A “Too-Calvinistic” Church

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Recently, a person commented that they didn’t want to visit a church because it was “too Calvinistic.” Smiling, I wondered at all that must be behind such a remark. What does it mean for a church to be “too Calvinistic?” How would that person define these terms?

There might be a church that would be worth avoiding around the issues of Calvinism, but I don’t know of any Reformed-minded churches who would fall into those bad ways. First, let us define a Calvinistic church. Next, I’ll share some wrong ways a church could use Calvinism. Finally, I will show you some potential benefits of Calvinism, rightly understood.

The label Calvinism comes from the Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564). He was a Bible teacher and theologian in Geneva, Switzerland. Although he preached verse-by-verse through books of the Bible, most people associate him with the belief that God predestined some people to be saved and allowed the rest of mankind to choose to reject God. As I said in a previous article, all Christians believe something about predestination (the word is in the Bible, after all), they all believe God had something to do with their salvation, and they believe that man has some responsibility in their salvation.

The key test question is: whose fault is it ultimately that you are a Christian? If you believe that you responded to the gospel with repentance and faith in Christ, but it was because God sovereignly chose you, opened your eyes, convicted you, and drew you to Christ, then you qualify as what is called a Calvinist. If you believe you freely chose God when you heard the gospel and the Holy Spirit convicted you of your sin, and in the past God had looked ahead at your response and therefore chose you for salvation, then you are an Arminian (named after Jacob Arminius, who opposed Calvin’s teaching).

If the essence of being a Calvinist is that you are God-centered and believe the plan of salvation is ultimately about God and his glory through Christ, how might that work itself out in a church family? Actually, rightly understood, it works out in many wonderful ways. On the other hand, there could also be wrong versions of this teaching within churches. If these bad distortions of Calvinism actually did show up in a church, it could become “too Calvinistic,” and therefore should be avoided.

It is possible that a church could exalt the man John Calvin and his teachings above the Lord Jesus Christ and his teachings. While we should all appreciate gifted teachers, we must never put the opinions of man above the Word of God. God’s Word is the inspired revelation of God and his ways. It is the light to our path (Ps 119:105). The Bible leads us to salvation and our entire spiritual progress as Christians (2 Tim 3:15–17). The value of any Bible teacher is only his ability to help us understand and apply the Bible. When we go to a fancy restaurant we don’t exalt the waiter, no matter how good his service may be. We ultimately celebrate the food. Churches should serve up the full banquet of God’s Word, never just celebrate some historical waiter!

It is also possible that a church could focus so much on God’s sovereignty in salvation that they minimize the human responsibility parts. As I said, all Christians believe that God has a part and man has a part in salvation. Man is responsible to repent of their sins and to trust in Jesus, who died on the cross and rose from the dead. God doesn’t do this for you. And you will be judged by God if you refuse to do your part.

If a church failed to believe in human responsibility, they might stop preaching the gospel, and they might not share the gospel in the community, or send missionaries to plant churches among those who don’t know Christ. Oddly, they might not even pray for people, if after all they only believe in God’s sovereign side of things. Such a church would be foolish, because the Bible clearly teaches our human responsibility to repent, to preach, and to pray.

If a church focused so much on God’s sovereignty to neglect the rest of the Bible that might also be labeled “too Calvinistic.” Suppose a church only talked about predestination, only sang about predestination, and only read books about predestination. What a bad church that would be! If the Bible is a Thanksgiving feast, that would be like only ever eating the green bean casserole.

What if a church looked down on other churches who didn’t believe what the Bible teaches about predestination? Maybe such a church would think that other churches weren’t Christian at all. But how would that make sense to act like that if you are a Calvinist? If you believe that you are so sinful that you would never choose Jesus for salvation apart from God’s sovereign grace, you ought to be the humblest person on the planet. While you might try to share the truth with other Christians that you treasure, you would never proudly judge someone for not yet receiving it.

I don’t think a church can rightly be called “too Calvinistic.” Don’t misunderstand me, I am quite sure that all churches are works in progress, and have many things to improve upon in doing God’s business God’s way. But there are several reasons I think labels like “too Calvinistic” are unhelpful and don’t really apply.

First, John Calvin was just a Christian Bible teacher. He would never want his name associated with a system of theology (especially since it was a small part of the overall God-centered vision of life and ministry that he taught). He taught the whole Bible. He didn’t skip the human responsibility verses in his sermons and commentaries. He absolutely believed in and practiced repentance, evangelism and missions, and prayer.

Any church that practices the bad things I described would not qualify as “too Calvinistic;” instead it would be at best “distorted Calvinism.” In the sense of following the full-orbed teachings and example of the Reformer and his church in Geneva, you could technically say that such a church would not be Calvinistic enough.

Throughout this article, I have used hypothetical language. I don’t really think these “too Calvinist” churches exist. Certainly, I know plenty of churches that get out of biblical balance in some ways, but all churches should be striving to reform our beliefs and practices according to the standard of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit is always at work among God’s children to help us grow and change into the people and churches he wants us to become. That is the kind of reformation John Calvin sought to bring to his church in the sixteenth century.

While I know churches that believe in predestination, I have never heard of a church stuck in all of the errors I described. If such a church existed, it wouldn’t exist for long, because without the full counsel of the Bible, prayer, and evangelism, such a church will die.

If a church really believes the things Calvin taught from the Bible, it will be humble, God-centered in its worship and lifestyles, loaded with Bible teaching, filled with prayer, and bold in evangelism and missions. In short, the Glory of God will be the accent over all of its ministries.