Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Guarding the sacred trust...

When I went to seminary, Dr. Paige Patterson my seminary president challenged all of us studying for pastoral ministry to always be vigilant against doctrinal error and remain faithful to the Word of God. Dr. Patterson of course has many battle scars from the war in the Southern Baptist Convention over the inerrancy of Scripture in the 1970’s and 80’s. He and others who labored with him are heroes to me for keeping our denomination from staying on the liberal theological course it was headed. In his tutelage of us preacher types, Dr. Patterson knows well the dangers, pitfalls and ramifications of doctrinal error and the high cost of ensuring our denomination would stay true to our Lord Jesus Christ and His inspired, inerrant and infallible word. Dr. Patterson assembled a team of professors at SEBTS who faithfully taught myself and  many others like me that we must take seriously our responsibilities before the Lord to guard the sacred trust of Scripture and to “contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  Dr. Patterson and the faithful professors I learned under were following through with what the great Apostle Paul challenged Timothy, his young son in the faith to do.

Timothy was the pastor of the church at Ephesus when Paul wrote to him; giving Timothy instructions for his ministry in Ephesus. Those letters (Epistles) God preserved in the New Testament and are identified as 1st & 2nd Timothy. In 1st Timothy 6:20-21, Paul concluded his first letter to the young pastor with this prophetical warning: “Oh Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge – by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. Grace be with you, Amen.” What Paul was referring to primarily was the Gospel message but also the truth of Scripture that was entrusted to Timothy by the Apostle Paul himself. Timothy had to stand against false teachers roaming around claiming to have more knowledge, teaching salvation was obtained through intellectual and philosophical means, not by faith in Christ. This heresy was known as Gnosticism after the Greek word for knowledge called gnosis.

The word “guard” in that text means to watch closely and keep secure. A Roman guard was typically four squads of four soldiers, a total of 16 highly skilled and trained warriors who would lay down their lives to protect what they were guarding! The phrase “Committed to your trust” is all one word in Greek. The word means a deposit, similar to a bank deposit and the person responsible for watching/guarding/keeping secure the deposit – in this case the truths of Scripture. The guard was none other than this young pastor named Timothy. Paul was expecting Timothy to be a spiritual Navy Seal, a spiritual warrior committed to guarding the truth of the Word of God. Safeguarding the truths of Scripture continues to be a sacred trust this pastor is committed to.

I’m sharing this with you because our church was about to implement the use of a Sunday School curriculum from Lifeway Christian Resources called “The Gospel Project.” This is the flagship new curriculum Lifeway has been advertising for months. It is a curriculum that would provide Bible Study resources for preschool, children, and youth, all the way through senior adults in our Sunday School/Bible Study classes. Upon hearing of this new curriculum, Pastor Mike and I were encouraged and excited about it as the advertised aim of the curriculum was to show that the message of the Gospel is woven throughout the Scriptures. Dr. W. A. Criswell, the great long time pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas called it “The Scarlet Thread of Redemption” in a famous sermon he preached through the entire Bible. We were under the impression this curriculum would take a systematic theological approach, would tackle tough issues and give Christians tools to use in sharing the Gospel in everyday life.  The concept as we understood the aim of The Gospel Project is a great one. However, we’ve uncovered a big problem with this curriculum. The advisory council, many of the writers and much of the supplemental sources cited throughout are from people who are Calvinists or Reformed Theologians who teach at reformed seminaries.

In short, Calvinism or Reformed Theology is a theological system that elevates the Sovereignty of God and His grace to a point that the free will of man is of no consequence. On the other end of the spectrum is what is called Arminianism; which elevates the free will of man and espouses among other things that you can actually lose your salvation. Those adhering to these theological systems have been arguing about these ideas since the 1600’s! Yet the Scriptures teach that God is sovereign, a God of grace, as well as the truth man has a choice to make to accept or reject the grace of God and His provision for salvation. This understanding of Scripture is one among many reasons we exist as Baptists. Historically, we are happily in the middle of these polar extremes as we consider ourselves to be “people of the Book”; embracing both Biblical truths of God’s sovereignty and grace along with man’s choice. As Baptists, we have historically seen problems with both extremes and the dangers of using a theological system of belief as the lens to interpret Scripture. Many Calvinists and Arminians use their systems as a filter of Scripture. However, Scripture should be the filter for the system of belief one adheres to. Typically this debate has been mostly confined to seminary campuses and is not something the average person in a Baptist church hears much about.

