It can be fun to go into a Chipotle or a Pei Wei (Starbucks is too easy) and pick out the dudes who work in vocational ministry. It’s not a terribly challenging endeavor. If their attire doesn’t give it away, the Underoath sticker on the backs of their MacBooks will, a remnant of their youth pastor days (feel free to substitute Underoath with Emery, Further Seems Forever, Mewithoutyou, Thrice, or Norma Jean).
While styles have shifted subtly over time, we’re still in the era of skinny jeans – though ripped jeans are making an inexplicable comeback. Flannel remains timeless and the plaid button down seems to have miraculously outlasted the v-neck in most circles (but make sure the top button is buttoned). And I’m pretty sure it was worship pastors that invented to t-shirt/hoodie mashup…though they might have stolen the idea from Bill Belichick.
Also denim. Lot’s of denim.
Meanwhile, hair styles seem largely inspired by an unholy union of European Soccer and Japanese Anime, though you might see the occasional rebel insisting the faux hawk is still a thing.
And if you want to tell which dudes are the worship leaders, take everything I described above and then picture it in its most advanced form. Worship leaders are the pinnacle of ministry-dress evolution. Plus the non-prescription glasses they wear are a dead giveaway.
But if you want to add a smidgen of difficulty, try to guess their denominational affiliation based on minor stylistic differences. Sure, regional variants exist. And many local networks have unique offshoots. But spend a little time in a particular region and you should be able to tell the non-denoms from the mainliners.
But there’s one group that requires literally no skill to decipher. Big, envy-spawning beard? Congratulations, you found yourself a Calvinist.
There is no intra-Christian rivalry greater than that which exists between progressive Christians and Calvinists. The Catholic/Protestant divide has nothing on the Twitter induced war stories that are shared between these two groups. Christian blogging is largely subsidized by ad revenue gleaned from their exchanges. Rumor has it that said revenue funded the creation of the ESV Study Bible.
To be fair, much of the disagreement between progressives and (usually male) Calvinists has less to do, at least directly, with the theology most closely associated with Calvinism (predestination/election, more on this below). Rather, much of the rancor stems from the stance many Calvinist theologians and pastors publicly take on the roles of women in the home and in ministry, and/or LGBTQ inclusion in the life of the church. Nevertheless, with some laudable exceptions, there remains a great deal of tension.
I need to clarify here that there isn’t any one, all-encompassing definition of Calvinism. And so my discussion of it here cannot to be said to have fairly described all who might self-identify as a Calvinist. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying things, Calvinism is a particular offshoot of Reformed Theology (another diverse category) which is especially associated with the Canons of Dort (a funny name for the results of a council of sorts from which the infamous T.U.L.I.P. acronym arose – more on that below as well).
For many, the above paragraph raised more questions than answers. There is a lot of church history to navigate here, which I have no intension of exploring at this juncture. In the present discussion I wish to narrow things even further and focus on a particular public and popular expression of Calvinism that has gained popularity and momentum in the past decade or so. This movement, sometimes dubbed “New Calvinism” (among other things), is most closely identified with the likes of John Piper, Matt Chandler, Tim Keller, Al Mohler, and a host of other pastors and theologians often associated with The Gospel Coalition, including the ever-controversial Mark Driscoll. And not too long ago, I counted myself among their ranks.
A brief aside (noun: a remark that is not directly related to the main topic of discussion):
Despite the snark that opened this post, my relationship with Calvinism, as a self-identifying progressive Christian, is not entirely antagonistic. As I mentioned prior, there isn’t any one Calvinism. In fact with an ample amount of qualification and clarity, there remains times when I might still self-identify as one. But those details will have to wait for a future post.
What’s more, I have many dear friends and family members – some of them pastors themselves – who are Calvinists. This post isn’t directed at them. It’s my story. Nothing more.
It’s also important to understand that there isn’t any single definition of a progressive Christian. Think of it more as a loose affiliation than a militantly bordered sub-group. Nevertheless, that is also an exploration that must await a future post.
Today I simply mean to describe my relationship with the aforementioned popular expression of Calvinism that has become so prevalent in the American church, even among those who do not self-identify as Calvinistic or even Reformed in their theology.
Now back to the story….
