This post was first published at A Deeper Story.
The senior pastor pulled me aside and, in his infamous dramatic baritone, directed me on how to lead the small group.
“I need you to emphasize reprobation,” he said. “I believe it’s essential to understanding the gospel. And these people are way too soft when it comes to the absolute sovereignty of God. I’m a supralapsarian, you know.”
The rigid small group structure of this Reformed Baptist church was such that each group had one leader and at least one assistant leader. Every fall, in a ritual mildly resembling the papal conclave, the elders would meet privately to assign every leader, assistant, and small group member in every group, all according to criteria about leadership qualifications and the state of people’s souls. Since there were a good number of folks in the church who believed in Jesus but were deemed “unconverted” by the elders (because the evidence of regeneration – Calvinism’s “irresistible grace” – was not convincing enough for them), many of the groups were set up as experiments in sovereign election.
Basically: Let’s put Suzy Q in Joe Johnson’s small group because Joe will bring strong teaching about the wrath of God, and Lord knows the Holy Spirit needs to show Suzy the depths of her sin before she can truly come to faith. (Suzy, in this case, being the lifelong Christian who had a season of “backsliding” and was therefore deemed never-saved-in-the-first-place.)
The guilt-mongering and browbeating would ensue for the duration of the small group season.
By now, the Breaking Bad storyline is so ensconced in the cultural fabric of our country that it hardly needs an explanation.
Suffice it to say, AMC’s runaway hit series (a surprise to everyone, including the show’s creators) puts the destructive allure of arrogant power and control on stunning display. The temptation here is not money, though it first appears that way, with the protagonist opting to sell meth so he can afford his cancer treatments and leave a nest egg for his family. No, it is power. In perhaps the most telling moment of the show, Walter White sits in his living room easy chair and declares, “I’m not in the meth business or the money business. I’m in the empire business.”
Walt is a man high on his own capacity to control people, things, and situations.
And the end thereof is destruction and death to all around him.
It is almost a universal evangelical cliche to say, “God is in control.” The Calvinism of those elders underscored and emphasized this, both in theology and practice, to the nth degree. From the near-sovereign choosing of small groups to produce the chemistry of conversion, to the authoritarian teaching of reprobation to berate and beat down the resistant, manipulation was essentially a church policy.
And, faced with the task of teaching the doctrine that God actively chooses the individuals to torture in hell for all eternity, without any reference to their will and with no possibility of their choosing otherwise, I began to break.
What had first attracted me to Reformed theology was the intellectual satisfaction of it all. The whole experience was intoxicating. It was even liberating, as I had felt trapped by my anti-intellectual charismatic upbringing and desired something with substance to invest my faith in. There had to be something better than the perpetual prophetic words that got weirder every year and contradicted one another at every turn.
But when the intellectual high wore off, I was faced with an inhumane theology that shut good, Christian people out of the kingdom and created church environments of drastic unhealth and dysfunction.
I was faced with middle class white men ignoring the poor, demeaning their wives, and insulting their church members, all in the name of God-appointed power.
I was faced with empire business.
My breaking was a bit like Jesse Pinkman’s breaking in the show. While Walter broke bad, Jesse began to break good, though he found himself burdened by the weight of what he’d experienced and taken part in. There was destruction and death all around. How could any good come of this?
Similarly, if my flaky charismatic upbringing and Calvnistic cage phase both failed to produce a good and healthy faith, what would come next?
Would there be any grace left to sustain me?
My wife and I left that church, making our disagreements and regrets clear. I then plunged into the deep well of reflection and questioning. Somehow, as the weeks and months passed, I stumbled upon two unexpected, life-giving spiritual streams. And I began to drink.
And I haven’t stopped since.
If John Wesley’s theological tradition is known for anything, it would be the idea of prevenient grace in salvation. In the Methodist framework, God the Holy Spirit is always the one who initiates the work of rescue and transformation in a person’s life. It is by grace alone. But instead of a coercive grace that forces faith on a small group previously selected by the all-controlling deity, this grace is decidedly resistible.
And it is truly and fully offered to all people.
Every single one.
Similarly, the Anabaptist tradition offers a vision of the church that undermines the human tendency to seek destructive power and control over others. The church is seen as a contrast community to the ways of violence and dominance in the world. Leaders are not in control; rather, they are submitted to other leaders and church members. Community discernment takes the place of top-down dictates. Empowerment of those marginalized and oppressed takes the place of middle-class white men running the show and browbeating their inferiors.
Really, it’s a vision for a beautifully human, and humane, church.
And together, the Wesleyan and Anabaptist perspectives restored my faith.
The dramatic baritone of the senior pastor was intimidating and convincing, even when pushing arcane and brutal theologies like reprobationand supralapsarianism.
But it simply cannot compete with the goodness and grace of a God who loves all in Christ, and desires humility and equality in his church.