Reformation and Controversy in Southern Baptist Context

Founders Journal · Spring 2000 · pp. 1-7

Reformation and Controversy in Southern Baptist Context

Tom Ascol

The winds of reformation are blowing across the Southern Baptist Convention. God is awakening many to the desperate need for renewal and revitalization in our private lives as well as in our churches. Christians within and beyond the SBC are seeing the need to reexamine popularly held opinions about the nature of salvation, the church and providence, as well as long-neglected practices such as church discipline. As any student of revival and reformation history knows, awakening never comes without controversy. Those who advocate the status quo and those who disagree with the teachings which undergird renewal will oppose the call for reformation in both belief and practice.

This happened during the two decades of the inerrancy controversy in the SBC as moderate and liberal Southern Baptists stood against the advocates of a conservative resurgence in the convention. Charges that the inerrancy movement would hinder evangelism, destroy mission work and basically unravel denominational life were frequent and vociferous. Ironically, some whose diligent efforts provoked these kinds of responses from moderates twenty years ago are now sounding similar screeds against many of their fellow conservatives who want to see reformation and renewal continue beyond a mere confession of the inerrancy of Scripture. Those who are asking what good it is to have an inerrant Bible if we are not willing to be driven by its teachings in our thoughts and actions are beginning to find themselves and their beliefs subjected to ridicule and scorn.

Being at odds with fellow believers is distasteful to every peace loving Christian. But recovering and contending for truths and principles which have been long neglected by evangelical churches always creates tension and sometimes even leads to division. As distasteful as such controversy is, it is impossible for a truth loving Christian to sit back and pretend to be in agreement with those who openly attack biblical doctrines.

It is possible, however, for lovers of both truth and peace to disagree strongly without giving vent to rancor and malevolence. Speaking the truth in love demands nothing less. Too often, however, believers tend toward one of two poles: either forsaking truth (or not defending it) for the sake of peace, or having no regard for peace out of zeal for truth. A biblically balanced Christian will have a high esteem for both truth and peace.

But truth takes priority. It did for Paul. He told Timothy to teach with the force of command those who were drifting into false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Then he states that the goal of such teaching is love. “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). First comes doctrine–truth–then comes love.

Peter advocates the same priority. “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). It is obedience to the truth that gives rise to fervent love for the brethren and the genuine desire to live in peace with them.

When Jesus prayed for the unity of His followers He did so as an expression of His larger concern for their sanctification. We become one as we are sanctified, and we are sanctified by God’s truth (John 17:17). The failure of liberalism is the effort to have love and unity at the expense of truth. But “love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). The failure of fundamentalism is the attempt to have truth without being loving or concerned with peace. Yet, it is God’s truth which tells us to love one another (Matthew 22:39)–even our enemies (Matthew 5:44)–and to pursue peace with all people (Hebrews 12:14).

What does this do with the reformation that we are experiencing in the SBC and beyond? Everything. An inevitable by-product of reformation is controversy. Every reformation and revival has had its proponents and its opponents. When the disagreements become sharp, debates arise and the parties who disagree assert their own and controvert each other’s opinions.

Some controversies can be honorably avoided, and should be. It is not always necessary to contend for everything one believes, especially regarding secondary matters. Nor should all convictions be held and defended with equal vigor. Paul was ready to break fellowship with other believers over the right understanding of justification by faith (Galatians 2:1-5) but was willing to bear patiently with those who might disagree with him on other issues (Philippians 3:15).

There is a proper time and way to show deference and patience toward those with whom we disagree. Baptists have historically done this among themselves very admirably on certain details of ecclesiology and eschatology. Failure to recognize when and at what points it is appropriate to hold one’s peace will lead to unnecessary conflicts. Every issue need not be viewed by truth loving Christians as a hill on which to die.

But some controversies cannot be avoided without compromising God’s truth. There is a dividing character to truth. When such divisions arise, and arise because of the message and not the messenger, they are unavoidable. This fact does not make them any less painful, but it does afford comfort through knowing that God’s truth has been declared and it will unfailingly accomplish His purpose. Part of the cost of reformation is the inevitable controversy which comes over the reaffirmation of truth which has been long forgotten and neglected. Unwillingness to pay that cost and to enter, however reluctantly, into inevitable controversy will short-circuit reformation efforts.

Those of us who are committed to biblical reformation meet opposition on several different fronts, but the one which is formed by fellow conservative evangelicals may be the most painful of all. These brothers and sisters, with whom we agree on many fundamental issues, are convinced that our doctrinal distinctives and spiritual goals are unwise or unbiblical or otherwise improper. What this means in the Southern Baptist context is this: those who are committed to historic Southern Baptist principles, such as a regenerate church membership, formative and corrective church discipline, and the teaching of the doctrines of grace, are beginning to be strongly opposed by fellow conservative Southern Baptists who are not committed to such practices and principles.

In fact, disparagement of the renewal of historic Southern Baptist beliefs and practices has existed from the beginning of the renewal itself. Truth always has its opponents. Hundreds of local churches have experienced this in the inevitable tensions which accompany restoration of a congregation’s spiritual life. But in recent years, and especially in recent months, the frequency and intensity of opposition has dramatically increased in broader forums.

Well-known pastors and respected leaders have publicly declared their fears and concerns about the recovery of our Southern Baptist doctrinal heritage. More often than not, these public renunciations are coupled with misrepresentations and caricatures, which, if true, would be worthy of the most vitriolic condemnation. The problem is, the descriptions are completely inaccurate, misleading, and divisive.

Consider the following statements which have been made recently by two respected Southern Baptist leaders.

