Calvinism, Cooperation, and the Southern Baptist Convention

Frank Page
President
SBC Executive Committee

Calvinism is probably the most controversial topic in the contemporary Southern Baptist Convention. About a year ago, the debate reached a new level of intensity with the publication of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” and the responses it provoked from both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Resolutions on the “sinner’s prayer” and cooperation at last year’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans were directly related to the Calvinism debate. In recent months, Calvinism has allegedly been at the center of controversy at more than one Baptist college. I am regularly forwarded links to blog posts by both Calvinists and non-Calvinists that seem more interested in winning a debate than forging a consensus. Twitter is often even worse.

In August 2012, Frank Page of the SBC’s Executive Committee named an advisory committee to “help him craft a strategic plan to bring together various groups within the convention who hold different opinions on the issue of Calvinism.” Dr. Page is expected to report on that committee’s work at this year’s Annual Meeting in Houston. As Southern Baptists prepare for Houston, I want to offer some thoughts on the relationship between Calvinism and cooperation in the SBC. I hope these thoughts are helpful in furthering unity among Baptists on all sides of the Calvinism discussion in our Convention.

Triaging Calvinism

In 2005, Al Mohler published an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Spiritual Maturity.” In his essay, Mohler uses the imagery of medical triage to demonstrate that different doctrines function at different levels of importance when we cooperate with other believers. First-order or primary doctrines are those beliefs that distinguish Christians from non-Christians. Second-order or secondary doctrines are those beliefs that are distinctive to different denominations and often help determine one’s local church membership. Third-order or tertiary doctrines are those convictions that normally two members of the same church can hold without any serious division. While not all Southern Baptists have resonated with Mohler’s approach, I find it helpful for our present discussion.

This is my argument: within the Southern Baptist Convention, Calvinism needs to function as a third-order or tertiary issue for the sake of cooperation. I understand that for many folks, their view of the “doctrines of grace” is actually a second-order issue. I know many Southern Baptists of various theological stripes who join a local church partly based upon their understanding of issues like election, effectual calling, and the extent of the atonement. I think this is perfectly understandable. Nevertheless, in the context of the wider SBC, these doctrines should be understood as tertiary rather than secondary.

In reality, I believe that one’s perspective on Calvinism is already treated as a tertiary doctrine by the vast majority of engaged Southern Baptists. Most of us recognize that the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is intentionally vague or silent on each of the “five points” except for perseverance of the saints. Most of us aren’t bothered that some of our seminary professors are consistent Calvinists, some are moderate Calvinists, and some are decisively non-Calvinists——on each of our faculties. Most of us aren’t too concerned with what our missionaries and church planters believe about election, so long as they are urgently proclaiming Christ to all people. The fact is, when it comes to the SBC, Calvinism already functions as a third-order doctrine for most of us, and has done so since at least the latter years of the nineteenth century. I’m simply asking us to more intentionally work from this understanding.

Let’s Play Nicely

I know this sort of approach will not please all Southern Baptists, especially some who have been the most vocal participants in the Calvinism debate. Some SBC Calvinists invoke language that at least suggests they believe Calvinism is a primary doctrine: “Calvinism is the gospel.” Yes, Spurgeon said it, and everyone loves Spurgeon. Nevertheless, it’s unhelpful and, frankly, incorrect——at least the way many Southern Baptists use the quote. I trust that most Calvinists in the SBC believe one’s view of the doctrines of grace are at most secondary rather than primary.

Furthermore, the not-so-subtle insinuation that non-Calvinists would become Calvinists if they were smarter, or more biblical, or more theologically savvy is both obnoxious and insulting. So too unqualified claims that non-Calvinists are Arminians, semi-Pelagians, or even full-fledged Pelagians. If a Southern Baptist Calvinist can’t bear for Calvinism to be treated as a third-order doctrine that can be accepted, rejected, or modified (within boundaries) by any Southern Baptist, including SBC leaders and opinion-shapers, then he or she should consider partnering with other Baptist groups that are more uniformly Reformed in their soteriology.

Some SBC non-Calvinists need to tone down their rhetoric as well. The calls for Southern Baptists to “take a stand against” or “smoke out” Calvinists, the argument that unconditional election or (especially) limited atonement is “another gospel,” the equating of Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism, and the argument that Calvinists aren’t evangelistic are hurtful and (in the latter three cases) simply inaccurate. So too the argument that Calvinistic Southern Baptists are “more Presbyterian than Baptist.” Historically and confessionally, the SBC is broad enough to include everyone from five-pointers to one-pointers.

