Labels and the Question: Are You A Calvinist?

What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12–13, ESV)

About two years ago I preached on this passage and what struck me then, and still strikes me now, is that one of the factions Paul clumps in cause of division at Corinth was the group that said “I follow Christ”. At first glance, that is a bit odd. How can someone saying “I follow Christ” be divisive? How can they be compared to those that “follow men?” What should we make of this? Gordon Fee puts it this way in his commentary:

“here are some people who form no distinct group at all, but who in their own attempt to rise above the rest, those boasting in mere men, have fallen into their own brand of spiritual elitism that makes them no better than the others.”

Fee, Gordon D. (2011-09-30).  (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (p. 59). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.

I’m inclined to agree with Fee. A spirit of division has at it’s heart an inclination towards separation – meaning I think – an air of “regardless of what you are doing, my doing is better”. Some in Corinth, apparently, had handled their desire for “purism of the faith” in such a way that it did not build bridges but burnt them, did not tear down walls but solidfied them. At the end of the day – if we had time to demonstrate – often times those that take the high ground of “I am of Christ” adds fuel to the fire of division as much as any, and such was the case in Corinth.

At For His Glory Community Church, we are coming to the end of our Doctrines of Grace series. The series was named such  because I’m acutely aware that to say Calvinism, or even reformed theology, brings quick rebuffs of “don’t follow man” and “be biblical not systematic” and “just be a Christian” and “all we need is the bible”. This stems from a certain perception that to self identify with terms like Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian,  Calvinist, Reformed, or Arminian would be decisive and dilute the centrality of faith in Jesus and Jesus alone. Of course there’s a very real aspect of that in which I agree with, and yet at the same time, I can’t help but wonder …

OH TO RELATE WITH CHARITY

… perhaps when a brother or sister uses a terminology to identify themselves they are simply trying to convey in shorthand a helpful understanding of what biblical perspective they come from. Charity would hear them out before casting judgement and perhaps time may bare the truth – their life is indeed fully centered on Jesus as much as the non-label believer. They find no forgiveness in the label, no hope in the label, no assurance in the label. At the end of the day, the label was simply a practical means to help,much like the way someone might use the words Evangelical, Protestant, or much like the way a church uses a name. I have visited churches that have taken the high ground on labels and gone so far as to say that the New Testament knows of no other name for a church than “the assembly at” or the “congregation of”, and therefore they have assumed that naming a church is inherently man centered and divisive. The result was the need to take 10 sentences simply to describe where one was involved in church and what one generally believed. Sometimes this attitude then lead to a belittling of those churches (some 99.9999% of churches) that took a name for ease of identification, for help to the inquirer, for simple practical means. Whether it’s labels at a church level or at an individual level, oh that we might reinforce unity by not dividing over labels that a person never meant as a dividing point – charity would do that.

IN EVERY FAITH IS A THEOLOGICAL SYSTEM

Now someone might say we should never try to clarify on a theological system. We are simply to be called Christians and that is suffice to sum up or beliefs. Again, from a broad perspective, I’m 100% in agreement. But in the living of life under the massive mustard tree Jesus talked about 2000 years ago, where many different birds of the field come and rest, broad is not always helpful – sometimes nuance is. Are you a Christian of the type that holds to liturgy and confessions and creeds as a means to grace? Are you a Christian of the type that believes speaking in tongues is mandated for salvation? One might say “No, I’m not Pentecostal or charismatic.” That of course is a grand stereotype – not very accurate – but only demonstrates that we understand what it means to use words to be helpful in identifying biblical perspective. Do you believe the bible is inerrant? Not all Christians do. Do you believe that Jesus was the eternal son of God, always begotten but never created? Not all Christians do. Who do you baptize? Who is allowed to serve as elders and pastors in your view? Not all that would say “I’m simply a Christian” agree on these points. You see, we all have a system we live through, and therefore, I suggest to you that to say “I only believe the bible and have no theological system” is naive at best and at times simply prideful (“I am pure and truly follow Jesus and they do not”).

ARE YOU A CALVINIST?

The other day I was asked if I was a Calvinist, or at least I was asked to clarify because the news (somewhat scandalously) had apparently gotten around of this supposed fact. What does one say to that question? What did I say?

“Are you a Calvinist?”

My answer – “It depends what you mean by the question”. You see, if someone is asking “Do you understand the bible to teach the tenants of Calvinism or Tulip or Reformed soteriology” then my answer is unhesitatingly yes. If however, you are asking “Do you find your hope and joy and faith in Calvinism, and find your identity in being a Calvinist”, then my answer is emphatically no! I find my joy in being saved by Jesus!  (I should also add that I do not find my hope or joy or faith in such terms as Protestant or Evangelical, though I also deeply affirm what they have historically stood for.) The gist of it is that the question varies in it’s meaning, and based on it’s variation, so goes my answer.Oh that we might see this nuance and relate to each other with great charity of heart.

At the end of the day, the real question is not do you think of yourself as a Calvinist, but do I think of you as a brother or a sister.

REJECTING THE CHEAP LOVE THIS WORLD SELLS

We live in a world that sells a cheap love, one that is brittle and has no real depth to it’s root. It is supposed to anchor the idea of unity but at the end of the day, this love is so cheap it can’t anchor anything but disillusionment. The love that our culture celebrates lauds plurality while at the same time confesses “Unless you are like me, we’ll have no friendship”. This of course is a cheap swap-meet imitation of God’s love. His love is robust and finds no strain in the contours of differences. He, a holy God, loved us sinners, and sent his eternally beloved Son Jesus so that we might be united to Him. This is true love. The good news of a Holy God sending His eternally loved Son as a payment for wretched sinners is that it sets the pace for a type of love that says “I’m not consumed by our differences, nor will I pretend they don’t exist. Instead I will love across them”. This gospel is what brings true unity to the body of Christ. It allows people to be honest and sincere. This gospel allows one to say “I think your position is  emphatically wrong”, all the while to say “I love you and you are my brother and sister in Christ.” Use whatever label you will – “I’m a Calvinist”, “I’m an Arminian”, “I’m a baptist or Lutheran” or “I’m non-denominational”. Wonderful. I still love you and will not marginalize you because the deepest understanding we both share is that we exist and belong in Christ alone .

NEITHER IDOLIZE NOR DEMONIZE

My encouragement to myself and to all that might read this – you don’t need to idolize labels, nor do you need to demonize them.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7, ESV)

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