SBC Exec Com Chairman on the "problem of Calvinism" in the SBC

Bill Harrell is pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, Georgia. He is also the new chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. This is Harrell’s second tour of duty on the Exec Com, having been one of the first “movement conservatives” appointed to that powerful body in the early days of the conservative resurgence.

In a recent interview with the Georgia Christian Index, Harrell expressed his views on two problems in the SBC that need to be addressed and solved. Timmy Brister and Marty Duren have already commented on this. I am sure others will (or maybe have) as well. Here are some excerpts from the article.

The SBC Executive Committee chairman expressed, “We have two important issues to solve in our Convention. First, concerning the matter of worship style, we must decide what identifies us as Southern Baptists. This will be difficult, because we are autonomous, but I believe our Convention leaders need to make a more definitive statement about how we identify ourselves in worship and who we are as Southern Baptists.”

“We are never going to be homogeneous, never have been, but there are some lines we should never cross as Southern Baptists,” Harrell added. “There must be something distinctive about us or we will lose our identity.”

While I appreciate Harrell’s concern for maintaining a true Baptist identity, one must first know what such an identity actually is. In other words, what actually constitutes a Baptist? Or a Baptist church? Instead of getting bogged down in debating worship “styles” (which is is about as productive as herding cats) I suggest that Harrell and all others who share his concern about Baptist identity read Tom Nettles’ trilogy called, The Baptists. Volumes 1 and 2 are already published and volume 3 is due out early next year. This set is simply brilliant. Nettles has thought more deeply about this question and addressed it more rigorously than anyone in the Southern Baptist Convention, and maybe any Baptist in the world. The question of Baptist identity is crucial, but it will not be addressed by trying to set some uniform “style” of worship.

Here is the second problem that Harrell sees:

“Second,” Harrell continued, “we must deal with Calvinism. I have solid Christian friends, some of them pastors who are Calvinists, but I think they are wrong about the tenets of five point Calvinism. In my opinion too much of the New Testament must be ignored or radically interpreted to embrace the five points of Calvinism.”

Of course Harrell is entitled to his opinion. But that does not change history. The necessary implications of his assertion is that the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention were wrong about their understanding of salvation and ignored or radically interpreted much of the New Testament. Isn’t it ironic that he so castigates the very founders of the denomination whose executive committee he now chairs? It sort of makes one wonder if the full significance of the complaint was appreciated when it was repeatedly and loudly chanted in the 1970’s and 1980’s that “the SBC has been stolen.”

The article continues:

Harrell further explained, “I think the problem of Calvinism in the SBC could be solved if we establish one ground rule. If a man wants to start a Calvinistic church, let him have at it. If a man wants to answer a call to a Calvinistic church he should have the freedom to do that, but that man should not answer a call to a church that is not Calvinistic, neglect to tell them his leanings, and then surreptitiously lead them to become a Calvinistic church. That is not to suggest that all of our Calvinistic friends do that, but when it is done it is divisive and hurtful.

“The same thing should be true of a contemporary church,” Harrell added. “Don’t try to transform a traditional church into a contemporary mindset just because it is the popular thing to do.”

Interesting ground rule. I wonder what Harrel would say about a church that was established by Calvinists as a confessionally reformed church but was led away from that confession by pastors who came in and preached contrary to it? In other words, does his “one ground rule” go both ways? Should a man who is not Calvinistic go to a church that was established on Calvinistic theology? Should a man who thinks that Calvinism is wrong serve as pastor of a church that was founded by Calvinists with a clearly Calvinistic commitment?

Here is the kicker: As the article indicates, Abilene Baptist Church was founded in 1774 as the Reed Creek Baptist Church, the 3rd Baptist church in Georgia. It’s founding pastor was Abraham Marshall, the son of the famous Daniel Marshall, the famous founder of the Sandy Creek Baptist Church in North Carolina (who, contrary to popular revisionist historiography was indeed Calvinistic). Daniel also founded the oldest continuing church in Georgia at Kiokee in 1772. Although I do not have the founding documents of the Reed Creek Baptist Church at my fingertips, I do have this piece of information about the Kiokee church, which was later pastored by Abraham from 1784-1819.

The first article of the Kiokee church’s covenant says this:

“According to God’s appointment in His Word, we do hereby in His name and strength covenant and promise to keep up and defend all the articles of faith, according to God’s Word, such as the great doctrine of election, effectual calling, particular redemption, justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, sanctification by the spirit of God, believers’ baptism by immersion, the saints’ absolute final perseverance in grace, the resurrection of the dead, future rewards and punishments, etc., all according to Scripture which we take as the rule of our faith and practice, with some other doctrines herein not mentioned, as are commanded and supported by that blessed Book: denying the Arian, Socinian, and Arminian errors, and every other principle contrary to the Word of God. Now yet since we are exhorted to prove all things, orderly ministers of any denomination may when invited, preach in our meeting house” (emphasis added).

Don’t miss the irony here: the man who founded Reed Creek Baptist Church in 1774 (Pastor Harrell’s church) is the same man who upheld this covenant and its doctrines. How does Harrell’s ground rule apply here?

P.S. Providentially, Particular Baptist Press has just announced their newest publication, entitled, Daniel and Abraham Marshall: Pioneer Baptist Evangelists to the South, by Dr. Thomas Ray. The book may be purchased by contacting Gary Long at Particular Baptist Press, 2766 W. FR 178 Springfield, MO 65810, (417) 883-0342.

HT: Kurt

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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