The Divides that Divide

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Divides that Divide

At this moment, there are at least four major divides facing evangelical Christianity that are generating the most tension: between the theologies of Calvinism and Arminianism; between contemporary and more traditional approaches to ministry; between modern and postmodern sensibilities; and between an activist opposition to private immorality over and against civic concern with social justice and the environment. 

Consider the tempest between traditional and more contemporary approaches. One would think this would be an honest debate about what would be most effective in terms of approach, weighing the value of various approaches over and against earlier methods. 

Instead, it often becomes a test of orthodoxy, such as the tempest in a teacup that erupted in 2005 when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, leading many churches to scale back their services or even cancel them in light of the holiday. 

“This is a consumer mentality at work: ‘Let’s not impose the church on people. Let’s not make church in any way inconvenient,’” sarcastically offered one seminary professor. “I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing.” Others chimed in: “What’s going on here is a redefinition of Christmas as a time of family celebration rather than as a time of the community faithful celebrating the birth of the Savior. There is a risk that we will lose one more of our Christian rituals, one that’s at the heart of our faith.” 

The truth is that evangelical churches of all kinds throughout the United States had seldom held services on Christmas Day when it had not fallen on a Sunday (a tradition that dates back to the Puritans). Further, marking Christmas has never been tied to a Sunday-specific celebration (as with Easter). If there is a day that has uniformly been seized by churches to celebrate the birth of Christ, it has been Christmas Eve -- and the churches being chastised for not having Sunday services on the 25th were planning on offering numerous services on the 24th.

The larger issue, of course, was how best to do ministry in culture, pitting contemporary approaches against more traditional ones. Those who were already biased against contemporary methods seemed eager to jump on anything that reflected an abandonment of tradition and thus, in their minds, orthodoxy. Those who were more contemporary immediately accused their critics of confusing tradition with traditionalism, and thus spent little time attempting to explain the biblical basis for their methodology. 

It was, as mentioned, much ado about nothing; easily diffused when such parties are in relationship with each other and able to talk through their differences. But the two sides aren’t talking because they are so openly divided. Not just theologically, but spiritually and emotionally. In fact, the entire debate was enacted in the media, happily enabled by reporters anxious for a fresh angle during a tired news cycle. And we seemed happy to parade our relational dysfunction in full view of the public.

And my fear is that we are headed for even worse behavior in the years to come. 

Take what is perhaps the longest running of the four major divides, but one that has increased in intensity in recent years -- the divide between Calvinism and Arminianism. As Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has gone public in warning: “I believe that [Calvinism] is potentially the most explosive and divisive issue facing us in the near future.” 

The theological divide between Calvinists and Arminians is an honest debate, and the matters are not without consequence. Yet like many such divides, it runs the risk of becoming less of an honest debate and more the grounds for open conflict.   

It doesn’t help that from the beginning, this particular theological divide was laden with animus. 

Calvin himself, William Manchester writes, was considered “short-tempered and humorless. The slightest criticism enraged him.” Whether an accurate portrayal of his disposition or not, those who questioned his theology he called “pigs,” “asses,” “riffraff,” “dogs,” “idiots,” and “stinking beasts.” Manchester tells of a morning when Calvin found a poster on his pulpit accusing him of “Gross Hypocrisy.” A suspect was arrested. No evidence was produced, but he was tortured day and night for a month until he confessed. Screaming with pain, he was lashed to a wooden stake. He feet were then nailed to wood, and in the end, he was decapitated.

I am sure that similar lovelessness could be found among early Arminians. 

There is little doubt that the Bible speaks about election and predestination, depravity and atonement, sovereignty and security. But thinking Christians can, and have, defined those terms in various ways. Calvin and Arminius offer two contrasting viewpoints. On Calvin’s side one finds such luminaries as B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and Charles Spurgeon; on the Arminian side you find C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and John Wesley. 

I am personally less concerned with determining who is “right” and who is “wrong.” Truth be told, we should have enough theological humility to admit that we may all be wrong on this one. The greater issue is refusing to make our theological viewpoint the test of orthodoxy, the agenda for which we exist, and the basis of our community.

And our rhetoric isn’t helping.

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 state our position that we divide churches, student ministry groups, or denominations, then we are sinning. 

Coming from vastly different perspectives, Michael Horton, a Calvinist professor at Westminster Seminary, and Scot McKnight, an Anabaptist professor then at North Park University, both attempted to speak to this in terms of evangelicalism being like the “village green” of early American communities where folks gathered to chat and share their commonalities. 

Churches have more defined statements of faith, and it is where we should join with Christians most like us in terms of faith and practice. But both men agree that the local church (or denomination) is not the village green. The dilemma, McKnight observes, is when certain individuals or groups do not differentiate between the two. Instead, they want to make select confessions and particularities within a segment of the Christian faith the gateway on to the village green. 

Thus a tradition or stream of Christianity is elevated to the status of sola scriptura. This is little more than fundamentalism at its worst. So for example, we must never equate the gospel with Calvin’s Reformed theology, much less the views of Jacob Arminius. 

John Stott writes about the importance of distinguishing between evangelical essentials which cannot be compromised and those adiaphora (matters indifferent) where it is not necessary for us to insist.

“Perhaps our criterion for deciding which is which ... should be as follows. Whenever equally biblical Christians, who are equally anxious to understand the teaching of Scripture and to submit to its authority, reach different conclusions, we should deduce that evidently Scripture is not crystal clear in this matter, and therefore we can afford to give one another liberty.”

Or as the 17th-century Lutheran Pietist Peter Meiderlin said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

James Emery White



“Some Megachurches Closing for Christmas,” Rachel Zoll, AP Religion Writer, Tuesday, December 6, 2005 (; “Why do churches close on Sunday?” by Frank E. Lockwood, Kentucky Herald-Leader (; “Evangelical churches such as suburban Willow Creek will close on Christmas so members can focus on family,” Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune, December 6, 2005 (; “No church today; it’s Christmas,” Ken Garfield, The Charlotte Observer, Wednesday, December 7, 2005 (; “When Christmas Falls on Sunday, Megachurches Take the Day Off,” The New York Times, Laruie Goodstein, December 9, 2005 (; “Leader’s Insight: Closed for Christmas,” Skye Jethani (

James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (IVP).

“The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals,” Steve W. Lemke, April 2005; read online.

William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance – Portrait of An Age (Boston: Little Brown, 1992), p. 190.

Scott McKnight’s blog, “Who are the NeoReformed?” Read online.

John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Truth, p. 117.

On Meiderlin quote, this is commonly attributed to Augustine, though the phrase originated with Meiderlin.  On this, see Hans Rollmann, “’In Essentials Unity’: The Pre-History and History of a Restoration Movement Slogan,” adapted from a lecture given at the Christian Scholars Conference, David Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, July, 1996.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., 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 A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to, 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.

The Divides that Divide