The pastor of First Baptist Church in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, for 27 years, Joe Elam only encountered Calvinism once during his ministryand it left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Though forbidden to do so, a former youth pastor at his church secretly taught predestination to teens, Elam said, sowing seeds of lingering division among several families.
"It was a wake-up call for us," said Elam, who recently led the Arbuckle Baptist Association to adopt a motion calling on the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma to rebuke Reformed theology. It sent copies of the motion to all members of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee.
"We would like to see Southern Baptists become aware that [their] money is being used to teach Calvinism in our seminaries," Elam said.
That secret may already be out. Although only 10 percent of SBC pastors identify themselves as Calvinists, nearly 30 percent of recent seminary graduates do, a groundswell that could spark more Oklahoma-like conflicts. Some of the denomination's leading Reformed thinkers come from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, including its president, Al Mohler, and Tom Nettles, coauthor of Baptists and the Bible, a seminal text in the SBC's conservative resurgence.
Long considered more Arminian in orientationemphasizing an individual's need to respond to the gospel rather than God's election in salvationthe nation's largest Protestant denomination is grappling with doctrines of grace and election amid a seminary-led revival.
Last November, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, co-hosted a conference entitled "Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism," which brought 550 registrants to hear leading SBC figures offer differing assessments of the nascent movement.
Calvinist growth isn't unique to the SBC, reflecting a broader stirring among evangelicals sparked by popular pastors such as John Piper, R. C. Sproul, and John MacArthur. (For a transdenominational look at the Reformed revival, see "Young, Restless, Reformed," CT, Sept. 2007.)
"Southern Baptists go to their conferences, read their books, and listen to their radio programs and CDs," said Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. "That has spawned an interest in Reformed theology."
sbc president Frank Page thinks Calvinism will increasingly become a source of contention.
"What we're seeing across the nation is that it's not being discussed enough," said the South Carolina pastor. "Candidates and churches are being put together, and it immediately becomes apparent they've got a serious issue of disagreement."
However, George doesn't believe the issue will divide the convention. "We ought to be able to talk about it, discuss it, even debate it, in a way that doesn't require anybody to compromise their convictions, but which also doesn't make this a test of fellowship," said George, a Calvinist.
Mohler said a deepening interest in theology is driving younger Southern Baptists to explore Reformed thinking, and he dismisses the fear of some that the budding Calvinist wing will tilt the SBC back toward its 19th-century anti-missionary movement.
"Southern Baptists are not going to accept any theology that would in any way reduce our evangelistic zeal or missions commitment," Mohler said.
Page isn't so sure. While acknowledging that both sides seek to uphold biblical truth, Page worries that extremists could undermine the SBC's emphasis on outreach. He isn't impressed by arguments that most convention founders embraced Reformed ideas.