Monday, March 29, 2010

Christian Science Monitor on Calvinism

The Christian Science Monitor has a good article on Calvinism, partly through the lens of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where Mark Dever pastors. Check it out here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What have you done for me, lately?

We recognize that there is something powerful in the utterance of words. Thoughts may influence us greatly, but speaking them into existence makes them somehow more – well, real.

The drill sergeant, with the goal of getting a green recruit to recognize his dependence on the group, doesn’t merely want to know the recruit’s beliefs, but demands “Let me hear you say it, private!”

Parents who want reconciliation between siblings aren’t satisfied with a penitent heart, but insist that the offending one “tell your brother how you feel.”

And the frustrated girl dealing with her reticent romantic interest doesn’t want to know he loves her, but longs for the day he actually says it.

In Psalm 35, David reflects this same idea when in the midst of an otherwise imprecatory litany he makes a request of God that he “Say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation!’” (35:3b). Two things occupy David’s mind about God: 1) a fact, 2) a proclamation.

David faced myriad problems: men sought his life, devised evil against him, laid traps for him, bore false witness, rejoiced over his calamity. All of this resulted from the animosity of God’s anointed, King Saul, and the mere fact that David had been called of God to replace Saul. David had a calling and ministry that others resented and didn’t understand.

But against these David seeks the Lord’s aid, and though he suggested that God fight with shield and buckler, with spear and javelin (vv. 1-2), his true request was otherwise: that they be put to shame, disappointed, caught with their own snares, and that David’s cause be vindicated…in other words, that they fail in their attempts against him.

In this midst of all this David seeks assurance. He knows he cannot trust the might of his own armies, or the cleverness of his schemes, or the brilliance of his defenses, but can only draw confidence from the fact that God is his salvation. This Fact further demonstrates that it is not what God does to alleviate David’s temporal circumstances that make him his salvation, but simply – and profoundly – who he is.

But David isn’t satisfied with the Fact: he wants Proclamation. Perhaps sensing the reality of his nature and that he, like us, needs the Gospel preached to him daily, insists that God declare again to him the Fact: I am your salvation! Like the one who longs to hear his master say “Well done, good and faithful servant,” David knows that unless he heard Proclamation of the Fact from God, he would tend to look elsewhere for sources of salvation, or relief, or solution.

Some of us have never heard God say “I am your salvation!” because we remain in our sin. Some of us don’t want to hear it, because we prefer to look elsewhere for salvation. David reminds us that we need both fact and proclamation.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Kicking the Tires (Smoking Out Calvinists, Pt 4)

Many pastor search committees receive advice to poll the congregation for the type of pastor it desires, and for which the committee should search. This typically results in a fanciful pastoral candidate who is in his 30s, has several children, an earned Ph.D., twenty years of senior pastor experience, and who looks like a news anchor.

Here, then, is at least one limitation of the congregational form of church government.

Some of these polls reveal the congregation’s desire that “No Calvinist Need Apply.” The biblical wisdom of such polls and of using search committees is a topic for another day. But given the fact that a search committee might see calling a non-Calvinist pastor as its goal, how should it go about this?

First, any church and its search committee should make certain that it knows what it means by “Calvinist.” Many members of SBC churches hold to a form of the Security of the Believer, which makes most of the Convention at least One-Point Calvinist (that is, they agree with “Perseverance” in the TULIP acrostic). Stereotypes make it likely that when churches object to “Calvinism” they are objecting to hyper-Calvinism or some caricature of Calvinism, neither of which is truly Calvinism at all. The church should also understand the terms “Doctrines of Grace” and “Reformed doctrine” (in a sense, all Protestants are “Reformed” from the abuses of Rome) in order to avoid stereotypes of those doctrinal understandings.

Therefore, the church and committee should decide whether a pastor’s agreement with any of the other four points of Calvinism renders him unacceptable, and why. Experience shows that it is entirely possible for a full-bore, Five Point Calvinist to faithfully and fruitfully pastor a congregation that does not hold the Five Points.

Second, the church and its committee should understand clearly why they believe a Two-, Three-, Four-, or Five-Point Calvinist is unacceptable. Much of the objection to “Calvinist” pastors is that they attempt to immediately convert everything about the congregation to their view of Reformed doctrine and practice, or use the pulpit only as a megaphone for preaching “Calvinism”, or browbeat and arm-twist everyone with a different view. But there are plenty of Reformed pastors who don’t behave this way (and plenty of non-Calvinists who do), and creating a blanket ban could be counterproductive.

