An Open Letter to Drs. Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer and Lifeway Trustees

The following letter was delivered to the leadership of Lifeway’s trustee meeting held in Nashville, February 13 and 14.

An Open Letter to Drs. Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer and Lifeway Trustees,

I have been a Southern Baptist since my earliest of days. I was saved at the age of 10 at a revival meeting in a Southern Baptist church in West Tennessee. I graduated from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. I am a proud product of Cooperative Program giving. I have been proud of my association with the SBC because of the Cooperative Program and the opportunity it affords so many to partner in sharing the Great Commission in so many ways. Sadly, this attitude is swiftly changing.

I am very concerned over the publishing of a project that Lifeway has undertaken and is now in the process of promoting titled, “The Gospel Project.” The recent Baptist Press article introducing this project really spoke volumes. Consider the following comment, “This is more than curriculum,” said Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project. “The goal is to provide a theologically driven study that points people to Jesus. It’s easy to come to Scripture looking for just new information or immediate application. We can even have Bible knowledge and not be focused on Christ,” Wax said. Add to that Dr. Stetzer’s comment and my concerns are amplified; “Going ‘deep’ means different things to different people.” Stetzer could not have been more accurate in his statement.

The list of contributors to this project is indeed telling. In looking over the list, it is obvious that there is a clear bias in this group that lacks any theological diversity and it is virtually reformed to the core. In reading Dr. Stetzer’s comment regarding the direction and input from those who are serving the local church, it is unclear to me who Stetzer is referring to. If Dr. Stetzer is indicating an expressed need for a Reformed theological project of this magnitude, then it might be considered a prudent move to undertake such a bold project. It is clear to me in Stetzer’s comments that this particular group was carefully selected, for whatever reason, to “speak into this project at the outset,” and help them “think through important high-level issues at the outset of the curriculum’s development,”

If it is true that there was a demand from local churches for such a special project as this, my strong suggestion is to title this project, “The Gospel Project: A Reformed Perspective.” In this way, those in the local church who have expressed the need and desire for such a project will know that this project has been developed for them. If that is not the case and there was no specific demand for a “Reformed perspective” as such, then the question begs to be answered, “Why such a radically theological leaning advisory board and writing consortium?”

There is no shortage of widely publicized jargon that makes it perfectly clear that those in this carefully selected group consider the Doctrines of Grace and the Reformed position of soteriology the most consistent form of Christianity and the purest presentation of the Gospel. It is also absolutely clear from Dr. Stetzer’s own statistical data, that the SBC is overwhelmingly non-Reformed in their soteriology, no matter how “shallow” their understanding of the deep theological truths concerning the things “God has accomplished in the Gospel for us,” may or may not be. In speaking for myself, I do not desire to have a project of this magnitude produced by Lifeway that has any appearance of attempting to reform the people who attend the average Sunday School classes in non-Reformed churches. Lifeway ought to be diligent with respect to the products it produces to make sure this does not happen. That is not the case with “The Gospel Project.”

Why this expressed concern for “The Gospel Project”? Unless there is indeed a call from church leaders across the SBC for a Reformed Curriculum then it can only be assumed that Lifeway has produced “The Gospel Project” with the expressed purpose of reforming the shallow and incorrect understanding of just what the true gospel is within our autonomous Southern Baptist congregations. While I believe in my heart that there is no real demand for this kind of project from the typical SBC church, I have no problem with churches purchasing this kind of literature as long as they understand up front what it is that they are buying.

I do have serious concerns with Lifeway’s labeling this project simply as “the Gospel Project” with no reference to its theologically leaning perspective. The administration of Lifeway knows full well that Baptist churches have looked to Lifeway for decades for theologically pertinent literature for their members. Many churches will see the promotional information on the “Gospel Project” that is new and exciting and Lifeway knows churches will purchase the literature. There is absolutely no doubt that this project will have a Calvinistic leaning perspective; otherwise there would be no reason to choose such a tightly knitted theological group.

Here comes the anticipated two-fold defense. “This is not a theologically biased project.” That argument is an argument from naivety, ignorance, or intentional cover-up. To attempt to even make this kind of argument, in my opinion, a brazen insult to this group of writers who were carefully selected for this project. No one should expect them to set aside their strong theological persuasion to produce a project of this magnitude and not be biased in their understanding of the synonymous position that the “true gospel” is Calvinism. It was their own admission and original purpose to make this project “Christ-centered, mission-driven, shaped around the narrative of God’s redemptive plan.” For this select group of writers that plan is best set forth in the Doctrines of Grace and Calvinism.

