Churches, Get a Christ Honoring Pastor!
A Response to Tom Nettles of The Founders Ministry
by Dr. Leighton Flowers
Recently, one of my friends and colleagues in ministry who serves as an Area Representative for Texas Baptists, sent me a link to an article published by The Founders Ministry titled, “Churches, Get a Calvinist Pastor!” (authored by Dr. Tom Nettles).
My colleague, who often works with pastorless churches around the state, expressed his genuine concern over the content of Nettles’ piece and how it might serve to confuse volunteer laypeople serving on Pastor Search Committees. I share his concern and I would like to take a few minutes to explain why.
UNITE UNDER CHRIST NOT MERE MEN
Paul taught the church in Corinth a relevant lesson:
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (1 Cor. 3:1-7)
Paul’s first example of this church’s carnality is to point to their divisiveness by self-identifying under the names of mere men rather than unifying under the name of Christ. It is a fleshly trait to claim to be of Apollos, or Paul, or Fuller, or Boyce, or Hobbs, or Rogers, or dare we even say Calvin? Do not get me wrong. I understand the need for labels as a shorthand way of identifying certain key systematic beliefs in the academic environment, but this article is not being sent to academicians, it is being promoted to local church members as a means to propagate Pastors who identify themselves as being “of Calvin.”
Now, as a former Calvinist myself, I am fully aware that the soteriological claims that are known by the label “Calvinism” really are not about the man, John Calvin. And if Nettles had actually written about the distinctives associated with Calvinistic soteriology, then I do not think I would have needed to write this rebuttal. As it stands, however, the article seems to make some insinuations that are downright offensive to those of us who do not affirm the TULIP systematic. And it certainly seems to go against the principle of unifying under Christ in Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian church.
With that said, I have no doubt that Dr. Nettles’ desire is to honor Christ and Him alone. I met Tom years ago when I was still a Calvinist and serving in a Reformed congregation. He is an honorable Christ exalting man who has served our Lord faithfully for decades, but even the best of us can step over the line on occasion and I believe my brother has done so with this article. So, please understand, I do write this in love for my brother in Christ.
With all due respect to Dr. Nettles, we do not need to be calling all churches to look for Calvinists. We need to be calling churches to find the most Christ honoring pastor who best fits the current doctrinal distinctives of that particular congregation. Calling a pastor, regardless of how well intending he might be, who believes and preaches the TULIP doctrines to a church that has historically held to a more Traditionalist perspective is the recipe for a church split. As a denominational worker, I am seeing this happen all too often. Calvinistic pastors called to churches that have not historically been Calvinistic tend to divide that congregation causing undue heartache and creating unnecessary distractions from the Kingdom’s work. Pastors should be forthright about their soteriological beliefs when interviewing with a search committee, whether they are asked about it or not.
Also, it is deceptive to hide your theological convictions under cleverly crafted verbiage meant to make your actual views much more mainstream than they really are. If you do not believe God really self-sacrificially loves all people, then you should be honest about that. If you think God sovereignly brought about every molestation, murder and rape for his own self glorification,[i] then you should tell that plainly to the people entrusted by the church to hire their next spiritual leader. They deserve to know that before recommending you to a congregation that has not typically affirmed such troublesome doctrines.
NOT SO DISTINCT DISTINCTIVES?
Nettles spends the bulk of his article covering a list of reasons to “get a Calvinist preacher,” but the list contains absolutely nothing that would distinguish a Calvinist from a Traditionalist, which might lead the reader to believe that a non-Calvinistic Baptist preacher just might hesitate to affirm these commonly held doctrines. Here is the list:
- A Calvinist firmly believes in the divine inspiration of Scriptures.
- A Calvinist firmly believes the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
- A Calvinist firmly believes the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
- A Calvinist firmly believes in religious liberty.
- A Calvinist firmly believes in missions and evangelism.
- A Calvinist firmly believes in Christ-centered preaching.
- A Calvinist firmly believes in holiness of life.
- A Calvinist firmly believes in regenerate church membership.
Notice that you could replace the label “Calvinist” with “Traditionalist” or even the label “Baptist” and nothing would need to change. I could go through each of Nettles’ points and explain why I believe a Traditionalist would actually be more “firm” in his convictions on all these doctrines, but I do not think that is necessary. All we really need to do is uncover Nettles’ underlying motive for writing this article.
WHAT IS THE MOTIVE?
There is a Calvinistic brother on twitter who continually hashtags the phrase “Calvinism is safe” and then proceeds to name drop notable Christian’s throughout history who have affirmed some aspects of the Calvinistic soteriology. That seems to be the tenor of this article produced by The Founders. I think some Calvinists have become hypersensitive to how they are perceived by the common Christian who simply has not fully vetted the various soteriological perspectives. I believe Calvinists feel the need to do whatever it takes to appear as mainstream and “safe” as possible. This is why I think Nettles mentions so many popular historical names and focuses on mainstream doctrines commonly held by all Baptists rather than upon those difficult doctrines that make our Calvinistic brethren distinct.
