NEW ORLEANS – The outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention took the opportunity on Tuesday to rebuke pastors over the infighting on Calvinism and to call for more humility in the ongoing debate.
In his last message as SBC president, Bryant Wright denounced the pride that was creeping in as Southern Baptists debate the doctrine of salvation and election.
"If we pride ourselves more on being a traditional Southern Baptist or more on being a Calvinist or a Reformed theologian than we are thankful that we are Christ-centered and biblically-based, then it is time to repent of theological idolatry."
He further expressed his concern that Southern Baptists were becoming "so engaged in trying to correct one another's view" that they were getting off track of their main mission.
"The devil is standing over to the side because we have taken our focus over what Christ tells us our clear mission is – and that is the Great Commission – and he is going to be laughing, and he's going to be mocking and he's going to be rejoicing that we're no longer interested in rescuing captives that God calls us to rescue with the Gospel," the Marietta, Ga.-pastor warned.
His remarks come weeks after the release of a statement by a group of Southern Baptists rejecting what they see as a push by New Calvinists to have their views adopted.
Hundreds have signed "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation," affirming a certain set of beliefs on the doctrine of salvation and denying Calvinist views, including the belief that "Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved."
While some have welcomed the longstanding debate, others have called the document divisive and argued that it hurts the church's witness.
Only a minority of Southern Baptists are Calvinists, but a new study shows Calvinism is on the rise.
According to a LifeWay Research survey released Tuesday, 16 percent of Southern Baptist pastors say they are five-point Calvinists, up from 10 percent in 2006.
The survey also revealed that 61 percent are concerned about the impact of Calvinism in the SBC.
Wright, who leads Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, had planned to address the debate during his message at the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans months ago – before the "Traditional Southern Baptist" document went public.
"The Holy Spirit convicted me that this elephant in the room needed to be addressed," he said Tuesday. "Little did I know that everyone would be talking about the elephant by the time the convention came around."
He recognized that Calvinism or Reformed theology is "hot," particularly among younger Southern Baptists. But he also pointed out that differences on the doctrine of election and salvation have existed for thousands of years and will continue to exist.
With that, he asked for "a bit of humility" among Calvinists and for the end of judgmentalism from "traditional" Southern Baptists.
"Any time there is pride, whether it is spiritual pride or intellectual pride or theological pride, it is always a sin," Wright asserted. "An attitude of superiority with those who may disagree with the finer aspects of theological beliefs is never going to build up the Church of Jesus Christ."
Addressing the latter group, he continued his rebuke, saying "judgmentalism quickly moves into slander," and warned against breaking the Ninth Commandment on false witness.
"It is time to show some respect to those with differing views when it comes to election and salvation," he stressed.
Wright urged pastors to agree to disagree and reminded them that Jesus Christ and the Great Commission should be the central focus.
"Let us understand that these two views on election and salvation can co-exist as long as we stay Christ-centered and biblically-based in our theology."
Wright served as president of the SBC for two years and will be succeeded by the denomination's first African-American president, Fred Luter. Luter was elected unanimously Tuesday.