Contentious Calvinists

One unfortunate thing I’ve noticed over the past ten years (give or take) is that sometimes new Calvinists are not a great benefit and blessing to the church.  Sometimes people who have recently discovered the doctrines of grace make for poor churchmen and end up being a thorn in the side of a local church.

I’ve heard it from other pastors as well.  Broadly evangelical Christians hear podcasts, read books, and listen to online sermons or programs and become enamored with the doctrines of grace (which is good!).  But sometimes these Christians then find a Reformed church and in their “Calvinist zeal” they cause many headaches and problems (which is bad!).  Eventually they leave, go to another Reformed church, and do the same thing all over again.  They like the doctrines of grace, but don’t like the church.  I’ve heard quite a few sad stories like this.

Why does this happen?  I’ve been discussing this problem with others, and I may bring it up again later here on the blog.  For now, I’ll let John Newton explain one reason why new Calvinists sometimes make for poor churchmen.  Apparently, he faced the same problem we face today.

“I believe a too hasty assent to Calvinistic principles, before a person is duly acquainted with the plague of his own heart, is one principal cause of that lightness of profession which so lamentably abounds in this day, a chief reason why many professors [i.e. Christians who profess the doctrines of grace] are rash, heady, high-minded, contentious about words, and sadly remiss as to the means of divine appointment” (Newton’s Works, XI p. 278).

Well said.  The “T” in TULIP should make us so humble we never stop thinking that others are better than we are (Phil. 2:3).  A Calvinist who is proud, contentious, and arrogant is a very inconsistent Calvinist (to put it nicely).  Someone who has truly been humbled by the darkness, evil, and depravity of his own heart will not come to a church assuming that he knows it all and that everyone else must conform to his superior ideas.

If you’re one of our readers who is just learning the beauty of the doctrines of grace, and, more broadly, Reformed theology, please pray for much humility as you look for a church that preaches these great biblical truths.  You’re never going to find a perfect church; you may never even find one that is exactly to your liking.  And when you do find one that preaches the whole counsel of God in and out of season, that administers the sacraments, and that practices church discipline unto repentance, thank God and ask him to help you use your gifts there (humbly!) to edify his people and bring him glory.  One part of being a consistent Calvinist is being a solid, helpful member of a local church.  But more on that later.

rev shane lems

sunnyside wa

9 thoughts on “Contentious Calvinists”

  1. I like how Mike Horton writes that new adherents to the Doctrines of Grace are in the CAGE phase- they ought to be locked up in a cage because all they want to talk about is predestination, election, and other difficult subjects. For them, nearly every Bible passage becomes a proof text for Calvinism. Certainly, scripture drips with references to God’s sovereignty, but not to the exclusion of dozens of other doctrines.

    When I (re)discovered these doctrines, somebody should have locked me up for awhile. I’m sure many would argue I should still be locked in a cage.

    I like how the Form of Subscription (for confessional Reformed churches) puts it: we believe the doctrines contained in the Belgic Confession & Heidelberg Catechism, together with the explanation of *some* points of the aforesaid doctrine presented in the Canons of Dort. Dort doesn’t stand alone; it rests upon the Heidelberg & Belgic. Understand those two first, and then Dort will seem neither over bearing nor controversial. In fact, there’s a logical flow.


