Is “Calvinism” in Southern Baptist Churches a “Trojan Horse”

I was greatly disturbed this morning to read the statements that a couple of people in leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention (in which I am a member) have made regarding “Calvinisim” being on the rise within our denomination. Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Rick Patrick, executive director of Connect316, were recently speaking at a SWBTS Chapel Service. The story at Baptist News can be found here: Chapel speaker terms Calvinism ‘Trojan Horse’

For those who may not be aware, I’m a Southern Baptist who affirms the Doctrines of Grace as defined by the Canons of Dort. This is more commonly known by the acrostic TULIP. This is a Biblical affirmation of how God works in His creation to save his People from their sins. One of the things that I do not like, sometimes, is the use of the term “Calvinism” due to the (for lack of a better term) “baggage” that can come with it. As a Baptist who would call myself “Calvinist”, I’m not saying that I wholly affirm what John Calvin wrote in his Institutes or what some other Reformed and Presbyterian Churches believe. But more on that later. Another term commonly used to refer to us is “Particular Baptists” (referring to the fact that God has saved a particular people).

In the article discussing the chapel service, we have some quotes from Dr. Patterson to start with:

 “I know there are a fair number of you who think you are a Calvinist, but understand there is a denomination which represents that view,” Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the close of Tuesday’s chapel service. “It’s called Presbyterian.”

“I have great respect for them,” Patterson said. “Many of them, the vast majority of them, are brothers in Christ, and I honor their position, but if I held that position I would become a Presbyterian. I would not remain a Baptist, because the Baptist position from the time of the Anabaptists, really from the time of the New Testament, is very different.”

I’m sure that on some level Dr. Patterson was being pithy. Certainly, if I were to believe in a full Calvinist doctrine I would naturally be a Presbyterian or Reformed Church Member. But here we have an extremely narrow understanding of what a “Calvinist Baptist” today in the SBC would believe.

At this point, the article shifts its focus to statements made in the chapel sermon by Rick Patrick. I will address most of these sections individually below each paragraph.

“Because Calvin’s Institutes address a broad spectrum of theological categories, we are actually debating much more than just the single issue of salvation,” said Patrick, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Sylacauga, Ala. “If we are not careful a myriad of related beliefs and practices will enter our camp, hidden within the Trojan Horse of Calvinism.”

Patrick demonstrates one of the major problems that I have with referring to myself as a “Calvinist”. There is not a monolithic view that “Calvinists” can claim. Although he may be correct in stating that this is “more than just the single issue of salvation,” I believe that some of the things that Patrick will cite below are not very rampant in SBC Congregations and, in my opinion, are being used to stoke the fires for those who, like me, are ardent believers in baptism of disciples alone by immersion, missions, etc… and would see any denial of such things to be a cause to question whether one should call himself a Southern Baptist. But if we lump those concerns in with the fact that those “Calvinists” who are 5-Pointers are trying to sneak in these things in their Trojan Horse, it helps to get people fired up.

Patrick said the Baptist Faith and Message endorses congregational church polity, “where decisions are pastor-led, deacon-served, committee-worked and congregation-approved.” Calvinists “are so fond of elder-led and sometimes even elder-ruled forms of polity,”

This is somewhat of a red-herring. You see, Patrick has left out a lot of our history here. When the first edition of the Baptist Faith & Message was written in 1925, we would read that the church’s “Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.” This was changed in 1963 (and remained so in the 2000 revision) to read “Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.” One could say that the 1925 version meant that the “bishop” was a pastor and that “or elder” would have meant that the bishop could have been referred to as an elder as well. Either way, the SBC had a long history of being “elder-led”. If I recall, the 1963 committee would even go on to state that “pastor” and “elder” were really one. Most SBC churches are “pastor-led”. I have seen that some churches will refer to their pastoral staff as the elders as well so that it’s said to be elder-led by the Pastors. Personally, I have been in several SBC churches that have been deacon-led instead of deacon-served. I’m blessed currently to be in a true deacon-served congregation. I think that congregational church polity is a good thing. While affirming the Baptist Faith & Message, I do also go “beyond” it and see that the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith speaks further to my beliefs. The BF&M is a rather short document and actually allows (by its nature and intentionally) for some variation of beliefs. But that is a blog post for another time.

“I say yes, but many Calvinists would say no,” Patrick said. “I agree that I am unable to save myself, but I disagree that I am unable, humbly, to make the decision to accept Jesus’ offer to save me.”

This is where the discussion really centers. On how God saves his People. Scripture is quite clear that God has a purpose for his election of sinners. Great passages such as John 6 & 10, Romans 8-11, and Ephesians 1 come to mind. The Father elected the sinners, the Son died for their redemption, and the Holy Spirit applied to their hearts bringing them to faith.  The BF&M speaks to this fact in section 5. Whether Patterson, Patrick, et. al. like it or not, the BF&M is quite open to embracing the Doctrines of Grace. Tracing the BF&M and SBC history shows that we came from a fairly Calvinistic background and used the New Hampshire Baptist Confession (which is Calvinistic or Particular) as the basis for our 1925 BF&M.

“Some New Calvinists, even pastors, very openly smoke pipes and cigars, just as they drink beer wine,” Patrick said. “They may even home brew the beer themselves, attempting to use it as an outreach to identify with other smokers and drinkers.”

“Sin is not a form of outreach,” Patrick commented.

