Denominational integrity and controversy in the Florida Baptist Convention

On Thursday, May 29, I received a phone call from Ryan Helms, pastor of New Zion Baptist Church near Bonifay, Florida. Ryan is a faithful bi-vocational pastor who has labored for 6 years shepherding this rural congregation with expositional preaching and loving pastoral care. As one of the church’s members told me recently, because of their deep love for their pastor, they would follow him anywhere he led them as long as it was according to the Word of God.

Ryan called me to tell me about a meeting that had taken place a week earlier in the Holmes Baptist Association in northern Florida and to ask me if there was division in our local Baptist association. In April, the Director of Missions of Holmes Association (in which Ryan’s church participates), arranged for staff from the Florida Baptist Convention to lead a conference for their associational officers to learn how to use the church planting training for small church revitalization. The conference was to be limited in scope and exclusively for the associational leadership. The concern was to promote church health through church planting training. It was scheduled for May 22.

Shortly after arranging this conference, the DOM resigned his position in order to go plant a church in the midwest. The pastor of First Baptist Church of Bonifay had become upset with this DOM due to his perception of the DOM’s Calvinistic convictions. FBC announced that they were pulling their financial support from the association after Paul left because the association “lacked purpose.” Three weeks before the scheduled church health conference, Kent Lampp, the acting moderator received an email from Rick Lawrence, Director of Church Planting Department for the Florida Convention, informing him that he must invite the pastor of the FBC to attend the May 22 meeting, despite the previous explanation that the meeting was to be small and exclusively for associational officers. After some emails back and forth, Kent invited the staff of FBC to attend.

Two days before the meeting, the moderator was informed that Cecil Seagle was also going to attend the meeting. Mr. Seagle is Director of the Missions Division and South Florida Urban Impact Ministries for the Florida Baptist Convention. When the May 22 meeting came around, Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Seagle were accompanied by Jim Robinette, the Director of Church Planning and Revitalization Department for the Florida Convention.

These 3 executives from the state convention met with 6 ministers (two of whom were accompanied by their wives), including the pastor and staff member from FBC, Bonifay. The meeting, according to Pastor Helms, never addressed the announced topic. Nothing on church health. Nothing on church planting training. Rather, as copious notes from that meeting state,

Florida Baptist Convention staff had communicated that this meeting would be about small church health. Paul Fries (former DOM for HBA), had requested that key staff be taken through the church planting training and use it as small church renewal. Attendees had no idea that associational division would be a topic of discussion. The meeting began as a purpose development for the Holmes Baptist Association. This was discussed up to the dinner.

These notes were taken during the meeting and six of those in attendance reviewed them and revised them for accuracy after the meeting. All six have declared them to be a very careful and accurate recounting of what happened that night. You can download a pdf of the complete notes here. I am making them public with permission from Rev. and Mrs. Kent Lampp-Moderator of Holmes Baptist Association, Rev. Eddie Eaton-Missions Director of HBA, Rev. and Mrs. Ryan Begue-Director of Evangelism, HBA, Rev. Ryan N. Helms-Director of Discipleship, HBA.

Those notes indicate that the meeting quickly devolved into a session given over to concerns about Calvinism and those who hold to the doctrines of grace, particularly in the state of Florida. Once I got a copy of these notes, and verified that six participants had all agreed that they are a very accurate representation of what was said at that meeting, I called Cecil Seagle at the Florida Convention offices on June 4 and again on June 6. He returned my call on the afternoon of the 6th.

The reason I called him is because the six witnesses from the Holmes Association said that Mr. Seagle expressed concerns about me in particular after he took over the meeting to speak against the evils and dangers of Calvinism in the SBC. According to these six–5 of whom are not Calvinists!–Mr. Seagle referred to the “Founder’s Club” and my blog and the influence we are having. Particularly, the notes indicate, I am responsible for seriously dividing my local Baptist association over the issues of the doctrines of grace.

That accusation was very alarming to me and my fellow elders, since we have been under the impression that Grace Baptist Church has a very harmonious relationship with the Royal Palm Baptist Association. Before calling Mr. Seagle we met with Everett Rafferty, the DOM for the RPBA and asked him to speak to this charge. He said (and he gave me permission to quote him), “There is not a shred of truth to it.” Everett said that we have one of the most unified associations in the state and that my theology has never been a problem in the association.

I was prepared to report this to Mr. Seagle when we spoke, but he denied ever having made that accusation. He said that Ryan Helms completely misrepresented what happened in the May 22 meeting and that he was at that meeting at the direction of Dr. John Sullivan, his boss. He assured me that he had never had a conversation about me or my theology, that he was not “anti-Tom Ascol,” or “anti-Calvinism.” In fact, he told me that he did not see how anyone could read the Bible without recognizing that Calvinism has a great deal of truth in it. This surprised me, due to what the notes said, and what others have reported about Mr. Seagles’ views on this matter over the years. Nevertheless, I am always willing to give a man the benefit of the doubt. So, I asked Mr. Seagle how we should account for the discrepancy between his report and what was written in the notes of the meeting. He portrayed it simply as a difference of opinion between him and Ryan Helms.