The second anticipated response is, “There is no hidden agenda on Lifeway’s part to put this project into churches to help ‘reform them’.” Great. Label the project’s title as “A Reformed Perspective” and all will be kosher. This is a simple request. Anything less, will shed serious doubt on Lifeway’s intentions and its ongoing ability to provide theologically pertinent literature to the mainstream Southern Baptist church. This potential problem MUST be avoided. According to Dr. Stetzer’s 2006 research 90% of SBC churches are not Reformed in their theology and as such, I suggest that they are not very likely to be looking for literature to move them in that direction any time soon.

Respectfully submitted,

Bob Hadley
Pastor, Westside Baptist Church
Daytona Beach, Florida

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15 Responses to An Open Letter to Drs. Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer and Lifeway Trustees

  1. Jamie says:

    Bob

    How far does your relegation of what you perceive to be reformed theology go? Will your next open letter be to Selma Wilson demanding that every B&H book by a reformed author be labeled as well? Or the Secret Church simulcast? What about professors at the 6 seminaries? Will they have to wear an R on their lapel? This “scarlet letter” appeal is short-sighted at best and foolish at worst.

    • Robert Campbell says:

      Jamie, you have been drinking to much kool-aid. Get real & read the Book not the works of a human being like John Calvin.

  2. sbcissue says:

    Jamie,

    I am not relegating Reformed Theology in this post. My point is in reference to labeling The Gospel Project accurately. That is it. None of the other arguments you mention are even relative to my post and you are right, any “scarlet letter” appeal would be short sighted at best and foolish at worst. I assure you I have a very clear picture of “what I see Reformed Theology to be.”

    If Lifeway will simply label this project as a Reformed Perspective, everything will be just fine. If the demand is there for such a project, label it. It would seem appropriate as I see it for Lifeway to avoid any criticism by identifying this project with its theologically leaning production. Since everyone KNOWS what they are doing, let the chips fall where they may. The only reason to NOT label it as a Reformed Project, is because of the fear that it will not sell. If that is the case, why would Lifeway produce a project with such a Reformed leaning group in the first place?

    A public answer to that question would seem to me to be appropriate. To attempt to suggest that this distinguished group of Reformed writers is not going to insert into this project what they believe the Gospel to be and not be , would be an abject insult to each individual associated with this project. Each person was very carefully selected to bring their unique contribution to the project, and Southern Baptists should expect nothing less. That is why I believe it needs to be so labeled and if Lifeway will not do so, perhaps my writing about it will serve as notice to Southern Baptists BEFORE they unknowingly buy this project and put it in their Sunday School classes. This ought to serve as a wake up call to leaders in our churches who like me have simply purchased SS Literature from Lifeway thinking it was theologically safe. I will pay more attention to it in the future.

    Perhaps you can join me in asking Lifeway to label this “The Gospel Project: A Reformed Perspective.”

    Thanks for your comment.

    ><>”

    .

  3. Hubert says:

    does that mean when other projects are undertaken, they need to be labelled as “The Arminian Perspective,” or “The Bi-Vocational Perspective,” or “The Expository Perspective” when they’re trying to promote a certain understanding of salvation, vocational ministry, or preaching ministry? How far will this go? Isn’t it the case that the view you perceive as “important” is itself your own bias that this reformed perspective is dangerous?

    • Robert Campbell says:

      Hubert, you right on target. I am shocked at both men for putting this forth under the Lifeway label. Will someone please put a figure as to the cost of Lifeway using our money for this unwarranted project? PLEASE!

  4. sbcissue says:

    Soteriology is important. There is no question that this is true. It is no secret that Reformed Theology is an issue in the Southern Baptist Convention. That does not mean it is bad; I am simply saying it is an issue. It is no secret that I do not believe Reformed Theology presents an accurate Biblical perspective of “The Gospel.” I speak extensively to that issue at my other site, Transformed Theology.

    Apparently it is an important perspective to Lifeway; otherwise there would have not been a “purposed effort to select such a distinguished group of individuals” to advise and write this new project. It is a fact that most Southern Baptist churches order SS literature from Lifeway. It is also a fact that these churches have not felt the need to check writers’ theological disposition and it is equally true that the majority of folks in the pew in most Southern Baptist churches have no idea what we are even talking about here. They do not know the difference between a tulip and a dandelion.

