A report on some recent conversations about Calvinism

A report on some recent conversations about Calvinism February 14, 2012

Someone recently asked me here how many times a day I think about Calvinism. Well, lots. But that’s largely because people contact me by phone, letter, e-mail and in person many times every week, pretty much daily, to ask me questions about Calvinism and Arminianism because of my books, articles, radio interviews, this blog, etc. I guess I have to accept my fate as what Collin Hansen said about me in Young, Restless, Reformed–that I am the (paraphrasing) “go to guy” when it comes to anti-Calvinism. (Again, I have to emphasize because some people still don’t get it, that I am not anti-Calvinists. And I am only anti-Calvinism with regard to certain situations which I have described and will describe here again.)

Here are two examples of this from this past week. But incidents like them happen all the time and consume a great deal of my time, attention and energy.

A seminary student told me about his home church. His parents are members there and he grew up in it. It’s a Baptist church that has never had any official position on Calvinism or Arminianism. It’s background is Pietist (as opposed to, say, fundamentalist). In other words, it has traditionally had a policy of not fighting over secondary doctrines such as predestination.

The church recently called a new pastor. He is relatively young, not long out of seminary but with some previous pastoral experience. During the search and interview process he did not reveal to the committee or then to the church’s leaders that he is a five point Calvinist. Hardly anyone in the church has been a five point Calvinist and he knew very well that it would be controversial. After he was called and accepted the call, he began pushing Calvinism in a very heavy handed way. He gives books by Wayne Grudem and Mark Driscoll to adult teachers to use in preparing their lessons. He unilaterally removed books from the church library he considered unbiblical or unorthodox from a Calvinist perspective. (This is an evangelical church and probably didn’t have many, if any, really liberal books in its library.) He began to insist on being present at all church committee meetings. A committee is not supposed to meet if he cannot be there. He is preaching and teaching Calvinism as if it were the one and only truly evangelical theology. He admits to being inspired by John Piper. The students’ parents are not very knowledgeable about theology but sense that the pastor’s behavior and teaching are a problem. The congregation is gradually being disturbed by this situation.

Second, a youth pastor asked if he could meet with me. He works primarily with college age young adults. It’s a Methodist church. Recently, an increasing number of college students in his church are embracing Calvinism under the influence of Passion conferences and especially John Piper. One young female college student has natural leadership abilities and feels called to ministry, but because of Piper (and his network of surrogates) she is now doubting God’s call on her life. According to this student minister, most of the newly minted Calvinists in his group have never even heard that there are problems with Calvinism. They have embraced it thinking it is simply what the Bible teaches. They have never thought about the consequences such as the character of God. They tend to just point to Romans 9 as proof of their newfound theology.

These are typical of the stories I hear all the time.

My problem with Calvinism is both theological and practical. But, as I have said before, I have no desire to debate Calvinism with confessionally Reformed folks. I respect their tradition even as I disagree with it. What bothers me is illustrated by those two true situations. First, that many Calvinists are sneaking into pastoral positions in churches where they know Calvinism is not confessionally traditional and where they have good reason to believe it would be controversial if preached and taught as THE evangelical theology. By “sneaking in” I mean they don’t ever mention it even if asked if they have any beliefs that might be a problem for the church. They become pastor and only then, when they feel firmly ensconced, begin to preach and teach Calvinism as the one and only biblical view.

Second, many “young, restless, Reformed” Christians are adopting Calvinism without ever being told its weaknesses or objections to it by non-Calvinist Christians. It is promoted to them as if it were the one and only truly biblical, authentically evangelical, and God-honoring belief system. They take it back to their non-Calvinist church and youth group and often refuse to listen when their youth pastors or student ministers try to point out flaws in it. The impression one gets is that for SOME of them it is like they have joined a cult; their minds are firmly closed to even considering any other viewpoint or listening to any problems with it.

In years past (or about 17 years when teaching at two different Christian universities) I taught courses on cults and new religions and read dozens of books about the marks of cults. I participated in attempted interventions with family members getting caught up on cults. I am NOT accusing Calvinism of being a cult; what I am saying is that SOME young Calvinists returning from Passion conferences and devouring Piper’s and Driscoll’s books and spending hours every week watching their podcasts, following them on twitter, etc., seem to exhibit some of the traits seen in people joining a cult. Everything about this new found perspective (and the teachers they follow) is good and true; everything else is spiritually dangerous and they are not willing to take any criticism of their new perspective seriously. And I think some Calvinist pastors are behaving in a cultish fashion by being sneaky and non-transparent about their Calvinism until they feel safe and then they begin to impose it on their unsuspecting congregants in a heavy-handed manner.

Actually, what it all reminds me of is the Bill Gothard phenomenon of the 1970s. I can’t count the number of times I was told by fellow evangelical Christians that Gothard had the solution to all of life’ sproblems and if I would just attend one of his seminar…. I remember a young Gothard fan interrupting a seminary class and chastising the professor for something he said that was contrary to what Gothard taught. (The professor wisely told the student that if he really believed in “God’s chain of command” he would not contradict his professor!) I was never a fan of Gothard or his teachings; I had seen how his teachings could be used as a weapon of spiritual abuse when I was in college. We (the students) were told to stay in our place in God’s chain of command and never challenge anything the college leaders did. (The then president was not much later discovered to be misappropriating funds and was fired with the result that the college almost went bankrupt and closed!) But just because I did not “buy into” Gothard’s teachings I was often accused of being unspiritual by his fans and followers. They had the same look and “voice” as people becoming involved an several new cults that were popular at that time.

Personally, I am afraid of Christian teachers who pretend to have it all figured out so that there is no ambiguity left in Christian doctrine. I am afraid of them when they give young followers the impression they are Messiah-like figures speaking from a mountain top of perfect insight into God’s own mind. I am especially afraid of them when they speak disparagingly of fellow Christians, even fellow evangelical Christians, who hold differing beliefs about secondary doctrines.

I will say it straight out: something cultic is appearing among the young, restless, Reformed Christian followers of Piper, Driscoll, et al. Evangelical leaders need to speak up about it and express real caution to them about being overly enthusiastic about any doctrine outside of the basics of Christian orthodoxy and especially any person other than Jesus Christ himself. Instead, what I am reading is evangelical leaders saying why the young, restless, Reformed movement is good for the churches. In some ways it is; in other ways it is not.

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