Church,  Life,  Ministry

Considering Calvinism: Why We’re Exploring Membership in a Christian Reformed Church

Last Sunday Jen and I finished a four-week membership exploration class at the church we’ve been attending a little over a year. It’s part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) denomination. The funny thing is, we’re not Calvinists. Or at least I never considered myself a Calvinist.

For one, we attended a large church for several years in a decidedly Wesleyan-Arminian denomination that also had deep Anabaptist roots. That’s about as opposite from Calvinism as you can get. I taught a theology and apologetics class for two years at that church. Later I was an ordained minister and lead pastor for 10 years in that same denomination.

Second, my undergraduate degree and two of my graduate degrees in theology were earned at our denominational university. So my formative education and theological training, as well as ministry experience, were in decidedly Wesleyan-Arminian contexts.

Third, I tackled the Pelagian controversy in my final research paper for my history of Christian thought class in grad school. And I concluded at that time that Augustine, who opposed Pelagius and ultimately won the day, may have gotten some things wrong.

Let me unpack that one a bit. It’s relevant to the weirdness of us considering Calvinism.

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Pelagius was a fifth-century monk that had a more optimistic view of humanity than Augustine. While Augustine believed that we’re so marred by original sin that our wills are completely corrupted and always only bent towards sin without the intervention of God’s grace, Pelagius denied the idea of original sin. Instead, he believed there was enough of the divine spark in us as God’s image-bearers that we could choose the good and attain a holy life. For Augustine, left to ourselves, we’re nothing but wretched sinners that only ever choose sin. Pelagius was more optimistic.

Importantly, Pelagius believed that our human will also cooperates with God’s grace. But Augustine seems either to have not given Pelagius credit for this belief, or he thought we were so debilitated by original sin that our wills were incapable of cooperating with God’s grace.

In theological terms, the difference between Pelagius’s perspective and Augustine’s is sometimes framed in the difference between monergism and synergism, or the difference between libertarian free will and compatibilism.

The ideas of synergism and libertarian free will influenced the rise of Arminianism and its theological heirs of various Wesleyan sorts that trace their lineage from John Wesley. The ideas of monergism and compatibilism, heavily indebted to Augustine and influenced by subsequent interpretations of his thought, were the firm conviction of Calvin and those Reformed churches that trace their theological lineage from him.

I argued in favor of synergism and libertarian free will in that history of Christian thought paper several years ago. I suggested that compatibilism is not truly free will, but rather a version of determinism. I also concluded that Augustine was too pessimistic in his evaluation of the human condition. I thought Augustine was wrong regarding our inability — aided by the cooperation with God’s grace (synergism!) — to choose the good.

In other words, I sided more with the heretic.

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Later, in some iterations of my spiritual journey, I sided even more decisively with Pelagius in questioning the idea of original sin. My reasons for this had more to do with how I came to read the story of “the Fall” in Genesis 3 and Paul’s reading of that story in Romans 5, than in an optimistic view of humanity.

Importantly, I think Genesis 3 is a very powerful and true story. But not because there were literally two magical trees, a talking snake, and two sinless human beings that ate the forbidden fruit that ruined everything.

Rather, Genesis 3 is powerful precisely because it’s our story. This is what we do. We make mistakes and sin. And our mistakes and sins have devastating consequences for ourselves, those we love, and everything in our sphere of influence. And then we have the audacity to blame others.

But reading the story that way is different than Calvin’s reading of Augustine’s reading of Paul’s reading of Genesis 3.

Augustine believed that because of “Adam’s sin” all human progeny since has inherited a corrupt, sinful nature that has so distorted and debilitated our ability to choose the good that we’re inevitably bent towards sin and evil. For Augustine, we’re free to choose sin, but not free to choose good. Left to ourselves, we’ll choose sin every time. This inherited sinful nature is what has come to be known as original sin.