  2. Actually, as a newly reformed lady, I ask that those who grew up calvinist or reformed be patient with us. Yes, we have a zeal and sometimes it is like an uncontrollable fire. However, a good pastor won’t look at it as necessarily bad, but something that needs to simply be controlled a bit. I’m thankful for my own pastor, Andrew Eeinegenberg, who knows my zeal b/c outside of the reformed faith is nothing but a false gospel, and who taught me early, “Nancy always err on the side of grace.” His young wife added to that wisdom and said to me, “Nancy, we take them where they’re at and bring them where they need to be.” Don’t discourage and don’t let them leave. We, the ex-evangelicals, excharismatics and ex-whatever heresy we were in group, we bring into your church some pretty sharp shooters. We can spot a slippery slope, not because we want to hurt but because we’ve been down that slippery slope. Do we need balance? Absolutely. But that doesn’t come with someone, as gracious as your post wanted to be, telling us we “hurt” those in your pews. We’re the ones telling your women to throw out their joyce meyer’s books. We’re the ones explaining to their husbands why she is so attradictive and addictive and therefore toxic.
    Are we sometimes contentious? Yes. But have you asked why? or assumed it is simply our zeal. Ask us. You might be surprised to find out that b/c we were taught lies all our lives we are super cautious. We now question everything. You might find out we are hurting b/c we’ve been beaten from the pulpit, spit at from the pew when we started to reform and called heretics by our own physical family and church family as God began to open our eyes to the truth. Yes, we too make mistakes but we’re coming out of heresy and yes, semi-pelagianism is heresy. we’re coming out of a system that told us not to touch the “anointed” and that we were inferior. Are we young? Yes. Are we excited? Yes. Sorry, a child who finds an indescribable gift under the tree at Christmas will tend to knock off some “traditional” ornaments in their zeal. Should you care about those “priceless” ornaments? or the joy and thrill of a new child (in this case a child of God just like you) finding such indescribable consolation (Art. 13).

    Don’t let them leave your church. You should have not let it get that far. Instead, sit down with them. Find out how they were hurt in the false church. Ask them what their struggles are in the doctrines of grace. You may find them to be a blessing for your congregation that grew up with these treasures and you just might find them to be God sent to keep your “always reformed” folk from falling for the heresies that are out there.


    1. Hi Nancy, I appreciate what you’ve written. You are right to say that it is important to talk with new, zealous, Calvinists in order to understand them in the context of their past, abusive experiences.

      As a minister in the URCNA, I go out of my way to come along side of an excited, new Calvinist and share in their excitement and joy… and I also try to patiently shepherd them to be humble, gracious, and winsome in their new found, blessed convictions. And I love it!

      However, there are times when a young Calvinist (not all but some) simply becomes too puffed up with pride and becomes impatient and judgmental with others in the church, including their pastor and elders sometimes. They often get fed up with something non-essential that they see or perceive in the church and they end up not being willing to join the church’s membership. So they leave despite the loving, patient, admonitions of the pastor and elders.

      You wrote: “Don’t let them leave your church. You should have not let it get that far.”

      I encourage you to re-think that statement. A minister can lead a lamb to water but he can’t force it to drink. In this kind of circumstance, if they will not allow themselves to be shepherded and/or will not join the church, I am relieved to have them leave. It is better for that local Body of Christ that they leave.

      You may not fully realize the implication of what you wrote. To say that the pastor should not have let it get that far is to blame the pastor for something he cannot control… and it is to blame the pastor for the sin of someone else. I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean it that way and that’s why I encourage you to rethink that statement.


      1. let me rephrase: do all you can to not let them leave. I know there are some so zealous they can lash out. Apologies that my phrasing was way TOO harsh. Forgive me. See, that is how we are. we are sometimes so bold we forget the grace. thank you that you graciously corrected. I can be a bit of a bull in a china closet, but of late i’ve been told i’m now just a bulldog. Grace. It’s a remarkable thing. :)
        It does break my heart when a newly reformed person ends up leaving. I think part of that is a complete misunderstanding of the importance of the local church. Many of us were in anabaptist churches and so, doing things on our own is “normal”. Spoke with someone recently to remind them to make sure they’re not just reading good authors but connected with a solid reformed congregation for their sake and their children’s sake too.
        Again, thanks for reminding me to be more gracious.


  3. I love this post, Shane. That Newton quote is especially interesting! I had no idea that this phenomenon was so old.


  4. Pretty good comments all around. When I was at Westminster, I got piqued when I would hear a complaint that so and so was starved for fellowship because in his locality there was no “Reformed witness”; when I went into the Mennonite conference, I would hear that someone was starved for fellowship because in his locality there was no “Anabaptist witness”. I understand the need and aid for like-minded Christians to get together, but I ask myself, “If these Evangelicals, Charismatics, Lutherans, Baptists, etc. are dear to Jesus, why can they not be dear to you?”
    I do not advocate a lowest common denominator bogus “fellowship”, but can’t we tell many times that a man or group of people really love the Lord and that their hearts are in the right place and enjoy being with them and cooperating with them, to the extent that this is possible.


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