January 15, 2021

Postcards To A Young Theologian 1

labclones.jpgI’m fortunate to be trusted with many letters chronicling the spiritual journeys of some of my readers. Currently, I have several of these letters in my mailbox that I need to answer. I have a particular group, however, that are different from the norm; they are letters with several things in common:

-They are from young Calvinists.
-They are from men associated with reformed churches and schools.
-They are from men who admire many of the same leaders, books and blogs.
-All of the letter writers have deviated from the theology, reading and beliefs of the group that they belong to, and have articulated their deviations in some way.
-All of the letter writers are experiencing some level of criticism and a resulting rejection and isolation for their beliefs.
-Each writer, in a different way, is feeling guilt, a disconnection from the church and discontent in their Christian experience as a result of their deviations from the norm of the movement.

Having been a Christian for 35 years and a preacher/minister for most of that time, I am quite familiar with what it is like to be part of a particular theological tradition, and part of a community that embodies a distinctive theology. I have experienced what it is to venerate and desire to emulate respected leaders. I have been part of the resurgent Calvinism that these young men identify with, and I understand the dynamics of belonging to such a movement.

I am also familiar with young preachers. I’ve been one. I’ve attended two Christian colleges full of ministry types. I’ve been in youth revivals and youth camps since I was a teenager. I have been part of Baptist Student Union and Baptist Campus Ministry as a member and a sponsor. Seven years of study at Southern Seminary acquainted me with a lot of preachers, and the church I served in Louisville was well-stocked with seminarians. Here at OBI, I hear hundreds of sermons and hundreds of preachers, many by youth ministers and young pastors.

I know what these young men are going through, I promise.

Let me use this space to say some things to these young men who have written me, and to young Calvinists in general.

1. Realize the inevitably ambivalent and corrosive power of group loyalty.

We are relational creatures, and most of us will identify with groups throughout life. It is lonely to be a loner, and it is eventually unpleasant to be a hermit. Thomas Merton chose the monastic and hermit life, but the desire to make human connections prevailed in his own spiritual growth.

We each want to know who we are in reference to others, and we want to be part of something larger and more significant that ourselves. We want authority without having to create it entirely for ourselves. We crave answers that have been, somehow, proven by the larger group. Of course, we want mentors, models and encouragement along the way.

The groups we identify with help us in this journey. There are pragmatic reasons for our identification as well. Groups allow us a path upon which to “progress.” Identifying with a group makes it more likely we can advance and achieve in some way. They allow us to be “winners,” to claim characteristics and qualities that belong to the group and to have the group’s history as somehow our own.

The groups we belong to are usually part of God’s good and gracious world. From families to soccer teams to theological movements, groups are part of how God shapes each one of us. But Groups are also fallen. They partake of our depravity and the depravity of the world.

We must acknowledge that for all the good gifts of group participation, group loyalty is also a dangerous thing. We are, as humans, very likely to take our group loyalty too far; to identify with the group when we should step aside from it, to partake of sins that the group approves. It was group loyalty that killed Jesus and that abandoned Jesus. It was group loyalty that produced the Judaizers and other false teachers. It was group loyalty that made Luther a wanted man, justified slavery and killed Jews. it is group loyalty that bullies kids on the playground and starts wars.

There are a catalog of sins that seem to occur most often in the context of group loyalty. Proving our loyalty to the group, and seeking the approval of the group are both slippery slopes that can take us to terrible places. We should be skeptical, not only of every group and its dynamics, but of the particular sins that occur within and because of the group- no matter how noble that group’s aims and rhetoric might be.

I work at a school. Group loyalty is part of what I seek to create in order for our school to prosper in its mission and work. I want it for students, employees and supporters. It is a good thing to support a group that, like ours, seeks to minister to the least of these in the name and methods of Jesus.

At the same time, I see a daily catalog of group depravity. In the cause of promoting the good of the group, I frequently see lies told, justice perverted and people hurt. I see what is genuinely wrong forced into existence by well-meaning members of teams, classes, races, geographic regions, political parties, and yes, theological preferences.

Why am I saying this? Because it concerns me when someone tells me that the group to which they belong spends most of its time engaging in self-justification and ongoing theological war as the daily bread of its existence. That group does not deserve your uncritical loyalty, and may not deserve your continued presence.

When group loyalty says, “Don’t think for yourself or trust your independent conclusions. Listen to the group’s versions of reality and official line,” something is wrong. When a group cannot tell you its history of being wrong, something is amiss. When leaders are venerated as authoritative interpreters of texts, and criticism of the leader/group is seen as mockery and betrayal of the Gospel, something is not healthy. When the group criticises you for criticizing it, stop and think: what is going on?

Young Calvinists: my experiences in the reformed world tell me that if you simply rationally and reasonably consider the various groups within the world of Calvinism, you will conclude that there are many good, healthy, tolerant and positively self-critical groups with which you can identify. Sadly, you will also conclude that there are some places within reformed Christianity that you should avoid.

At this point, “loyalty” becomes another issue. Loyalty is a good thing, but loyalty should be submissive to reason, ethics and love. God does not expect us to equate loyalty to him with loyalty to a particular church or movement. That is irrational. If you are thinking this way, you need to realize God isn’t asking you to be uncritically loyal to any human relationship.

Find groups where your loyalty is rewarded with an interest in your personal growth, patience with your flaws, and the freedom to be different from the “norm.” When I hear someone say, “This is where I was saved, and I feel I should be loyal,” I want to remind the writer that many of us were saved in churches and ministries that we will always love, but which we have found it necessary to leave behind.

