Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Striking a balance on Calvary Chapel - the not-so-good

In my first article - which you should read before reading this one - I gave what I thought were the good points about Calvary Chapel. In short, I very much appreciate their commitment to teaching the Bible in everything they do. I also appreciate their evangelistic and community focus. However, I do not agree with everything Calvary Chapel teaches. Consider this not so much as the "bad" as what is, I believe, the "not perfect." (There is no perfect church, of course; they're all made of imperfect people - like myself.)

For one thing, as I believe monergism best describes the teachings of the Bible on soteriology, I believe they get it wrong. Some people have called Calvary Chapel's view "inconsistent Arminianism." However, I reject this label for several reasons: not only is it unduly abrasive to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, one could equally well apply the label "inconsistent Calvinists." After all, if you think somebody is inconsistent, they're inconsistent, and it doesn't really matter what you put after it.

In fact, Calvary Chapel does not teach Arminianism at all, except in the very loose (and thus more inaccurate and abrasive) sense. Rather, they teach a brand of synergism very close to that taught in the majority of Southern Baptist churches. (Or at least the ones who have not gone purpose-driven and thus no longer have any kind of stand on theology at all - but that's another article.) Namely, a belief in "Once Saved, Always Saved", a belief in Total Depravity, but rejection of Limited Atonement and/or Irresistible Grace. So, they are clearly not monergist/Calvinist, but they are also not Arminian in any useful sense.

Thus, Calvary claims to take a middle ground. Calvary Chapel followers often claim that "we're not Calvinist or Arminian but rather Biblicist." This statement I am also forced to reject because it implies that people like myself become Calvinists because either we have some passion to follow John Calvin, or because we're just following the traditions we've been taught. Like the "inconsistent Arminian" label, this statement does a great disservice to their fellow Christians. I want to say: You may not agree with me on theology, but at least do me the honor of assuming that I came by my theology through an honest interpretation of the Biblical data rather than through exalting tradition over the Bible.

But how, from a monergist point of view (for I want to make this honest in the other direction as well) does Calvary Chapel arrive at its synergistic "free will" viewpoint by examining the Bible, when I think it's so clear that monergism is the Biblically-described plan of salvation? I believe that you cannot really derive a libertarian view of free will from the Bible, when it is so abundantly clear that God is in control of everything; rather, I believe it's because of their prior philosophical commitment to their understanding of man's free will. They will interpret all passages in that light. This hypothesis explains almost everything I've read from people who call themselves one, two, three, or four-point Calvinists or "Calminians." To their credit, they make an honest attempt at exegeting the Biblical passages, but with a prior philosophical commitment to libertarian free will.

Besides their synergistic view of soteriology, I have one more problem with Calvary Chapel, which is actually more objectionable. Chuck Smith has always said that he is big on "striking a balance." This is admirable in many ways: it is true that adherence to one tradition-based position or another has needlessly divided the church of Christ on many occasions both in the past and the present. It is true that Calvinism and Arminianism, taken as traditions one learns from their denomination, has often divided Christians from each other. Of course, as I argued above, many Calvinists have reached their beliefs after examination of the Biblical data; however, some have not, and it is good to not be dogmatic based solely on traditions. I agree with Calvary's position on this.

However, doing something in practice is different than doing it in theory; and I have noticed that they are not big on striking a balance in two of the most hotly-contended issues in Christianity today. The first is in their opposition to Calvinism, and only Calvinism. Two examples: George Bryson is sent out from Costa Mesa far and wide, writing such dreadful books as "The Five Points of Calvinism: Weighed and Found Wanting" and "The Dark Side of Calvinism" and making his lopsided and ill-informed speech against Calvinism at the 2003 Calvary West Coast Pastor's Conference. Then we have Dave Hunt (a committed anti-Calvinist) being a frequent speaker at Calvary Chapels. If Calvary truly wanted to be balanced, you'd see publications like "The Dark Side of Arminianism" and James White being invited to speak. Calvary's "balance" is clearly leaning against Calvinism.

