Be a Kinder Calvinist
By: Abraham Piper
My wife and I were fighting—the kind where after 30 seconds you forget what you’re fighting about and you just end up being mean. It doesn’t take long in an argument like this to feel hopeless.
I wanted to call someone to come over and mediate. Actually, I didn’t want to, but I knew I needed to do something. Our close friends who live near by and our small group leaders were all out of town, so I called a pastor who lives in the neighborhood and asked him to come over right then. I think he could tell by the tone of my voice and the unusual request that we really did need help immediately. He cancelled his Saturday plans and came over.
Sitting at our kitchen table, he helped us figure each other out. Soon we were getting to the heart of the matter. Molly turned to me and said, “You never treat me like you appreciate me.”
I looked at her. I looked at our pastor. And then I listed three ways that I’d shown appreciation for her that morning. As far as I was concerned, things were taken care of. She thought I didn’t act appreciatively, but I just showed her (definitively, I might add) that I did.
As you can imagine, things were not taken care of. As a matter of fact, my list, for all its accuracy, was completely irrelevant to Molly. This was when our pastor pointed something out to me that has forever changed the way I interact with my wife, and with everybody, for that matter.
He told me that, sure, it may be wrong to say that I never show appreciation, but clearly she feels that way, and right now that’s what needs to be dealt with. And not just dealt with but acknowledged, understood, respected. Her words may have included a factual error, but what she was saying was completely true.
There is a letter on Scot McKnight’s blog from a pastor who is very frustrated with certain Calvinists in his church. It would be easy enough to disregard it, pointing out that not all Calvinists are like that or that his use of the word “hyper-Calvinist” doesn’t match correct theological jargon. But that would be missing the point. And, ironically, that reaction would only lend credence to the frustration that motivated the letter in the first place.
So how should we read this letter in a way that acknowledges, understands, and respects the discouragement of its author?
First, we should note that it is simply indisputable that some people are exactly the way he describes. When you see mean extremists in another circle, it reminds you why you don’t run with that crowd. But when you see mean extremists in your own circle, it’s just plain embarrassing. Unfortunately, until we are perfected there will always be mean people of every theological strain. But fortunately, we are a part of the church not merely for the company, but for Christ.
The second way to understand the letter is to see it (along with the numerous comments that follow) as abundant evidence that, to many, Calvinists come across as self-righteous, condescending, arrogant, unfriendly, argumentative, and even stingy. The fact that we’re not all that way is irrelevant in the same way that it didn’t matter to Molly that I had done three things to show I appreciate her—she still felt unappreciated. Her frustration was true because, whether or not I was grateful to my wife, I was perceived as an ingrate. Similarly, the frustration in the letter is true because, whether or not the Calvinists in the letter-writer’s church are good folks, they come off as proud and divisive jerks. Those Calvinists, as church members, and I, as a husband, should change based on this information, regardless of how “inaccurately” the frustration may be worded.
In my marriage, it doesn’t matter whether I’m thankful if I don’t seem like it. And in the church, it doesn’t matter whether we have the fruits of the Spirit if no one can tell.
It won’t be easy to change the pejorative stereotype that clings to Calvinism, but we can start by admitting that it is accurate far too often. Then we can make sure we are manifestly not self-righteous, condescending, arrogant, unfriendly, or argumentative. Also, you can count on us to buy dinner or coffee sometimes.
Paying attention to those who disagree with us and taking them seriously, even if we’re pretty sure we’ll still disagree, is part of what it means to be in the body of Christ. It’s humbling; it sanctifies. It will make us better husbands and wives. It will make us better Christians, and maybe even better Calvinists.