How to Smoke Out a Calvinist

(re-post of four articles)

I had heard for several years that among the various Directors of Missions for local Southern Baptist Associations there were some who took it upon themselves to weed out “Calvinists”, keeping them from consideration for pulpit supply or for open ministerial positions.

I had also heard that consultants from state Baptist conventions help train pastor search committees to avoid hiring “Calvinists.” One Director of Missions suggested to me that because of what school I attended (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), I should include on my resume my understanding of the “Five Points of Calvinism.”

Smoking out the Calvinists

Apparently some Tennessee Baptists have taken up the cause of culling Calvinists in organized fashion, creating written guidelines and conducting training sessions. Tom Ascol, of Founders Ministries, has written about it here. In his article Ascol reprints the documents supposedly used to root out hidden Calvinist preachers (documents are entitled “Reformed Red Flags,” “Theological Differences Between Traditional Southern Baptists and Extreme Calvinists,” and “Belief Statement and Pastor’s Pledge”). These documents are obviously full of stereotypes, simplistic assessments, and mischaracterizations of Calvinism, Reformed doctrine, and the Doctrines of Grace.

It is a serious matter to call a pastor. So I agree, for the most part, with churches seeking to explore a prospective preacher’s doctrinal bent before he walks into the pulpit. In my work as a church consultant, I grew to lament the fact that search committees are not concerned enough to explore a prospective pastor’s theological leaning, and, perhaps as important, how those leanings actually tend to affect his practical ministry.

Can search committees ask a prospective pastor about his “Calvinism”? Sure. Are “Reformed Red flags” and other tools valid for applying a label to a man and rejecting him? Not so much.

Making Labels

In several of the older churches in my association, a room just off the foyer to the sanctuary is dedicated to a display of the church’s formative documents. Minutes of the organizational meeting include a list of all the members, pastor, deacons, and elders. The Statements of Faith for these churches closely track the Philadelphia Confession (1742), the Second London Confession (1689), or at least affirm doctrines of grace, with copious favorable references to “election” and “predestination.”

Despite the fact that many contemporary members – should they venture into these rooms and read the documents in them – would stroke out at the notion that their church once had elders and once approved such “Calvinistic” concepts – these documents accurately reflect the truth that Southern Baptist life has been characterized by a strong Reformed, Calvinist, Doctrines-of-Grace element from its inception.

On the other hand, there have also been faithful believers in the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) who have not accepted all of the Five Points of Calvinism, who have nevertheless engaged the church’s mission to proclaim God’s glory through making disciples of all nations right alongside Five-Pointers and others who not only tip-toe through, but frolic in, the TULIPs (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Perseverance of the saints). For example, I worked with a friend in college ministry and on mission trips who claimed to be a 1-Point Calvinist (Perseverance, I think), with no adverse effects on the ministry and no after-hours fisticuffs.

Given this historical context, it is somewhat surprising that there would arise such acrimony against all things Calvinistic. There are, to be sure, church members and pastors who hold to Calvinism and who haven’t quite left the “cage stage” of their understanding of the Doctrines of Grace. Real and significant problems have attended their congregations and pulpits where charity has not tempered their zeal.

Yet the lack of charity is not a malady exclusive to Reformed circles. Arminians and semi-Pelagians can be just as hostile and unyielding. A thoroughly Arminian Sunday school department director adamantly refused to go along with anything proposed by the Director because he was (so she thought) “a Calvinist”, hindering the function of the group even in matters not dealing with the disputed doctrine. An official state SBC conference speaker referred to Calvin as a “shade tree theologian” only interested in peddling his Institutes, and presumably considered him a greater threat to evangelical Christianity than Islam and false converts.

A church search committee has every reason to avoid calling a pastor who will “split the church.” Yet it is avoiding its duty when it supposes that it can check off a few boxes on a “watch list”, or ask a prospective pastor “Yes or No: Are you Calvinist?” and justifiably label him a church-splitter to be studiously avoided.

The problem for churches and pastors today is that both sides of the soteriological divide have been characterized by such inaccurate stereotypes. Not all Calvinists preach from a TULIP soapbox, seeking to browbeat and arm-twist every congregant to his brand of soteriology. Not all Arminians or Wesleyans picture Jesus wringing his hands and fretting over his impotence to save men without their cooperation.

What can a church and its pastor search committee do to ensure they address their legitimate concerns fairly and appropriately?

Checking Under the Hood

A church’s pastor search committee has every right – indeed, the obligation – to explore a prospective pastor’s theological bent to ensure that it doesn’t conflict with its own. But should every church that rejects some or all of the 5 Points of Calvinism “smoke out” Calvinist preachers (or members) using a litmus test and then summarily reject them?

If a man is already serving as pastor and someone in his church must use a smoke-out tool such as “Reformed Red flags” or “Theological Differences” in order to determine whether he is unacceptably Calvinist, there is not likely as much of a problem as someone is pushing to suppose. Whether he uses an ESV Study Bible or quotes R.C. Sproul is not going to reveal much if the congregation doesn’t already believe that the pastor is attempting to surreptitiously convert them all to Doctrines of Grace.

