I spent a little over three years in a neo-Reformed church. And it nearly killed my faith.
The first thing to be said — and it sounds a bit strange, after the previous statement — is that it wasn’t all bad. There are many wonderful, kind, generous people at my old church. I was part of the worship team. My wife and I were married there. Since leaving, we’ve gone back a few times to reconnect with old friends, and it’s always been a good experience.
The next thing to be said about our church is that we took our Calvinism very seriously. We stood squarely in the Reformed Baptist tradition of Charles Spurgeon and John Piper. For years, our homepage welcomed visitors with a brief quote from Spurgeon, praising the merits of Calvinism. We changed the words of hymns and choruses when necessary to make them sound more Reformed. The pastor is a hard theological determinist. He’s advocated for double predestination and, at least in private conversation, questioned whether there’s any such thing as free will.
Our church taught that holiness was God’s defining attribute — all others, including love, were secondary. We believed the mystery of salvation had been made known only to the elect. Churches that didn’t share our view of election were regarded with pity or suspicion.
This Calvinism-on-steroids fueled my arrogance — initially, at least. We were feasting on the theological equivalent of red meat, while other churches were stuffing themselves with empty calories. We congratulated ourselves on taking worship seriously, while others sang soppy love songs to Jesus.
At one point, our pastor spent two years preaching through the book of Luke. Almost every sermon, it seemed, boiled down to the same point: Only a few have been chosen for salvation, even among those ostensibly following Jesus, so watch out.
Which creates a problem. If only a few have been chosen, if even a great many who appear to be following Christ are excluded, and if predestination is a “high mystery,” then how can you ever be sure you’re among the elect?
This question tormented me. Every flaw, every sin, every imperfection became further proof that I couldn’t possibly be one of the elect. And the worst part is, if you’re not part of the elect, there’s nothing you can do about it. Your fate has already been sealed by God.
(The irony, which only dawned on me later, is that Luke’s gospel is one of the worst places to argue for such a narrow view of election. Luke is easily the most inclusive of the four gospels. Again and again, he shows how those thought to be excluded from God’s favor — Gentiles, women, people with stigmatizing infirmities — were actually welcome at his table. According to Luke, Jesus swung the doors wide open, much to the chagrin of the religious establishment.)
When I was introduced to the Calvinist view of predestination in the mid-1990s, my first instinct was to wonder how I could ever be sure I was part of the elect. Seven years later, I found myself wondering the same thing all over again.
Even more problematic, I had come to believe that love was one of God’s “soft” attributes (compared to the biggies like holiness, sovereignty, immutability, etc.). It wasn’t a huge leap from that to wondering whether God was truly loving at all.
After all, if God’s chief concern is for his own glory (as Piper claims) and holiness is his supreme attribute (as my church taught), then love is at best a secondary concern for God. On top of that, if you’re not among the elect, it makes no sense to conceive of God loving you at all. “I love you, but before you were born, I decided you would spend eternity in agonizing torment.” Seriously?
The more all this weighed on me, the more I began to hate going to church (which made being on the worship team a bit complicated). I was also growing troubled by the theological arrogance I saw in myself and others. Besides, what did I have to be arrogant about if I wasn’t even part of the elect?
All I knew was that I had to choose between a loving God and a deterministic God (or no God at all). I realize most Calvinists feel this is a false choice, but it’s the one I had to make. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a false choice at all, because love and determinism are fundamentally irreconcilable.
The good news is that my wife was wrestling with some of the same concerns. Luckily for me, while I was still kicking them around in my head (which wasn’t doing either of us any good), she spoke up. And so we talked . . . and decided we had to leave.
Part 7 of this series can be found here.