Dishonest Calvinists (?) and the call for integrity

Does anyone else find it troubling to hear what sounds like a growing chorus of criticism directed toward Calvinistic pastors who run into difficulties when trying to shepherd their congregations toward greater spiritual health? Mixed in with the criticism is a charge that such men have been dishonest in the way they have gone into their churches because they did not make an issue of Calvinism from the very outset. Perhaps this can be legitimately said for a few, but they would be the exceptions and not the norm. Why, then, all the criticism?

The now-defunct baptistfire.com carried this 2004 quote from Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary:

When you are called to a church, be sure that you are a man of integrity and you disclose your full theological position to the church to which you are called. Many a church has called a pastor only to find, only to discover, a couple of years in, that he is determined to take the church in the direction of a Calvinistic church. He never told them that up front. He may even have deliberately misled them. One of my sorrows in hiring professors across these years is that I’ve often asked that question and gotten a misleading answer and found out later that this man was in the classroom perpetuating the system of Calvinism.

More recently Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, made the same accusation in a recent article that appeared in SBC Life. One of the 6 suggestions he makes to Southern Baptists for responding to the rising controversies surrounding Calvinism is this:

Act with personal integrity in your ministry when it comes to this issue. Put your theological cards on the table in plain view for all to see, and do not go into a church under a cloak of deception or dishonesty. If you do, you will more than likely split a church, wound the Body of Christ, damage the ministry God has given you, and leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone. Let me give an example. I am pre-tribulational/premillennial in my eschatology. It would be inappropriate for me to interview with a church and continue the discussion if I discovered that it was committed to an amillennial position.

Now, let me address our topic. If a person is strongly committed to five-point Calvinism, then he should be honest and transparent about that when talking to a church search committee. He should not hide behind statements like “I am a historic Baptist.” That statement basically says very little if anything and it is less than forthcoming. Be honest and completely so. If it is determined you are not a good fit for that congregation, rejoice in the sovereign providence of God and trust Him to place you in a ministry assignment that is a good fit. God will honor such integrity.

Even more recently Dr. Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church of Talors, South Carolina and an announced candidate for the presidency of the SBC, was quoted by Baptist Press as making these comments:

Noting that Reformed pastor John Piper’s books are among the most read books on seminary campuses, Page said the movement is huge and growing — “bigger than Texas,” he stated. “We must have honesty about this issue. There are churches splitting across the convention because pastors are coming in quietly trying to teach Calvinism or Reformed theology without telling the pastor search committees where they stand. The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches are not Calvinistic in their theology and it’s causing some serious controversy.”

Years ago liberals made the same kind of charges against Dr. Al Mohler after he became president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was accused of destroying the seminary, wounding the body of Christ and hijacking one of our prized institutions in an attempt to push his Calvinistic agenda. I defended Dr. Mohler then just as I am compelled to defend many unjustly criticized pastors now. Though the source and target of the criticism is different now than then, the substance, curiously, is the same.

Nine years ago, in response to editorial that attacked Dr. Mohler for precisely these reasons, I issued a press release to Baptist Press. Here is part of what I wrote at that time:

Mark Wingfield is very upset by the fact that after many years Southern Seminary once again has a president and some professors who actually believe the doctrines of grace. Though this is true, it should be clear to anyone who looks beyond the surface that Al Mohler has no agenda to promote five-point Calvinism. What he obviously is doing, however, is restoring doctrinal and ethical integrity to the seminary by rescuing the Abstract of Principles (which the seminary’s professors have signed since 1859) from the ash heap of liberalism onto which it had been cast for most of this century and restoring it to its rightful place. This document forms the doctrinal covenant between our mother seminary and the denomination it serves.

While granting the fact that there are, no doubt, exceptions, in the great majority of cases that I know about where Calvinistic pastors have encountered turmoil in their efforts to preach and teach God’s Word, it was not because of Calvinism. It was because of biblical Christianity. Calvinism tends to be the tail on which the donkey of controversy is pinned, but the real culprit is the erosion of real biblical Christianity that has occurred over the last generation or more in many of our churches.

