This post is part of my series Life as a Calvinist in the SBC.
When I started this series (one whole post ago) I had the goal of writing a long series of short posts addressing Calvinism in the SBC. One problem with that goal is I donâ€™t know how to do anything short. As such, this is likely to be a long series of long posts, as this first substantive post demonstrates. In these posts, I will try to add headers to help those who may be curious yet not want to read the whole thing.
When I was in college, I decided to circumvent my dormâ€™s anti-pet rules by raising fish. While my time as an ichthyologist was short-lived, I did manage to learn a few things. One of my early lessons was that you donâ€™t mix betta fish with, well, any other kind of fish. There is a reason they are nicknamed Siamese Fighting Fish. Bettas need to be kept to themselves, they donâ€™t get along with others.
There are some who feel the same way about Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC, that we donâ€™t get along and shouldnâ€™t try. Are they right? Should we try to keep our theological fish separated for the sake of peace? Or should we perhaps put costumes on all the fish, erasing distinctions for the sake of unity?
The Call for Unity
In the Bible we find much about the unity of believers. As part of his high priestly prayer, Jesus prays in John 17:20-21: I do not ask for these only but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. Unity is the Sonâ€™s desire for his people, that we would be one even as Father, Son, and Spirit are one.
Unity is one of the means that God demonstrates his work through his people. We see this in the passage quoted above as well as a few verses later in John 17:23: I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. The unity of believers, which is to reflect the unity of God, is itself a demonstration of the Fatherâ€™s work through the Son for the children of God. Something similar takes place in the new commandment of John 13:34-35: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.â€ I think we sometimes misunderstand the last point. What demonstrates our discipleship is not a general love for all people but specifically how we love fellow believers. We are to love all people, but it is specifically our love for fellow believers that stands as a demonstration of our unity and the work of God, what Jesus would later express in his prayer of John 17:20-23.
While one purpose of unity and love was to demonstrate Godâ€™s work to the world, there are other purposes for our unity. It was a unified church that supported Paul in his missionary endeavors. It was a unified church that could gather to worship together, build the body, share spiritual gifts, hold one another accountable, and exercise discipline. We are called to spread Godâ€™s kingdom, yet a kingdom divided against itself will fall. We must be unified for the work of the kingdom, the building of the saints, and the demonstration of Godâ€™s hand. Ultimately, we must be unified because it is what God calls from his people.
Unity is also one of the marks of true conversion. Love for others is a demonstration that something has truly changed in our hearts. Where love is lacking, salvation may also be lacking. John goes as far as to say, Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:10-11).
But we need to be careful not to think of unity and love as duty or nothing more than additional commands to be obeyed. I had a college friend who liked to joke, â€œChris, I love you! The Bible tells me I have to!â€ In a world where one million and one things divide people, the unity of the body is a tremendous privilege and delight for the saints who have been brought into the one household of God.
Unity and Separation
Unity does not mean enforced conformity. Within the body of believers there are many, many divergent beliefs. We strive for unity of belief but recognize it will not always occur. At one place Paul is able to call for believers to complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (Philippians 2:2) while in another place he says, One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5). There is a call for single-mindedness but a recognition that each one should be convinced in his own mind.
One consequence of legitimate differing opinions (differences over matters that do not affect someoneâ€™s salvation) is that there may be times where separation is a necessity. Tweaking Paulâ€™s example above to our day, if one person thinks the gathering of believers should be on Saturday and another believer thinks it should be on Sunday, there is a problem. For each one to be convinced in his own mind, there is a necessary division for the simple fact that they worship on different days.
Another common example for our day is baptism. I was raised in a church that baptized babies. As I began to grow convinced that infant baptism is not truly baptism, I realized I could not continue in that church. It was not that the disagreement was fatal, but I could not practice believerâ€™s baptism in a church that practiced the sprinkling of babies. We were each convinced in our own minds, but the disagreement led to a necessary separation. Such separations need not destroy unity provided we continue to have a right view of each other and – even better – attempt some degree of cooperation with one another.
