church · theology

Does it Matter if I’m a Calvinist?

I grew up in the Restoration Movement Church, in an Independent Christian Church. It was (is) a larger church, even thirty years ago when I was a child. On the cusp of the “mega-church” movement, we had a preacher who was well known for his fire & brimstone messages, and, blessedly, for his solid theology.

I attended that church from the time I was three years old until I moved to Pittsburgh for grad school (minus my freshman year at college; then I attended a Lutheran church with my then-boyfriend. His parents took us to lunch each Sunday, and the cafeteria was closed on Sundays, so…). Seven months after starting grad school, I was hired by a prominent Willow Creek Association church. Seventeen months later I quit in a fairly ugly turn of events.

Back then, I couldn’t tell you about the theology of my childhood church beyond this: we took communion every Sunday and every Wednesday. We had services Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. We had Sunday school. We baptized upon a confession of faith, and that saved you, and made you a full-fledged member of the church. Only people who had been baptized could take communion. Only men preached and taught adult Sunday school. Only elders served communion (except for rare occasions when services were combined with other local congregations – then women served, too). And only men were elders.

I couldn’t tell you why I was uncomfortable with my WCA church beyond this: we rarely took communion, we never baptized anyone, women led at all levels, and there weren’t elders, but there was “board of directors” made up of both genders.

In August, 2000, I began seminary. The first class I took was a week-long intensive class called “Basic Doctrine,” and because I had not attended Bible College, I was quickly overwhelmed. So I am sitting in class, and all of these theological terms are being tossed around, and I have absolutely no idea what any of them mean. And this is in the days before wireless internet!

At one point, I raise my hand, and I ask, “What is the difference between an Arminian and a Calvinist?” (except, I mistakenly say, “Arminian and Christian” in a slip of the tongue). I didn’t know the first thing about either of these terms.

Sixteen years later, I know the difference. I can rattle off for you the main theological points that separate these belief systems, the proof texts both camps use, and the argument points prominent theologians on both sides use. My question is:

Does it really  matter if I’m a Calvinist or an Arminian?

Calvinist

I mean, growing up, I knew what it meant to be a Christ-follower. I listened to my preacher, I came to church, I studied my Bible, I prayed. I learned that the evidence of the Holy Spirit is fruit: the fruit of the Spirit, caring for widows and orphans, visiting the prisoners, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, fulfilling the great commission.

If social media hadn’t exploded in the past few years, would I even care if I’m an Arminian or a Calvinist? Would I even take two seconds to define myself in such a way?

But I’m watching the self-destruction of the Restoration Movement (an Arminian-based church system) with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I am drawn to Reformed Churches (Reformed = Calvinistic) because they are emanating strength, solidity, security, biblical Truth – all the things the church of my childhood held but no longer offers.

Do I believe that people are depraved? I have a six year old. Of course. But how do I then go on to believe that a God who is infinitely good and loving (and, yes, holy and just and righteous and powerful and all other aspects of Him), and “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” only bestow salvation upon some, and those some may not include those that I love most on this earth?

And does it matter in my day-to-day life? Is that really an issue for your “everyday” Christian, or is just something wannabe theology nerds like myself obsess over?

Tim Challies handled this dichotomy in the church very well last week in his article “Why I Am Not Arminian.” I (currently) disagree with his conclusions; however, he is one of the few Calvinists who rightly says that we are walking in faith together. Challies says, “Arminians affirm that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone and for that reason teach the true gospel. Even as I explain why I am not Arminian, I need to affirm that I am looking at a difference between brothers and sisters in Christ.”

I have seen vitriol spewed on Twitter toward Arminians that is frightening to me. Some of the most faithful men and women I have ever met either couldn’t tell you if they were Arminian or Calvinist, or, because they spent years in the Church of Christ, were Arminian. When I was most struggling with my formative questions of who God is, is God real, did Jesus truly and completely love and forgive me, it was Arminians who were there to answer my questions and point me to Scriptural Truth.

So how do I abandon that? Can I abandon that? Or can I align myself with Reformed believers while only sorta, kinda, maybe believing in the TULIP?

Most of my theological training came from studying under Dr. Jack Cottrell. If the Restoration Movement has a preeminent theologian, Dr. Cottrell would be that man. He would probably refute that claim, as he is incredibly humble, and he graciously chuckled when I asked the difference between an “Arminian and a Christian” in my very first seminary class, as the only female, on my very first day. He also graciously chuckled when in my MDiv oral examination he asked me about the transcendence of God and the only word I could dig out of my frazzled brain was “transubstantiation!”

If you’ve stuck with me this long, and you haven’t shut off your screen in disgust, I just ask that if you click over to Dr. Cottrell that you be respectful and kind. He is brilliant, and his writings on why Arminianism is biblical (and why I still disagree with Mr. Challies [Dr.Challies?]) are so well-written, I couldn’t even begin to do them justice. Go read them on his site.

And I don’t really know why I’m even writing this, except…

Except, I can’t be the only person who grew up in a nondenominational church who is now searching for solid theology in a church that is shifting more rapidly than culture. I can’t be the only person who grew up in an Independent Christian Church, under a preacher who was theologically solid, but now finds herself searching for answers instead of self-help Bible studies and pep talks. I can’t be the only person who grew up singing hymns and words of Scripture who is now searching to replace the pop-rock-fluff we sing on Sunday mornings with real praise and worship.

I can’t be the only person wondering if it really matters if I’m Arminian or Calvinist, or just a follower of Christ.

**********

I normally don’t censor comments, but…this was super personal and hard to write. Please be kind, and if you wouldn’t say it to my face, well… 😉

10 thoughts on “Does it Matter if I’m a Calvinist?

  1. I have just recently gone through this exact struggle and I understand how difficult it is. It has been a five year process for me. I came out of a Weslyean background which would be in the Arminian camp. Although raised in a Christian home, I was not born again until age 30. I am 38. I now can say with settled confidence that I am a Calvinist by conviction through the scriptures. I wish you well in your journey. Keep searching the scriptures and ask the Holy Spirit for help.
    Jennifer

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    1. Jennifer,
      Your story is nearly identical to mine. I came from a Wesleyan background, and I was born again in my late 30s. I am now struggling with Arminianism/Calvinism, but I feel like the Bible supports Calvinism so much more. So I consider myself a Calvinist…until convinced otherwise 🙂 Thankfully, I am a member of a non-denominational church that allows for the free expression of differing positions on weighty topics such as this. Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters in the end who is “right” and who is “wrong” about this.

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  2. I refuse to identify myself theologically by any name other than a Christ follower. I have good friends who fall into both camps that you describe. Man-made theological labels divide; the gospel should unite us as brothers and sisters in Christ. BTW, I’m a new follower of your blog. I like your style. 😉

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