The Southern Baptist Convention is expected to make history this week when it elects its first black president. But that anticipated news has been eclipsed in recent weeks by a feud among the faithful over differing views on God's plan of salvation.
A non-Calvinist faction of the SBC released a statement two weeks ago to "accurately reflect the beliefs of the majority of Southern Baptists, who are not Calvinists."
It invites those who agree with “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” to endorse it along with six former SBC presidents and two SBC seminary presidents.
David Hinkins, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss., and a lead author of the document, told OneNewsNow that the statement is intended to blunt a growing movement of "New Calvinism" in the faith.
But it has sparked charges of heresy among some theologians over how free will plays into an individual's eternal salvation.
"John Calvin wrote ... that God has already chosen in eternity past who's going to Heaven and who's going to Hell, and that it's settled before a person's ever born. And I think that the Bible does not teach that."
"Traditional Christian doctrine, since Augustine anyway, has always been that people need a special infusion of God's grace to be able to respond to the gospel—both Calvinists and classical Arminians agree on that," said Baylor University theology professor Roger Olson. "They haven't addressed that here at all."
Calvinists and and non-Calvinists have had a long history of disagreement and accommodation in the SBC.
But some say this recent statement over salvation is divisive and confrontational.
The discussion of salvation isn't planned for the annual meeting, Christianity Today reported, but one theologian said "the meeting's democratic nature makes it ripe for an unpredictable agenda."
Meanwhile, what will make national headlines will be the anticipated election of the Rev. Fred Luther Jr., who is poised to become the first black president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
"It's a big step for a denomination that was formed out of a pre-Civil War split with northern Baptists over slavery and for much of the last century had a reputation for supporting segregation," The Associated Press reported.
Luther would take over at a time the faith is looking for ways to reverse a trend of declining membership.