The state executive director-treasurer for the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC) recently sent every pastor in the state a 4-disc collection of CDs by prominent Jacksonville pastor, Dr. Jerry Vines, on “Baptist Battles” with the subtitle, “Liberalism, Calvinism, Pentecostalism, and Libertinism.” While his message, “Calvinism: A Baptist and His Election,” represents only one of four strategic battles addressed by Vines, it represents serious charges that are jointly endorsed, funded by, and promoted as “helpful” by Dr. John Sullivan, Executive Director- Treasurer and Mr. Eddie L. McClelland, President and CEO of Florida Baptist Financial Services. I have included images of the CDs and the accompanying letter below. You can read Tom Ascol’s 16 October 2006 review of Vines’ sermon on the Founders blog, as well as Ascol’s response to this recent pastor’s mailing.
While Florida has long been one of the most conservative state conventions in the Southern Baptist Convention, a number of high-ranking executives have chosen a anti-Calvinistic stance that grows more virulent as time passes. I ought to know, because I once served on staff with the Florida Baptist Convention as a church planting missionary. I joined the FBC’s church planting department in 1997 as a part-time strategist at the invitation of its former director, George Thomasson, who is now serving at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Florida, and one of the dearest brothers I have ever known. It was a joy and a privilege to work alongside him for six years! He is a man who loves grace and walks with Jesus every day.
After a year, I was asked to join the church planting team on a full-time basis, requiring the approvals of John Sullivan, the State Board of Missions, and the North American Mission Board (NAMB). In my final interview with Dr. Sullivan, he asked me point-blank, “Are you a five-point Calvinist?” I replied positively and he then inquired how it impacted my view of missions and evangelism. I said, without hestitation, “The same way it impacted the missions and evangelism of men like Charles H. Spurpeon, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and Luther Rice; not to mention some great contemporary examples like John Piper, Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, and W. A. Criswell.” We had a very open and candid conversation about Calvinism, and we reached a gentlemen’s agreement concerning my views: it would not be appropriate to shove Calvinism down anyone’s throat and yet I insisted on complete freedom to explain or discuss my theological convictions with anyone who asked. Sullivan smiled, extended his hand and said, “Well, then welcome aboard!” He later told me during a new employee reception that his theological views were quite close to my own.
Unfortunately, the spiritual and theological climate has changed in the FBC and the Southern Baptist Convention since my full-time appointment in 1998; and one of the saddest casualties has been the increasing hostilities against my fellow Calvinists in Florida. As things heated up on the national SBC preaching circuit, it brought more pressure to bear within my conservative state convention, especially with high-profile FBC pastors like Jerry Vines and Bobby Welch jumping on the bandwagon.
Any staff position in the FBC is relatively high profile, no matter how lowly your assignment, and it was only a matter of time before I became an embarrassment to denominational executives. I eventually lost my position due to the political savvy of Dr. Cecil Seagle, Director of the Missions Division, who carefully cloaked his theological rage against my Calvinistic views with the timing of fiscal cuts of the post-911 period. Even the International Mission Board suffered financial strains, causing them to reduce their Richmond staff by thirty-five and freeze the deployment of one hundred missionaries. Out of eight positions that were eliminated in those 2003 budget cuts in the FBC, I was the only person occupying one of those positions: the rest were simply vacant and no one else lost their job. Seagle accomplished this deed without any questions being asked as to why a NAMB-funded missionary could be “laid off” and Dr. John Sullivan endorsed his actions.
I believe that Seagle and other anti-Calvinists like Jerry Vines and Thomas A. Kinchen, President of the Baptist College of Florida, have greatly influenced the views of many Florida Baptists over the past five or six years, including John Sullivan. As the old Southern expressions goes, “If you can’t run with the big dogs, you gotta stay on the porch!” When a man, no matter his name or rank or education, decides to participate in denominational politics, then he must often surrender his own convictions if they do not match those of the movers and shakers. While I love and respect John Sullivan’s amazing leadership capabilities and his commitment to conservative evangelical theology, I am saddened that a few recent, irrational actions toward the end of his tenure as the executive director-treasurer will forever taint his otherwise stellar legacy. Here’s a copy of John Sullivan’s letter that accompanied the CD’s mentioned above. [Note: The term "DVD" is either a typo or an oversight by someone's secretary.]