And, if the goal of the Smokers is to root out men who have weaseled into their pulpit by hiding his real self, then the solution is not to use cloak and dagger tactics to catch him in his perfidy, but to shine the light of the gospel on the situation and do something truly radical: ask him.

But let’s not miss the significance of this: the very fact that a church must resort to asking the pastor if he is Calvinist, or to using tools designed to help spot “warning signs”, indicates that there is nothing seriously problematic about his theology. If doctrine were truly the problem, then it would be obvious to everyone. If a man proclaims doctrine from the pulpit that is obviously out of sync with Scripture, then you don’t need to know what soteriological brand he wears in order to find it problematic.

In other words, if a pastor is trying to implement church discipline, utilize an elder structure, eliminate the “altar call” – even preach grace – and the congregation made uncomfortable by it can point to no Scriptural error in the pastor’s efforts but can only throw a label on him in order to find his label objectionable, then the problem is not likely doctrine. There may be other legitimate reasons to send him on his way, but simply “being Calvinist” would not be one of them.

An unpopular pastor is either being sinfully divisive, or he is attempting to introduce biblical change that the congregation does not find palatable. If he is being sinfully divisive, the church has ample reason to seek other leadership. But to go to such extremes to characterize his sinful divisiveness as a product of “Calvinism” is gratuitous, and is likely the result of some other agenda.

If the pastor is introducing biblical change that the congregation finds unpalatable, it is facing a different situation, entirely. Any congregation facing this situation should make absolutely certain that its objection is not simply to change.

So, how should a search committee address these issues with a prospective pastor?

Kicking the Tires

Many pastor search committees receive advice to poll the congregation for the type of pastor it desires, and for which the committee should search. This typically results in a fanciful pastoral candidate who is in his 30s, has several children, an earned Ph.D., twenty years of senior pastor experience, and who looks like a news anchor.

Here, then, is at least one limitation of the congregational form of church government.

Some of these polls reveal the congregation’s desire that “No Calvinist Need Apply.” The biblical wisdom of such polls and of using search committees is a topic for another day. But given the fact that a search committee might see calling a non-Calvinist pastor as its goal, how should it go about this?

First, any church and its search committee should make certain that it knows what it means by “Calvinist.” Many members of SBC churches hold to a form of the Security of the Believer, which makes most of the Convention at least One-Point Calvinist (that is, they agree with “Perseverance” in the TULIP acrostic). Stereotypes make it likely that when churches object to “Calvinism” they are objecting to hyper-Calvinism or some caricature of Calvinism, neither of which is truly Calvinism at all. The church should also understand the terms “Doctrines of Grace” and “Reformed doctrine” (in a sense, all Protestants are “Reformed” from the abuses of Rome) in order to avoid stereotypes of those doctrinal understandings.

Therefore, the church and committee should decide whether a pastor’s agreement with any of the other four points of Calvinism renders him unacceptable, and why. Experience shows that it is entirely possible for a full-bore, Five Point Calvinist to faithfully and fruitfully pastor a congregation that does not hold the Five Points.

Second, the church and its committee should understand clearly why they believe a Two-, Three-, Four-, or Five-Point Calvinist is unacceptable. Much of the objection to “Calvinist” pastors is that they attempt to immediately convert everything about the congregation to their view of Reformed doctrine and practice, or use the pulpit only as a megaphone for preaching “Calvinism”, or browbeat and arm-twist everyone with a different view. But there are plenty of Reformed pastors who don’t behave this way (and plenty of non-Calvinists who do), and creating a blanket ban could be counterproductive.

Third, if it rejects Calvinism, the church and its committee should be willing to affirm its own soteriology. That is, the church should be aware of not only what it rejects, but what it accepts. The opposite of “Calvinism” is not “Biblicism”: instead, the one rejecting Calvinist soteriology is left holding some other interpretation of what Scripture says about salvation, but an interpretation, nonetheless.

Thus, the church should understand and embrace where it falls in the spectrum of views: Wesleyan, Arminian, semi-Pelagian, Pelagian. It will not do for a church to reject the Calvinist view of salvation while remaining unclear about the view that it accepts, or while refusing to address the issue under the guise of “having no creed but the Bible.”

Fourth, the church and committee should understand that it does not serve clarity and openness to simply ask a prospective pastor, sometimes at the first contact and sometimes by telephone, “Are you a Calvinist? (Yes, or No).” The subject is complex, and is not suitable to simplistic treatment, either in answers or assessments. A candidate who wants to take more time to answer appropriately is not necessarily being evasive.

Thoughtful pastors who hold to Calvinism, the Doctrines of Grace, and Reformed theology do so because they believe it is Scripture teaches. Churches and search committees that do not want to call them should at least give as much attention to why they think that Scripture does not teach it. They should not simply rely on stories, second-hand reports, and coffee-maker gossip about who is the “Big C” or even upon the poor behavior of men who obviously are.

No church needs unnecessary splits or sinful division. But it may just need that preacher who happens to be Calvinist.

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