    My bias is no different from yours; apparently we both have one. My point however is. Since you see no problem with this Reformed project, why do you object to its being labelled as such? If Lifeway has gone to the trouble to make sure the contributors are of a Reformed camp, why the objection to labeling it as such?

    In all the criticism that I have received, not ONE PERSON has offered to answer that question. It is a fair question. I have not suggested that it be taken off the shelf. I have not criticized Lifeway for producing it. They indicated there was a ground swell request for this kind of project; I have not challenged that statement. I simply am requesting that it be labeled a Reformed Perspective. Perspective is a great word. That ought not be a problem. If Reformed is a problem, then I suggest there is indeed a problem and please note, that is NOT MY PROBLEM. Apparently it is yours or you would have not responded as you did.

    My problem is in selling and promoting this project to a large majority of folks who are not interested in the saving work of the God of the Reformed persuasion. That is my position. It will remain my position and I will continue to speak to it.

    ><>”

    • SAGordon says:

      Um….Bob, you might try reading what Trevin Wax has answered in speaking directly to your question in an interview with Dave Miller at SBC Voices. But, I surmise, that since he is ‘on the inside’ his unequivocal answer will be labeled as evasive (or disingenuous); otherwise you, and the others who disdain the Calvinists so, would not keep shouting out this mantra.

      I also hope that you would call for a simple rating system on all of LifeWay’s Bible study literature so as to be certain none of us doesn’t get what we aren’t looking for. Maybe a CA for Calvinist content. An AR for Arminian. An AL for Almyridian. A BI for Baptist Identity. A DP for dispensational pre-millennial. A HP for historic pre-millennial…

      • sbcissue says:

        Bro. Gordon,

        I have read Dave Miller’s interview with Trevin and have a post on SBC Issues in response to Wax’s interview. Your comment as to my “disdain for Calvinists” is also uncalled for. My personal convictions about Calvinism are equally mirrored by those who espouse Calvinism. A causal reading of The Gospel Coalition will certainly confirm my statement. Do I have a problem with Calvinism? Yes. Do I have a problem with Calvinism in the SBC? No. Do I have a problem with the extent of the influence that Calvinists maintain in the entities of the SBC? Yes. Do Calvinists have a right to have a voice of influence in the SBC? Yes. Do non-Calvinists have a right to say “enough is enough”? Again I say, “yes.” So what does this have to do with The Gospel Project?

        I have been criticized and accused of calling Trevin Wax and Ed Stetzer a liar. For the record, that is untrue. I have in fact stated that I believe what both have stated to be true is true. In a personal note to Dr. Stetzer, I stated that I believed him when he said that “The Gospel Project was not a REFORMED CURRICULUM.”

        I have said and will state again for the record, that while I will acknowledge that The Gospel Project is not a REFORMED CURRICULUM, I do believe it is a REFORMED PERSPECTIVE. At least 17 of the 19 names associated with the project made public to date, are unashamedly Reformed and associated with groups like The Gospel Coalition and others. There is no problem with this group sharing this theological bias nor is there any problem with Lifeway producing and publishing this project to meet a need expressed by the churches of the SBC. I simply maintain it ought to be labeled, “The Gospel Project: A Reformed Perspective.”

        I will say this one more time. These Reformed theologians believe “the gospel” to be one that places among other things, the importance of conversion or salvation on regeneration. Most would not understand the difference in saying, “I do not believe regeneration precedes repentance and saving faith” and the statement, “I believe repentance and saving faith precede regeneration.” This is the primary fundamental difference between what the writers of The Gospel Project believe and what I and an overwhelming majority of the people in the pews in most Southern Baptist Churches believe. It is absolutely ludicrous to expect this distinguished group of carefully selected writers to write about This “gospel that they believe the Bible clearly teaches” and not reflect this theological difference. It is a “Reformed Perspective” because it is written almost exclusively by Reformed individuals.

        Like it or not, agree with me or not, The Gospel Project is a Reformed Perspective. Does this mean it is a Reformed Curriculum? Dr. Stetzer, Trevin Wax and others say no. I accept their word on that. There is a difference in saying it is a perspective as opposed to a curriculum. Once the project is released, its merit will no doubt be evaluated at that time and ongoing, as it is a 3 year study.