After we were made aware of this Calvinistic/Reformed theological approach of the curriculum; Pastor Mike and I have spent literally hours and days digging through this curriculum once we received the shipment to see for ourselves. We found it to be biased in how it explains and interprets the study themes. There are numerous subtle seeds of the Calvinistic approach to Scripture and many that are overtly obvious. The more we read and studied the curriculum, the more convinced we have become that this curriculum is not suitable for use here at Calvary. I am greatly disappointed because there is nothing wrong with healthy dialogue and wrestling with theological issues. But when a curriculum is designed to teach only one side of the issue; it is no longer a healthy debate but indoctrination and we cannot allow that indoctrination to take place here at Calvary. I do not believe extreme Calvinism accurately represents the truth of Scripture. We are not Calvinistic or reformed in our theology, something Presbyterians would be more comfortable with. I don’t appreciate Lifeway producing curriculum that promotes a flawed theological system to interpret Scripture. My biggest problem with extreme Calvinism is that it views salvation as deterministic where God divinely chooses who will be saved and who will not. It follows then that God is going to save some; He can and will do so without my personal involvement so there is no need for me to be a witness for Christ. This idea clearly violates the commandment to be witnesses in our Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Great Commission then becomes more of a Great Suggestion and only whosoever God chooses may come and have everlasting life! Yes there is a doctrine of election taught in Scripture, but God’s desire is that no one would perish but that all would come to repentance.

Honestly, I was in shock for several days as I wrestled with this curriculum. I feel as though the sacred trust has been violated because the publishing arm of my convention seems to be embracing reformed Calvinistic theology. You should know Lifeway does not depend on cooperative program dollars and they are a for profit organization based on what they sell. They are guided by a President and Trustees who’ve been duly elected by our convention so there is accountability there. We are sending this curriculum back to Lifeway and I’ll be writing letters to President Thom Rainer and the board of trustees expressing my disappointment over this curriculum and explaining why we’ve pulled the proverbial plug on “The Gospel Project” curriculum. I encourage all SBC pastors I know to examine this for yourself and see the agenda within The Gospel Project curriculum. I hope you’ll send it back to Lifeway as well with your observations.

I want you to know as your Pastor, I will do my best to guard the sacred trust of Scripture and the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The Bible is our primary curriculum and any supplemental material we use must be faithful to interpret Scripture without imposing upon Scripture a flawed theological system of any kind. If you’d like to discuss this with me further; please call or email me for an appointment. Committed to guarding the sacred trust, from my little corner of the world to yours…

Ralph Green

Senior Pastor, Calvary Baptist Church


Subscribe to Pastor Ralph's Blog: http://pastorralphgreen.blogspot.com/  

Follow Me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/RalphGreen  

Posted via email from Pastor Ralph


  1. Thank you Brother Green for your perspective on "The Gospel Project." I have been following this development for awhile after encountering problems with LifeWay's young adult Sunday School literature. Our church uses the Life Matters "Threads" material produced by LifeWay. Last year, I complained to LifeWay's editor of these materials about the extensive use of marginal notations pointing students to sermons, articles, books, websites, and blogs by leading influencers of the New Calvinism movement (John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, and several others). Recent issues of Life Matters appear to have addressed this subtle approach to introducing young adults to a reformed "thread", as I don't see as many marginal references of this sort compared to issues produced in 2010-2011 and perhaps earlier. My concern is that such materials are intended to effect a generational shift in SBC ranks to reformed theology, targeting primarily young folks . Sunday School departments throughout SBC need to be vigilant in this regard. Thank you for alerting your readers about your concerns with LifeWay's new literature.