Also troubling is the argument by some that Christ-centered expositional preaching, an emphasis on the glory of God or the sovereignty of God, and Bible Study curricula that focus upon the gospel are somehow inherently Calvinistic (and thus bad). None of these concepts are, by definition, Calvinistic. Indeed, many non-Calvinists are firmly committed to each of these emphases because they are more about basic Christianity than incipient Calvinism. If a Southern Baptist non-Calvinist can’t bear for Calvinists to thrive and sometimes even serve as leaders in the SBC, then he or she should consider partnering with other Baptist groups that are more uniformly non-Calvinist in their view of salvation.

Moving Forward

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe this issue is important and worth discussing. In fact, I publicly called for more engagement of this issue at the Building Bridges conference in 2007 and the related book that was subsequently published. I’m all for a Christ-like family conversation among all interested Southern Baptists of good will. However, I sincerely believe this is not an issue worthy of denominational infighting or schism.

Last June, I wrote an essay titled “My Hope for Unity in the SBC.” In that essay, I argued that Southern Baptists should unite around four priorities for the purpose of cooperation: 1) biblical inerrancy; 2) an evangelical view of salvation; 3) a Baptist view of the church; 4) and a commitment to the Great Commission. I then wrote the following words:

I remain convinced that if we all agree to unite around these four priorities as they are framed in the Baptist Faith and Message, we can continue to live together and labor together as Southern Baptist Christians. We all need to be open to correction, maintaining a teachable spirit. We all need to forebear those who disagree with us over debatable matters. We need to focus the vast majority of our energies on the matters we share in common, not the issues upon which we disagree. And we need to demonstrate to the world that Southern Baptists care about more than simply fighting among ourselves and trying to win arguments.

Today, nearly twelve months later, I still stand by those words. It’s time for Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists to take a deep breath, ratchet down the heated language, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and recommit to cooperating together for the sake of the Great Commission. Calvinism has been and needs to remain a tertiary issue in the SBC. Now let’s move forward together in advancing the gospel among people here, there, and everywhere.

Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?

Several years ago, Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” In that essay, Mohler argues that a key to spiritual maturity is being able to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith-you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Mohler’s examples include such matters as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith, and the full authority of Scripture.

Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even congregation. Mohler’s examples of second-order doctrines are gender roles and baptism.

Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches. Mohler’s cites disagreement about the finer details of eschatology, presumably the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture, as textbook tertiary doctrines.

Southern Baptists have responded in a variety of ways to Mohler’s paradigm. Some argue it is a helpful way to think about the nature of Christian cooperation. They claim we all do theological triage, even if subconsciously and without using the label. Others voice concerns that Mohler’s views, or at least some possible applications of his views, lead to a downplaying of important theological convictions. They claim that theological triage results in our picking and choosing which biblical commands we will obey and which we will fudge on for ecumenical purposes.

For my part, I am firmly in the camp that agrees that theological triage is a helpful term that describes what all Christians already do, even if they don’t know it. I reject the notion that in principle categorizing doctrines as either primary, secondary, or tertiary necessarily leads to some sort of inappropriate compromise. When I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on secondary or tertiary convictions, I am not endorsing their convictions-I’m simply recognizing that what I believe to be their error doesn’t preclude us from working together in certain matters.

I think one reason the idea of theological triage raises concerns for many Baptists is because ecclesiological distinctives, and particularly baptism, are almost always considered second-order doctrines. Mohler himself uses baptism as one of his examples as a secondary doctrine. How should Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, think of the doctrine of baptism (and ecclesiology in general)? Is baptism a second-order doctrine?

I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which baptism is most certainly a secondary doctrine because a certain form of baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

But as Southern Baptists, it is important to recognize that a particular understanding of baptism-the full immersion of professed believers-is a core distinctive of our churches and our denomination. While every Southern Baptist I know would agree that baptism doesn’t contribute to our salvation, almost every Southern Baptist I know would argue that confessor’s baptism by immersion is the explicit teaching of the New Testament and that other Christians who sprinkle babies and call it baptism are in error, even if they don’t know it.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom. 6), missions (Matt. 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For the record, I think Mohler would likely agree with my argument (though he’d no doubt make it more eloquently were he writing this). I don’t see anything in his essay that hints at the idea that baptism-or any other secondary or even tertiary doctrine-is unimportant. In fact, he argues that disagreements about secondary doctrines help define denominations and churches. Baptists give special emphasis to the secondary doctrine of baptism, which necessarily helps distinguish us from other types of Christians.

Southern Baptists should not retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism. But neither should we act as if an erroneous view of baptism necessarily calls into question one’s regeneration and/or his gospel usefulness. We should speak prophetically to our brothers and sisters in Christ when it comes to baptism (and ecclesiology in general), but we should also humbly recognize that God is working among those who are wrong on baptism, sometimes to a much greater degree than he is working among Baptists. I hope we will work with them in every way we can without sacrificing our baptismal convictions.

