Multiply Justice

Will Southern Baptists take this argument to New Orleans?

I am deeply distressed that, just as the Southern Baptist Convention is poised to take a big step forward in New Orleans by electing our first African-American president, another of our long-simmering disagreements is erupting into a full-blown argument. Instead of a badly needed witness to racial reconciliation, the world may watch us in New Orleans as we do what they think we do best — argue about doctrine.

This time the issue is how salvation works. One side insists our founders were convictional Calvinists: lost souls are incapable of responding to God’s grace on their own. The other side argues Southern Baptists have traditionally believed individuals must make a personal and free response to the Gospel. That the argument is coming to a head in the run-up to the annual meeting in New Orleans cannot be a coincidence.

We spent the better part of the past century disassociating ourselves from doctrinal error. When we finally purged our ranks of those who had drunk too deeply at the well of theological liberalism, we turned our sights on each other. Had we become so accustomed to focusing on how “they” differed from “us” that we no longer knew how brothers dwell together in unity? Have we been fighting civil wars so long that we cannot credibly take a message of peace to a lost world?

That lost world doubts any of us still authentically represents the Kingdom of Peace.

Jude exhorts us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” and that we certainly ought to do. But Jude was warning about false teachers who had wormed their way into the churches, preaching a heresy that because of God’s grace, believers could live in immorality. Is that kind of heresy being taught in our midst today? Of course not! We are going to divide the house over which theory of salvation represents “what Southern Baptists have always believed,” as if that were possible.

Does anyone think a 1,600-year-old disagreement is suddenly going to be resolved by another argument?

Go ahead. Lock and load. Mount up. Do battle. Don’t stop to wonder whether the war you wage against your brother has anything to do with the fact that so many of our churches have dropped out of the denominational scene. It’s probably just a coincidence that while we have been arguing a younger generation has decided it wants nothing to do with the church. Why would our bickering make people think we can’t offer any solutions for the problems destroying their lives?

If only you would lay aside your heavy books for a moment and get involved with the hurting people huddled in the alleyways and under the overpasses of your city. If only you would consider that the “sheep” Jesus will welcome into the kingdom will be those who personally helped “the least of these,” not those who scored the most points in a debate, or racked up the most page views on their blog, or got the most votes at the annual meeting.

I’m brought close to tears by the irony of Jude’s letter. You believe you are earnestly contending for the true faith, as he exhorted, but Jude’s real desire, he said, was to write about the great salvation we share in Christ. How ironic — how sad, how pathetic — that salvation is what you now feel compelled to argue about with each other.

Stop, brothers, I beg you. Don’t be drawn into controversial questions and disputes about words. Return to your first love and do the deeds you did at first. Rediscover the kingdom. Focus your best energies on loving God and your neighbor. Take good news to the poor and proclaim release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.

I’m not as much worried about embarrassing our good brother, Fred Luter, in what should be a moment of celebration for our great convention of churches — though that embarrassment is bad enough. I’m more concerned that we are in danger of the Lord removing our candlestick from among the churches. I am concerned he will finally grow weary of our arguing and cast us aside in disgust, like salt that has lost its saltiness. I am concerned he will decide to take the talents entrusted to us and give them to servants who will multiply them.

Will we take this argument to New Orleans? I hope not. Lord willing, that gathering might get us so passionate about the Kingdom that we completely forget we were arguing at all.

— Mark Kelly

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5 thoughts on “Will Southern Baptists take this argument to New Orleans?

  1. Well said!

  2. Amen, my thoughts exactly.

  3. A denizen of (known worldwide as a forum where profound thinkers engage the most serious issues of the day) dismisses this post as just another “Can’t we all just get along?” whine.

    Not so. Serious issues must be addressed. Sometimes they must come to the floor of a denominational annual meeting. Usually, they are best addressed in face-to-face engagements where brothers in Christ genuinely seek understanding. Posting a 10,000-word monograph on the Internet only counts as dealing with a substantive issue for a person who has been formally diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

    This post wasn’t about avoiding difficult issues or complex theological questions. It was about keeping a Kingdom perspective and focus. Perhaps the commenter isn’t familiar enough with Scripture to recognize the sentence about not being drawn into controversial questions and disputes about words. Or the one about salt being thrown out because it had lost its saltiness. Or the one about the Lord removing a candlestick from among the churches. The post was about becoming so obsessed with systematic theology that one neglects the commands to make disciples and help the poor and oppressed. The post was about preferring debate on intractable issues over advancing the Kingdom of God.

    I’m not offended that someone dismisses me as a whiner who just wants everyone to get along. He simply doesn’t know me. I am concerned that our generation only listens to the passages of Scripture that tickle the ears, that we understand so little about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen of the Kingdom. If we value arguments over Kingdom advance, the nuances of complex theology over being the hands and feet of Jesus to people in need, we are in a very dangerous place.

  4. Rick Patrick: I have heard more than one Calvinist Southern Baptist level such charges against the [Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation] since its publication just a few days ago. It seems embarrassingly humorous that they have laid these charges at the feet of the writers and signers of the statement, for in doing so, they are declaring as heretics six former SBC Presidents, dozens of seminary professors and denominational workers, over a hundred pastors and a growing number of Southern Baptist laypeople.

    More at

  5. Baptist Press reports:

    SBC President Bryant Wright, preaching today in New Orleans from Luke 24:44-49 and addressing the controversy over Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention:

    “My concern is that we can have Christ-centered, Bible believing Christians so engaged in trying to correct one another’s view when it comes to election, that the next thing you know the devil is standing over to the side, because we have taken our focus off of what Christ tells us our clear mission is, and that is the Great Commission. And [the devil] is going to be laughing and he is going to be mocking and he is going to be rejoicing that we’re no longer interested in rescuing the captives that God calls us to rescue with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    “Let us understand that these two views on election and salvation can co-exist as long as we stay Christ-centered and biblically based in our theology.”

    Wright delivered “a word” to each group.

    “To our Calvinist friends: A bit of humility would be most welcome. Any time there is pride, whether it is spiritual pride or intellectual pride or theological pride, it is always a sin. And we need to recognize that an attitude of superiority with those who may disagree over the finer aspects of theological belief is never going to build up the church of Jesus Christ.”

    After several centuries of debate, the issue is not going to be resolved in the first few years of the 21st century, Wright said.

    “To those who call themselves traditional Southern Baptists: The time for judgmentalism is over, because judgmentalism quickly moves into slander. And to lump all those who have a strong, solid, biblically based theology that is a more Calvinist theology” with hyper-Calvinists “is not only misguided but it winds up causing you to break the Ninth Commandment on false witness.

    “It is time to show some respect for those of differing views when it comes to election and when it comes to salvation.”

    Wright referenced the 2006 dialogue between R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Paige Patterson on the subject of Calvinism.

    “That is the spirit that we need today.”

    “If we pride ourselves more on being a traditional Southern Baptist or more on being a Calvinist or a Reformed theologian, more than we are thankful that we are Christ-centered and biblically based … then it is time to repent of theological idolatry. Our calling is to be centered on Christ and grounded in the Word while agreeing to disagree on the finer points of theological issues, may we all agree that Christ … has given us a very clear message and mission for the church.”

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