Skip to main content

Does First Baptist Church Fight About Calvinism?

One of the most common questions I’ve received over my years of serving First Baptist Church is something like, what is the church’s commitment or position or standpoint regarding Calvinism? Now, there are a lot of reasons why that’s been a frequent question that has been asked of me. But the most important reason, I think, why that’s been asked of me at First Baptist Church has to do with a family who used to attend our church who was very committed to the issue of Calvinism and was very upset about the issue of Calvinism. This family was very upset, and over a long period of my ministry, they just demanded that I declare war on Calvinism in our church. They said they knew people who were Calvinists. They said they knew people who were spreading Calvinism. I never heard anybody talk about Calvinism but these people. But they said they knew otherwise, and they demanded that I declare war on Calvinism. I told them I wasn’t going to do that. When I didn’t declare war on Calvinism, they declared war on me. They dishonestly claimed that I was trying to initiate a secret Calvinistic coup. This created a terrible environment of distrust. And actually, a lot of people left our church over it, which is exactly what the angry and controlling folks wanted. They wanted to create an environment of distrust. They wanted to create an environment of division; they wanted people to leave. I never talked about the issue, but it was divisive because of the inflammatory way a small group of people were talking about it. What I have done repeatedly over the years at First Baptist is insist that the fight over Calvinism just isn’t our fight. On the podcast today, I want to explain to you why I am committed to having a church that doesn’t fight about Calvinism. Now, if you’re listening to this at another church, or if you’re another pastor someplace else, and you’ve decided that you are going to be a church that has declared, hey, this is where we are, and we’re going to fight tooth and nail over it. That’s your decision. I believe in the authority of the local church. That is not the decision we’re making at First Baptist Church, and I want to explain why. If you can bear it. I’m going to give you a five-point answer about why we don’t fight about Calvinism at First Baptist.

1. Teach the Bible

The first reason is that my job as a pastor is to teach the Bible. My job as a pastor is to be a Bible guy. It’s not to be committed to any one theological system over the other to teach a theological system. It’s to teach the Bible. What this means is when you’re committed to teaching the Bible, it means you talk about the truth. It means you talk about doctrines; it means you talk about controversial doctrines. It’s just that you don’t teach them according to a theological system. We teach the truth here; we teach the Bible we talk about controversial things. I just finished a nine-week study on the doctrine of divine sovereignty and the tension between that and human responsibility. I talked about that for nine weeks. We’re not afraid to talk about difficult issues, but we talk about them from the standpoint of the Bible, not a system. Here’s the reality as a pastor, when I stand up in front of my church, and I say, open your Bibles to whatever verse my people need to know that I’m going to teach the truth of that text. They don’t need to wonder if I’m going to bend that text to a theological system. And so, because our primary commitment is to the Bible, we don’t feel the need to get tangled up in a commitment to a theological system. It’s an issue about the priority of your authority. Because our primary authority is the Bible, we’re committed to being biblical and not necessarily committed to a particular system.

2. We Are a Confessional Church

A second point of why we don’t get in wars about Calvinism at First Baptist is because we are a confessional church. We’re a confessional church. Our church and our congregation voted decades ago that our confessional statement would be the Baptist Faith and Message. And a confessional document basically tells you it’s the instructions to your church about the hills you’re going to die on. It’s the instructions to your church about what you’re going to fight about. The Baptist Faith and Message tells us as a church what we are supposed to fight about, and it doesn’t talk about Calvinism. Now, our statement of faith, our Baptist Faith and Message, talks about the perseverance of the saints. It talks about the complete sinfulness of humanity and other things. And so we talk about those truths. Those truths are even pillars in our teaching as a congregation. But it’s not because they come up in a Calvinistic system. It’s because they’re in our confessional statement, and they’re in our confessional statement; see the first point because they are in the Bible. So we are bound by our confessional document, not by a theological system.