Nettles realizes that highlighting the clear distinctives of TULIP theology would only serve to marginalize Calvinistic pastors from most committees. Imagine if that list actually did point out the distinguishable traits of our Reformed brothers? It might read more like this:
- A Calvinist firmly believes that God chose one twin (Jacob) to be saved by irresistible means and the other (Esau) to be passed over for eternal damnation before they did anything good or bad; thus, it is possible that you, or some of the people you dearly love, were likewise rejected and salvifically hated by God before ever doing anything good or bad.
- A Calvinist firmly believes that God sovereignly and unchangeably determines every thing, including every sinful thought, action and deed, for His own self-exaltation.
- A Calvinist firmly believes that everyone is born guilty of another man’s sin and cannot morally respond willingly to God’s own appeals to be reconciled from that sin and thus will suffer for eternity for something they had absolutely no control over whatsoever (i.e. the non-elect could not have willed to do otherwise).[ii]
[NOTE: Calvinists, before you accuse me of straw-manning Calvinism, please read the quotes provided in the footnotes and be ready to carefully explain how I have misrepresented the actual claims of leading Calvinists.]
I think it is obvious why Nettles did not address any of these actual distinctives of the Calvinistic worldview. Even if he were to reword my clear comments above in order to make them more palatable to the average laymen, there would be no getting around Calvinism’s inherent difficulties. That is why Nettles does not even attempt to draw upon actual Calvinistic distinctives. Doing so would not serve the purpose of his article, which appears to be intent on burying actual Calvinistic beliefs under other more commonly accepted mainstream doctrines. In doing so, however, he seems to be mischaracterizing all the non-Calvinistic pastors out there who would readily affirm each of the doctrines in this list. This is like when one political party says something to the effect of, “Vote for us because we actually care for our senior citizens,” as if anyone who aligns with the other party does not care for their senior citizens too. It comes across as pure propaganda meant to misguide the masses.
Nettles concludes his article with what seems like a back handed insult toward all pastors who do not affirm Calvinism,
“If a Calvinist pastor operates consistently with his theology, he will not motivate his people by manipulation but by truth and an increasingly clear vision of the glory of God. He will know that his ministry is not to be built on deceit, nor guile, nor flattering words, nor is he to use his influence as a cloak for covetousness; but, because he has a stewardship of the gospel, he speaks, not as pleasing men, but God (1 Thessalonians 2:1-5).”
Certainly Nettles is not meaning to suggest that a preacher’s adherence to the TULIP systematic uniquely makes him less deceitful or filled with guile, is he? I found this comment offensive, but I recognize that the author may not have seen how his words would be taken. Hopefully upon careful examination, Nettles will understand that his article implies that a Traditionalist’s ministry would necessarily be built on “deceit and guile” simply because he denies Calvinistic soteriology.
There is one troublesome point that many Calvinists just seem to dismiss when it comes to these kinds of conclusions. If Calvinism is true then the primary reason anyone would motivate people by manipulation is because God so ordained it for His own glory.[iii] If any one should be concerned about manipulative means it should be the Traditionalist. After all, we are the ones who vehemently deny that God has sovereignly and unchangeably ordained the very manipulative means that Nettles is bemoaning.
When Calvinists are questioned about the logical consistency in their fervency for evangelism they are quick to point out that “God ordains the ends as well as the means,” but are not those same manipulative means that Nettles denounces what God unchangeably ordained for the salvation of some elect? On what grounds is Nettles declaring some means good and others bad if indeed all were ordained by God for God’s greatest glory?
It is the Traditionalist who can say that God is able to redeem (rather than “control” or “determine”) the autonomously evil choices of manipulative preachers to bring about His good purposes. It is the Traditionalist who should be the most concerned about the effect that such means may have on the eternal destinies of those subjected to such tactics. Why should the Calvinist express concern over the means that he thinks God has unchangeably worked to bring about for His own glory? Who is the Calvinist to talk back to God by bringing critique to His sovereignly ordained means?
In contrast to the call of Nettles, I would like to call all Pastor Search Committees to seek out the right preacher for your congregation. Preferably one who is straightforward and unashamed about the doctrine he is going to be preaching, one who loves all his enemies even as Christ loves all His, and one who preaches God’s genuine, self-sacrificial love for every man, woman, boy and girl.
[NOTE: In my experience, some Calvinists defer to the “You Too” fallacy in their attempt to escape the difficulty of the hard issues inherent within the claims of their systematic. Please READ THIS.]
