Timmy Brister: The Face of Calvinism in the SBC

In his new book Young, Restless, Reformed, journalist Collin Hansen includes a chapter titled “Ground Zero: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.” Whether or not SBTS can rightly be labeled “ground zero” for the New Calvinist Movement is a matter of some debate at the Seminary, but this Movement has certainly had a dramatic impact within the Southern Baptist Convention, and the real focus of Hansen’s chapter is to give a brief examination of Calvinism within the SBC; the situation at SBTS is used to frame this examination. In writing of the Seminary, Hansen mentions President Mohler, a few professors (Drs. Nettles, Schreiner, and Ware), a former student, and two current students; the former student is Matt Hall, who now produces the Albert Mohler Radio Program; the current students are Bradley Cochran and SBF’s own Timmy Brister. Three pages are devoted to Timmy’s story, and it is therefore obvious that Hansen believes Timmy’s experiences shed light on the mindset of many Southern Baptist Calvinists.

The following is an extended excerpt from Young, Restless, Reformed:

For someone who says he doesn’t want to stir controversies, Timmy Brister often finds himself in the middle of them. His blog writing doesn’t endear him to the executives at Southern Seminary, where he is preparing for pastoral ministry. He gives seminary leaders an earful when they welcome chapel speakers who have elsewhere derided Calvinism.

“It bothers me that I get reprimanded for doing the very thing I’m taught to do,” said Timmy, twenty-eight.

I was glad to catch Timmy in the morning when he didn’t have to work. He works third shift for UPS in Louisville so he can get to know college students and share the gospel. We enjoyed a spirited chat about his eventful life so far with the SBC. One half of Timmy’s family background marks him as an SBC lifer. His grandfather graduated from Southern Seminary in 1943, and his dad joined the Baptist Student Union at Ole Miss. That’s where one half met the other half of his family. That side is a whole other story. His Assyrian mother fled Iran after her father died in a car accident and could no longer defend their Christian enclave.

Far from the troubles of revolutionary Iran, Timmy grew up as a jock in Athens, Alabama. He still looks like he could play a smooth shortstop. Before college he had never read any book but the Bible. But boy, did he love reading the Bible. Timmy’s passions make sense when he describes the biggest influence on his life, an elderly man who led his Bible study in high school. The man who generously shared his time with Timmy died of a heart attack while preaching in prison.

By that time Timmy had moved to south Alabama to attend the University of Mobile. He chose Mobile over another Baptist school, Samford University in Birmingham, because Samford sided with the moderates who opposed the conservative resurgence. At Mobile, Timmy encountered a strong Reformed movement. But like so many others, he didn’t find much appealing about these Calvinists. They told him God would never use him unless he embraced five-point Calvinism, Timmy remembered.

“I looked around at these guys, and I just noticed that they didn’t have the same passion,” Timmy said. “Even though I didn’t have the theology and head knowledge they had, they didn’t have the heart that I had.”

Circumstances nudged Timmy toward Reformed theology. He was fired from his first church internship, working for an SBC church in Mobile that ranked among the state leaders in baptisms. The pastors there took the CEO ministry model a little too literally, according to Timmy. They spent work hours day-trading stocks, he said. So he wasn’t happy when the pastors refused to approve a modest budget he proposed for college ministry. Timmy managed to obtain a copy of the church budget and confronted the staff about their expensive pet projects. Two pastors sat him down for three hours to express their displeasure.

“They called me Absalom, he said, referring to King David’s rebellious son. “They told me that I was a no-good, unprofitable servant, that God would never use me in ministry, and that I was a waste of their time, and that I could no longer come back to that church.” The scenario would sound ridiculous if I hadn’t heard similar stories off the record from other young Southern Baptist pastors.

After his first ministry experience, Timmy was pretty sure he wanted nothing to do with churches. He wanted to die anonymously on the mission field. That option sounded especially appealing when his fiancee broke off their engagement and told Timmy that she had been cheating on him.

“So the love of my life and my love for the church, the two biggest things in my life, were completely rocked,” Timmy said. “I felt like every foundation on which I stood was broken, and all I had left to stand on was what I knew to be true- my Savior, my God, and his control of my life.”

God graciously provided sweet fellowship through the Word and the Holy Spirit’s comfort in his brokenness. Around the same time Timmy started reading about Reformed theology. He heard Piper speak in 2000 at a Christmas conference for Campus Outreach. Timmy has practically memorized Piper’s four messages after listening to each one at least fifty times. In one address Piper taught about enjoying God and giving your life in service to him. After that conference Timmy began devouring Piper’s books and other Calvinist works.

