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.
Pastor, Westside Baptist Church
Daytona Beach, Florida