Augustine and those following his thinking also believe that Adam’s guilt was imputed to us. Basically that’s the belief that we’re all guilty of Adam’s sin. In this view, we’re guilty even though we didn’t actually commit Adam’s sin. Thus, we’re all justly condemned before a holy God, deserving of death and eternal punishment. (See this helpful article that explains the difference between original and imputed sin).

And all this happens before we’ve ever done anything. Just by virtue of being born, we’re wretched sinners deserving death!

Suffice it to say that I haven’t typically been sympathetic to these views. Sometimes I’ve thought that Augustine really screwed things up. Sometimes I still do.

The point of all this theological explication is to show just how crazy it is — given my formative theological training and ministry experience in Wesleyan-Arminian contexts, and also my personal proclivities — for Jen and I to be considering membership in a Christian Reformed Church.

Or, perhaps it’s God’s sovereignty and providence. I’m beginning to think so.

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When I left full-time Christian ministry in 2018 we didn’t attend church for about six months. We needed a break. We needed to recover. We needed to simply be.

We talked about perhaps never going back to church. All the personal attacks and conflicts I’d endured, particularly at the last church I led for five years, took a heavy toll. It’s not an exaggeration that almost weekly I was on the hot seat defending myself for this or that thing I said or did (or didn’t say and didn’t do).

I was constantly questioned about and forced to defend what many people said were my “liberal” views about loving all people in the way of Jesus. This was pretty much a weekly thing as almost every sermon I preached was some version of the message, “How does this biblical passage challenge us to live and love in the way of Jesus? ”

My sermons regularly challenged us to examine our values, attitudes, and actions to see if they aligned with Jesus’s kingdom vision for our lives and the world. I’d ask us to consider what we might need to change in our beliefs and behaviors regarding God, others, and ourselves. What might God be calling us to give up or take on? What does it look like to live out the radical, inclusive, self-sacrificial love of Jesus in our various spheres of influence this week?

Apparently challenging people to live and love in the way of Jesus like this is “liberal.” Who knew?

Some people said I preached too much about social justice and not enough about sin. Apparently, they missed the connection that lack of social justice and not seeking social justice is sin and that we’re called to do something about that.

Once I was blindsided at a church board meeting by a board member who said I preach a lot about love but never really about repentance. “You never call people to repentance,” he said.

Funny, I thought the weekly challenge to live and love in the way of Jesus was, in fact, a call to repentance — to turn around and go a different direction from the ways we were living and thinking and align ourselves with Jesus’s kingdom vision for our lives and the world.

Also, when this incident happened at the board meeting, I had just two Sundays prior preached a sermon on John the Baptist’s call to repentance from Matthew 3. The word “Repent” had literally been in my sermon title.

Later that board member admitted he’d been wrong about that specific charge. He apologized and I accepted his apology. But later the same board member wanted to get the district superintendent and other church board members involved in critiquing another sermon I preached that he disagreed with.

These are the kinds of things I dealt with regularly.

I also repeatedly had to defend my insistence that worship rooted in historic rhythms and practices of the Church was spiritually formative, which was why we were incorporating some liturgical elements into our worship and life together.

I taught classes about this. Preached sermon series about it. I had conversations over coffee with concerned parishioners about it. Encouraged people to read books and other resources I recommended so they would have a better understanding of the biblical case and historical precedent for these liturgical rhythms and practices.

A few people bought in. But several people left the church over it. They thought all this was “too Catholic” and wasn’t biblical.

I had some version of these same conversations and conflicts over and over and over. For five years. It was utterly exhausting and demoralizing. It sucked the life and joy out of me. It was a soul-crushing experience.

And so as Jen and I spent leisurely Sunday mornings drinking coffee, reading, taking walks, listening to music, watching Meet the Press, or driving up to Lake Michigan, we talked about whether or not we actually wanted to get back involved in church. Why subject ourselves to that nonsense again? Life’s too damn short.

But deep down we also knew that not becoming involved in a local church again wasn’t a serious option. We knew we’d eventually land somewhere. In the meantime, we were enjoying wide open weekends for the first time in a decade. Saturdays and Sundays with nothing to do except rest and whatever else we wanted. It was refreshing.