        One final comment. None of this attention should come as any surprise to Dr. Stetzer of all people. He is a numbers guy. He understands public opinion. He evaluates that on a daily basis. Should he and others have anticipated a negative response to a Reformed stacked team to advise and write this special “theologically driven study that points people to Jesus?” He no doubt did consider that risk and proceeded with the project.

        It is what it is.

        Here is a copy of my response to Dr. Stetzer personally on Feb 20, just before the SBC Name Change was announced.

        @edstetzer Yes; I believe you that it is NOT a REFORMED CURRICULUM. How is that? 14 hours ago
        @edstetzer Do I think that the 19 carefully selected folks are not going to write from their convictions and strong Biblical beliefs? No. 14 hours ago

        ><>”

  5. Bob,

    Thanks for raising the issue. I am becoming more conversant with the idea that sanctification is being collapsed into justification in a form of Gospel Sanctification theology that is truly a subset of the New Calvinism. Rather than focusing on TULIP, I think we need to ask questions of this newly proposed Lifeway curriculum designed to address the possibility that by viewing the entirety of Scripture through a “gospel” lens, we may drift AWAY from orthodoxy rather than TOWARD it.

  6. sbcissue says:

    I think focusing on TULIP for those who do not want to do so is reason enough to move away from The Gospel Project. I am sure there may other good reasons as well. Since I have not made much of a study of the Calvinist’s thoughts on Sanctification, I do not really have a comment there. I have touched on it a time or two and what I see as the synergistic aspects of sanctification, which I could not get a straight answer from a couple folks I discussed it with. Seems to me God is either monergistic or He is not; if sanctification is synergistic then why is it impossible for conversion to be synergistic and if conversion is monergistic why is it that sanctification is not monergistic as well?

    As I said, I have not focused very much on those issues but they are certainly interesting topics for discussion and I am sure they are out there somewhere, I just have not come across them.

    Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment!

    ><>”

  7. Pingback: The Gospel Project « Transformed Theology

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  10. Chris Colbert says:

    Bob,

    This a profoundly sad misunderstanding. The “reformed” or “calvinistic” perspective is basic biblical Christianity. The doctrines of grace are the heart of the Gospel of grace because they are very much what biblical grace is, and rightly handling grace is key to praise of the glory of God’s grace (the glory of God). Just because so many SBC churches have been swept up in the pagan logic of tbe unbiblical free-will narrative, as part pf the larger wave of theologically fluffy wealeyan arminian focused evangelicalism of the last 200 yrs, doe not mean that their theological impoverishment is a good thing. Rightly understanding grace is critical to rightly handling the entire Word and thus to seeing God truly so we can be transformed and TREASURE Him duly. I pray you will see this massively important truth. The arminian error, much like modernist theology, has had a massively devastating impact on the health of the Church.

    Grace to you in Christ!
    Chris

    • sbcissues says:

      Thank you for your visit. I am indeed humbled by it.

      That being said, I obviously disagree with your statement, “This a profoundly sad misunderstanding. The “reformed” or “calvinistic” perspective is basic biblical Christianity.”

      This entire site is evidence of that and for the record, there is NO MISUNDERSTANDING. These are articles that I have written, not copied and pasted fro somewhere else. I am convictionally non-calvinist.

      Personally I find the following statement very demeaning and frankly quite arrogant: “Just because so many SBC churches have been swept up in the pagan logic of tbe unbiblical free-will narrative, as part pf the larger wave of theologically fluffy wealeyan arminian focused evangelicalism of the last 200 yrs, doe not mean that their theological impoverishment is a good thing.”

      The same can be said of the fact that calvinism has been an influence in churches as well. I believe calvinism is an indictment against the character of God. I am in fact writing an article that I hope to have posted later today on the issue of free-will, that I would encourage you to read. I do not use that term personally because of the baggage it carries with it that makes the calvinist position seem stronger. When a discussion is made on the choice to choose, my experience is most of you guys disappear.

      I do agree with you on the arminian error; it is no more accurate on soteriology than calvinism is. Both are errant theological positions. Fortunately (for us both) God does not accept or reject us on the basis of our theological positions but rather on the presence of the blood applied to our hearts and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

      One thing I am sure of; just like there will b no athiests in hell, there will be no calvinists in heaven!

      Bob

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