For years SBC churches have depended on our 6 seminaries to adequately train pastors and ministers for the work of ministry. For the most part, our seminaries have done (and are doing) an amazing job to this end. Our 6 seminaries are among the finest theological training grounds in the United States. Students often leave seminary with a good grasp on church administration, evangelism, Baptist polity/doctrine and Biblical theology. However, within the past year I have had more than one conversation with directors of missions and church leaders who fear a growing disconnect between the soteriology of SBC seminary graduates and the average SBC congregation.
Lifeway research released a study in 2012 that showed that about 30% of SBC churches considered themselves reformed in their theology. The same research showed that 66% of those surveyed were concerned about the growing influence of Calvinism on the Southern Baptist Convention. While it is not my goal in this article to begin a theological argument or even espouse one view over the other, I simply felt led to shed some light on the topic. Lifeway also conducted a large study of seminary students between the years 1998-2004. The results of the study can be found here: http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/files/lwcF_LifeWay_Research_Calvinism_and_SBC_Recent_Seminary_Graduates_Ppt.ppt
In the study it was found that reformed theology was a growing trend among SBC Seminarians. While the study is dated, it does reveal some interesting trends. in 1998 20% of SBC Seminary graduates affirmed that they were “5 point Calvinists”. Six years later that number had grown to 35% and showing no signs of decreasing. Keep in mind these aren’t graduates who had reformed leanings, these grads affirmed an allegiance to all 5 points. Amazingly, the study also reveals that close to 70% affirmed the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. One has to believe that the trend shown in the study has continued 11 years later. With the rising fame of John Piper, John MacArthur and other leading reformed thinkers the next generation of preachers are being heavily influenced by their writings. If 70% of our churches are not reformed in their thinking and a growing number of graduates are, will we not eventually see a theological chasm between the theology of our seminary prepared preachers and the congregations they will be called to serve?
Most of these graduates would never intentionally divide a church theologically by preaching reformed theology. I know of several great young pastors who are recent graduates of SBC seminaries. They are doing great work in some of our most important SBC churches. But the fact remains that pulpit committees and candidates need to know each others theological leanings. That is why it is important for pulpit committees to ask pointed theological questions and for candidates to be open and honest about their own beliefs on salvation.
If close to 40% of seminary grads saw themselves as 5 point Calvinists 11 years ago, then what do we assume the percentage is today? If the steady increase continued as it did in the 6 year study (1998-2004) that number could be well over 50% today. The truth remains that many of our seminarians are graduating reformed in their views and the churches they are being prepared to serve are far from Calvinistic. This article is not written to share an opinion, but rather to encourage healthy and helpful conversation regarding potential, if not already present, theological gaps between ministers and ministries. I personally endorse and support our SBC seminaries and the pastors they are producing, but strongly believe that candidates and churches ought to be upfront in their discussions so as to avoid issues later.