BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Several years ago a curious Baptist attended the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Founders Conference under a fictional name and was mystified by the activities he witnessed.
The curious attendee expected to gain privy to the secretive whisperings of a hostile takeover of America’s largest evangelical body. Instead, he looked on as attendees sang classic hymns and preachers undertook careful exposition of historic Baptist teaching.
And these elements constitute a typical meeting of the Southern Baptist Founders Conference, which met July 16-19 on the campus of Samford University to mark the 20th anniversary of its birth.
Founders leaders say the fact that the organization — which encourages a return to the historic “doctrines of grace” commonly called Calvinism — has never been driven by a political agenda has given the group two productive decades of celebrating the sovereign grace of God.
“He [the curious Baptist] was convinced that if we knew he was here we’d change our agenda and we wouldn’t do what we normally do,” Founders executive director Tom Ascol said in an address examining the group’s 20 years of ministry.
“The last day he revealed himself and he said he had come incognito because he thought we were up to something political and were concocting strategy and he wanted the full scope of what we were doing.
“We have never had a political agenda,” Ascol said. “So trying to find one has left those who are convinced we have one rather frustrated, because it is not there. That has been the wonderful freedom that we have enjoyed. We’re not after any kind of political apple to be rewarded with.
“And what we want to see happen cannot happen politically. It doesn’t matter who gets elected or doesn’t get elected; what we want to see happen can only happen through theological and spiritual revival and reformation. And so, we’ve never been on a campaign politically.”
Founders has never deviated from the mission statement a small group of men penned in 1982 following an all-day meeting at a hotel in Euless, Texas. The founders of Founders included pastors, seminary students and a professor with a love for historic Baptist teaching.
The group sought to assemble a yearly conference to encourage likeminded Southern Baptists who subscribed to the very doctrines which most of the fathers of the Southern Baptist Convention — men such as J.P. Boyce, Basil Manly Sr., J.L. Dagg and W.B. Johnson — held dear.
The roots of the Founders movement dates to the late 1970s when Florida pastor Ernest Reisinger republished the long-out-of-print “Abstract of Systematic Theology” by J.P. Boyce.
Reisinger distributed the book to graduates of the six SBC seminaries. Boyce, the first president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., held to the doctrines of grace and detailed them exegetically within this systematic theology.
The reprinting of the book, along with the conservative resurgence in the SBC, breathed to life new interest in the doctrines of grace among many ministers and seminary students and ultimately led to the Founders Conference and Founders Ministries, said Ascol, who also is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla.
The group was established with a three-fold purpose:
— To glorify God and honor his gospel by providing encouragement to Southern Baptists in historical, biblical, theological, practical and ecumenical studies.
— To be a balanced conference in respect to doctrine and devotion expressed in the doctrines of grace and their application to the local church, particularly in areas of worship and witness.
— To establish the theological foundation of the conference as the doctrines of grace, specifically including a historical Calvinistic understanding of election, human depravity, the atonement, effectual calling and perseverance of the saints. These topics are to be presented through the exposition of Scripture and study of history at each conference.
The first conference convened in 1983 on the campus of what is now Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. Several years later, the conference moved to Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., where it continues to meet today.
And what was once a yearly meeting has blossomed into Founders Ministries which today entails six regional and three youth conferences each year and a publishing house which has reprinted such classic Baptist works as B.H. Carroll’s “An Interpretation of the English Bible.”
Founders also publishes the quarterly Founders Journal and operates a website (www.founders.org) with links to historic Baptist documents and articles which receives more than 200,000 hits per month.
“It has been amazing to see what God has done,” Ascol said.
But the group has not been without critics. One common contention is that Founders’ commitment to Calvinism will split the Southern Baptist Convention. One moderate newspaper editor told Ascol that leaders of his camp had instructed him to “ride this horse [Calvinism] until it drops” so that the doctrines of grace might fracture SBC conservatives.
Said Ascol, “Basically, the criticisms we have received from the left have always wound up being ‘non-starters.’ They just don’t get off the ground. Sometimes there has been a lot of effort and a lot of noise made about Calvinism but then it just kind of falls flat.
“By God’s grace [a split among conservatives] has not happened and I think it is because we do not have a political agenda.”
Other accusations have included charges that Southern Baptists have never been Calvinistic — that Reformation-minded Baptists are merely “deep-water Presbyterians” — and that those who hold to Reformed doctrine are opposed to soul-winning.
The historical argument fails because a majority of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 held to the doctrines of grace, Ascol said. The anti-evangelism charge does not hold because Calvinists have always sought to win souls by means set forth in Scripture, he said. Christians of all theological stripes fail to carry out the task of evangelism but the shortcoming is not limited to any one doctrinal position, he said.
“It’s true we haven’t been as evangelistic as we should be and that is to our shame,” Ascol said. “And when those accusations are drawn against us, then sometimes the temptation is to be defensive. … None of us has been evangelistic as we ought and that’s nothing to be defensive about.
“Rather, we ought to be grieved over that and seek to repent over it. I pray that God will burn some evangelistic fires within us that we would become more and more compassionate for souls. But it is certainly true that that is not simply a Calvinistic dilemma and problem. We see all across the spectrum of evangelicalism the need to be more evangelistic.”
Ascol challenged the movement to avoid the temptations of spiritual pride and intellectual arrogance. He also urged the group to stay true to the gospel of Jesus Christ and not fall prey to frustration and disillusionment.
“We need to remember what our real concern ought to be,” Ascol said. “The issue always has been and always will remain ‘What is the gospel?’ ‘What is a Christian?’ ‘What is a church?’ We must forget about trying to win theological arguments. What good is it if we win theological arguments and we lose people?
“We should be seeking to try to win people to the truth of God’s Word, people to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As we focus upon the recovery of the gospel, we recognize that the good news of gracious salvation in Jesus Christ is what God has revealed to save sinners.
“Our concern is not and must not become Calvinism for Calvinism’s sake. But rather, we are concerned with that which has been historically called ‘Calvinism’ because that biblical understanding of salvation is the clearest explanation of and most faithful guardian to the gospel.”