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.

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