Given the significance of unity and the seriousness with which Christ both calls for it and prays for it, we should do everything we can to avoid visible separation which the world might take as evidence of (and we too often use as a cause for) disunity. The impulse of the Christian is to strive for single-mindedness and full unity with other believers. But we can continue to love one another and even at times work and worship with one another while maintaining separation whenever it becomes necessary.
Disagreement in the Midst of Closer Fellowship
Not all disagreements lead to separation. While there are obvious problems of trying to do church with someone who disagrees about how we should baptize people, there are far fewer (if any) obvious problems of trying to do church with someone who disagrees about the timing of the rapture.
When my views on baptism began to shift, I did a little looking across the religious landscape to see what options were out there. In many ways, the SBC was a natural choice. The SBC already practiced the kind of baptism I believed Scripture mandated, and SBC churches were certainly not hard to find in my Mississippi hometown. But I knew that as a Presbyterian moving another direction, I would likely find some areas of disagreement with Southern Baptists, perhaps more disagreements than I had with the PCA! What led me to the SBC was the general openness of the SBC to divergent positions, provided believers fall within the general framework of the Baptist Faith and Message. (I would not have been able to say it that way at the time; to my untrained eye, what I saw in the SBC was a willingness to make room for differing opinions.)
Calvinism is not a minor issue. It has profound implications for how we think about the nature of God, the purpose of man, and the salvation of sinners. But the issue of Calvinism or non-Calvinism is not an issue of individual salvation. No one loses his salvation for not being a Calvinist. Nor is anyone cast out of the kingdom for holding five (or more!) points. This is an area of legitimate difference within the Christian church. And while Calvinism does create difference in the area of theology, it does not create difference in the area of practice. I would quickly and readily proclaim that our doctrine informs and influences our practice, but there is no necessary reason why the theology of the non-Calvinist and the theology of the Calvinist should lead to the kind of divergent practices that cause separation. There can be some difference in how we do things, but those differences are not contradictory differences such as we find with baptism or when to worship.
A Calvinist and non-Calvinist can stand arm-in-arm to call sinners to repentance, baptize them in the name of God, and disciple them in the truths of Godâ€™s Word. Nothing in our differing theology bars us from cooperating in ministry or growing together as believers. We will not always agree, but as already noted, we belong to a denomination that is created in such a way that it makes room for saints who will serve together under a broad statement of theological unity (the BF&M) while perhaps disagreeing on a host of secondary matters. Because of this, we have the opportunity to show the world how we can have unity and even close fellowship while continuing to have disagreements with one another.
Fighting as Friends
We cannot create unity by ignoring the things that make us different. While it is one thing to be a disagreeable person, it is another to disagree on particular issues. One of the challenges we face within the SBC is allowing people to disagree on the issue of Calvinism. It is a challenge because human beings do not naturally like to give space to people who are not like us. Religious liberty may be a historical tenet of Baptists, but that does not change how we as individuals tend to respond when faced with someone whose opinion differs from our own.
When we face disagreement, we do not have to be like betta fish who tear each other apart. We need to behave ourselves like brothers and sisters in Christ who recognize that others have opinions about the Bibleâ€™s teachings which they have reached through careful thought and a faithful reading of Scripture. At the same time, we need to be willing to stand firmly for our convictions. That includes a willingness to call something wrong if we think it wrong (and a willingness to allow someone to call our own beliefs wrong!). We live in an age of wishy-washy truth, when everything is watered down for some perverse post-modern idea of unity through mushiness. We need to set an example for how people can love one another, fellowship together, respect each other, and yet debate heartily these matters of truth.
As I say that, I realize not all people are wired the same. I am someone who loves a good discussion. I donâ€™t usually jump into internet discussions because my feelings get riled up but because I see an opportunity for a good, vigorous, enjoyable debate. I know many people who share a similar passion for discussion. But we who are thus wired need to recognize and respect those who do not share this love for head space. While we need to strive for the truth and not sacrifice truth for the sake of perceived unity, we need to grow in our ability to pursue truth with graciousness and vigorous demonstrations of love. This can be difficult to do on the internet, but it must be done in the church.
In the next post I will give some of my background in Calvinism and the SBC.