Third, if it rejects Calvinism, the church and its committee should be willing to affirm its own soteriology. That is, the church should be aware of not only what it rejects, but what it accepts. The opposite of “Calvinism” is not “Biblicism”: instead, the one rejecting Calvinist soteriology is left holding some other interpretation of what Scripture says about salvation, but an interpretation, nonetheless. Thus, the church should understand and embrace where it falls in the spectrum of views: Wesleyan, Arminian, semi-Pelagian, Pelagian. It will not do for a church to reject the Calvinist view of salvation while remaining unclear about the view that it accepts, or while refusing to address the issue under the guise of “having no creed but the Bible.”

Fourth, the church and committee should understand that it does not serve clarity and openness to simply ask a prospective pastor, sometimes at the first contact and sometimes by telephone, “Are you a Calvinist? (Yes, or No).” The subject is complex, and is not suitable to simplistic treatment, either in answers or assessments. A candidate who wants to take more time to answer appropriately is not necessarily being evasive.

Thoughtful pastors who hold to Calvinism, Doctrines of Grace, Reformed theology do so because they believe it is what Scripture teaches. Churches and search committees that do not want to call them should at least give as much attention to why they think it doesn’t. They should not simply rely on stories, second-hand reports, and coffee-maker gossip about who is the “Big C” or even upon the poor behavior of men who obviously are.

No church needs unnecessary splits or sinful division. But it may just need that preacher who happens to be Calvinist.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Checking Under the Hood (Smoking Out Calvinists, Pt 3)

A church’s pastor search committee has every right – indeed, the obligation – to explore a prospective pastor’s theological bent to ensure that it doesn’t conflict with its own. But should every church that rejects some or all of the 5 Points of Calvinism “smoke out” Calvinist preachers (or members) using a litmus test and then summarily reject them?

(See “Smoking Out Calvinism” and “Making Labels” here, as well as Tom Ascol’s article.)

If a man is already serving as pastor and someone in his church must use a smoke-out tool such as “Reformed Red flags” or “Theological Differences” in order to determine whether he is unacceptably Calvinist, there is not likely as much of a problem as someone is pushing to suppose. Whether he uses an ESV Study Bible or quotes R.C. Sproul will not reveal much if the congregation doesn’t already believe that the pastor is attempting to surreptitiously convert them all to Doctrines of Grace.

And, if the goal of the smokers is to root out men who have weaseled into their pulpit by hiding his real self, then the solution is not to use cloak and dagger tactics to catch him in his perfidy, but to shine the light of the gospel on the situation and do something truly radical: ask him.

But let’s not miss the significance of this: the very fact that a church must resort to asking its pastor if he is Calvinist, or to using tools designed to help spot the "warning signs", indicates that there is nothing seriously problematic about his theology. If doctrine were truly the problem, then it would be obvious to everyone. If a man proclaims doctrine from the pulpit that is obviously out of sync with Scripture, then you don’t need to know what soteriological brand he wears in order to find it problematic.

In other words, if a pastor is trying to implement church discipline, have an elder structure, eliminate the “altar call” – even preach grace – and the congregation made uncomfortable by it can point to no Scriptural error in the pastor’s efforts but can only throw a label on him in order to find his label objectionable, then the problem is not likely doctrine. There may be other legitimate reasons to send him on his way, but simply “being Calvinist” would not be one of them. The pastor is either being sinfully divisive, or he is attempting to introduce biblical change that the congregation does not find palatable.

If he is being sinfully divisive, the church has ample reason to seek other leadership. But to go to such extremes to characterize his sinful divisiveness as a product of “Calvinism” is gratuitous, and is likely the result of some other agenda.

If the pastor is introducing biblical change that the congregation finds unpalatable, it is facing a different situation, entirely. Any congregation facing this situation should make absolutely certain that its objection is not simply to change.

For proposals about how a search committee can address these issues with a prospective pastor, see my next article, “Kicking the Tires (Smoking out Calvinists, Pt 4)”.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Making Labels (Smoking Out Calvinists, Pt 2)

In several of the older churches in my association, a room just off the foyer to the sanctuary is dedicated to a display of the church’s formative documents. Minutes of the organizational meeting include a list of all the members, who the pastor was, who served as deacons, and who served as elders. The Statements of Faith for these churches closely track the Philadelphia Confession (1742), the Second London Confession (1689), or at least affirm doctrines of grace, with copious favorable references to “election” and “predestination.”

