Sunday, 20 April 2008

Recovering a Sense of Incredulity over Calvinism

I have a couple friends of mine who are preparing for ministry and working on advanced theological degrees. However, in their prior studies they had been quite insulated from the Calvinist-Arminian debate, and have only recently encountered real live Calvinists. It is refreshing to hear their sense of incredulity and even shock at what Calvinists say.

I remember one of my first conversations with one of them. As it came up that I was not a Calvinist, he replied, "But there aren't any Calvinists around any more, are there?" I looked around at the various other theologians in the room and said, "We're surrounded by them." This came as a shock, since he simply could not conceive how anyone could hold to Calvinism.

In another conversation, my other friend said, after talking to a Calvinists, "You know, they actually believe that Jesus only died for the elect." I replied, "But of course." To which he responded that he knew this was a part of their theology, but couldn't conceive of anyone actually believing that God would withhold the atonement from the greatest part of mankind.

Another time, one of them said to me, "Do you realize that they think that we Arminians believe in a works salvation?"

All this is refreshingly assuring. These young men, well educated in theology as they are, nonetheless have a theological innocence about them untainted by the intricacies of a Calvinism which obfuscates the obvious and creates theosophical labyrinths from one's nose to one's elbow.
Oh to be shocked once more at hearing someone claim that God predestines some few people to believe, and leaves all others with no means of salvation! Oh to be astonished to hear someone claim that babies who die in infancy have no assurance of being ushered into the delights of heaven! Oh to be flabbergasted to hear someone claim that people have no choice in whether they put their faith in Christ or not.

We hear Calvinists repeat their disturbing theology so much that we gradually lose our proper sense of astonishment over people actually believing things so contrary to the nature of God and to the obvious meaning of Scripture. This is unfortunate. We need to recover a sense of theological innocence so that we do not dignify what is otherwise prima facie absurd.

On one hand, we want people to recognize our theological maturity, and so we make sure we never seem surprised at Calvinistic claims; and rightly so, because we've probably heard most of them more than a few times. But maybe this is a flawed response, for it tends to dignify that which should be not be dignified. Perhaps instead we should respond with an appropriate sense of incredulity at notions which could only be deduced from scripture by those who are twice too clever for the simplicity of the Gospel.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Congregational Approval of Out-of-Budget Expenditures

Here's a procedure....

1) Set up a budget for approval. Any expenditure which has already been approved at the previous annual meeting need not be brought up again for specific approval. If you budget $2000 for church van maintenance and repair, and its transmission needs a $1000 overhaul, then go ahead and get it repaired.

2) Each board or church department should make a good faith effort to stay within its budget. But if a budget item is exceeded through ordinary but unexpected situations, then
  • report it at the next business meeting;
  • b) explain why;
  • c) move on--i.e., don't worry about passing a budget increase;
  • d) increase your budget for that particular item next year.
3) Special items not previously budgeted should be carefully considered as to whether or not they should be presented to the congregation for a vote. Here are some criteria:
  • The more unusual the item is, the greater the need to bring it to the congregation
  • The more expensive the item is, the greater the need to bring it to the congregation
  • The more time-sensitive the purchase is, the greater the need for the board to deal with it outside of congregational oversight
  • Sometimes difficult situations of a most sensitive nature need to be dealt with in the privacy of the board meeting, for example, a severance package for a dismissed ministerial professional. In which case, the board members stick their neck out and assume that the congregation will trust their judgment. After all, the board members are the supposed to be the most spiritual mature and Spirit-led members of the congregation. Moreover, the board members should carry enough voting weight as to control any future votes on the controversial issue.

All this to say, there must be some flexibility. The principles of congregational governance need to work together with the principles of board representation. The board members function for the purpose of facilitating church governance and should not compete against it.

Ultimately, instead of asking if you should make a rule that congregational approval is necessary for purchases over $500 (or over $5000...), you should leave the exact figure undecided, and allow for prudence according to the situation. You could use some less than precise language to convey this. "If an out-of-budget expenditure of pressing urgency cannot be brought before the congregation in an expedient manner, the board, if the nature of the circumstances deems it necessary, may authorize reasonable disbursements of limited amounts without prior consent of the congregation."

But sometimes things are better left unsaid.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Churches Beware! Calvinism on the Sly!

Calvinist churches are but a small minority; most evangelical churches are Arminian or semi-Arminian. However, the Calvinist resurgence is producing full Five Point Calvinist pastors looking for work. The resurgence is also prompting Arminian and semi-Arminian pastors to embrace Calvinism. This dynamic is the source of considerable tension in the life of the local church, not to mention in the heart of such pastors as they hold to a view which is often at odds with their churches.

Of course, this is not a problem for those Calvinistic pastors who minister within the confines denominations which are pre-committed to Calvinism. However, this is a huge problem for Calvinistic pastors who minister in theologically mixed denominations. Such denominations would include Southern Baptist Convention, General Baptist Conference, Evangelical Free Church, American Baptist Churches and others, not to mention the many independent churches.

