Got your attention with the title, didn’t I? At least, the attention of a number of you who consider it a hot topic.
The other day a man asked one of our bookstore staff whether I was “reformed.” She assumed he meant whether I stood in the stream of the Protestant Reformation, but had heard rumblings of the word being tacitly associated with a specific tributary of the Reformation known as Calvinism.
So being a bit confused, she said, “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
Then pointing to a book by R.C. Sproul titled “Knowing Scripture” that we had displayed as a recommended text for our current series on the Bible, he said, “Well, if he likes Sproul, he must be.”
And then he walked away.
That was obviously simplistic, and also wrong. You can like Sproul’s book on scripture, which is fairly agenda-free, and not appreciate his later works that are more agenda-laden in regard to Calvinism.
Further, it reveals how we want sound bite answers to significant issues. There is little room for nuance, even when a simple “yes” or “no” can never suffice. There’s a reason why theology is the queen of the sciences, and why certain issues have puzzled Christians for millennia. But we still clamor for tweets instead of treatises, and blogs instead of books.
But the man in the bookstore seemed, to the young woman working there, interested in more than a “yes” or a “no.” He seemed interested in placing me. There are certain questions that we use to pigeonhole someone, usually theologically, in the Christian sub-culture. We want to know where someone stands on these questions because we want to know not simply if we are like them, but:
1) If we are going to like them;
2) If we are going to trust them;
3) If we are going to keep reading/listening to them.
It brings to mind George Marsden’s old definition of an Evangelical as someone who likes Billy Graham, and a Fundamentalist as someone who likes Billy Graham but wants to fight about it. Marsden was right; there was an entire era where the question, “What do you think of Billy Graham” was a defining question in the minds of millions.
But it’s what we do with people, once we’ve placed them, that disturbs me most.
Be honest – if you find out someone disagrees with you on something you deem critical, do you find it harder to embrace them relationally? Do you tend to caricature their views and even demonize them personally?
When I was inaugurated as president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I invited a friend of mine who was also head of a seminary to speak as part of the ceremonies. A third president called him on the phone and asked why he was going to support the “enemy.”
Apparently I was the “enemy” because I had led the wrong kind of church, and was – in his estimation – on the wrong side of the “reformed” issue.
My seminary president friend told him exactly what he could do with his spirit.
But the “enemy” mentality is only too alive and well.
And it’s wrong.
And what we say to each other as a result, and feel toward each other as a result, is wrong.
Consider the “reformed” issue:
When Calvinists say that Arminians believe in universalism, or Arminians say that Calvinists reject evangelism, we are not being fair. When one side or another lays claim to the term “Reformed”, as if the other is either Roman Catholic or against the Reformation ideals, we are not being accurate, as both flow from the Reformation. When we condescendingly say that our position is simply the “gospel,” as if it’s not really a debate worth having, then we are being arrogant. When we make our view the litmus test of orthodoxy, or even community, we are being neither gracious nor loving. When we say that our view alone upholds God’s sovereignty, or that our perspective is the only one that cares about lost people, we are not being truthful. When there is a “haughty smirkiness,” or we so stake our position that we divide churches, student ministry groups, or denominations, then we are sinning.
I hope so.
So am I Reformed?
Am I charismatic?
Am I Baptist?
Am I a registered Republican?
Sorry, they’re all too much for a single blog. Maybe one day I’ll do a series on one or more.
But I’m not in a hurry.
Because no matter how I answer, why have you stop liking me, stop trusting me, and stop reading this blog?
James Emery White
For more on the polarizations within evangelical Christianity, see James Emery White’s Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.