Aspect 6(a): A Mission Centered on the Gospel (factionalism, non-fellowship, theological triage, liberalism, fundamentalism, Calvinism, contextualization)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Paul warns the Corinthians about the danger of factional battles in the church. In our opinion, this also applies to seminary communities, agencies and institutions, and indeed to the whole of our convention. Sometimes, the battles we fight are necessary and we wage them in an appropriate manner. But sometimes the battles are unnecessary and/or they are waged inappropriately. Often, unnecessary battles are waged because a group of people are excited about a particular idea, movement, or tradition. They begin to condescend or castigate, and seek to exclude, anybody who doesn’t share their ideas, emphasis, jargon, or agenda. The idea, movement, or tradition becomes a virtual test of orthodoxy.[1]

Perhaps no person, church, network, or denomination is exempt from such a temptation, and Baptists are no exception. Sometimes we wage unnecessary wars and sometimes this stems from a doctrine of “separation” (sometimes known as the doctrine of non-fellowship). This doctrine is based upon such passages of Scripture as Amos 3:3: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” For some, this doctrine means merely that we should separate ourselves from worldliness. For others, it means that we should separate ourselves from those who do not separate themselves from worldliness. Still others, however, would disallow fellowship (and sometimes friendship) with those who differ from them in any matter of theology (e.g. the particulars of one’s position on the rapture), physical life (e.g. preference in apparel or music), or social life (e.g. one’s friendship with a controversial person or preacher). The result is a flattening of all theological and practical categories as if they are of equal weight and importance. For a time, I (Bruce Ashford) walked in Independent Baptist circles where such “third degree separation” is practiced. Although I admire many of these men and am thankful for what I have learned from them, this doctrine is one of the primary reasons I left those circles.

Within the Southern Baptist Convention, there have been more than a few controversies since the Conservative Resurgence. There have been public disagreements over worship styles, contextualization, Calvinism, apparel, spiritual gifts, etc. These disagreements have sometimes become major battles. One thing that is needed is a way of determining which issues are worth fighting over and which are not, as well as how certain disagreements affect our ability to cooperate with one another at various levels.

Al Mohler has proposed that the hospital emergency room provides an apt analogy for how we might make such determinations.[2] We have applauded this model on numerous occasions. Those who are reading this blog might have had opportunity to see the goings-on of the “triage” unit of an emergency room. In triage, the doctors and nurses determine the priority of the diseases and injuries that will be treated. Shotgun wounds are treated before ankle sprains, and seizures before bunions. This is because certain diseases and injuries strike at the heart of one’s well being, while others are less life-threatening.

Pastors, theologians and missionaries would benefit from the same sort of triage. When deciding with whom we will partner and in what way, and when deciding which battles need to be fought and in what way, it is helpful to distinguish which doctrines are more primary and which are less so. Primary doctrines are those which are most essential to Christian faith. Without believing such doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone, one’s belief is not Christian.

Secondary doctrines are those over which born-again believers may often disagree, but which do not strike as closely at the heart of the faith. Two examples are the meaning and mode of baptism, and gender roles in the church. Disagreement on these doctrines does significantly affect the way in which churches and believers relate to one another. For example, although Presbyterians and Baptists may evangelize together and form close friendships, a Baptist and a Presbyterian could not plant a church together precisely because of their differences on church government and on the meaning and mode of baptism. Some secondary doctrines bear more heavily on primary doctrines than others.

Apart from primary and secondary doctrines, there are those which we can call tertiary. These are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and yet keep the closest of fellowship between networks, between churches, and between individual Christians. An example of a tertiary doctrine would be the timing of the rapture during the period of tribulation.

This does not mean that we avoid controversy at all costs. As one theologian (in his better days) pointed out, lack of controversy is either a sign of theological death or theological maturity.[3] We hope to avoid the former and strive for the latter. Nor does this mean that we view secondary or tertiary doctrines as insignificant. “A structure of theological triage,” Mohler writes, “does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.”[4] It does, however, mean that we can have close fellowship with those who differ from us on tertiary issues but decreasing levels of fellowship when we disagree on secondary issues. The upshot of this whole discussion is that we must avoid the liberal extreme of refusing to admit that there are such things as primary doctrines, as well as the fundamentalist extreme of elevating tertiary issues to the status of primary importance.


[1] We owe this point to John Frame. See his booklet published by Reformed Theological Seminary: Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus, p.18.

[2] See R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Has Theology a Future in the Southern Baptist Convention? Toward a Renewed Theological Framework,” in Beyond the Impasse? Ed. Robison B. James and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 91-117, and R. Albert Mohler Jr., “The Pastor as Theologian,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 930-32.

[3] Clark Pinnock, “A New Reformation: A Challenge to Southern Baptists,” (New Orleans: NOBTS, 1968), 3.

[4] Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” http://www.albertmohler.com/commentary_read.php?cdate=2004-05-20.