Timmy moved closer to home after college and began working in student ministry for a church. Just twenty-one years old, Timmy bought a house and planned to live the rest of his life there. But during his fourth year Timmy led a staff devotional by reading from Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. The staff didn’t appreciate what Timmy implied from reading from Piper’s critique of a professional view of pastoral ministry. Timmy said he just wanted to warn them based on his Mobile experience. Still, Timmy did see some parallels. If I had tried to reach him by phone at that three-hundred member church, Timmy said, I would have first spoken with two secretaries and one intern before I caught him. So maybe the devotional hit a little too close to home. The church suspended Timmy for one week without pay. At that point Timmy decided he needed to go to seminary. Timmy expects to either plant his own SBC church or join a Calvinist pastoral staff when he graduates.

Church planting might be the best way to avoid the “tumultuous days” ahead, warned about in 2006 by SBC president Frank Page. Page observed that hundreds of Calvinists graduating from SBC seminaries have to find jobs somewhere. But if Timmy’s experience is any indication, some Southern Baptist churches have problems greater than Calvinism.

(Since the above was written, Timmy has announced his intention to move to the Cape Coral, FL area to serve as an Associate Pastor with Tom Ascol at Grace Baptist Church.)

If you are reading this blog, it is obvious that the New Calvinist Movement (which, in the case of the Southern Baptist Convention, is a return to our theological roots) holds some interest for you. I commend reading of Young, Restless, Reformed for greater understanding of this Movement as a whole.

Readers are also encouraged to listen to Timmy’s interviews of Hansen: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Explore posts in the same categories: Southern Baptist Convention

15 Comments on “Timmy Brister: The Face of Calvinism in the SBC”

  1. Church planting might be the best way to avoid the “tumultuous days”

    I was glad to see that TA had tabbed Timmy for a position. I hope that Timmy doesn’t lose this idea. I think that the parallel SBC Calvinist/Reformed church plants idea has great merit. It will not avoid the conflict that is inevitable but it may just be the best way to provide and preserve the C/R resurgence in the SBC. I for one would think it great if a C/R SBC church was planted here.

    Any takers? Any sponsors 😉

  2. Pat McGee Says:

    I do not understand the reasoning in staying in a denomination that seems to have no appreciation for Calvinism. Reformed Baptists would welcome you with open arms. So would Sovereign Grace churches. Please explain. It seems to me that if you are in a church that regards Calvinism with disdain and you go against the elders, you are in a position of rebellion if you go against them. Even if they are wrong, they are still the elders. Why stay there? I don’t get it.

  3. Dan Edney Says:

    I did not know Reformed Baptists constituted a denomination. Where can I go to find out more regarding reformed baptists as a group? I’m not sure why there would be a call to leave the SBC. Clearly there are many SBC churches with pastors teaching reformed theology. Dr. Mohler is president of SBTS and even had strong support within the Convention to be elected President before his illness, and I have heard of no move to break fellowship with SBC reformed baptists. The priest-hood of the individual believer and autonomy of the local church are bulwarks of our church polity and freely allow us all to seek the truth of scripture together-IN LOVE. Although I have not embraced reformed theology fully, I have learned a great deal from studying it and the teachings of many reformed theologians. I have been praying and asking for the Holy Spirit to lead me as I work through these issue of importance for my sanctification. However, I do struggle in this quest when I read many inflammatory posts from those of reformed theology-baptist or not. Very interesting article and I look forward to hearing Timmy’s interview on the Mike Corley Program this week.

  4. Arthur Sido Says:

    Ed, I don’t think there is a Reformed Baptist denomination per se, but there are organizations of RBs that work together. I am still in favor of fighting for change within the SBC, up until the point that churches individually can no longer hold to the doctrine of Grace. We can deal with opposition and hostility because it gives us a forum to explain what Reformed Baptists really believe, instead of the caricatures painted by some in the SBC.

  5. Pat McGee Says:

    Reformed Baptists do not comprise a denomination. However, there is ARBCA (Association of Reformed Baptist churches of America) and some are part of FIRE (I think that stands for Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals). They are fellowships rather than denominations. There is no hierarchy and each church is completely independent.

  6. Dan, if I may?

    You can find much information about Reformed Baptists at the Reformed Reader (www.reformedreader.org, I think).