The situation that Dr. Mohler inherited at Southern Seminary 12 years ago is very similar to situations that many historic Southern Baptist (despite what Dr. Akin says, this is a proper description of modern Southern Baptists whose theological convictions are in harmony with the views of the founders of the SBC) pastors face when going into a typical SBC church. Dr. Patterson made this insightful and telling observation about the state of many Southern Baptist churches:

Regrettably I have to believe that anytime you stand up and face a congregation these days in the average church you’re looking at 30-40% that have never been born again and are not genuinely saved.

He is talking about the people who have actually showed enough initiative to be part of the regular Sunday morning congregation, which it typically less than half of the membership!

If a man tries to introduce a biblical ministry into such a situation does it not stand to reason that there might indeed be some controversy along the way? When the Word of God begins to be taught and followed, those who have no appetite for it–and who have been not only allowed but encouraged to live happily in the church without it–will inevitably feel threatened, deceived and even “lied to” by the preacher. The reason is not Calvinism, but because of the strong reaction of godlessness to biblical Christianity, just as we saw happen at Southern Seminary with the changing of the guard a dozen years ago.

Should not that fact, coupled with the wisdom that recognizes that the proper goal of a genuinely Reformed ministry is not to “Calvinize” a church but to “Christianize” it more and more, lead a man who candidates for a church to emphasize his commitment to biblical Christianity more than to a theological system? This is not dishonesty. It is wisdom. It is just like saying, “I prefer to be called a biblical theologian rather than a Calvinist.” I wonder if the above quoted critics would critize a minister who makes that statement?

The sad reality is that most Southern Baptist
churches do not have much ability to discuss theological issues, even with their pastoral candidates. Dr. Akin uses the analogy of his commitment to pre-tribulational premillennialism, claliming that it would be “inappropriate” to seek a position in a church that was committed to amillennialism. Agreed. But that is a very cut-and-dried situation that, as most pastors know, rarely occurs in SBC churches. Let’s make the example more realistic. What if he interviewed with a church that had pre-tribulationalism as a part of its church constitution and statement of faith, but had drifted away from that over the last 50 years? What if everytime he raised the question with the search committee, deacons, and everyone else he met in the process that all he got back were blank stares and a mumbled, “we just believe the Bible; we just want someone to preach the Bible?” Would integrity demand that in this kind of scenario that he withdraw his name?

Or what about a church that had a solid statement of faith regarding the authority of Scripture but had been led by a liberal pastor for the last 20 years. Would he feel compelled, as an inerrantist, to withdraw his name from consideration as a matter of integrity?

I am not at all suggesting that a pastoral candidate refuse to speak plainly with a search committee or church regarding theological commitments. But the reality is that most churches–including their search committees–are not very equipped to have that kind of conversation. Should the details of Calvinism–or pre-tribulational rapturism–be spelled out anyway, even though there is no understanding of the language, categories or constructs? Or would it be wiser to stick with biblical categories, language and constructs? When a man does the latter for the purpose of communicating as clearly as he can I find it disheartening to hear Southern Baptist leaders criticize him as being dishonest.

Furthermore, these kinds of criticisms expose the completely untenable position in which some Southern Baptist leaders place their Calvinistic brethren in the SBC. If we openly describe ourselves as Calvinists, we are accused of “wearing our Calvinism on our sleeves” and are admonished to stop doing this. If we speak in terms of wanting to recover biblical Christianity or the theological vision of the founders of the SBC we are accused of being deceitful and dishonest. When the same men level both criticisms it is a sure indicator that something more is going on than a quest for integrity and it causes their critiques to ring hollow.

Yes, let’s insist on integrity, not only from Calvinistic Southern Baptist pastors, but also from non-Calvinistic Southern Baptist pastors. And let’s not limit this call only to pastors, but let’s expand it to include everyone in SBC life, even denominational leaders.

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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