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.
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.