A regular reader of this blog asked me if I would write about my switch from Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) theology to Evangelical Calvinism. Although I mentioned the fact of my change to Calvinism, I never explained why I did it.
They waitedMidwestern Baptist Collegein Pontiac, Michigan, from 1976 to 1979. Midwestern was a small IFB institution started in the 1950s by Dr. Tom Malone, the pastor of the nearby megachurch Emmanuel Baptist Church, to train men for the ministry. While there were women enrolling in classes in the Midwest, looking to snag a pastor and become his wife or become a Christian teacher, it all revolved around manufacturing new male soldiers for the IFB war machine.
In a post titledWhat is an IFB Church?I have listed the following doctrinal hallmarks:
- The Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Inerrancy of the Bible
- The sinfulness, the depravity of man.
- the divinity of christ
- The virgin birth of Christ
- The atonement of the blood of Christ for the sin of man
- the resurrection of christ from the dead
- The Second Coming of Christ
- separation from the world
- Salvation from sin is only by and through Christ
- Personal responsibility to share the gospel with sinners
- Heaven and hell are literal places
- Hierarchical authority (God, Jesus, church, pastor, husband, wife)
- Autonomy and independence of the local church
While IFB churches and pastors are known for their infighting over doctrinal points or whether certain behaviors are sinful, the beliefs mentioned above are non-negotiable. Deny one or more of these doctrines and you will be branded a transgressor, a liberal, or a heretic.
Some churches do not use the IFB moniker due to its negative associations; but using the doctrines listed above as a standard, manysouthern baptistthe congregations would be considered IFB churches. The same could be said ofGeneral Association of Regular Baptist Churches(GARBC) congregations. I should also add, in passing, that many Reformed Baptists, Sovereign Grace Baptists, Conservative Baptists, and Missionary Baptists have the same doctrinal markers as the churches that proudly claim the IFB label. This means, then, that there are tens of millions of church-going Americans who adhere to the IFB's theological beliefs, even though many of them refuse to label themselves as such.
Calvinism was considered heresy in the Midwest, and students who discussed Calvinism or promoted its tenets were expelled. My systematic theology professor, Ronald Jones, made it clear that Calvinism was not to be discussed. The students learned nothing about Calvinism, and most simply accepted the anathemas uttered by their professors as fact. I know yes. The goal of the Midwest, then, was to reinforce the doctrines taught to students in their local churches. Rare were classroom discussions that deviated from IFB orthodoxy. According to Tom Malone and the Midwestern teachers, there was one Lord (Jesus), one faith (IFB doctrine and practice), and one baptism (Baptist immersion). Although these promoters of the one true faith grudgingly admitted that it was possible for non-IFB Christians to be true Christians®, most outsiders were considered religious but lost (especially Catholics, who were considered the spawn of Satan).
The Midwest was also King James Only. Students were not allowed to use any version of the Bible except the 1769 revision of the King James Bible. Midwestern also promoted the belief that a certain Greek translation, commonly called the Textus Receptus (received text), was the true Greek Word of God, and all other translations, such as Wescott and Hort, were inferior and should not be used in Greek. Midwestern Greek classes. A teacher disobeyed this decree, introducing students to the wonderful world of textual variants. He was summarily dismissed, although on all other points of theological and social fundamentalism he was a true Fundamentalist Baptist.
When I began pastoring IFB churches in 1979, I did not know of any pastor who called himself a Calvinist. Today, Calvinism has made deep inroads into the IFB church movement and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). At SBC, Calvinist pastors, led by men likeAl Mohler, they are fighting with non-Calvinist pastors for the soul of the Convention.
For those unfamiliar with Calvinism, here is the TULIP acronym for the five points:
- total depravity
- unconditional choice
- limited atonement
- gracia irresistible
- Perseverance of the Saints (Preservation of the Saints)
Calvinists also advocate what is commonly called the Five Solas:
- Sola Scriptura — Alone by Scripture
- Sola Fide - Only by faith
- Sola Gratia — By Grace Alone
- Solus Christus - Only through Christ
- Soli Deo Gloria - Glory to God alone
Calvinism is a theological and philosophical system where each point is built on the other. Remove any point and the system will crash. As with any theological system, adherents endlessly debate the finer points of belief. There are numerous subsets of Calvinist beliefs, each with quirks that set them apart from other Calvinists.
Calvinism is a complex theological system. I call it an intellectual's wet dream. Calvinist pastors fill their shelves with long-winded books written by 17th and 18th century Puritans and 19th century Calvinist Baptists and Presbyterians. IFB pastors have penis-sizing contests, with church attendance being the measure of success. Calvinists also have penis-measuring contests, with the size of the library being the ultimate test of a pastor's prowess.
Many of the Sovereign Grace and Reformed Baptist pastors I met were IFB pastors at the same time. All that changed for them was their soteriology and sometimes their ecclesiology. The same social fundamentalism found in IFB churches is often found in evangelical churches of Calvinist persuasion. For many years, he drove once a month to a meeting of Calvinist pastors called Pastor's Clinic in Mansfield, Ohio. Most of the men in this group were former pastors of IFB: GARBC, SBC, and unaffiliated Baptist churches.
A big difference between Calvinistic Baptist churches and IFB churches is how the congregations handle church discipline. Typically in IFB churches wandering members are "encouraged" behind the scenes to leave so they can find a new church that better meets their "needs". If that approach doesn't work, pastors use their sermons, with subtle promptings, to drive the offender away. I don't know of an IFB church that actually practices church discipline as stated in Matthew 18:15-18:
Furthermore, if your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him between you and him alone; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he doesn't listen to you, he takes one or two with you, so that every word can be confirmed by the mouth of two or three witnesses. And if you refuse to listen to them, tell the church; but if he also refuses to listen to the church, consider him a Gentile and a publican. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
On the other hand, Evangelical Calvinist churches are much more likely to use church discipline to punish unrepentant members who conflict with moral codes and standards of conduct or who disobey the orders of their pastors/elders. Supposedly, the purpose of church discipline is to effect restoration, but more often than not, it is used as a biblical cover to drive people out of the church or shame them into submission. A church that I pastored,Community Baptist Churchin Elmendorf, Texas, he used church discipline for all sorts of offenses, including regular failure to attend Sunday services. Even when the church was notified that the absent member was attending a new church, because the member did not ask the church's "permission" to leave the church, he was excommunicated. The threat of church discipline was used to quell dissent and keep the faithful at bay. (I myself was excommunicated from this church. You can read about my time in the Fellowship in the series titled,I am a publican and a pagan.)
My first exposure to Calvinism came in 1988 when I began borrowing and listening to cassette tapes of sermons fromchapel library— a Calvinist tape lending library and pamphlet publisher in Pensacola, Florida. In all, I guess I listened to several hundred tapes. Before returning them, I would make copies of the tapes so that others in my church could listen to them. A year or so later, I started the CHARIS Tape Library, a lending library modeled on the Chapel Library. The tapes were sent free to anyone who requested them. The goal was to spread the good news of the Calvinist gospel, also known as theTRUEgospel, the faith once given to the saints.
In the second part of this series, I will share how these tapes were instrumental in my theological shift from IFB theology to Evangelical Calvinism.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six adult children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005 and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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