    Thanks for the article, by the way. I am glad to know that I’m not the only young Christian who believes in Calvinism. It kind of seems that way when you look around at my church’s youth group, but that’s okay. God has still blessed me with great relationships in my church, even if we don’t always agree theologically. 🙂

  7. Andrew, (or for any other person who wants to help me out)

    I have a question that has been pressing on my mind for quite some time now, and I was wondering if you would help me formulate an answer. By the way, I’m sorry this question isn’t relevant to the topic at hand, but I just wanted to make sure it would be read.

    You posted a few articles on the Regulative Principle of Worship, from which my question arises: In prayer, should we pray only to God the Father? Or are we permitted to pray to Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit, as well?

    I am inclined, thus far, to agree with the former because nowhere in Scripture is there a commandment to pray to Jesus or the Holy Spirit, but there is plenty of commandments to pray to the Father. And, as much as my knowledge admits, there is not a single example of any Christian in the New Testament making a prayer to Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Yes, we are to give thanks in the Spirit or in Jesus, but we are always commanded to direct that thanks to the Father.

    But I am very concerned about this because the heart of the question is this: What is an acceptable prayer? We would all hate to pray in a certain way, only to later find that we have been offering unacceptable prayers.

    But on the other hand, if I have concluded that we should only pray to the Father, and the Bible permits us to pray to Jesus or the Holy Spirit, then I have been deprived of a fuller relationship with the Trinity.

    What are your thoughts on this matter?

    Always seeking His will,
    –Christian Brother

  8. Dan Edney Says:

    Thanks so much for the web site resources. I will check them out

  9. Timmy, prayerfully consider any move that comes to mind. It seems clear to me that our Lord has more in mind for you than you imagine. I have been continually blessed by your sincerity and your God-given ability to put into words your experiences, thoughts, and theology. Keep bloggin,’ brother.

  10. Jerry Says:

    Timmy is a Calvinist?

    Who’da thunk it?

    (One day they might make T-Shirts saying “Timmy Brister is my Home Boy.)

  11. ABClay Says:

    Hiya fellas,

    I was listening to Noblit’s sermon from Sunday and he sounds like he is contemplating having his church’s name changed so as to not be affiliated with the baptist denomination any longer. I don’t want to start rumors, let me say that again, I don’t want to start rumors, but does anybody know if he is considering this? He has expressed his disgust (and rightly so) with the “Baptist” denomination in general for some time, and maybe he has finally decided to “burn the bridge”?

    I can’t say that I really blame him if he does lead his church in that direction but it would be a huge, and I mean huge loss for the SBC if he were to go in that direction (I am assuming that would mean an exit from the convention).

    Grace and peace to y’all…


  12. Ed Franklin Says:

    I am a member of FBCMS but do not speak from any position of authority or leadership when I say this: the name change is coming. The title “First Baptist” rightly belongs to another congregation in the area and it is being “returned” to them. In the subsequent renaming of our congregation, I expect the word Baptist to be dropped in the sense that it will be demoted to a subtitle such as “Following the Historic Baptist Traditions” or something. I have heard no mention of leaving the SBC as a part of the name change. There are lots of churches in the SBC which do not have the word Baptist in their names.

  13. ABClay Says:

    Brother Ed,
    Thanks for responding. I am blessed by the ministry of your congregation and hope to worship with you in July when we vacation at Lake Guntersville.

    Grace and Peace…


  14. Ed Franklin Says:

    You’re welcome, brother. I’d enjoy meeting you then….

    And, before someone else corrects me, let me say with a high degree of certainty that the word “Traditions” will probably not appear in the church’s new name subtitle. What I should have suggested is something like: Following Historic Baptist Doctrine.

  15. Jack Winter Says:

    I do not understand the reasoning in staying in a denomination that seems to have no appreciation for Calvinism.

    I suppose it depends on your circumstance. I wasn’t raised a Baptist, let along in the SBC, but that’s where God planted me when I moved to Florida. Our Pastor, a SWBTS graduate, preached strongly against predestination one Sunday. and afterwards said, “I suppose you didn’t care for that sermon, Jack” I replied with a smile, “You were predestined to preach that sermon, Pastor, which I foreknew because I foreknew where you went to Seminary. Besides, you’re a young man, and still have time to come to the truth. We had a good laugh and continue to have a good working relationship.

    I think our Lord expects us to work together, rather than engage in endless debates and hurling of anathemas.

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