Southern Baptist leaders: Calvinism should not divide SBC

A panel of four Southern Baptist leaders Saturday (Aug. 4) talked honestly about the division within the convention over the issue of Calvinism while offering suggestions and maintaining that Southern Baptists should and can unite, despite differences.

“Baptists for 400 years have disagreed over this issue, and we’re not going to come to some place where we all agree. I think we can come to a place where we all can work together,” said Union University President David Dockery, one of the speakers at a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Baptist Convention. The conference, called “Calvinism: Concerned, Confused, or Curious,” was held at Crestwood (Ky.) Baptist Church.

“In the 18th century, there were particular [Calvinist] and general Baptists, but at the sending of [missionary] William Carey, they joined hands together for the common cause of missions. That’s something we can do again,” Dockery added.

Other speakers were Steve Lemke, director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Hershael York, associate dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.; and Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.

The conference included two lectures by Dockery on the history of Baptists and Calvinism, a dialogue between York and Lemke, a panel discussion featuring all four speakers and a charge by Page on his vision for a unified convention.

“Right now, there is deep division in our convention over this issue,” Page said. “It comes every year at the convention [annual meeting]. It is not going to stop until we learn how to treat each other, how to be honest, how to clarify what we really are saying.”

There are “extremes” on both sides of the issue, Page said. Lemke agreed.

“We’ve got to rein in some of the people on our sides,” Lemke said. “Some of these poster boys for Calvinism are hurting the cause of Calvinism horribly — some of these guys on blogs that have an un-Christlike spirit and are just mean. … At the same time, there are some people on my side who are mean and they really don’t understand Calvinism. … They misrepresent or caricature Calvinism. I can’t rein in people on the Calvinist side. Dr. York has to do that. And he can’t rein in the people on my side. I have to do that.”

Panelists said when a church has an opening for a pastorate, both sides of the issue — pastoral candidates and pastoral search committees — must be honest in stating their beliefs and desires. A “small minority” of Calvinists, Page said, fail to be honest and then try to push Calvinism on the church.

Lemke said there “clearly” is a resurgence of Calvinism within the convention and among seminary students, “whether they be New Orleans Seminary or Southern Seminary.” Students, he said, are coming to seminary “with pre-commitments toward Calvinism, largely because of non-SBC speakers like John Piper and others.”

“Most Southern Baptist Calvinists of this generation are committed to missions and evangelism,” Lemke said, mentioning Alabama pastor David Platt as an example. “… As long as that is the case, that there is a common denominator, then we can work together.”

Lemke applauded York, who said that many members of the church where he preaches — Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. — did not know he was a Calvinist until they read a story about the conference in the state Baptist newspaper, the Western Recorder.

“I don’t talk about Calvinism,” York said.

York said he has not and does not read John Calvin’s books.

“I don’t believe anything because John Calvin said it, [or] because it came out of the Reformation,” York said. “I believe what I believe because I believe that I see it in Scripture. There are some wonderful godly brothers and sisters of mine who read the same Scripture that I read but they don’t see what I see [about Calvinism]. I’m OK with that. We ought to be able to love each other through that. We ought to be able to focus on the Great Commission together. There’s a lost world out there, and they really don’t care how many points [of Calvinism] we have. They need to hear the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Lemke said he would encourage pastoral search committees to ask candidates who are Calvinists: “Are they committed to missions and evangelism,” and, “Do they talk more about Calvin than about Jesus?”

Dockery said Calvinism was prominent within the Southern Baptist Convention during the first 75 years or so after it was founded in 1845. The history of the convention, he added, is replete with those who affirmed Calvinism and disagreed with it.

“There is not just one theological stream from one theological tradition in Baptist life. There are several,” Dockery said. ” … Baptists, as a whole, in the 21st century, don’t know their heritage. It’s not that we don’t know who Calvin is. We don’t even know who Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong are.”

York said he is “committed to not letting this be an issue that divides us.”

“The Great Commission is the commission that Christ gave to all of us, and we’ve got to be committed to working together to get the Gospel to the ends of the earth,” York said.

Lemke said there is “distrust” on both sides, and “that leads to probably exaggerating what the other side is saying and really going beyond where they really are.”

“I hope we can find ways to work together more constructively,” Lemke said.

Southern Baptists already have a mechanism that makes it possible to work together — the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, York said.

“There is nothing in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 that makes me or other Calvinists unable to believe what we believe,” York said.

The debate over Calvinism, Page said, is a debate “within the family.” It is “inerrantists here who are disagreeing with other inerrantists.”

When Page was president of the convention, he said, he appointed Calvinists and non-Calvinists to the Committee on Committees “because they were men and women that would go out and witness with me.” He said he “soon” will be naming a group of advisors “to help me pull together some kind of strategy” to help keep the convention united.

Both sides, he said, need to learn to respect one another.

“We’re talking about and at each other too often,” he said. “When you respect someone, you talk to them.”

Page added, “If we can do missions and evangelism together … then we can pull this thing together.”

Video and audio of the conference is available online at