In his book "Calvary Chapel Distinctives", Chuck Smith says "When you take hard stands on these non-foundational issues, you'll just empty your church of all of those who have Methodist, Nazarene, and other Arminian-infiuenced backgrounds. Why would you want to do that?" I have to respond that by taking a stand against Calvinism he runs the risk of emptying the church of all those with Presbyterian and Reformed backgrounds, as well as those who (like me) arrived at the doctrine somewhat reluctantly but through honest Biblical study. Why would he want to do that?

The second hot issue, hotter than even the Calvinism / Arminianism debate in today's church, is eschatology. Surely, a church that seeks to take a middle ground and not unnecessarily offend other Christians would not emphasize a doctrine (pre-tribulationism) that has scant Biblical support and that many other Christians reject for good exegetical reasons. Yet, that is exactly what Calvary does.

Note that I am not arguing here that pre-tribulationism is wrong; in fact, for the sake of argument, let's say it's correct. What I am arguing is that Calvary Chapel has taken probably the most contentious debate dividing Christians in the church today and taken a clear and decisive side on one side of that debate. They have taken one of (according to Chuck Smith's book) the founding principles of Calvary Chapel, one that I commend them for, and ignored it. I have no doubt that Pastor Chuck and other Calvary pastors feel strongly that pre-tribulationism is correct. Again, I don't take issue with that: what I take issue with is their strong support of it against every other eschatological view and against their own founding principle of not dividing Christians on disputed doctrines.

Somebody may argue: we oppose Calvinism because it's a tradition of men, but support pre-tribulationism because it is clearly taught in the Bible. Laying aside the question of its perspicuity in the Biblical text, surely many Calvinists would honestly say the same thing about their belief? A Presbyterian would say "I oppose pre-tribulationism because it's a tradition of men, but support Calvinism because is clearly taught in the Bible." I am not supporting either viewpoint here, just saying that either applies equally - taking a "balanced view" of them both, so to speak. (I myself would say that I think pre-millenialism is strongly supported, the pre-tribulational rapture very weakly, and monergism the strongest of all.)

No, if you truly want to be inclusive and not divide Christians, I think you should not take such strong stands on debated issues like pre-tribulationism and exclude all other viewpoints from the discussion. You should not write one of the longest chapters in your "Distinctives" book on this issue. You should not consistently invite Dave Hunt and George Bryson to speak against Calvinism but never invite James White to speak for it, or Dave Hunt to speak on pre-tribulationalism but never invite R.C. Sproul to speak on amillenialism.

These sum up my "not-so-good" points about Calvary Chapel. As I said in the first article, I have some disagreements with the church's teachings, but they are not sufficiently important to break fellowship with the church. They're more like disagreements between family members or friends, and I don't give up on friends (which I have many of in several Calvary Chapels) just because we disagree. In fact, I think what C. S. Lewis said regarding human friends sums up my feelings about Calvary Chapel. Lewis said that the most important thing that makes two people friends is that they agree that the same questions are important. That they agree on the answer, Lewis says, is less important.

This sums up well how I feel about Calvary Chapel: we agree that the most important things are important - the Bible, evangelism, love for our neighbors. That we don't agree on some areas of interpretation of the Bible - important though they may be - is not as important. We change our views with more information; but friends and family members are hopefully for a lifetime.


Brian said...

thanks for this post. I have had the same experience with CC. Good thoughts.

colin said...

Just read this post-an excellent read, I find no fault with it; soteriology and eschatology! I believe you have "hammered the nail right on the head"!
I too, am a "Calvinist", not because I follow him, but that I agree with the "doctrines of grace", I could see them for myself, by studying the Scriptures.
In fact Calvin didn't know he was a "Calvinist". The so-called "five points" were an answer to the Remonstrant, were they not?
I think Smith was a very shrewd businessman, he knew that teaching the truth would have emptied the pews?