Allow me to introduce myself. I am a 38-year old husband, and father of three. I am an imperfect, but growing disciple of Jesus Christ, meaning that I don’t love and adore Him as I should, and conversely love and adore myself way too much at times. In spite of that, I’m grateful that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, I have a relationship with God, the assurance of ultimate escape from sin and its consequences, and the promise of heaven. Because of all that my relationship with Jesus means to me, I am anxious to talk about it with others—especially in an area where 90% of the residents don’t know Him. Fortunately, I serve a great Association—58 churches in all as of the last one we planted just a month ago—that allows me to function as a missionary among the people of central Maryland. Over the past 5 ½ years, I have worked with our churches to plant roughly 30 congregations both inside our own area, and in other areas, partnering with other associations to help their work as well. Throughout our state, I have been privileged to work with others to see more than 100 churches started in the past 5 years. We did all of this because we believe Jesus wants the people of central Maryland to know Him, and we are excited about how the Gospel will be advanced through all of these new congregations. You see, I love sharing the hope of Jesus Christ with people who don’t know Him, and I love being a DOM in an association that plants churches, because I can’t think of a better way to get that message out.
Oh, and by the way, I’m also a Calvinist.
If that last line jolted you a bit after reading the first paragraph, then you probably feel exactly the same way I felt after reading a post on the NoBA website last week from a fellow Director of Missions citing the presence of Calvinism in the SBC as one major reason we are failing in our attempts to fulfill the Great Commission. While reading, I was well educated regarding what a few like this gentleman think of men like me. For one, I had no idea that I really believed that God doesn’t really love everybody, and that salvation isn’t offered by God to every person. Moreover, I was a bit rattled to read that people like me couldn’t be trusted—that the entire SBC is in an identity crisis because of folks like me. But, the real surprise came when I read that its folks of my ilk that are responsible for the splitting of churches all over our beloved denomination. I’m sure these folks wonder how on earth a guy like me could have passed NAMB’s missionary appointment process.
That said, if you are one of those suspicious of Calvinistic thinking and think this article is being written to defend Reformed theology, let me set your mind at ease. I’m not inclined toward debating things that have been debated for half a millennium and still have no resolution within the wider body of Christ. I figure if Luther, Calvin, Huss, Edwards, Wesley, Whitefield, and Spurgeon couldn’t all hammer out their differences, this native South Carolina redneck isn’t going to figure it all out either. At the same time, the recent practice by many on both sides of this debate of tossing mischaracterizing salvos toward the other side while claiming they have no interest in fighting seems disingenuous to me. It’s sort of like marching through a trailer park denouncing pickup trucks and green Astroturf while declaring that you didn’t come to pick a fight.
Discussions of this nature could be very healthy for our denomination, if we could develop the maturity to dialogue with each other in a way that was respectful, gave the benefit of the doubt, and did not detract us from fulfilling the Great Commission . . .together! The purpose of this article is to respond to my colleague’s apparent contention that Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC can’t work together, and in fact can’t even trust each other.
After nearly 18 years in ministry, I’ve run into a few Southern Baptists like my colleague who simply assume the worst about anyone identifying themselves as a Calvinist. Over the past 10 years in particular, a lot of vitriol seems to have been expressed over this issue. Most recently, an unnamed group in west Tennessee circulated a series of papers teaching “how to find out if any of your staff are Calvinists and how to get rid of them.” Apparently, the rabid non-Calvinist answer to the “troublemaking” Calvinists is to make more trouble, start a war, and then accuse the other side of firing the first shot. Nice.
And to be fair, the Calvinists have contributed their own share of fecal matter to this mess. Just two weeks ago, I was appalled to see many of my fellow Calvinists across the country using the internet to speak in degrading terms about Rick Warren—some even going so far as to say he didn’t preach the “true Gospel.” After speaking my mind to them regarding their immature and myopic view of the Kingdom of God, some of them turned on me, sending me private emails accusing me of enabling false doctrine, fraternizing with false prophets, and compromising the purity of the Gospel.