One of the many criticisms I have received has been specific and painful criticism for saying and writing things negatively critical of the movement in which I was brought up. The unspoken assertion of that criticism was that true conservative Christians don’t criticise their roots, their churches or their leaders.

None of us who value the Bible, the Reformation or what is right should nod at that kind of thinking. Your loyalty is not to be given to any human institution at the price of integrity, truth, humanity or the love of Christ.

Confessional loyalty is important in reformed Christianity. But confessional loyalty and group loyalty are two different things. God is the Lord of the conscience. Find a place in the Christian family where confessionalism and conscience, human integrity and true community, all exist together with the glad endorsement of those in the movement.

On to point two….


  1. The only thing one can be certain of about one’s theology is that it is wrong.

    We’re all wrong about something, and we don’t know which part it is. So we need to be gracious toward those who disagree with us. We need to be constantly refining our theology. We need to “look past” our theology to the One who is really important.

  2. Thanks for the post. I agree, in true friendship there is the freedom to be honest even if that means sharing hard words.
    Thanks again.

  3. Agreed. Perhaps the one mark of the Spirit we often overlook is the power to change, to adapt, to question. If we miss this, we go on thinking only people who doctrinally and methodically look exactly like us are the ‘right’ ones doing the ‘right’ things. Example:

    I have a problem with churches building buildings. Every time I sit through a business meeting regarding a new whatever all that goes through my mind is how many churches in some south Asian country could be planted with the same resources. If it were up to me, all churches would meet in houses and schools, or at least be multi-purpose warehouses or gyms. Thankfully, it’s not. But if I live my life that way, never making room in my own passions and beliefs for someone elses, I could possibly miss what God is doing somewhere. This can always be taken too far, but it at least has to be considered.

    Steve Taylor wrote an old Christian song entitled: “I Want to be a Clone”. May we never exist like that.

  4. Michael,

    At Boar’s Head you said, “The resemblance between this approach and the Judaism of the Pharisees is remarkable.”

    I’ve also noticed a similarity between a certain brand of Calvinist and the Pharisees. In my opinion they seem to be more committed to their theology than they are to God.

    After one person made a comment about a love for “Scripture, the truth of Christ and the Gospel,” I asked if these were to be the true objects of our love. All hell broke loose.

    A new post was made there (http://carla_rolfe.blogspot.com/2006/03/should-we-love-scriptures.html) defending the appropriateness of loving the Scriptures. Not only did she get my name wrong, but she entirely missed my point.

    I argued, “So my point is that to love even the Scriptures in place of God is idolatry. (I am not accusing anyone of that, just making the point.) This reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders, ‘You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’”

    You can follow the “argument” there if you wish. But these people were incapable or unwilling to even allow for the possibility that someone could love the Scriptures to the point of idolatry. One even said, “Are not the Scriptures and God inseparable?”

    But the resemblance to the Pharisees goes beyond this potential bibliolatry.

    The Pharisees saw themselves as the defenders of the purity of the Jewish faith. These attack dogs see themselves in the same role.

    I believe another statement Jesus made to the Pharisees might be applied to them (with some modification):
    “You keepers of the creeds and definers of the orthodox, you have found the narrow gate and made it even narrower, driving away those who would enter. It would be better for you to have never studied theology. There will be greater honor in the Kingdom for a simple-minded child who calls people to love Jesus than for you.”

    Anyway, I find the resemblance striking.


  5. Rod: If the Gospel=Calvinism- and that is defended as true all the time- and Calvinism tells us to find assurance by discovering if we are elect, then it is quite reasonable to say “Spencer is mocking the Gospel” when I don’t agree with a point of Calvinism. It further makes perfect sense to say I am not a Christian if I reject “L” becaus “L” is the Gospel. And since “L” is plainly taught in the Bible, I reject the Bible, I have a deeply sinful heart, I am a false teacher, etc.

    All this from disagreeing with “L.” I’m telling you folks, pay attention. If this isn’t proving to you that among a slice of the reformed pie, the Gospel=our current version of our theology, then you need to wake up.

  6. dpaultaylor57 says

    If you’re ever tempted to doubt the treachery caused by groupthink, consider the parents of the man born blind. The man had never seen a sunrise or sunset, knew everyone around him, including his parents, only by the sound of their voice, and then he had his eyes opened by Jesus.

    But because they feared the Pharisees, his parents distanced themselves from him, sold him out really. They didn’t want to be put out of the synagogue, and they were willing to turn their backs on their own son to retain that group privilege.

  7. *The unspoken assertion of that criticism was that true conservative Christians don’t criticise their roots….*

    Now I know that no one reads my blog, because I haven’t caught any doo-doo for doing just that.

    Steve, glad to know I wasn’t the only one to think of Taylor’s song. But please don’t labed something “old” that I remember when it was first released. 😉

  8. Hey Michael,

    I just found your blog and really enjoyed reading your post on young calvinists. I am one of them and have started in the past couple of years to take a more proactive approach to working out my faith and am discovering the fun of reading in the process. I just got done reading N.T. Wright’s first three in his Christian Origins series and just started Calvin’s Institutes a couple weeks ago. I want to see what Calvin himself actually had to say and judge the quality of his argument for myself. Anyway, check out my blog if you’re interested and I’ll be reading yours frequently in the future. Thanks!


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