January 18, 2021

Under the Radar Calvinism: An Ethical Question

agent.jpgFact: Calvinism is hotly controversial among Southern Baptists.

Fact: There are many more Calvinistic ministers than confessionally Calvinistic churches in the SBC.

Fact: In an interview process, a candidate has the choice to be open about Calvinism or to keep it under the radar.

In his article on TULIP at Baptist Press, SEBTS President Danny Akin has a good bit to say about integrity and openness regarding a minister’s Calvinism:

Act with personal integrity in your ministry when it comes to this issue. Put your theological cards on the table in plain view for all to see, and do not go into a church under a cloak of deception or dishonesty. If you do, you will more than likely split a church, wound the Body of Christ, damage the ministry God has given you, and leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone. Let me give an example. I am pre-tribulational/premillennial in my eschatology. It would be inappropriate for me to interview with a church and continue the discussion if I discovered that it was committed to an amillennial position.

Now, let me address our topic. If a person is strongly committed to five-point Calvinism, then he should be honest and transparent about that when talking to a church search committee. He should not hide behind statements like “I am a historic Baptist.” That statement basically says very little if anything and it is less than forthcoming. Be honest and completely so. If it is determined you are not a good fit for that congregation, rejoice in the sovereign providence of God and trust Him to place you in a ministry assignment that is a good fit. God will honor such integrity.

Akin raises an issue that I am very familiar with: Many Calvinists- particularly in the SBC- do not openly “own” their Calvinism, but keep it under the radar. Many times they employ terms like “historic Baptist” or “confessing Baptist” in order to avoid the misunderstanding and controversy that comes along with Calvinism.

There are very few churches in my state of Kentucky who would go looking for a Calvinistic pastor. There are considerably more who would not make Calvinism an issue if it did not become a front-burner controversy in the church. Few Kentucky Baptist churches want their deacons turned into elders, the public invitations removed and detailed explanations of T.U.L.I.P. and reformed theology to take over Sunday and Wednesday evening services.

One Calvinistic church planter I keep up with loves to tell his congregation of their kinship with the “great reformers,” Calvin, Luther, etc. This would be real news to most Southern Baptists, who may be ignorant of their own history and theology, but who do not see themselves as the cousins of Calvin or the heirs of Luther.

Should a Calvinist- even a moderate one- openly own his/her Calvinism in a non-Calvinist setting? Should pastors, elders, deacons and teachers make their Calvinism known when that label may create controversy? Is Akin right that it is not fair for a church to call a “historic Baptist,” and discover they have a Calvinist? Is this the same issue in non-Baptist/non-Calvinist settings? Should an emerging pastor say he is Calvinistic? A Charismatic? An Episcopalian?

Akin does not raise another issue that is just as common, particularly as many young ministers are attending Calvinistic seminaries or listening to Calvinistic ministries like John Piper. If a minister’s theology and beliefs begin changing in the direction of Calvinism, should he resign? Should he tell the congregation about these changes? Or should he keep them to himself and continue his ministry?

Confessions like the Baptist Faith and Message provide a place of agreement for diverse persons who are in the same church, association or convention. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can read the BFM and feel their beliefs are addressed. But does honesty mean we should go beyond an “under the radar” agreement on a confession, and openly state our theology in a way that all will know exactly what we believe about controversial matters?

This applies to more than just Calvinism. I would not be comfortable in a church where an insistence on the term “inerrancy” was a watershed of a serious commitment to scripture. I would want to state my view of scripture in as clear- and unambiguous- a way as possible. I would not want to have to “dodge” certain questions to preserve the perception that I was an inerrantist.

Calvinists should be known for missions and evangelism, as should all Christians. But if Calvinism is also about reformation of an entire church, from leadership to worship to theology, then shouldn’t we, as Akin says, have all the cards on the table?

I always find it amusing when a “truly Reformed” SBCer castigates me for being “emerging” and pronounces my doom. If we were both brought up before the typical SBC church, which would be more controversial: my denial of “L” or his endorsement of it? This isn’t the PCA folks. In the SBC, Calvinism is and always will be controversial. Predestination, Limited atonement, elder rule, etc.: This isn’t where the SBC lives, thinks and ministers. Akin’s comments are appropriate for consideration and discussion.


  1. I would not be comfortable in a church where an insistence on the term “inerrancy” was a watershed of a serious commitment to scripture. I would want to state my view of scripture in as clear- and unambiguous- a way as possible. I would not want to have to “dodge” certain questions to preserve the perception that I was an inerrantist.

    This is a timely post for me, Michael. I was just uncomfortably struck last night by the realization that I have to sign a document affirming the “authority and inerrancy of the Bible” before I can graduate from my seminary. When I entered, signing that was no problem, but in the intervening four years, my views have changed significantly. Now, my view of the Bible is very similar to that of Tom Wright. I’m not quite comfortable with the term “errantist” but I’m certainly not an “inerrantist” in the sense that my seminary uses the term. If I were ignorant of exactly what they mean by “inerrent” I might be able to sign without guilt. But since I know what they mean, and I know I disagree, well, I’m stuck. I was sitting this morning just before I read your post and thinking, “Should I withdraw now? Even today? And look for another seminary?”

