Steve Lemke's letter and my response

Dr. Lemke posted a letter to me and others in a comment on this blog. In order to highlight his gracious letter and my response, I am posting his letter and mine back to him in a fresh entry.

-Tom

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Tom and friends,

Thank you for the careful attention you have given to my paper, “The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals.” Because I have great personal appreciation for you and a number of other people involved in the Founder’s Movement, it distress me greatly that you have found my comments to be so harmful or misguided. I really tried in the paper to express my concern as kindly as I could (i.e., I stated at some length my appreciation for some aspects of Calvinism, defended its legitimacy within Christianity and the Baptist tradition, insisted that some Calvinists were very evangelistic, and brought out the wide variety of positions within Calvinism to make clear that my remarks did not apply to all Calvinists), but I obviously failed in that attempt, and for that I am truly sorry.

It probably goes without saying that the fact that most people were introduced to my paper through President Welch’s comments very much shaped the way they read my paper. However, my paper was not primarily about Calvinism or the Founders Movement — they weren’t even the main thrust of the paper. The reason that I did not attempt to provide a scholarly theological critique of Calvinism or the Founders Movement (as some seem to think I was attempting to do) is simply because it was not the purpose of my paper. My topic of “The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals” was assigned by the leaders of the “Maintaining Baptist Distinctives” conference at MABTS, and my paper raised concerns about numerous areas of Southern Baptist life. The only reason that the Founders Fellowship was mentioned at all in the paper was that it provided a self-identified group of fairly strong Calvinist Baptist churches, which facilitated a statistical comparison between Founders Fellowship churches and the average SBC church. I did this to avoid merely repeating the rag that hard Calvinism might limit evangelism and missions without some hard evidence. I consider myself a soft Calvinist, and probably my best-known sermon is a defense of the security of the believer. As I mentioned in the paper, Dr. Kelley and I have brought more Calvinists on our faculty at NOBTS than at any time in our history. I say those things just to say that I am interested in balance, and I’m far from a rabid antiCalvinist. I certainly didn’t accuse anyone of heresy. I value you as brothers in Christ. I do think it’s important for brothers in Christ to have the freedom to voice different perspectives on issues and heartfelt concerns, but I apologize to those who felt I misrepresented or caricatured them. That was not my intention.

I have profited from the many critiques, commentaries, and criticisms of my paper in your blog and others. I agree with a number of points that have been made, especially concerning the need for better discipleship of those who are baptized and a more meaningful church membership (a point I made in the paper). I also have come to believe that the term “hyperCalvinism” is just too controversial and understood to mean too many different things to different people to be very useful in the discussion. I do think that some of the critiques were overreactions or misunderstandings of what I was trying to say (for example, several seemed to focus so much on my illustrations about dancing and drinking that they missed the point I was making — my worry that we’re compromising with the world too much in our lifestyles), but these critiques are just too many and it would require more time than I can give them to respond to them all.

The primary concern that I voiced in the paper was that Southern Baptists give the priority to evangelism and missions that the Great Commission commands and that we practiced in the past. My hope and prayer would be that we as Baptists could rediscover the passion for evangelism that the early church had, that brought a tremendous harvest across the Western world in the first century. May God do it again today!

Steve Lemke

Steve:

Thank you for your gracious response. I appreciate the the kind words you have used about Founders. I was introduced to your paper by Bobby Welch. However, I read the whole paper and tried to evaluate it on its own merits. I also appreciate the fact that you did differentiate between various stripes of Calvinism. What distressed me is the identification of Founders Ministries and those who identify with us as “hyper-Calvinistic.” It is impossible for me not to be sensitive to this issue since that charge has been recklessly and harmfully leveled against us more times than I can number–often by Southern Baptist leaders and denominational servants. Their words have then been invoked in justifying every kind of godless activity imaginable in dealing with pastors and church members.

I recognize that your spirit is not at all like that and that you would never take engage in or countenance such treatment of pastors or church members with whom you disagree. However, your paper, in effect, draws a huge bull’s eye on the backs of many people. It is almost inevitable that you will now be cited by some who will characterize a church or a pastor as hyper-Calvinistic because they have an appreciation for Founders Ministries.

“Hyper-Calvinism” is a good theological term–though not a good theology! It has a historically verifiable identity. I would discourage you from ceasing to use it, but would encourage you to be more precise in how you use it. Peter Toon’s book and Curt Daniel’s dissertation on John Gill and Hyper-Calvinism are good sources for tracing out the historical contexts and theological contours of this view. I would make one very sincere plea to you. Please add a footnote to your paper or publish some brief statement that clarifies your views on this. If you indeed do not believe that Founders Ministries in guilty of hyper-Calvinism, please make that known. By doing so you will be following the wisdom of King Ahasuerus in issuing a second decree that allowed the Jews to defend themselves from his unfortunate earlier decree. As I have indicated, I fear that if you do not, others will take your words and use them wrongly to slander and attack good men and churches.

I share your conviction that brothers should be able to disagree and engage in serious dialog about their disagreements without writing each other out of the kingdom. For this to happen we must be careful to use proper designations and representations of those with whom we disagree.

I greatly appreciate your last comments. We do need a deeper passion for evangelism. That is true of Calvinists, Arminians and everyone in between. But as I have hinted at in an earlier post today, in order for this to be the case, we must make sure that we have not lost the Gospel. There can be no evangelism–true evangelism–without the evangel. I have no doubt that you agree. This problem–which to my mind is huge, much bigger than anything we have written about thus far on this blog–transcends the Calvinism-Arminianism debates.

Thanks again for the spirit and content of your comments. May the Lord bless you and your ministry as you make Christ known.