What’s weird about all this is that my experiences in Maryland don’t reflect the theological civil war that seems to be inevitably fought over this issue in some other parts of the Convention. Among our 58 churches, we have pastors who would identify as Calvinists and others who would never wear such a label. And, these men have planted churches together! (Oh, the shame of it all indeed!) These men differ greatly on the doctrine of election, and they hold their views with strong conviction. But they aren’t so angry about what they believe that they refuse to cooperate (now, there is a good Baptist word!) with others for the sake of making Jesus known among the lost. This is exactly what Ed Stetzer meant when he said that the SBC must “welcome young, Missional Calvinists.” Though I won’t claim to speak for Stetzer, I’m betting he would be OK with me saying we should welcome any Biblically-sound Christ-follower who is missional, regardless of their soteriology.
Additionally, I would guess that at least ¼ of the church planters we have put in the field in the past five years would—if asked directly—identify themselves as Calvinists. After seeing people saved who would likely not be saved if it weren’t for their new churches, they too would be shocked at how they are portrayed by some in our Convention. Conversely, the less-Reformed planters among us would also be shocked to know that some think they really don’t preach a “pure Gospel,” particularly that same group of Calvinists angry that Rick Warren and John Piper are actually speaking to each other and talking about [gasp] doing ministry together!
So, after all these experiences, here is one man’s take on this issue. The problem in our Convention is not the Calvinists, nor is it the non-Calvinists. The problem in our Convention is that we have entirely too many boneheads! We aren’t reaching North America and the world, to a large extent, because we are giving an inordinate amount of attention to people more committed to proving the other side wrong than they are to proving Jesus right to an unbelieving world. 165 years ago, our Southern Baptist forebears had differences over these same issues, yet still managed to work together to build what today is the greatest missions-sending delivery system in the world! Those saints who helped start our denomination would likely be ashamed of a few of their great-great grandchildren today if they knew how we were letting issues of this nature divide us and get us off mission.
The fight over Calvinism is but one example of a larger problem that we often find we have in the SBC—allowing the fringe on both extremes of an issue to dictate the subject and terms of the argument. Hyper-Calvinists afraid to witness for fear of sharing Christ with someone who is “non-elect,” Hyper-Fundamentalists afraid to sit down with someone that uses a translation other than the KJV, and Hyper-Dispensationalists afraid to fellowship with anyone who doesn’t have the Jack Van Impe program on their pre-set channel list are probably the least qualified among us to decide what are and are not important subjects of conversation.
Here in Maryland, we prefer to allow Jesus and His Great Commission to set our agenda. For the past 5½ years its worked pretty well, and is certainly appreciated by the folks who typically find themselves in the middle of all the arguments; all those good Baptist men and women who hold to varying views on a number of things, but who agree that men and women are fallen in sin, separated from God, hopeless and headed toward an eternity in hell apart from Christ. But we also agree that Jesus came into the world, lived a sinless life and thus became man’s righteousness, died as a substitute bearing the wrath of God in the place of sinners, and rose bodily from the dead. Best of all, we agree that anyone who hears this amazing story, repents of his or her sin and places all of their hope and faith in what Jesus did will have the same relationship with God, deliverance from judgment, and promise of heaven that I have now. To us, those truths far outweigh whatever secondary differences we might have with each other.
Of course, I recognize that many in our Convention would rather fight over this issue. Some have even suggested that the recent GCR movement is a clandestine plot by which Calvinists aim to take over the Convention (if so, someone should probably warn Johnny Hunt and Frank Page, both of whom serve on the GCR Task Force and neither of whom would ever claim to be a Calvinist.) Many have almost certainly categorized me and anyone else who shares my soteriology under “heretic” (I just hope they remembered to put Spurgeon’s name on that list too. Also William Carey. Oh yeah, and the majority of the folks who helped start the International Mission Board in 1845).
Others in the extreme Calvinist camp would also rather divide over how many petals are on one’s TULIP than to unite around the death and resurrection of Jesus. I can’t be responsible for their beliefs on the subject. What I can do is simply talk about Jesus. It’s the whole reason I came to Maryland in the first place. If you would like to join me in that effort, I’d love to have your help. There are lots of people out there who don’t know Him, and neither the Calvinists nor the non-Calvinists in our Convention have the ability to reach them without their brothers in the other camp. We need each other, and the world needs Jesus. That said, it’s time to stop fighting, ignore the boneheads, and do what He left us here to do.
Joel O. Rainey, Ph.D.
Director of Missions/Church Planting Missionary
Mid-Maryland Baptist Association
Director of Missions/Church Planting Missionary
Mid-Maryland Baptist Association