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The Church Infected with Calvinism

Over the years, I've received inquiries from various church members whose pastors preached the tenets of Calvinism. These were concerned folks, and rightly so. The common concern expressed was: “What can I do?” Because I have such deep respect for the relationship between pastor and people, it's difficult to give advice on how to deal with a Calvinist infection. 

Churches can become infected with Calvinism in several ways. First, the church can call a pastor who's Calvinistic. If the church has already been groomed with Calvinistic thinking, it may not want a man who isn't a Calvinist. In such cases, pastor and church are a half-gospel match. 

Secondly, a pastor with a biblical Gospel rooted in a Universal Atonement can come into contact with Calvinistic thinking, whether by conversations with fellow pastors, by books or both. In time, the congregation will start hearing philosophical statements from the pulpit that support Calvinism. If you start hearing the argument about how God would not and could not allow for sin to be paid for twice, then you've probably got a pastor who's been infected. It won't be long before you start hearing content about election, total depravity and irresistible grace. 

Thirdly, the pulpit committee of a pastorless church finds a man who is a Calvinist, but fails to do its doctrinal homework. The man may have good character, a decent track record and overall appear to be doctrinally sound. But no one asks him the critical questions regarding the gospel. They just assume that because he's a Baptist, or whatever, he holds to orthodox views where the gospel is concerned. If he preaches in view of a call, he may bring messages that don't broach Calvinistic subjects. The church extends a call, the pastor accepts, moves onto the church field and begins his ministry. In time he'll start bringing messages that espouse Calvinistic philosophy, such as unconditional election, particular atonement et al. The congregation, stunned with what it's hearing, don't know quite how to react. 

This third scenario is all too common. There are websites that instruct Calvinistic preachers who accept calls to non-Calvinistic churches on how to gradually 'acclimate' the church to Calvinism. I saw one website with a two-year, month-by-month plan for the stealth Calvinist to take a non-Calvinistic church into 'Reformed Theology' land. It's almost cult-like and certainly deceptive. A plan to take a church into Calvinism (Reformed Theology) usually begins with the philosophical argument God would be unjust to require that sin be paid for twice, first by Jesus' suffering on the Cross and then by the sinner, who rejects Christ, suffering eternally in the Lake of Fire. The other side of this argumental coin is the notion that universal atonement of necessity teaches universal salvation. When he feels he's sufficiently sold this philosophy, he'll start dealing with 'universalistic' passages, wherein he'll argue that (1) "all men" CANNOT mean "all men [without distinction or exception]" but rather "all [kinds of] men" and (2) "the world" MUST therefore mean "the world [of the elect]" rather than "the world [consisting of every man]." 

While the Calvinistic pastor is crafting pulpit content to fortify his philosophical arguments, he will simultaneously be about the business of looking for and mentoring members of the congregation who are now open to Calvinistic logic. He'll slowly but surely transform as many of these folks as possible into full-blown Calvinists and, when possible, put them in places of church leadership, especially teaching positions. In addition, when he's out and about in the community, he might meet fellow Calvinists, whom he'll encourage to join the church. He knows that adding Calvinists to his congregation, from both within and without, will eventually result in a 'Reformed' church ensconced in Calvinism. With the leadership of the church and a majority of the congregation now in league with him, the plan of transition is complete. The objectors, who are now in the minority, are powerless to reverse the Calvinistic course. 

Are there ways to avert a Calvinist infection? Yes. For a church that believes in the full efficacy of the blood atonement of Christ for ALL sinners, it can codify that belief with a "Statement of Faith" in its Constitution and By-Laws. In addition to affirming the universal scope of Christ's death, it could (1) disallow the call of a pastor who did not embrace it, and (2) require the resignation of the pastor if and when he could no longer proclaim it. Few if any churches have such provisions in their Constitution and By-Laws. But they have the ability to amend it at any time. If a church begins to hear Calvinistic overtones from the pulpit, it has a window of opportunity wherein it can confront the pastor, enquire as to his intent, lovingly reason with him, request his resignation or remove him from office by church vote. If they wait too long to approach him with their concerns, they risk a church split. If and when the pastor succeeds in building Calvinistic majorities in both the leadership and the congregation, the church will have passed the point of no return.

