By Bob Allen
A denominational worker’s tweet over the holidays sparked a social media campaign alleging the Southern Baptist Convention’s bookstore chain values profit more than doctrinal fidelity and that an inner circle of “evangelical intelligentsia” calling the shots doesn’t listen to the rank-and-file.
Before Christmas Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, posted a tweet characterizing people concerned about an apparently collegial reference to Pope Francis by author John Piper as “the same 15 Calvinists who are mad at everyone — for everything.”
Stetzer’s comment inspired #the15, a growing number of people using a highway marker with the number 15 as their Twitter profile picture to show anger against a denominational elite they say maintains power by ridicule, marginalization and attacks on anyone who questions its authority.
J.D. Hall, a Southern Baptist pastor in Montana who contributes to a group blog called Pulpit and Pen, said Calvinists aren’t the only one fed up with groupthink in the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, and they number a lot more than 15.
“This isn’t just tongue-in-cheek whimsy for Stetzer,” Hall, pastor of Fellowship Church of Sidney, Mont., said in a blog posting titled Who are #the15. “We realize what’s happening here. It’s what is happening every single day — those who are concerned are marginalized. We are few in number, they tell us. And to these people, numbers are everything, and so to be few in number is to be marginalized. It’s a license to ignore, but more than that, it’s a license to ridicule.”
Hall said Stetzer’s engagement in social media about Piper’s critics comes after months of ignored emails and social-media posts asking why LifeWay Christian Stores continue to sell products like Heaven is for Real, a New York Times bestseller tacitly condemned in an SBC resolution last June affirming “the sufficiency of Scripture regarding the afterlife.”
Hall, who in the past has reported on SBC politics at a Baptist college in Louisiana and contradictions in a popular ex-Muslim testimony in a radio program on Brannon Howse’s “Worldview Weekend” on conservative Christian radio, said the pattern is always the same: Those in positions of power avoid and obfuscate. When that doesn’t work they ridicule and marginalize. If that fails, they attack, usually with the aid of sycophants.
Hall, who is a Calvinist, admits that a lot of people probably don’t understand why anyone would be troubled by an evangelical leader’s praise of a popular pontiff, but the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, the document used in 1858 to draft the Abstract of Principles for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it plainly: “The Pope of Rome cannot in any sense be head of the Church, but he is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, who exalts himself in the church against Christ and all that is called God, who the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of His coming.”
Hall says #the15 aren’t asking denominational leaders to necessarily agree with them, only to show more respect for sincere religious beliefs of small church pastors and laity who help pay their salaries.
He encouraged #the15 members to make their feelings known with actions such as calling or writing LifeWay trustees and walking into a LifeWay store to take photos of books that contain “heresy” like the prosperity gospel, mysticism and “modalism,” a non-orthodox view of the Trinity in books by Texas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes.
He suggested that more outgoing members of #the15 might draw an objectionable title to the attention of the store manager and capture the encounter on audio or video to upload on social media.
Hall called on churches to issue a statement that they will no longer purchase material from LifeWay “until they affirm by their actions that they are, indeed, a fundamentally Christian bookstore.”
Hall insisted #the15 has nothing to do with Calvinism or Arminianism, a sentiment confirmed by Randy White, pastor of the 2,500-member First Baptist Church in Katy, Texas. “In fact, I’m not a Calvinist,” White said in a Dec. 28 blog about why he is joining #the15.
“For decades I was a ‘LifeWay only’ pastor,” White explained. “If the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay) didn’t produce it, my church didn’t use it. I explained to my congregation that we needed to know Baptist doctrine, and no other publisher would teach it. I explained that we were a part of a larger body of Baptists, and only SBC literature would keep our large-family agenda and values before our people.”
“Now, I’ve led my church away from LifeWay literature,” White continued. “I almost never go into a LifeWay store, and if I mention LifeWay stores, it is to warn people about the heresy on the shelves.”