Calvinist churches targeted by Florida Baptist Convention

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (ABP) -- Some Baptists in this state say the Florida Baptist Convention is intimidating and demonizing churches that believe in Calvinism -- and doing it with the churches' own money.

Convention executive director John Sullivan last week sent recordings of sermons by Sullivan's former pastor Jerry Vines to every church in the state, apparently at convention expense, that identify Calvinism as a threat to Baptist life.

A week earlier, Sullivan sent one of his associates to a rural Panhandle county to confront local pastors about alleged "conflict" created by Calvinists in the Holmes Baptist Association. Sullivan's emissary, Cecil Seagle, was at times "angry and mean-spirited" and tried to intimidate the pastors, according to the pastors' detailed notes from the meeting, warning that Calvinism "is dividing the Florida Convention and a split is almost inevitable."

Calvinism, a theological system that emphasizes the sovereignty of God over the free will of humans, is named for Reformation theologian John Calvin. According to a recent Southern Baptist Convention study, Calvinism is held by only 10 percent of Southern Baptists. But advocates insist it was the theology of the SBC's founders.

The four sermons from Jerry Vines, former SBC president and retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, are a series titled "Baptist Battles" that target four hot-button issues in Southern Baptist life -- Calvinism, speaking in tongues, liberalism and "booze." Since SBC leaders rid the convention of alleged liberalism in the 1980s, the other three have been frequent topics of discussion and division.

Coming two weeks before the June 12-13 SBC annual meeting, where those issues are likely to stir debate again, Sullivan's mailing was interpreted as an inappropriate political use of power.

"This is clearly political in its intent," said one pastor in Florida, who contacted Associated Baptist Press about the CD recordings but asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. "Those of us who are conservatives and were part of the conservative resurgence are now being targeted."

Vines' sermons, recorded last year at a church in Georgia, were sent "through the cooperative efforts" of Sullivan and Eddie McClelland, president of Florida Baptist Financial Services, according to a letter from the pair that accompanied the boxed set.

Sullivan declined to talk to ABP about the project, how much convention money was spent, and if it was appropriate to spend it to advocate politically charged issues.

McClelland, however, said he was unaware of the nature of the project when he agreed for his convention agency to help fund it.

"I did not have any idea of the content. I did not know," he said. "I was asked to raise money for one of Dr. Sullivan projects. He asked me for a gift."

McClelland, whose agency makes church loans and operates retirement homes, a foundation and a credit union, said he does not know how much church-donated Cooperative Program money was spent on the mailing.

Asked if it was an appropriate expenditure of his agency's funds, he said: "I'm not going to answer that question. I would not want to get involved in that. I did not know it was political. Our agency doesn't get involved in politics. We serve all Florida Baptists."

Tom Ascol, the most prominent Calvinist in the 1 million-member state convention, blasted Sullivan's tactics in his blog. (www.founders.org/blog)

"This much is clear: The mailing of Dr. Vines' sermon on Calvinism is a clear indication that the executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention has an agenda to demonize the ministers and churches in our state who believe what the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed regarding the grace of God in salvation," wrote Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral and executive director of Founders Ministries, which promotes Calvinist or Reformed theology.

"This is a serious matter," he said. "Very serious."

In his sermon, Vines said Calvinism "kills" churches because it neglects evangelism by teaching that salvation is only for those whom God "elects," not for everyone. He said Calvinistic pastors tend to be divisive, dishonest and prone to "intellectual pride."

Ascol first reviewed Vines' sermon last October, calling it a "complete misrepresentation of the theological heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention and the theological convictions of thousands of Southern Baptist pastors." Sullivan made matters worse, he said June 6, by using "God's money to send it to every Southern Baptist in the state!"

"This mailing comes on the heels of a very egregious attempt last week by a state convention executive to intimidate pastors in a local association in our state over the issue of Calvinism," Ascol wrote in his blog, referring to Seagle's meeting with the Panhandle pastors.

"It looks like the meeting was hijacked by those whose job it is to serve the churches that had invited them to meet in the first place," he said. "This is a severe violation of Baptist polity and is an assault on the autonomy of local churches."

The May 22 meeting with six Holmes Association pastors and some of their wives was set up to discuss a plan to revitalize small, rural churches, according to meeting notes drafted by Ryan Helms, one of the six, and affirmed by the others. Instead, Seagle turned the conversation to alleged "conflict" in the association. The association's director of missions, a Calvinist, had recently resigned, in part over the issue.

Calvinism has "a negative impact" on churches, Seagle reportedly said, and two other Florida associations are "in turmoil" over it. He said the Holmes Association needed to resolve its conflict before moving on, and he reportedly singled out each of the pastors and asked if they had unresolved conflict.

The pastors -- only one of which is a Calvinist -- said there was no conflict in the association.

Seagle said Sullivan had received complaints about the association, according to the meeting notes, adding that former director Paul Fries "tried to push Calvinism down my throat."

The pastors, all officers in the association, disagreed that Fries was pushy about his beliefs. At that point, the pastors said, Seagle became angry and defensive, complaining the group was calling him a liar.

Helms, the one Calvinist pastor at the meeting, said he and his 30-member church had not caused any disruptions in the association over the issue and simply wanted to cooperate, the notes said.

Helms said he called Seagle after the meeting to try to clear the air. Seagle denied he was angry but said he will not tolerate being called a liar, according to Helms.

Ascol said he too tried to contact Seagle but had not been successful. "This issue is not about Calvinism," Ascol said on his blog. "It is about integrity at every level of our denominational structure."

Sullivan, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the meeting.

Ascol called for an investigation of the incident and warned it would be "devastating" for the Florida Baptist Convention to "sweep this under the rug for the sake of friendships or a supposed 'peace' or 'unity.'"

"Such a cover-up will undermine the kind of trust that is absolutely essential if a convention of churches is to move forward in cooperation," he said. "… That would be a colossal failure of leadership and dishonoring to the God of truth."

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