Since the majority of these churches are Arminian or semi-Arminian, and since the typical congregation is not theologically astute enough to detect various subtleties of the debate, Calvinistic pastors are prone to mute their theological particularities so as not to raise an outcry of opposition.

In my own case, as an interim music minister, I served under a new pastor at a thoroughly semi-Arminian congregation. That is to say, there was no one in the congregation who held to limited atonement or unconditional election, and everyone in the congregation would have dismissed such notions as pure unbiblical non-sense. Yet the new pastor came to the church already fully committed to Five Point Calvinism. We'll refer to him as Pastor X.

Pastor X taught Calvinism on the sly. He could not come right out and declare, "Jesus died only for the elect! Jesus did not die for everyone!" Rather, he would say, "Jesus died for the sins of his people." Of course, this language was nothing but pure obfuscation, but it duped the congregation to affirm his comments with many amens.

Pastor X could not teach Calvinism directly. He had to situate his theology at an angle, attempting to wedge it into the congregation in order to get some future leverage. So through a series of Bible studies, he hammered home the concept that salvation cannot be earned, which he hoped would pave the way for him to deny that salvation is granted on the condition of faith. Of course, this completely went over the head of the congregation, which held uncompromisingly that Jesus died for everyone and that all you have to do to be saved is believe.

Thus, Calvinism on the sly attempts to mute all phrases which teach a universal atonement. After a year or two, the Calvinistic pastor then starts teaching on the issues which are less obviously Calvinistic. For example, there will be a strong emphasis on Calvinistic particularities of Total Depravity, monergism, irresistibility of grace, and de-emphasis on faith as a condition of salvation. Still, the congregation remains typically ignorant on many of these issues as well. One or two might raise questions, but they will still be entirely unsuspecting of how this is all prelude to limited atonement.

Meanwhile, the Calvinistic pastor manages to network with other Calvinists in the area, and perhaps draws one or two into his congregation whom he promotes and with whom he forms a mutual support within the congregation. This creates a divide between those who are clued into the secret coded language of Calvinism and the main body of the congregation. The informed Calvinists, led by their pastor and aided by their knowledge of the coded language produce an in-crowd which puts them at odds with the rest of the congregation. Still, the congregation remains clueless, having no idea that the newly formed inner circle propagates the notion that Jesus only died for the few.

When the congregation finally does figure out that their pastor no longer believes that Jesus died for the world, then chaos and argumentation breaks out. Ultimately, in most cases, the result is some sort of church split or the unpleasant departure of the pastor.

For this reason, congregations looking for a new pastor should be clear on these important theological issues. Questions should be asked on various issues, and repeated from various angles. If the pastor responds, "Yes, I believe that Jesus died for the world," the follow up question needs to be, "Does this include those people who will never accept Jesus," for Calvinists define "world" and "all people" differently than most Christians.

Moreover, congregations should protect themselves by requiring a new pastor to enter into a covenantal agreement that would require a resignation if the pastor's theology were to change significantly during the course of the pastorate. This should apply to any theological issue, not just Calvinism and Arminianism.

Good pastoral ethics require full disclosure. There should be no attempt to teach divergent theology on the sly. This is true for both sides of the Calvinist-Arminian issue. However, there seem to be few, if any, Arminians who are trying to get jobs in Calvinistic churches. Because of the Calvinistic resurgence, however, those churches which embrace the gospel of God's love for the world and for every person must be on their guard against those who would restrict the atonement for the few.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Overcoming Total Depravity

Perhaps no one view been established as a Reformation Arminian position to explain God's enabling grace.

In principle, I think that those who freely claim the appelation Reformation Arminianism. all believe that man cannot, of his own accord, believe in the Gospel. However, I think there are some Arminians who believe that the atonement actually accomplished a victory over the state of human depravity. Thus, they would claim that humanity WAS totally incapable of believing in Jesus UNTIL somehow God's grace in the cross removed it so that everyone may NOW freely respond to the Gospel presentation.

This might be plausible, but I'm inclined to think that man continues to be in a state of Total Depravity which cannot be overcome except by the specific drawing of specific individuals at specific moments by God's grace. If this is the case, then this is point of commonality with the theology of the reformers, in that God does not always draw all men at all times, but only at his own discretion and his own timing.

The caveat is that God generally desires to always draw all men at all times, but implements this general will in conjunction with and at the behest of the prayers and the actions of the saints. Thus, for example, when we pray urgently for someone's salvation, God impels his Spirit to bring conviction and drawing power.

Or, by way of another example, consider a remote people group which theoretically has never had access to the gospel message. In such a case, the sphere of operation for God's convicting grace would be seriously limited (although it is nonetheless operational through natural revelation). However, out of God's general desire to draw all men, God's Spirit might be sent to believers who have some sort of connection with the remote people group, prompting them to pray for the unreached people. Since God is eager to hear such prayers and promises to send more workers into the harvest field, this would increase the sphere of operation for God's convicting grace.

This is both similar to and different from Amyraldianism, if I understand Amyraldianism correctly. The similarity is that God is in control over who is convicted and when he is convicted. The difference is that 1) the Spirit's pre-egenerating grace is intended for all; and 2) his ministry is resistible.