What I admire about Calvinists

What I admire about Calvinists June 25, 2012

Obviously, I do not agree with the distinctive doctrines of Calvinism–especially divine determinism and monergism. However, I admire how MOST evangelical Calvinist churches teach theology/doctrine and how to integrate that into everyday spirituality and ordinary life. That kind of integration of theology/doctrine with practice is too rare in non-Calvinist churches. I do not say it is absent; I only say it is too rare.

I have never been a member of or regularly attended a Calvinist church. I’ve only visited them. But I have had many Calvinist speakers, both pastors and lay people, visit my classes and speak to them. They always seem to have a ready answer to questions about practical matters such as preaching, praying, worshiping, witnessing, etc., and how those are affected by their Calvinism. The same has not as often been true of non-Calvinist visiting speakers.

I think part of the problem is that most non-Calvinists don’t know what they are–theologically. So, it’s easy for them to fall into practicing the Christian faith AS IF Calvinism were true when, IN FACT, they do not actually agree with the distinctive doctrines of Calvinism.

A case in point is prayer for friends and loved ones who are not saved. I know many non-Calvinists who pray, and see nothing wrong with praying, that God will simply “save” them. Of course, only a Calvinist (whether by that label or under another one) can reasonably ask God simply to “save” someone.

My experience of non-Calvinist Christians (from membership and leadership in about 12 churches during my lifetime) is that they are not, by and large, theologically trained at all. They have picked up pieces of this and that (theologies) and pasted them together in ways that seem good to them without any real reflection on the outcome (the eclectic worldview, theology that results from that informal process). I’m not saying that doesn’t also happen among Calvinists; I’m just saying it’s not as common IN CALVINIST CHURCHES.

What I long for is a church that knows it is not Calvinist and teaches non-Calvinist theology/doctrine (about God’s sovereignty) and actively helps members and attenders develop spiritual lives that are consistent with non-Calvinist (e.g., Arminian) beliefs.

Recently I visited a church I know is not Calvinist (although there may be a few Calvinists sprinkled among the members) in overall ethos. A mature Christian person gave a “testimony” from the pulpit during the Sunday morning worship service. He concluded with (paraphrasing) “I don’t know why God chose for my mother to have cancer” (but I’m learning to live with that, etc.).

I heard that and subtly looked around to see if anyone whose face I could see registered any kind of surprise or dismay. None. I mentioned it to a few people who are members of the church and who I know are not Calvinists; they didn’t think anything of it. Their response was of the nature of “Well, that’s his belief about God and so who are we to question it?” What I think they really meant was “If that’s what makes him feel comfortable….”

However, I am convinced that if I took that man aside and queried him about God and, say, the holocaust, he would deny divine determinism.

I could give numerous similar examples of what I’m talking about. I’ll mention just one more.

I knew a husband and wife who were most definitely not Calvinists and do not believe in divine determinism as a true account of God’s sovereignty. However, after their son’s death in a car accident, they talked about it as if they were Calvinists! For example, they loved to tell friends how God planned and executed the accident so that their son did not suffer any pain; he was killed instantly.

Here is how I teach my students. DO NOT wait until your parishioners experience a tragedy to talk with them about God’s sovereignty. If you are a Calvinist (many of them are), teach that to your congregation and clearly communicate its implications for practical life including how to understand evil and innocent suffering. If you are not a Calvinist, figure out your theology of divine sovereignty especially as it relates to salvation, evil and innocent suffering (I’ll be happy to help! :), and teach your congregants about that. Do not wait until they face horrible tragedy and then try to answer their cries of “Where is God!?”

Overall and in general, I judge, Calvinists churches and pastors do a better job of this than non-Calvinists. An exception is Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, who clearly articulates a non-Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and teaches it to his congregation. Nobody in his church could ever miss it. But most non-Calvinist churches avoid the subject until tragedy strikes.

Doctrines of God’s sovereignty are too important to ignore. Everyone in a church ought to be able to say quickly and clearly what its overall view of God’s sovereignty is–at least in general outline form.

This is why I say that Calvinists need to go to Calvinist churches and non-Calvinists need to go to non-Calvinist churches. In mixed congregations two things happen. Either the subject is ignored or there’s tremendous cognitive dissonance among the congregants leading eventually to division.

Calvinist and non-Calvinist EVANGELICAL churches should be able to cooperate and have fellowship with each other. These are not doctrines that need to cause separation between congregations. I once was associate pastor of a decidedly non-Calvinist church (although God’s sovereignty was rarely if ever the subject of a sermon or Bible study) that actively cooperated with the town’s evangelical ministerial alliance on evangelistic efforts (e.g., Billy Graham associate evangelist crusades, supporting the local union gospel mission, planning and carrying out the high school baccalaureate program, etc.). Many of the pastors of the evangelical ministerial alliance were Calvinists. (Both the pastors of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church were active members of the alliance.) In the alliance, Wesleyans and high Calvinists got along famously. Within their churches, however, they taught doctrines directly contrary to each other. That did not hinder their friendship and cooperation.

Given the significant difference among biblically-committed, evangelical Christians on secondary matters of faith and practice, I do not think it realistic to expect one congregation to contain all of those peacefully. The only way to do that is to avoid doctrine altogether (except maybe the most general orthodox beliefs). I see no value in that especially when people need answers to questions like “Where was God when my child was killed in a car accident?” and “Why is my loved one not getting saved when I pray for him daily?” Answers to such pressing questions are going to be either Calvinist or non-Calvinist (or rooted in divine determinism or indeterminism).

I would like to see more non-Calvinist churches and pastors get busy teaching their congregations about God’s sovereignty from a non-Calvinist perspective and even correcting congregants who express beliefs that are Calvinistic–just like Calvinist churches teach their congregants about God’s sovereignty from a Calvinist perspective and even correct congregants who express beliefs that are contrary to Calvinism.

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