    1. Thank you Max for your encouragement. I'm a simple pastor trying to communicate with my church folks as to why we were pulling back from using TGP. I don't have an ax to grind related to Calvinism or Reformed theology as I believe the Scripture clearly teaches the sovereignty of God and the doctrine of election. I have more in common on that end of the spectrum than I would on the Arminian side. However, I also believe Scripture teaches clearly man has a choice to make to accept or reject the Holy Spirit's promptings to salvation. My concerns regarding Lifeway's "balanced approach" as I've been told by prominent people responsible for the project is that it is anything but balanced with the majority of sources sited, advisers and apparently lesson authors have definite reformed and/or Calvinist leanings. I spent two weeks studying lessons from the fall quarter and came to the conclusion I was not at all comfortable using this in our church. In my studies, I got tired of trying understand terminology used to see if there was a hidden meaning. I also tired of reading statements that to me clearly had a Calvinistic/reformed point of view but being told as I shared examples with TGP leadership my understanding of the plain meaning is not what the writer meant. I studied the youth curriculum as well which is the same as the adult but even more eye-catching in terms of attracting attention to problematic teachings I found in the curriculum. Looking at the curriculum as a whole, I realized indoctrination at Calvin's well would be pervasive as we were prepared to use this in all departments. I don't expect people to take my word for it as I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I do have an MDIV but I know a lot of people are much smarter and wiser than I am. I encourage pastors to take the time to investigate it on their own. If they find what I found, I'd strongly encourage them to make their thoughts known in Nashville. I'd love to see this theme of the "scarlet thread of redemption" done without a filter/lens leaning either way. I told a key leader involved with this curriculum they had a great idea and ruined it with their bias. It's a real shame and I was greatly disappointed we don't have a layman's systematic theology curriculum. Thanks for your input.

  2. Pastor Ralph,

    You write:

    "Pastor Mike and I have spent literally hours and days digging through this curriculum once we received the shipment to see for ourselves. We found it to be biased in how it explains and interprets the study themes. There are numerous subtle seeds of the Calvinistic approach to Scripture and many that are overtly obvious. "

    What were the seeds and bias? Can you provide quotes from the actual material? I did not see any quotes in your blog post.


  3. Who said the "free" will of man is of no consequence to salvation. Most Calvinists believe that while God is sovereign in salvation, man must still choose. I mean the bible does say we are "justified" by faith. No matter where you fall down, you must make some type of conclusion regarding the ability and nature of the one making the decision. Maybe Pastor Green would like to elaborate on those terms.

  4. I would suggest that you provide some quotes and examples of what you are talking about. You made a lot of accusations without much proof.

  5. The primary purpose of my blog is to communicate directly with my church family. Pretty much the only time I have a post, it is for our church newsletter and this allows people in the church to get it electronically and not via snail mail. SBC Today has interviewed me and the specific examples of concern to me will be appearing there very soon. Here is the link: http://sbctoday.com/

  6. Pastor Ralph,

    I have read most all of your negative comments concerning the materials produced by LifeWay in The Gospel Project series. If you wish to get technical, the moat popular curriculum is MasterWork which offers all viewpoints, but mostly a Reformed view. Why the Reformed view? Well Baptists were Reformed Theologically before the word Reformed was cool. What many call New Calvinism isn't what is new at all. What's new is the resistance of Reformed Theology by Baptists. No, we are not Calvinists, because we existed before the Reformation. We happen to agree with John Calvin more than we disagree with him, and that makes us Calvinistic. Now, I am secure enough that I can learn using any of our curriculum even if I disagree with the writer or advisory board. Paige Patterson would have NEVER taught you to be that way. Paige is of the NEW BAPTISTS, you know, the ones that reject our true history and historical theology. So, if you're insecure and afraid for your congregation to actually learn, keep being a NEW BAPTIST. By the way, each Baptist Congregation that is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention is AUTONOMOUS. So, just because a few NEW BAPTISTS wish to be insecure because some of us aren't afraid to admit the truth of our past as Evangelicals and not Protestants, doesn't mean that those NEW BAPTISTS speak for everyone and dictate what is in our literature or curriculum.