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I figured we’d eventually find a home in the Episcopal Church because of our love for liturgy and our regular devotional practice of praying the Daily Offices in the Book of Common Prayer.

We’d attended a Sunday night service for two years at a local Episcopal Chuch while I’d been a pastor. The formative rhythms of worship there, coupled with the welcome and warmth of the priest and people of that tiny gathering, were a balm to our weary souls.

I’d assumed we’d end up back there. Except now we’d be fully-functioning members that attended Sunday morning worship and served in various ways. Maybe someday I’d even get on the path to ordination as an Episcopal Priest.

But then a totally unexpected thing happened. We came to a service at the Christian Reformed Church.

We went because we’ve been friends with the pastor and her husband for many years.

We went because we’ve been friends or acquaintances with several of the parishioners for many years.

We went because we knew there were lots of academic types there, including some of Jen’s colleagues from the university she teaches at. And we knew they had all kinds of different views about all kinds of different things, so we suspected we might not feel as out of place in that kind of context as we’d often felt in the church.

We went because we knew their worship was a blend of traditional liturgical and contemporary; precisely the kind of Ancient-Future rhythms and practices I’d tried to incorporate in the churches I’d led.

We went, I believe now, because God led us there. And we just kept coming back.

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Here are some things I like about the Reformed tradition. First, it’s unapologetically confessional. The Christian Reformed Church affirms the ancient ecumenical creeds such as the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, as well as Reformed Confessions such as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort.

They also have a contemporary confession called “Our World Belongs to God“, which I absolutely love. And another contemporary confession, the Belhar Confession, which has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The Belhar Confession focusses on the unity of the church and unity among all people, reconciliation within the church and society, and God’s justice. I affirm all three of those key points.

For someone like me that finds importance in the historic rhythms and practices of the church, this kind of deep rootedness in the ancient ecumenical creeds and the distinctively Reformed confessions is very appealing. It seems to me wise and good to allow the collective wisdom of those who have gone before us to help inform our Christian faith.

While I have some quibbles about the doctrines of election and predestination as articulated in the Canons of Dort — specifically Articles 6, 7, and 15 — I take these to be a vital part of the history and evolution of Reformed thought. Importantly, I also recognize that the Reformed confessions were developed and written while in the throes of various controversies.

Theology is always contextual and thinking is always evolving. That’s why there have always been Reformed thinkers that have critiqued and challenged various distinct Reformed beliefs, even while remaining committed to the Reformed tradition. Which leads me to my next few points.

The Reformed tradition is a very big tent. Yes, there are the John MacArthur and John Piper types with whom I’d strongly disagree about many things. I find their brand of Reformed troubling at best. So would many people at the Christian Reformed Church we’ve been attending.

But there is also Schleiermacher and Barth and the Niebuhr brothers (see here and here), with whom I find deep resonance and whose works continue to challenge and inform my Christian faith. Several contemporary writers, theologians, and thinkers that also shape my faith and imagination include Anne Lamott, Marilynne Robinson, and James K.A. Smith. All of these folks are various versions of Reformed. If there’s a place for them within the Reformed tradition, there might be a place for me.

Third, the Reformed tradition values critical inquiry and cultivating a life of the mind. This is incredibly refreshing and life-giving after spending most of my Christian life in evangelical contexts where biblical scholarship was seen with suspicion and being theologically-educated was assumed a liability rather than a valuable and spiritually formative endeavor.

It’s also important to us since Jen’s a professor. It’s her job to cultivate a life of the mind, ask lots of questions, challenge presuppositions, and teach and inspire her students to do the same. We want to be somewhere with like-minded people who value and affirm what she does. Since she recently co-taught a Sunday school class at our church on faith and literature, I think we’re on the right track.

Finally, I’m a big fan of the Reformed mantra Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, which means something like “The church reformed, always requiring reformation” or “a reformed church will always be reforming.”

