. Consequently, many of the younger people ascribing to it have taken that theological position beyond the Calvinism of Spurgeon and the like. They have adopted an aggressive attitude which becomes very indignant and aggravated when people don’t join them in their theological stance or when a person voices one word of caution or difference of opinion.
They display their immaturity in the way they use such hostile and vitriolic language as they attack people they really don’t know. The hostility is palpable and it is, in most cases, a byproduct of being young and having blood which is full of “spit and vinegar.” Non-Calvinists have never really cared if a person was a Calvinist or not as long as they both believed and preached the Bible, and as long as they both tried to win the lost, and as long as advocates of neither viewpoint made a point of insisting that their theological position be adopted.
Question: Is agreement on Calvinism really worth all the vitriol and division that this unnecessary family argument is bringing? What is going to be accomplished if Calvinists succeed? Would they then say, “Well, we are all saved, and we are all winning the lost of the world, but better still we won the theological argument?" Furthermore, "Everything we went through was worth it so that we could all hold the position that we, the Calvinists agree with.” I think that we are paying too high a price for that and my fear is that it will get worse before it gets better.
Over the last couple of years I have been casually compiling a list of churches which have been bothered, disrupted and split by this issue. This list continues to grow as I become aware of such churches through conversations with others. The stories are all basically the same and they are tragic. Please hear me: It is not tragic that a pastor holds a Calvinistic position. Rather, it is tragic what happens to a church body when a pastor uses the above mentioned process to try to change a church’s theological orientation from non-Calvinist to Calvinist and the people needlessly and unnecessarily suffer great trauma.
While at the SBC meeting in Louisville a few years ago, I received an e-mail from a person in South Carolina who has been communicating with me concerning Calvinism infiltrating their beloved church. She and her husband left a church where the pastor failed to inform the people of his positions and when those positions became apparent, the church went through some very difficult times. Sadly, this is the case with many churches.
As I stated at the beginning of this commentary, I know that, if past reactions to any criticism of the Calvinist position are the norm, I will be duly roasted, skewed and taken to task by people who don’t even know me and furthermore couldn’t care less if they did. I would simply say this in response to that possibility and probability: I am doing nothing more than voicing what many, many people in the SBC are saying and thinking. For one reason or another they simply don’t want to get involved any further than giving their private opinion to another in a private setting. I can appreciate that but, quite frankly, I really don’t care what someone might say about me. At this stage of the game I am not building a resume’ and it really doesn’t matter to me what anyone says. And, you know….that’s really liberating!
Wm. F. Harrell
*Since 1981, William "Bill" Harrell has served as Pastor of the historic Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, Georgia. Abilene Church is one of the oldest churches in Georgia founded in 1774 by the legendary Separate Baptist, Daniel Marshal, and was originally known as Red’s (pronounced Reed) Creek Baptist Church. Pastor Harrell is well-known in Southern Baptist denominational life, having served on various boards and committees at both state and national levels. Indeed from what we can tell, our brother Harrell has served longer on the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention than any other person. As SBC Tomorrow welcomed Pastor Harrell's timely perspective on the so-called "elder-ruled" model of church polity, a polity unfortunately gaining substantial support among some Southern Baptists today (particularly the "Reformed" community in Southern Baptist sub-culture), we also welcome his perspective on Calvinism.