I became a Calvinist after college, soon after I moved to Arizona. To be sure, I would have likely claimed the mantle prior that point. My parents had become Calvinists not long after they became Christians. And many of the pastors and mentors in my life affiliated themselves with Calvinism to lesser or greater degrees.
But I didn’t take ownership of the theology until adulthood.
At the time I was living with my uncle, himself a committed Calvinist. And through his influence I was exposed to a steady avalanche of popular Calvinist thinkers. I’d known John Piper and, to a lesser extent, John MacArthur. But the work of Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, and especially Mark Driscoll were new to me. It was like drinking out of a fire hose. But I loved it.
You see, I have always been attracted to theological expression that engaged the mind above all else (which I’m sure comes as a huge surprised to everyone). That was especially true immediately following my college graduation as I was still wrestling through some personal brushes with atheism (as alluded to here).
In these “new” Calvinists, I found a bold, intellectually robust faith expression that – at the time – instilled within me an excitement towards my faith like nothing I had ever experienced. I couldn’t get enough.
Blogs were read. Podcasts were consumed. And most of all, books for purchased. My Amazon Prime account bent under the weight of my fervor. It helped that Calvinism was experiencing something of a resurgence at the time. The “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement, as it had been dubbed, was sweeping the nation and its reach had grown long. Even pastors who didn’t consider themselves Reformed or Calvinist found themselves reading Tim Keller books, listening to Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler sermons, and encouraging their youth pastors to blast the music of John Piper-approved Lecrae during student events.
My favorite book, however, which was more of a tome (noun: a book, especially a large, heavy, scholarly one) really, was Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I literally carried it around with me everywhere I went which, I assure you, looked ridiculous.
But it was my Bible.
And I was a fanatical evangelist for its gospel.
This was also about the same time I began my journey into vocational ministry. I had been serving as a middle school leader at the church I has been attending and soon after was invited to take on an internship at that same church.
The church itself was not explicitly Calvinist. But so vast was the movement’s reach at the time that our church inevitably drew heavily from some of its biggest names. That wasn’t enough for me though, and I actually contemplated requesting a meeting with my church’s lead pastor to exhort him both to be more explicitly Calvinist in his theology and to urge him to adopt an exclusively expository (verse by verse through books of the Bible) preaching style, which was one of the stylistic hallmarks of the ongoing Resurgence.
Calvinism defined me for nearly three years. But around the time my internship ended, my mania had begun to wane and I had even begun to entertain the notion that there were other viable expressions of the Christian faith. My journey out of Calvinism had begun.
So what happened? Well if you truly must know, then you’ll just have to check back tomorrow for part two of this story!
It occurs to me that some of you might have read through this post without really knowing what exactly Calvinism is. If that’s you, I encourage you to click some of the links earlier in the post that will take you to some basic definitions.
But for the tldr (too long, didn’t read) crowd, know that Calvinism is most associated with its doctrine of Salvation, which argues that before the creation of the universe, God ordained (predestined) that some (the elect) would be saved and that he therefore predestined (be it actively or passively) that the rest (the reprobate) would be damned.
Chilling, I know. But not without some (apparent) biblical support.
Calvinists (in)famously follow a set of salvation-related doctrines which they (boldly) dub “the doctrines of grace”. They are represented by the aforementioned T.U.L.I.P. acronym which stands for:
Total Depravity – the notion that humans are totally sinful at birth, lost on account of Adam’s original sin.
Unconditional Election – the idea that God elected (predestined) some for salvation based on no merit of their own but purely based on his loving grace.
Limited Atonement – the claim that atoning power of Christ’s death was limited to the elect and therefore effective and final in securing their salvation. There is no potentiality in Christ’s work, therefore ruling out human effort in salvation.
Irresistible Grace – the notion that God’s grace, bought in Christ and mediated by the Holy Spirt, cannot be rejected my those whom God had chosen.
Perseverance of the Saints – the idea that because salvation is wholly a work of God who guarantees its effectiveness, that it cannot be lost or abandoned if one is truly elect.
This sort of theology raises big questions about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will, which usually forms the crux of any debate over Calvinism’s viability. We’ll explore some of that tomorrow.
Until then, share, discuss!