By Helen Gibson
Calvinism has become a hot topic within the Southern Baptist Convention and evangelicalism as a whole, often sparking intense online debates.
But instead of blogging about it, two Baptist leaders sat down and talked to each other about the issue and how to work together despite disagreeing over those doctrinal issues at the recent Southern Baptist annual meeting.
Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida, and Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, cleared the air about Calvinism in a discussion hosted by Jonathan Howe, director of strategic initiatives at LifeWay Christian Resources.
Howe started the conversation by asking Inserra and Rice if they thought Calvinism had become a “one-size-fits-all scapegoat” for other issues in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Rice said he thought it had.
“I think it’s one of those issues that people want to raise up, and it becomes a divisive point,” Rice said. “It becomes one of those things that is like, ‘Let’s talk about this, so we don’t have to talk about these other things here.’”
Inserra, who said he considers himself a Calvinist, added that often Southern Baptists allow “Calvinism” to become a label that can easily divide groups of believers without stopping to consider what people might mean when they identify themselves as Calvinist.
“I think one of the things that’s really missing in the conversation that’s causing us to lack nuance — to lack grace — is there’s no definition of what somebody actually means [when they call themselves a Calvinist],” Inserra said.
Calvinism, named after French Protestant Reformer John Calvin, is marked by the acceptance of five core doctrines with a well-known, floral acronym—TULIP:
- Total depravity
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Irresistible grace
- Perseverance of the saints
But while those points characterize Calvinism or Reformed theology in general, Inserra and Rice seemed to agree that Calvinism exists on a spectrum. What it means to be a Calvinist can be subjective, meaning some who take on the label of “Calvinist” may agree with all five points, while others may not.
All Baptists believe in at least one or two of Calvinism’s points, Inserra said. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, for example, is part of the Southern Baptist statement of beliefs, the Baptist Faith and Message, which says, “All true believers endure to the end.”
“I hear guys saying, ‘I’m a soft Calvinist,’” Rice said. “‘I’m a hard Calvinist.’ It’s like you have to put a modifier on it. It means different things to different people — both those who are proponents of it and those who are opponents of it.”
The Dangers of Divisiveness
Historically, both Calvinist and non-Calvinist traditions have influenced Baptists in America. The Charleston tradition is the more Reformed of the two and closely tied to educated British Baptist roots, while the Sandy Creek strain arose during 18th-century frontier revivals with an emphasis on emotional connection with an audience.
Despite this dual heritage, Inserra said he saw a church looking for a new pastor that basically ruled out any Calvinist or Calvinist-leaning applicants.
“It said no one from the Reformed movement needs to apply,” Inserra said. “And my thought was, [first], what does that mean? And second, you just disqualified yourself from a lot of great guys.”
He approached the leader of the pastoral search committee to try to better understand the group’s position. Inserra said he found the church misunderstood what it means to be a Calvinist.
“Well, those guys don’t believe in evangelism,” Inserra said the committee’s chairperson told him. That church had unnecessarily limited the possible candidates for the congregation, he said.
That’s why he thinks people should take the time to better understand what Calvinism is and isn’t before making judgments. He said he hoped the Southern Baptist Convention would make this clear.
“I think we need to have a call for our convention to stop the nonsense when it comes to that stuff, because it’s not true,” Inserra said to applause from some in the audience. “It’s not true.”
When hiring staff for his church, Rice said it’s not a deal-breaker whether someone identifies with Calvinism; he’s more concerned with deeper issues.
“I want to know their heart,” Rice said. “I want to know: Have they really thought through those issues?
“And most of all, to me, it always comes down to, ‘Are you passionate about evangelism and missions?’ Show me a guy who’s on mission. Show me a guy who cares about lost people, and that just tells me about almost everything I need to know.”
Inserra said those who come to different conclusions about Calvinism and its central tenets can still find unity in pursuit of the gospel.
“You can believe differently than me, and we’re friends and can go to lunch and it can never come up,” Inserra said. “We can serve on the same committees and preach in each other’s churches. Why? Because we believe that Jesus died. Period. And the implications of that aren’t up to us. The telling of the good news is.”
In fact, instead of letting the label of Calvinism divide churches and believers, both Inserra and Rice seemed to agree that Calvinism should be approached with grace and understanding, while believers strive for unity.
“We need to work hard not to mischaracterize by throwing labels and names around without really listening to one another,” Rice said.
“And push back on some of the false characterizations. I’ve heard people say things about Calvinists I know that are not true, and I need to push back on that and say, ‘You know, you’re not being fair to that brother.’”
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HELEN GIBSON (@_HelenGibson_) is a freelance writer in Cadiz, Kentucky.