The doctrine of Limited Atonement (or Particular Redemption) is, in my opinion, a doctrine of devils. I say this because it is a direct attack on the work of Christ and the gospel. Bottom line: Any Calvinist pastor who accepts a call to a non-Calvinistic church (1) WITHOUT disclosing his Calvinism and (2) WITH the intent of implementing Calvinism into the church is guilty of deception and unethical behavior. He has NO business pastoring ANY church without regard for his doctrine. If he comes before a pulpit committee with full disclosure of his Calvinism and they're OK with it, the pastor and church may be a good fit. 

During my days in Jacksonville, FL, I worked with a young man who was a strong Calvinist and with whom I shared a call to preach. We had many conversations about the gospel. I was unable to convince him to rethink his philosophical views. A church in Alabama contacted him about being their pastor. He went to preach in view of a call and subsequently received a call to become their pastor. Before he accepted, I asked him if the church was a Calvinistic church. He said they were not, but would be in time. I advised him not to sell his Jacksonville home until he was sure the church was OK with his Calvinism. I'm so glad he took my advice. Within three months of becoming pastor, he had the church in turmoil. Instead of acquiescing to his Calvinism, the church decided to cut their losses and request his resignation. Fortunately for him, he was able to move his family back to Jacksonville and get his old job back. 

The opposite scenario happens in other churches. When a traditionally non-Calvinistic church blindly calls a stealth Calvinist as pastor, and the doctrinal tension finally builds to a pitch, the pastor, thinking he's doing God a service with his Calvinism, will blame the congregation for its 'rejection of truth.' If the church splits over the new teaching, he may stand fast and let the disgruntled sheep leave. With a remnant signing on to his philosophy, he'll start building a Calvinistic congregation with a half-gospel at its core. If he's lucky, enough of the flock will stay with him, able to support him financially. He may be a great Bible expositor in most aspects. But his gospel-deficient Calvinism will keep the church in an infected state. 

I know of another situation in the Midwest where the pastor became a Calvinist while serving a church that was traditionally non-Calvinistic. He was able to move the church gradually into Calvinism. In time, all adult Sunday School teachers had embraced Calvinism. The Associate Pastor, however, never bought into the infection. Years later, when the pastor left for another church in another state, the church called the Associate Pastor, a non-Calvinist, to be the new pastor. One of his first orders of business was to replace every Calvinist teacher in his adult Sunday School. That was a tough and courageous decision to make. But he was serious about rectifying the half-gospel infection that had found a home in his church.

So what do you do as a universal atonement biblicist when Calvinism raises its ugly head from the pulpit? Well, if you're not a member of the church, but just searching for a church home, get out of there and keep looking. Don't get wrapped up in the programs, etc. Judge the church by it gospel. If you are a member but hold no key positions, talk to your pastor and express your concerns. Don't get ugly about it. If the pastor is adamant about his half-gospel and it's a matter of conscience for you, it may be time to move on. This is easier said than done when one has been a church member for years under several pastors that maintained a biblical gospel. Deep roots are hard to pull up. But in the end, you'll have to decide whether a half-gospel ministry is something your heart can tolerate and support. 

If your church has lost its pastor and you're asked to serve on the pulpit committee, make sure you ask any prospective pastor what his gospel is BEFORE he ever steps foot into your church. Any preacher who embraces the tenets of Calvinism should be removed from further consideration. If you are just a member that's not on the pulpit committee, make sure the committee is going to ask these questions. When I lived in Jacksonville, FL, I was asked to participate in an ordination council with a view to ordaining a fine young man. There were several that participated. When it came my time to ask the candidate any questions I might have, I asked only one, and it was this: “For whom did Christ die?” He answered correctly to my satisfaction – “For ALL!” If he had answered, “The elect”, or anything else that suggested belief in a Limited Atonement, I would not have been able, with good conscience, to sign his ordination certificate. 

The infection of Calvinism is widespread across many churches today. Many denominations are known for their Calvinistic doctrine. They are what they are. There's no changing them. But in a denomination like the Southern Baptists, there is a mix of Calvinist and non-Calvinist congregations. If your pastor is a graduate of Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, he is likely a half-gospel preacher, infected with the tenets of Calvinism. If you're a member of a non-Calvinistic, Southern Baptist church, and your church considers and calls a graduate of Southern Seminary, prepare to be infected. 

Most Calvinist preachers are good men, including those from Southern Seminary. They typically have a strong view of scripture, of justification by faith and are decent Bible expositors. But their Calvinism leaves them with half a gospel – the offer of salvation through faith in Jesus without a corresponding assurance that a basis for that faith exists in the atonement of Christ. 


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