Despite the fact that many contemporary members – should they venture into these rooms and read the documents in them – would stroke out at the notion that their church once had elders and once approved such “Calvinistic” concepts – these documents accurately reflect the truth that Southern Baptist life has been characterized by a strong Reformed, Calvinist, Doctrines-of-Grace element from its inception.

On the other hand, there have also been faithful believers in the SBC who have not accepted all of the Five Points of Calvinism (or Reformed doctrine, or the Doctrines of Grace), who have nevertheless engaged the church’s mission to proclaim God’s glory through making disciples of all nations right alongside Five-Pointers and others who not only tip-toe through, but frolic in, the T.U.L.I.P.s. For example, I worked with a friend in college ministry and on mission trips who claimed to be a 1-Point Calvinist (Perseverance, I think), with no adverse effects on the ministry and no after-hours fisticuffs.

Given this historical context, it is somewhat surprising that there would arise such acrimony against all things Calvinistic. (See “Smoking Out Calvinists” in this site and Tom Ascol’s article.) There are, to be sure, church members and pastors who hold to Calvinism and who haven’t quite left the “cage stage” of their understanding of the Doctrines of Grace. Real and significant problems have attended their congregations and pulpits where charity has not tempered their zeal.

Yet the lack of charity is not a malady exclusive to Reformed circles. Arminians and semi-Pelagians can be just as hostile and unyielding. A thoroughly Arminian Sunday school department leader adamantly refused to go along with anything proposed by the Director because he was (so she thought) “a Calvinist”, hindering the function of the group even in matters not dealing with the disputed doctrine. An official state SBC conference speaker referred to Calvin as a “shade tree theologian” only interested in peddling his Institutes and presumably considered him a greater threat to evangelical Christianity than Islam and false converts.

A church search committee has every reason to avoid calling a pastor who will “split the church.” Yet it is avoiding its “sacred duty” when it supposes that it can check off a few boxes on a “watch list”, or ask a prospective pastor “Yes or No: Are you Calvinist?” and justifiably label him a church-splitter to be studiously avoided.

The problem for churches and pastors today is that both sides of the soteriological divide have been characterized by such inaccurate stereotypes. Not all Calvinists preach from a T.U.L.I.P. soapbox, seeking to browbeat and arm-twist every congregant to his brand of soteriology. Not all Arminians or Wesleyans picture Jesus wringing his hands and fretting over his impotence to save men without their cooperation.

What can a church and its pastor search committee do to ensure they address their legitimate concerns fairly and appropriately? I address that next in “Checking Under the Hood (Smoking Out Calvinists, Pt 3).”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Smoking Out Calvinists

I’ve heard for several years that among the various Directors of Missions for local Southern Baptist Associations there were some who took it upon themselves to weed out “Calvinists”, keeping them from consideration for pulpit supply or for open ministerial positions.

I’ve also heard for several years that consultants from state Baptist conventions help train pastor search committees to avoid hiring “Calvinists.” One Director of Missions suggested to me that because of what school I attended (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), I should include on my resume my understanding of the “Five Points of Calvinism.”

Now I hear it reported that at least some Tennessee Baptists have taken up the cause of culling Calvinists in organized fashion, creating written guidelines and conducting training sessions. Tom Ascol, of Founders Ministries, has written about it here. In his article Ascol reprints the documents supposedly used to root out hidden Calvinist preachers. These documents are obviously full of stereotypes, simplistic assessments, and mischaracterizations of Calvinism, Reformed doctrine, and the Doctrines of Grace.

I agree with one thing that “Reformed Red flags” says: pastor search committees act according to the “sacred duty their church entrusted to them.” However, a search committee’s duty is not ultimately to the church that charges it with finding a new pastor, but instead its duty is to serve God and find the man that He has called.

It is, indeed, a serious matter to call a pastor. So I agree, for the most part, with churches seeking to explore a prospective preacher’s doctrinal bent before he walks into the pulpit. In my work as a church consultant, I have grown to lament the fact that search committees are not concerned enough to explore a prospective pastor’s theological leaning, and, perhaps as important, how those leanings actually tend to affect his practical ministry.

Can search committees ask a prospective pastor about his “Calvinism”? Sure. Are “Reformed Red flags” and other tools valid for applying a label to a man and rejecting him? I’ll address that next, in “Making Labels (Smoking Out Calvinists, Pt 2)”.