    I know I could sign that statement if I define the words according to how I might interpret them, but I know that isn’t honest. Because we mean very different things.

  2. Akin’s remarks seem like part of an agenda to make sure that young Calvinist ministers remain unemployed. As you point out, right now Calvinist SBC ministers greatly outnumber self-consciously Reformed churches.

    As a SBC minister in Texas, I usually have found it necessary to be a “closet Calvinist.” Few of my church members know what Calvinism is, and if they did learn what it is, they would immediately dislike it. I suppose that there is enough of a Calvinist perspective in my sermons that if a Calvinist heard them, he would detect it, but the average SBC church member does not. It just sounds like I emphasize both God’s grace and human depravity more than usual.

    Most SBC pastor search committees don’t ask many theological questions. Some don’t ask any at all. Most of the questions relate to style (contemporary vs. traditional) and philosophy of pastoral leadership. Occasionally, questions are asked about the candidate’s position on SBC politics (particularly in a state like Texas where there are two state conventions).

    I have heard of a few church splits caused by Calvinism, but in Texas most SBC church splits currently are caused by the pastoring trying the implement the church growth philosophy of Rick Warren, Ed Young Jr., etc. I actually heard of one church in a small town in the Texas Panhandle where a young pastor came in and split the church because he advocated BOTH Calvinism and Ed Young Jr.’s innovations.

    Maybe I am too concerned about my own career and my ability to support a family, but my philosophy regarding Calvinism with churches can be summarized as “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”

  3. Brian Pendell says

    Just thinking aloud, but this could also apply to ANY theological disagreement with the majority of the convention: Calvinism, Inerrancy, Charismata, you name it.

    I, personally, agree with the pastor in the article. If I go into ministry I want to be fully upfront about exactly what I believe and why I believe it. If the elders and the church body are willing to accept me that way, fine. Otherwise, it’s better to find another church — or even another denomination — where there’s a match.

    My perception is that if you go into such a position without all your cards fully on the table you can lose by GETTING the job. Because sooner or later you’re going to have to show those cards, and a big fight could well be the result. If it’s not a good match, better to find that out in the interview phase than halfway through one’s pastorate when a major fight could cause lasting damage to the church (possibly resulting in a permanent church split), your family, and you personally.

    This is the primary reason I have never gone into ministry as a Southern Baptist. Because I’m not an inerrantist of quite the flavor I seem to encounter ( I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God; I don’t believe Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple twice, even though it happened at the beginning of John and at the end of the other three gospels) and I’m a charismatic. The denomination doesn’t seem to welcome such people in ministry, so I’ve found other ways to use my talents.

    There are many inspiring scriptures about the different parts all being built together into one body. But what if the body rejects the part?


    Brian P.

  4. Warren Dodson says

    Perhaps as a non-pastor Calvinistic Baptist who is a member of an Episcopal church, I have no dog in this fight. But I wonder if this question assumes that Calvinism itself is more of a problem than it really is. Certainly if a church asks a candidate if he is a Calvinist, I would be opposed to any attempt to deflect the question. But must a Calvinist wear that label on his lapel whether the question is asked or not? I would say no.

    The problem here is at least twofold. First, most Southern Baptists do not know what Calvinism is, even if they already know that it is bad. Second, much about the teaching of Calvinism that upsets many Southern Baptists is the result of problems that extend far beyond Calvinism itself.

    Too many Southern Baptists are simply ignorant of church history, suspicious of “theology,” and doubtful of the value of looking outside of a very narrow tradition for insight. The “Calvinist” thus represents the teaching of doctrines developed apart from the bible in the shadowy past among persons of questionable belief. As more balanced Calvinists recognize, this common outlook is very dangerous for the long-term health of Southern Baptist churches completely apart from the question of whether they dot their soteriological i’s and cross their ecclesiological t’s.

    So how would I approach the question? As a non-TR TR, I would consider it necessary to inform a church of my commitment to three broad positions: mere Christianity, evangelicalism, and Reformation Christianity. As a mere Christian, I recognize the significance of orthodoxy. I am willing to recognize and appropriate the insights of truth wherever it is found. Accordingly, a church should understand that it will hear me mention and quote writers from through the centuries and across the breadth of the orthodox church. If a church sincerely believes that for centuries the truth only dwelt among a handful of mountain dwellers in western Europe of unknown doctrine and bizarre reputation, we should agree that I would not fit there.

    I would also emphasize that as an evangelical I recognize that we can and should pray for and work with those outside of the SBC, whether they be Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, trinitarian Pentecostals, etc. So long as other churches are orthodox, preach the need for faith and repentance, and hold to substitionary atonement, we can come together for works of mercy, pastors’ fraternals, and even community worship services. If a church thinks that right thinking about the mode and subject of baptism and about the continuation of the apostolic gifts define the bounds of Christian cooperation, we probably should go our separate ways.