First of all, I will say that I’m probably what you would call a tee-totaler. I don’t like the way beer or wine even smells, much less tastes. I have seen the effects of being drunk through the deaths of friends and family. I’ve seen the effects of people doing and saying really stupid things after just one or two drinks. “Wine is a mocker and strong drink is a brawler.” One doesn’t have to look far to see that a little alcohol (much less a lot) leads to unwise things. But I can’t say that doing some home brewing or having a drink with friends is a sin. Jesus drank and served wine at the Last Supper. Paul urged Timothy to have a little wine for his stomach. Being drunk is a sin, but drinking is not. Since we want to ensure fidelity to the BF&M here (as Patrick so often cites it for other of his concerns), it says nothing about abstaining from alcohol. Actually, the 1925 version states that the Lord’s Supper should be “bread and wine” (it was later changed in 1963 to “bread and the fruit of the vine.” But there are more pressing concerns, so I will move on.

“Would you believe that some Southern Baptist churches today are receiving as members those who have merely been sprinkled but have never been immersed?” Patrick marveled. “Immersion is the only mode of baptism recognized in the Baptist Faith and Message. This creates an entire class of non-baptized Baptists, and this is prevalent especially among our Calvinistic churches, as they receive Presbyterians, for example, into their membership.”

One of the things that does set Baptists apart from most other Protestant denominations is our belief in the doctrine of “Believer’s Baptism” (or to put it another way, Baptizing Disciples Alone – those who have professed faith and trust in Christ as our Lord) by Immersion. This is how Jesus was baptized in the Jordan when he “came up out of the water” and Paul gives us a beautiful picture of this in Romans 6:4 when we are buried with Christ in Baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. This is the same meaning that Francis Turretin (an early Reformer/Presbyterian) took as he saw that immersion is the proper Biblical mode of baptism. John Calvin, in his Institutes, also stated that immersion was the proper mode. Martin Luther would say the same thing. They, however, would also say that the mode of baptism is less important and should not be the focus. As for myself, I would say that if someone is joining a Baptist Church they should be immersed. At the very minimum, if someone has not been baptized since they were able to assent to the Gospel, believe with their heart, and confess with their mouth their repentance and trust in Christ (i.e. they were baptized as an infant before they exhibited any faith), then they should be baptized when joining a Baptist church. If an adult had come to faith in Christ in another denomination and was baptized by sprinkling, then I could possibly see where such a person has properly undergone believer’s baptism with water. I would still urge that they be immersed – this would not be to say they are saved because of immersion but would be a statement similar to that of Paul having Timothy circumcised. Finally, I would probably add that there are more people leaving the SBC for Presbyterianism than are leaving Presbyterianism and coming to the SBC. I’m not so sure that Patrick’s last statement has the urgency that he wishes it has.

“Southern Baptists cannot help but wonder what is happening as we increasingly embrace the Presbyterian view of salvation doctrine, church government, the mode of baptism, avoidance of the altar call, the use of beverage alcohol, the approval of societal missions funding and so on,” Patrick said.

Here, Patrick again uses a shotgun approach. I’ve discussed the “salvation doctrine, church government, the mode of baptism…the use of beverage alcohol” but not the altar call or “societal missions funding”. Regarding the altar call, this is somewhat of a hot topic. I have written about some problems with the “anxious bench” of Charles Finney (the precursor to the modern “altar call” here. Finney also stated the following about the anxious seat:

“The Church has always felt it necessary to have something of the kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles baptism answered this purpose. The Gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ were called on to be baptized. It held the precise place that the anxious seat does now, as a public manifestation of a determination to be a Christian.

Friends, this is dangerous. Baptism is, and always has been, the “public profession of faith” for a Christian. The altar call has its uses, but it is not a replacement for baptism. The altar call only has a brief place in the history of the church. One could point to Peter telling those on the day of Pentecost to repent and be baptized as a Biblical example of an altar call. But the SBC altar call is not that. It is a far cry from that. In the sense that one believes the altar call can serve the purpose of allowing one to come forward to speak with a pastor or other church leader about one’s salvation or Christian walk, then I would say that it may have a purpose. But we cannot have an honest look at church history and believe that there has always been what we now call an “altar call.”

“It is naïve to think that we can gradually reform our beliefs without simultaneously reforming our practices, and the question we must ask is whether or not these Reformed practices are making things better or worse,” he concluded.

Yes! This is a wonderful question to ask. The reforming of beliefs will always come with a reforming of practice in some way. This is not a bad thing. But if you take the typical Particular Baptist in an SBC Congregation, I believe that you will find someone who loves God and loves His People. But we should never be a people who are “sola BF&M”. Perhaps we have some modern practices that should be reformed. Being a traditionalist for the sake of tradition is unhealthy. It is also unhealthy and divisive to say that those of us who feel at home in an SBC church are simply dropping off the “Trojan Horse” in order to cause problems and make wholesale changes. This is not what most of “us” are trying to do. I hope that I have opened up some type of dialog. I love my SBC church. I love my pastor even though we do not see eye-to-eye on soteriology. And he loves me and my family. And he has no problem working with “Calvinists” who are focused on Christ’s Kingdom. I’ve also discussed these things on a podcast earlier this year. We can definitely have church unity with those who don’t believe all of the same things that we do. Just as “Calvinism” is not monolithic, the BF&M allows for the SBC to not be monolithic either.

When you think of those Calvinists in your congregation, please don’t bear false witness against us or our motives. Rather, remember the following.

We are the ones who are in leadership alongside of you. We are the ones going on mission trips alongside of you. We are the ones supporting the Cooperative Program alongside of you. We are the ones who weep with you in mourning and rejoice with you in triumphs. And we are the ones who believe that God has sent us out to spread the Gospel to those who need to hear it. This is our mission and our calling as believers. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

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