  • In describing the historic Southern Baptist view of election, one well-known pastor said that it means this: “You are going to get saved if you are elect–no matter what–God is going to catch you, going to zap you.”
  • An evangelist, lamenting the fact that we baptize very few adult converts from our pagan culture, said this: “There is not a nickel’s worth of difference between liberalism, five-point Calvinism and dead orthodoxy. They are all enemies of soul-winning.”

Such statements, which unfortunately are being made with increasing frequency, are guilty of caricature and distortion (to say nothing of bearing false witness).

As more and more pastors and churches become committed to ongoing reformation in belief and practice, one might reasonably expect these kinds of intemperate attacks to increase. As doctrinal and spiritual renewal spreads, its opponents become more compelled to speak against it. When such opposition is coupled with gratuitous castigations (like as those cited above), there will inevitably (and rightly) be responses by those who cannot be silent while truth is under assault. Martin Luther’s dictum is still valid in our day:

If I profess, with the loudest voice and clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battle fields besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.[1]

Efforts to confess Christ in this way by those who are committed to reformation are taking many forms and coming from many sectors. A survey of state Baptist newspapers will reveal that published distortions of historic Southern Baptist principles (such as unconditional election or the practice of church discipline) tend to elicit numerous letters to the editor in response. Likewise, misrepresentations that are verbally stated in public addresses are more likely to be challenged today than was true ten years ago. There are simply more Southern Baptists now than at any time in the previous generation who recognize doctrinal caricatures and historical misrepresentations when they hear them.

Some find these responses and challenges disconcerting and even accuse the challengers of stirring up controversy. Yet, the controversy which results is due to the initial attack on the truth and not to the response to that attack. Asking a lover of truth to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear when doctrines which he holds dear are misrepresented or repudiated is asking him to violate his own conscience.

The controversy which erupted between John Wesley and George Whitefield illustrates this point. These two great revival leaders worked together during the First Great Awakening though Wesley was an Arminian and Whitefield was a Calvinist. Their differences were known to them and others, yet did not pose a barrier to their fellowship or shared labors. It was only when Wesley began to berate the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace publicly that a breach occurred in their relationship.

Wesley’s first salvo was his infamous sermon against predestination (entitled, “Free Grace”). He preached this message against the counsel of several friends, including Whitefield. In the sermon, Wesley said that predestination “is a doctrine full of blasphemy” which portrays Jesus Christ to be “an hypocrite, a deceiver of the people, a man void of common sincerity” and God “as worse than the devil.” And those are some of the milder statements!

These and similar comments in other sermons provoked the ire of many who had been converted under Whitefield’s ministry. Several wrote to him, encouraging him to return to England and address the issue. Initially, Whitefield’s response consisted of private pleadings with Wesley. Upon hearing about the sermon against predestination, Whitefield wrote to his friend urging him not to put it into print: “Dear honoured Sir, if you have any regard for the peace of the church, keep in your sermon on predestination.” Wesley disregarded this plea and went to some pains to insure its wide distribution.

After more than a year of forbearance, Whitefield finally responded publicly by publishing his open letter to John Wesley on election. In a private letter to both John and his brother, Charles, he informs them of his intentions and laments the cause which has induced this action.

Why did you throw out that bone of contention: Why did you print that sermon against predestination? Why did you, in particular, my dear brother Charles, affix your hymn and join in putting out your late hymn-book? How can you say you will not dispute with me about election, and yet print such hymns, and your brother send his sermon, against election, to Mr. Garden and others in America?

Do you not think, my dear brethren, that I must be as much concerned for truth, or what I think truth, as you? God is my judge, I always was, and hope I always shall be, desirous that you may be preferred before me. But I must preach the Gospel of Christ, and this I cannot now do without speaking of election.[2]

Because the truth of election had been directly attacked, Whitefield was compelled to “confess Christ” by plainly and openly proclaiming the biblical teachings on election, as he understood the doctrine.

It is tragic to see Bible believing Southern Baptists, whose lives and ministries are in many ways commendable, turn their cannons on fellow conservatives by attacking doctrines which are sincerely believed and which are at the very heart of our denomination’s theological heritage. Such conduct not only fosters mistrust and disunity it also plays right into the hands of the liberals and moderates who are hanging on in the SBC.

The left wing in the convention has been dramatically reduced in size and its influence has been greatly diminished over the last ten years. But there are still some who are convinced that conservative Southern Baptists cannot go very long without turning against one another. Like hyenas hiding in the shadows, they are waiting for conservative infighting in hopes of gaining an advantage in the wake of an injurious melee.

So, what should be done? How should those who are committed to reformation in church life proceed when controversy swirls around them? First, recognize that there will be no reformation without some controversy. Avoid the naïveté of thinking otherwise. By all means, do not seek it! But when it occurs, do not be overwhelmed or dismayed and do not give up the goal of seeing biblical renewal spread in our generation.

Secondly, ruthlessly adhere to the high standard of speaking the truth in love.[3] Commitment to truth requires a commitment to love. Christ calls us to love even our enemies and we are especially to love the brethren. Being misrepresented or attacked provides no license to be unloving. Neither does being outnumbered or intimidated provide a license to be untruthful, or to leave truth undefended when it is subjected to caricature or distortion. When called on to confess Christ in controversy make sure that you do so in the spirit of Christ.

Thirdly, remember that if what we contend for is the cause of God and truth, then the battle is the Lord’s. It is His glory and honor which are at stake. This should both energize and humble us. What higher calling can there be than to speak, live and promote the truth which has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ? It is worthy of every Christian’s full commitment. And why should servants complain if, in pressing their Master’s cause, they are opposed by those who do not or will not understand? What matters is the increased recognition of His majesty and greatness through the advancement of the Kingdom of Christ.