    Finally, as a Reformation Christian, I believe the Bible is the only authority for faith and practice and am committed to follow the teaching of scripture regardless of how it conflicts with the way I have done things before. Accordingly, the church should expect that I will preach from the bible, primarily expositorially and consecutively, with the expectation that we will all strive to be teachable and obedient. If a church cannot fathom there being any area in which they need to reform, God have mercy on them; I pray they find a good pastor.

    Would my approach display a lack of integrity? I do not believe so. My attempt is to address what I believe are many people’s real fears without throwing up a party banner that will only confound them. Of course, it might be argued that many prospective Calvinist pastors are not committed to mere Christianity, evangelicalism, and Reformation Christianity as I have described. If so, and the Calvinist banner is their only rallying point, perhaps they should subscribe to Touchstone magazine and pray that God would form them into pastors who can be nothing less than Calvinists while also being much than Calvinists.

  5. Ken Boyd says

    Michael: Most of the folks in our church know of my beliefs concerning “Sovereign Grace” (as I like to call it). Our former pastor, current youth minister, and director of Missions know of my beliefs. One of the youth Sunday school teachers and one of our missionaries to the Pacific Rim is Calvinistic. The missionary even had her children study the Westminster Confession of Faith (gasp !!)

  6. St. Silvanus says

    What about an SBC pastor who is a postmil?

  7. This dilemma poses some excellent questions. I’m going to take a somewhat different approach, since my husband just finished heading up our pastoral church committee. I believe strongly that it is the duty of the church to find out what theological positions and hobby horses a perspective pastor has, and that all cards should be out on the table — both on the part of the pastor and the part of the church leadership. Own your beliefs. Express them clearly, beyond merely resorting to labels. If your church is aghast at the merest hint of Calvinism, you had better make sure any prospective pastors know this up front — and if the pastoral candidate is less than fully honest, he deserves all the trouble he’ll get.

    Unfortunately, it’s true that all too many search committees fail to ask theological questions. This baffles me beyond words. When we were looking for a church home, we asked far more questions (we jokingly invited one pastor over and warned him that we were going to “grill him unmercifully” and he loved it!) than do most search committees. One of the things that was both helpful and a bit frustrating during our recent pastoral search is that we used a computerized approach that I jokingly referred to as “eHarmony for pastors”. The idea was great; the programming and implementation still needs work. But the best part of the process is that it put the various theological hot button issues out on the table for discussion.

  8. I agree that the drive here seems to be sure that we don’t let any young Calvinists get pastorates. How about young Armenians, or people who might be open to other kinds of worship or who privately speak in tongues? We need to be sure that we have a common standard for everyone that is applying for a pastorate. Many people who would consider themselves Calvinists theologically don’t ride the hobby horse any more than an armenian does.
    Search committees need to understand the totality of where a candidate is coming from and who they are, personally, theologically and emotionally to know if this person will be a good fit to lead the congregation.
    We are more than the sum of our stands on the hot button issues.

  9. Maybe there is some vast conspiracy to keep young Calvinists out of the pastorate, but I really don’t think so. I think it makes sense that a noncalvinistic church would want a noncalvinistic pastor, and that this is not part of a drive to keep these guys out of the pastorate.

    I know a few young Calvinistic guys who are having a hard time finding pastorates. It’s all too easy for them to claim that they are the victims of some sort of anti-calvinism movement. The truth of the matter is that it is some of their other “hot button issues” that has kept them out of the pastorate so far. Even though they have been told this by the pastoral search committees, they prefer to view themselves as some sort of calvinistic martyrs. What has kept them, so far, out of the pulpit?

    1. One candidate said, of the woman music director, “If I come, she’ll have to go. Immediately.”

    2. Another said, referring to a woman who made an announcement from the pulpit about an upcoming women’s retreat, “I hope you will never again give her or any woman a public forum like that in the worship service.”

    3. Another guy criticized every song that was sung in the service.

    4. One rather ambitious young man, fresh from seminary, refuses to consider anything but a large and successful congregation, even though those churches only want to hire someone with pastoral experience.

    It doesn’t matter that these guys were calvinistic in their theology; what really matters is that they were so obviously the wrong choice for the churches involved.

  10. What needs to happen: more young Calvinist SBC ministers need to plant new churches. The problem is that most of these guys want to sit in their offices and read old theology books all day. This is not a lifestyle that is real compatible with church planting. Also, a lot of young Calvinist ministers are more focused on winning arguments with Arminians than they are on missional engagement with the unbelieving world.

    Rebecca is right. A lot of seminary graduates have bizarre expectations and make unreasonable demands. A large number of guys (both Calvinist and non-Calvinist) that I went to seminary with never really made it into the ministry for these and other similiar reasons.

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