by James M. Leonard
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.