ADDED NOTE: A follow up to this article was written in response to Dr. Nettles comments below… CLICK HERE
[i] “God . . . brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child… Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing, including no evil person or thing or event or deed. God’s foreordination is the ultimate reason why everything comes about, including the existence of all evil persons and things and the occurrence of any evil acts or events. And so it is not inappropriate to take God to be the creator, the sender, the permitter, and sometimes even the instigator of evil… Nothing — no evil thing or person or event or deed — falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will. So when even the worst of evils befall us, they do not ultimately come from anywhere other than God’s hand.” —From John Piper’s Desiring God web site: Mark R. Talbot, “‘All the Good That Is Ours in Christ’: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us,” in John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 31-77.
[ii] “…how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be, not by His will but by His permission…It is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing, but the author of them…Who does not tremble at these judgments with which God works in the hearts of even the wicked whatever He will, rewarding them nonetheless according to desert? Again it is quite clear from the evidence of Scripture that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills just as he will, whether to good for His mercy’s sake, or to evil according to their merits. ” (John Calvin, “The Eternal Predestination of God,” 10:11)
“Creatures are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 3)
“We hold that God is the disposer and ruler of all things, –that from the remotest eternity, according to his own wisdom, He decreed what he was to do, and now by his power executes what he decreed. Hence we maintain, that by His providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 8)
“thieves and murderers, and other evildoers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute judgments which he has resolved to inflict.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 17, Paragraph 5)
“The devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how muchsoever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay unless in so far as he commands, that they are not only bound by his fetters but are even forced to do him service” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 17, Paragraph 11)
”He testifies that He creates light and darkness, forms good and evil (Isaiah 45:7); that no evil happens which He hath not done (Amos 3:6). Let them tell me whether God exercises His judgments willingly or unwillingly.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 18, Paragraph 3)
“How few are there who, when they hear free will attributed to man, do not immediately imagine that he is the master of his mind and will in such a sense, that he can of himself incline himself either to good or evil? It may be said that such dangers are removed by carefully expounding the meaning to the people. But such is the proneness of the human mind to go astray, that it will more quickly draw error from one little word, than truth from a lengthened discourse. Of this, the very term in question [free will] furnishes too strong a proof…I think the abolition of it would be of great advantage to the Church. I am unwilling to use it myself; and others, if they will take my advice, will do well to abstain from it.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapter 2, Paragraphs 7-8)
“…salvation is freely offered to some while others are barred from access to it.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 21, Paragraph 5)
“We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is fore-ordained for some, eternal damnation for others.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 21, Paragraph 5)
“The very inequality of his grace proves that it is free.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 21, Paragraph 6)
“…we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction…he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 21, Paragraph 7)
“God could foresee nothing good in man except what he had already determined to bestow by the benefit of his election.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 22, Paragraph 5)
“God is moved to mercy for no other reason but that he wills to be merciful.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 22, Paragraph 8)
“… predestination to glory is the cause of predestination to grace, rather than the converse.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 22, Paragraph 9)
“…although the voice of the gospel addresses all in general, yet the gift of faith is rare.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 22, Paragraph 9)
“We cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just as it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 22, Paragraph 11)
“Therefore, those whom God passes over, he condemns; and this he does for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)
“…it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are.”…”For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)
“Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an individual charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated. This they do ignorantly and childishly, since there could be no election without its opposite, reprobation.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)
“…it is utterly inconsistent to transfer the preparation for destruction to anything but God’s secret plan… God’s secret plan is the cause of hardening.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)
“…the will of God is not only free of all fault but is the highest rule of perfection, and even the law of all laws.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 2)
“I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen by God’s will.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 4)
“With Augustine I say: the Lord has created those whom he unquestionably foreknew would go to destruction. This has happened because he has willed.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 5)
“…individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
“…it is vain to debate about prescience, which it is clear that all events take place by his sovereign appointment.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
“But since he foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place, they vainly raise a quarrel over foreknowledge, when it is clear that all things take place rather by his determination and bidding.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)
“Again I ask: whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God? The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree. And it ought not to seem absurd for me to say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 7)
“For if predestination is nothing but the meting out of divine justice–secret, indeed, but blameless–because it is certain that they were not unworthy to be predestined to this condition, it is equally certain that the destruction they undergo by predestination is also most just. Besides, their perdition depends upon the predestination of God in such a way that the cause and occasion of it are found in themselves. For the first man fell because the Lord had judged it to be expedient; why he so judged is hidden from us.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 8)
“Man falls according as God’s providence ordains, but he falls by his own fault.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 8)
“The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 8)
“Even though by God’s eternal providence man has been created to undergo that calamity to which he is subject, it still takes its occasion from man himself, not from God, since the only reason for his ruin is that he has degenerated from God’s pure creation into vicious and impure perversity.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 9)
“Moreover, the wicked bring upon themselves the just destruction to which they are destined.” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 24, heading)
[iii] See quotes above, especially the first one.