3. Because We Are a Church

A third point in why our church doesn’t fight about this is because we are a church. This is very important to me. We are a body of believers; we are a family. And in our family, we have all sorts of people in very different places. We have structural engineers, and we have people in full-time ministry, we have children who are new converts, and we have adults with Doctors of Philosophy in theology. And that’s a good thing. We are not asking everybody to be in the same spot about this. We’re not asking the teenage believers in our church to be in the same place as the 60-year-old doctorates who’ve been thinking about this. Our church is on a journey. And so we’re not standing up and declaring here is where everybody has to be right now.

4. This is a Controversial Issue

That is actually related to the fourth point of why we don’t fight about this. And that’s because this is a controversial issue. The church has been fighting about this for over 1000 years, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years that the church has been fighting about this. There are debates on all sides. I mentioned some of the controlling people who made this a divisive issue in our church, but there are nasty people on the other side as well. When I was a seminary professor for a decade, we would talk about the cage Calvinists, that is, the people who wound up reading a few books and they decide they’re Calvinists and they get so worked up you need to put them in a cage for a few years so they can calm down. There are nasty people on both sides. And the nasty people on each side create caricatures about the other folks. So on the Calvinistic side, they create caricatures about the people who say we’re not Calvinists, and they say, well, you don’t believe in the sovereignty of God. And the people who are not Calvinists create caricatures about the Calvinists, and they say, well, you don’t believe in evangelism, and you don’t believe in human responsibility. And here’s what I’ve found, as I talk to folks about these controversial issues is that there’s actually when you get away from the labels, and you get away from all the sloganeering, there’s actually a lot more agreement on some of these things than people actually understand when you get blinded by the label. Look, this is a controversial issue. And I am not the most humble person in the world. But I am humble enough to realize that we’re not going to be the church that’s going to figure this out to everyone’s satisfaction, and so I have refused to try to be the church that says, hey, here’s our declared standpoint on this. What I’ve said is, hey, let’s talk about issues. But let’s not deal with labels and false assumptions.

5. It’s a Really Complex Issue

A fifth point about why we don’t fight about this at First Baptist is related to those last two. And that is because this is really a complex issue. If you’re going to say I’m a Calvinist, or if you’re gonna say I’m not a Calvinist, then you are saying you have made a lot of decisions about a lot of different things. You’ve made a lot of firm decisions about biblical texts; you made a lot of firm decisions about principles of theology; you’ve made a lot of firm decisions about philosophical issues. I’m just not asking all those different people in my church to have all that figured out. Here’s the truth. I’ve been thinking about these issues for my entire adult life. I have a Ph.D. from a theological seminary, and I don’t have it all figured out. And anybody who tells you they do have it all figured out just isn’t telling you the truth and probably understands less about it than the person who says they haven’t figured it out.

So because we’re biblical because we already have a confessional statement because we’re a church because these are controversial issues. And because these are complex issues. Here’s what I want. I want to have a church that talks about these issues, that teaches about these issues, but doesn’t fight about these issues, and doesn’t claim to have all these things figured out. I’m telling you, you’re a lot better off. Your ministry will be a lot better off your family, and your friendships will be a lot better off if you can move away from the sloganeering and the fighting of I am a Calvinist, or I am not a Calvinist. If you can say let’s talk about truth. Let’s take it a doctrine at a time. Let’s take it a text at a time. Let’s take it a day at a time. And let’s do this in the context of family relationships. One of the greatest stories I’ve ever heard about this issue was just a few weeks ago. Two men in our church who disagree on these issues. They went to breakfast together, and they opened up their Bibles, and they brought their books, and they talked about it for a couple of hours. And at the end of breakfast, they didn’t agree. But they’d spent a delightful couple of hours together talking about the Bible, stretching one another and praying for one, and they both looked at me and smiled, and they said we love each other more now than we did before. And honestly, that is the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the kind of church I want to have. And that’s why we don’t fight about Calvinism at First Baptist Church.