As Reformed theologian Christopher Elwood says in his book Calvin For Armchair Theologians, the idea of “Reformed and always reforming” means that “the church could never be content with itself and its own present understandings. The church’s doctrine and life should be subjected to continual criticism supplied by the careful reading of Scripture, interpreted with the aid of the Holy Spirit” (162-163).

Similarly, Calvin College professors Richard Plantinga, Thomas Thompson, and Matthew Lundberg insist in their An Introduction to Christian Theology that there’s a certain restlessness involved with theology done rightly. It’s an ongoing quest, seeking to be orthodox and faithful to Scripture and our received tradition, while also continually critiquing that tradition and seeking coherence and relevance in contemporary culture (see discussion on pgs. 22-23).

That ethos is something I embrace and that informed my preaching and teaching during my 10 years as a pastor. Unfortunately, the denominational and local church contexts I ministered in didn’t share that conviction. It’s partly why I endured so much conflict.

I frequently heard some version of, “We already know what Scripture says about that” from parishioners, pastors, and denominational leaders. This statement effectively became a conversation-stopper. No discussion was needed because apparently they already had it all figured out.

Perhaps I’ll find a more welcoming, life-giving, and spiritually formative home in a tradition that has a “reformed church will always be reforming” as its historical motto.

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What Jen and I need more than doctrinal conformity with our way of thinking are a few good friends. Maybe that’s all we’ve ever needed. Maybe that’s all any of us really ever need.

In her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott writes candidly and hilariously about her own spiritual pilgrimage. It’s a journey that led her out of alcoholism and into sobriety where she discovered and daily rediscovers the scandalous, relentless grace and love of God.

I read Stitches in the earliest days of my own recovery from sex addiction. And what resonated most deeply with me and moved me to tears was what she says about friendship. Because I found her observations to be true of my own experience with addiction and what happened when I was finally honest with a few, close, trusted people about the darkest secrets and worst parts of myself.

These were people at the church we’ve been attending that we’ve known for several years, and also our small group. When I confessed my struggles, they embraced me, loved me, and prayed for me. They never rejected me. Quite the opposite. They’ve cried with us. They encourage us. And they help keep me accountable.

We also wrestle with Scripture and theology together. We talk about our doubts and fears, as well as our hopes. We lament and joke about our dysfunctional families. We laugh and eat and drink together.

In short, we’re friends. We’re a community. I love them and can’t imagine how much harder all this would be without their love and support.

Here’s what Lamott says about her ongoing recovery: “The American way is not to need help, but to help. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that I was going to need a lot of help, and for a long time. (Even this morning.) What saved me was that I found a few gentle, loyal and hilarious companions, which is at the heart of meaning: maybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s tougher questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better. They help you see who you truly are, which is not always the loveliest possible version of yourself, but then comes the greatest miracle of all — they still love you. They keep you company as perhaps you become less of a whiny baby, if you accept their help. And that is so much easier said than done” (33-34).

Ultimately we’re considering joining a Christian Reformed Church because we’ve found, as Lamott says, “a few gentle, loyal, and hilarious companions” who’ve loved and accepted us just as are. They affirm the good, that by God’s grace, is at work in and through us. And they challenge us through the weekly rhythms of confession and pardon, Word and Sacrament, prayer and friendship, to keep reorienting ourselves towards the way of Jesus.

They remind us that’s God’s restoration project in Christ is cosmic in scope and that God is even now rescuing, redeeming, and reconciling all people and things to himself. The world’s a messed up place. Our lives are often messed up and a mishmash of mixed motivations and desires. But God’s scandalous grace and love remain steadfast and relentless in his pursuit of us.

The community’s not perfect. No church is. But they’re striving by God’s grace to live and love in the way of Jesus

It’s the kind of community we’d like to be a part of. It’s a place where we’ve found and will continue to discover some deep, lasting friendships with like-minded people who love and care for us, even when we’re less than the best version of ourselves. And that’s about all one can really ask.

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