Those of us who identify with the gospel-centered or New Calvinist movement rejoice over the recovery of a Christ-centered reading of Scripture, the rediscovery of deep and sound doctrine, and the heart-focused transformation often lacking in the broader evangelical movement. As this movement has spread and gained influence, however, we’ve begun to see our share of criticism. Not everyone is happy about this theology and practice that has gained ground in evangelicalism. Of course, we should expect this pushback and to some degree set our faces forward to live by our convictions. But we would do well to remember the truly Reformed aren’t just reformed but always reforming. Finding a theological home is important, but we need to be a movement that listens to other Christians who may see things about us we’re not seeing, things that need to be altered or even confessed. During seminary and since, I’ve interacted with blogs and books that have a theological home in the (also growing) neo-Anabaptist movement. At one point, many of these writers were part of the “Emergent Church” movement, though I don’t know if that label means much anymore. But over the years, I’ve tried to listen humbly to what these brothers are seeing in me and in the New Calvinist movement as a whole.
While I don’t accept the totality of their charges and concerns, I’ve benefited from three broad critiques that I think we’d do well as a movement to consider. I cannot possibly outline every objection they’ve raised, nor will I be able to fairly and perfectly articulate their concerns. But I do hope that by raising some of their concerns I can make an observation that accounts for them and thus opens opportunity for us to pursue together.
1. Our Definition of the Gospel Is Not Wrong, Just Incomplete
Many in the Anabaptist movement have argued that the gospel we preach is too narrow, overly focused on individual forgiveness, and framed by a systematic doctrinal logic. Behind this critique is a concern that modernity—with its turn toward the individual, obsession with control, and trappings with power—has unduly influenced the church’s theology and practice. Rather than understanding Jesus and his kingdom on his own terms, we’ve skewed Jesus and his message to justify the kingdoms of this world and ease our guilty consciences. If you haven’t listened to the panel discussion between Tim Keller, Don Carson, John Piper, and Kevin DeYoung from The Gospel Coalition’s 2013 National Conference, I encourage you to do so since that conversation in many ways responds to this criticism. Additionally, Carson’s editorial in the latest issue of Themelios addresses this critique as well. I agree with the arguments made defending our movement in these two outlets. But I also think we ought to consider why these concerns keep being raised. I wonder if we need a greater emphasis on the reconciliation of the cross. We are forgiven and reconciled to God as individuals—and brought into a community to be reconciled to one another. This recognition necessarily provides a broader, more robust gospel context.
2. Our Movement Promotes Domineering and Dangerous Leaders
The critiques I’ve read and listened to aren’t just theological but practical as well. The egalitarian/complementarian debate has raged for some time, but with the rise of the New Calvinist movement the debate has shifted to focus on the public leaders in our movement and on the church culture that has developed. We’ve been charged with promoting male leaders who are domineering, prone to abusing power, and susceptible to scandalous and public moral failure. The theological argument I’ve heard has challenged the very character or even type of leadership we envision. Many suggest we’ve failed to see the implications of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death in service of the church by submitting himself to worldly powers. While I agree with the theological and exegetical arguments in favor of complementarianism, I agree in substantial ways with the red flags being raised about our culture of leadership. While we talk about leaders needing to serve sacrificially out of love, it’s easy for us to blindly justify power plays and a desire to control with claims that we’re, well, serving people out of love. The celebrity culture of our movement, denied by some and acknowledged-though-downplayed by most, differs little from the broader evangelical culture.
3. Our Understanding of What It Means to Be ‘Reformed’ Is Too Narrow
This last critique tends to come from those in academic circles who criticize pastors for using the “Reformed” label without a well-informed understanding of theological movements and church history. In particular, I often hear the criticism that TULIP has never been the central theology of the Reformed heritage and that many of our leaders (like Piper and Keller) are more representative of the Puritan branch of the Reformed tradition than of Calvin himself. The charge is usually demonstrated by the fact that there are Baptists among us or that many in our movement are surprised to hear Karl Barth described as a Reformed theologian. This critique seems less important to me than the first two in terms of its gravity. It’s largely a concern about labels, though it clearly intends to challenge the general historical ignorance of our movement (a critique leveled against evangelicals for a long time). But it’s also a critique I largely embrace. We do need to have a better understanding of where we fall within the history of Christianity, and we do need to gain a broader appreciation for the Reformed tradition than just TULIP. Having said that, I don’t think we’re wrong to embrace the label and to locate the doctrines of grace as part of the central concerns of the early Reformers.
I hope this brief outline will encourage us to listen and to think about where we need to continue to reform. For now, though, here’s what I think our Anabaptist friends may be seeing that we should consider: in our recovery of the gospel of grace, we’ve failed to kill the latent triumphalism and Constantinianism of evangelicalism, especially in our ecclesiology. In other words, many of us are still operating with the background framework of Christendom. We’re comfortable in our cultural context and feel at home. Our churches expect the support of the culture and operate on the assumption that as leaders we can organize and control our church life so as to achieve the results we desire. We condemn the prosperity gospel yet expect church to feel like a place of success and victory. While these concerns may seem out of left field, I wonder if they’re much closer to home than we’ve been willing to admit.