The rise of Calvinism among the 16 million Southern Baptists in the country shed light on existing divides within the denomination, prompting greater efforts for cooperation.
Hundreds of Southern Baptists joined together last week for what was said to be a historic meeting on Calvinism. As leaders pushed for understanding and "building bridges" during the three-day conference, many recognized a broad range of beliefs increasingly influencing Southern Baptist life.
"We cannot say there is one stream that has made us," David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., told some 550 Southern Baptists at the LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. "We find ourselves shaped by fundamentalists, by revivalists, by evangelicals, and by Calvinists.
"We are at a time when we need to understand who we are, where we have been and where we are going. By and large, we don't understand our heritage."
Dockery's comments come at a time when an increasing number of SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) seminary graduates are affirming Calvinism, according to LifeWay Research director and missiologist Ed Stetzer.
The majority of Southern Baptists have not been consistent with the five major points of Calvinism – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saint – Dockery noted, and many have concerns about its rising influence.
In an effort to break stereotypes hindering dialogue on Calvinism, or Reformed theology, and push for cooperative unity, Founders Ministries and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary co-sponsored the meeting aptly titled "Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism."
One of the myths argued against was that Calvinism is a threat to evangelism. Nathan Finn, instructor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest N.C., noted that the lack of evangelistic activity among Southern Baptist Calvinists is similar to the little evangelism seen among other churches in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Stetzer revealed from recent studies that the number of annual baptisms relative to total membership of Calvinistic churches is virtually identical to that of non-Calvinistic churches.
Some went farther to say the rise of Calvinism can help evangelistic activity.
"I believe that the doctrines of grace (Calvinism) will help us restore true evangelism," said Jeff Noblit, senior past or First Baptist church in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
"And perhaps to say that it will restore true evangelism is a shocking statement to many. After all, many have already declared that the rise in Calvinism will kill evangelism," he added. "You can't pin the deadness and lack of evangelism of roughly 10,000 Southern Baptists churches on the fact that Calvinism killed evangelism. It was dead already."
The number of baptisms in SBC churches declined for the second consecutive year in 2006.
Noblit noted that "probably" the most used and copied witnessing tool Southern Baptists have ever embraced is "Evangelism Explosion," developed by the late Dr. D. James Kennedy, a Presbyterian and five-point Calvinist.
At the same time, Noblit said he was not suggesting that Calvinists are "the perfect models."
Yet some Calvinists accuse non-Calvinists of being less than gospel preachers because they do not accept the five points of Calvinism. It's that very accusation that concerns non-Calvinists, said Charles Lawless – dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. - dispelling the stereotype that non-Calvinists do not like Calvinists.
During the conference, Southern Baptist theologians debated on the five points, including unconditional election – that God chooses every person who will be saved, not based on an individual's merit or on his looking forward to discover who would accept the offer of the gospel but solely upon the counsel of His own will – and limited atonement – that Christ died for the elect and not all.
Southern Baptists were urged to be committed to defending their particular convictions but not at the expense of cooperation with each other.
"The Calvinism issue is not going to go away, so Southern Baptists must be willing to openly discuss and debate the doctrines of grace in an effort to be biblically accurate and, just maybe, come to a greater theological consensus in the years to come," said Finn.
"I believe our Baptist fellowship is big enough in all the right ways," Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the attendants. "We may not agree on everything, but we agree on more than enough to work together for our Lord Jesus in fulfilling the Great Commission."