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The SBC: Shrinking Before Calvinism

As the Southern Baptist Convention prepares for its annual jamboree next week in Houston, the two big stories are a steep decline in baptisms and the rising tide of Calvinism. Is the one related to the other?

Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Southern-Baptist-Convention.png.
Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Southern-Baptist-Convention.png.

Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Southern-Baptist-Convention.png.

As the Southern Baptist Convention prepares for its annual jamboree next week in Houston, the two big stories are a steep decline in baptisms and the rising tide of Calvinism. Is the one related to the other?

In a tradition that owes its existence to the belief that baptism can only be undertaken after the age of belief, a 5.5 percent slide in dunks is really bad news — an exclamation point in an SBC membership decline that’s been going on for six years. At last year’s meeting, the Convention wrestled with rebranding itself and came up with Great Commission Baptists, a descriptor that looks more and more like wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, the denomination has been roiled by the growing embrace of Calvinism by its clerical elite. Nearly one-third of Southern Baptist churches now subscribe to the teaching of the 16th-century reformer John Calvin that people can do nothing on their own to achieve salvation, and are thus predestined for heaven or hell.

While there have always been Calvinist Baptists, the SBC has historically been dominated by the more optimistic Arminian/Wesleyan view of human nature that took hold in American Protestantism in the 19th century: Christ died for everyone, and everyone has the wherewithal to reach out and accept the gift of grace. In Houston, the delegates will be discussing a new hyper-alliterative report (“Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension”) on the Calvinism conflict. What’s going on here?

Since the fundamentalist take-over of the denomination in the 1970s, the SBC has been all about separating the sheep from the goats. Breaking with its anti-creedal past, it has established doctrines and practices that must be adhered to or else. And as within the gates, so without: Southern Baptists have been in forefront of the country’s culture wars. It’s hard not to see Calvinism as the theological analogue of denominational politics.

Moreover, Calvinism provides an intellectual refuge for beleaguered faithful. Its teaching of utter human depravity and predestination was developed by St. Augustine at a time when the barbarians were literally at the gates and Roman civilization was tottering. That an SBC beset by membership decline should embrace Calvinist theology in the Age of Obama makes a certain amount of sense: The barbarians may be winning but at least we’re saved.

I’m not saying that the membership decline is a direct cause of growing Calvinism, or vice versa. But the two trends are mutually reinforcing — the one a manifestation of a darkening time, the other a world view in which those who are not with us are beyond redemption.