Of course, as I reminded him, that is not an accurate portrayal of this impasse. What we have is the testimony of 6 witnesses that contradict his own testimony. He indicated that the number of witnesses did not give him any reason to back off of his denials.

I have since learned that, at the request of the associational leadership, Pastor Helms called Mr. Seagle before I spoke to him, and asked Mr. Seagle to apologize to the Holmes Association for several specific things, including slandering the former DOM, Paul Fries, being deceptive about the purpose of the meeting and attempting to lead the association in a discussion on disciplining Calvnists. Mr. Seagle believes he owes no apology to the association.

I understand that today Dr. Sullivan told leadership in that association that he stands by Mr. Seagle and does not believe that he did anything wrong. He has stated that as far as he is concerned the matter is over.

This whole series of events is tragic for several reasons. I will only outline them here. But it does not take much biblical wisdom or Baptist conviction to fill out the details.

1. The May 22 meeting gives the
appearance of being a set up by the state convention. It was announced to be about church health, but became a meeting about Calvinism and associational divisiveness. It looks like the meeting was hijacked by those whose job it is to serve the churches that had invited them to meet in the first place. This is a severe violation of Baptist polity and is an assault on the autonomy of local churches.

2. According to the six witnesses, a denominational employee, who works for them and their churches, attempted to intimidate them with accusations about people and theological positions. One of the people mentioned was the much-loved former DOM, Paul Fries. The pastors did not accept it when his character was called into question, something which, from all appearances, Mr. Seagle did not anticipate.

3. The discrepancy between Mr. Seagle’s version of what happened at the meeting and that of the six witnesses raises serious issues of integrity. If the state office attempts to sweep this under the rug for the sake of friendships or a supposed “peace” or “unity,” the consequences will be devastating. Such a coverup will undermine the kind of trust that is absolutely essential if a convention of churches is to move forward in cooperation. This truth will not be difficult to ascertain. It is done every day in courtrooms across our nation. Simply get the principal parties together, let them each testify and see where the preponderance of evidence leads. Where inaccuracy is discovered, correct it. Where sin or deception is discovered, rebuke it. But do not turn a blind eye toward all of this and announce that it is over. That would be a collosal failure of leadership and dishonoring to the God of truth. Followers of Jesus are to be lovers of truth. Let’s pursue it together and if it is discovered that some who are among us are standing against the truth, then, as brothers, let’s seek to correct and restore them.

This issue is not about Calvinism. It is about integrity at every level of our denominational structure. Here is what I hope will NOT happen:

1. Attempting to turn this into a Ryan Helms vs. Cecil Seagle misunderstanding. There are 6 witnesses who testify to the accuracy of the notes of the May 22 meeting. Mr. Seagle says that he is not guilty of the things that those notes indicate he did and said. Dr. Sullivan, who was not at the meeting, has indicated that he is standing by Mr. Seagle and that the matter is closed. It is not closed. Florida Baptists deserve to know if their servants, whose salaries they pay, are undermining the autonomy of local Baptist churches in the way that the Holmes Association notes indicate.

2. Attempting to turn this into a disagreement over Calvinism. Though what Mr. Seagle reportedly did and said has serious implications about the Florida Baptist Convention’s attitude toward those pastors and churches in the state that believe the doctrines of grace, that is not the issue. The issue is all about Baptist polity and, more importantly, integrity at every level of our denominational structure in the state. It is worth noting that 5 of the supporters of the notes of that May 22 meeting are not Calvinists! The issue raised by these events transcend our doctrinal differences at this point.

Here is what I hope WILL happen:

1. That Dr. Sullivan will call for a meeting of principal parties in this controversy and, face-to-face, faciliate a search for the truth of what really happened in the May 22 meeting. My prayer is that anyone who is misrespresenting truth will be humbled and so confident in the Gospel that he or she will repent and demonstrate the power of God in the lives of His people.

2. That the state convention leadership will take this opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to our long-cherished Baptist polity of local church autonomy and commitment to integrity among all its staff.

3. That the Holmes Baptist Association will have its hope and confidence restored in the Florida Baptist Convention.

4. That all Florida Baptists will be motivated to pray for our churches and state denominational servants, that the Lord will enable us to move forward in evangelizing our great state with its residents and guests from around the world.

Pray that the Lord will overrule these events to bring about good to His people and glory to His name, and that repentance and forgiveness will prevail in the fractured relationships between those involved.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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