But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
— Galatians 5:22-23
The stereotype of the mean Calvinist exists for a reason. There’s a reason, after all, that clichés become clichés. If you spend any time in evangelical social media or have a more traveled experience in evangelical churches, you’ve been on the receiving end of a mean Calvinist before. If you’re like me, you’ve wondered at some point, “Why do those who subscribe to the doctrines of grace frequently seem so graceless? Is there something in particular about Calvinism that makes people mean?”
To that latter question, many have said yes. They do believe the essential tenets of Reformed theology lend themselves to coldness and harshness. I don’t think that’s true. And of course you may say that’s because I’m a Calvinist! And I am, so you may be right. But I’ve known far too many gracious, kind, Spirit-filled Calvinists to think there’s something in the doctrines that necessitates meanness. But there may be something in the culture or the application that lends itself more readily to unkind treatment of others. Below some thoughts on why too many Calvinists seem so mean. But first, some caveats*:
1. I know Calvinism refers to a broader system of historically Reformed theology, but I am using it here in the modern shorthand way of referring to anybody who subscribes to Reformed soteriology. And as I confirmed a moment ago, I put myself in that camp. So if you’re tempted to think I’m just into this for Calvinist bashing, please understand that these calls are coming from inside the house. In fact, I have been either guilty of or tempted to each of the problems listed below myself. All of us who own the label ought to own the baggage and watch ourselves.
2. I am differentiating mean Calvinism from “cage stage” Calvinism. If you’re not familiar with that phrase, “cage stage” refers to those who are new to Calvinism and so zealous/passionate about their new knowledge they ought to be locked in a cage for a while until they settle down, lest they hurt somebody. A lot of people emerge from the cage stage. The mean Calvinists I’m referring to are the ones who’ve been Calvinist long enough to have outgrown the cage stage. (Also, I’m of the opinion that most people who are new subscribers to any theology tend to go through similar cage stages. I’ve met plenty of social justice cage-stagers and anti-social justice cage-stagers, “progressive evangelicalism” cage-stagers, and so on. You probably have too. In fact, some of the meanest people I’ve known in church life and online have been angry about my Calvinism.)
With the hem and the haw out of the way, here are some theories on where mean Calvinism comes from:
Calvinism as Gnosis
This has been my leading theory on the reason for mean Calvinism for a while. The doctrines of grace serve for so many as a kind of “special knowledge” of the Scriptures that others don’t have—or at least, that the Calvinist didn’t have before he was a Calvinist. Now truth has been unlocked. He sees something others don’t. He’s been enlightened. He understands more deeply. And those who’ve come to Calvinism from ignorance of it or even opposition to it, begin to see how much sense it makes of so much Scripture. It’s like putting corrective lenses on for the first time.
Unfortunately, having this experience can be a huge temptation to pride, where the one now enlightened sees other Christians as un-enlightened. And that’s just a tiny half-step to seeing them as not as spiritual as we are or not as serious about their faith as we are. The “gnosis” of Calvinism leads to a behavioral heresy of arrogance and partiality. And in the end, those who’ve been “enlightened” start to see themselves as smarter than others or more diligent in the Bible than others, which means they inadvertently begin seeing the knowledge of grace as something they’ve earned or achieved, which is antithetical to grace itself.
Calvinism as Circumcision
This is a common source of mean Calvinism among those who’ve grown up in historically Reformed traditions, but it is not uncommon among those who wear their Reformed bona fides as a central marker of their identity and community. We all use our theological and philosophical labels to help people know where we’re coming from and identify others with whom we may share affinity, but for too many Calvinists one’s viewpoint on or degree of adherence to Calvinism becomes the way they determine who’s “in” and who’s “out.”
Some have so found their identity in Calvinist community that it begins to inform their sense of evangelical or covenantal inclusion. Calvinism becomes their “righteousness.” Which means of course that those who don’t share it—or who don’t share their seriousness about it—are treated like outsiders to or corrupters of the faith. I’ve known more than a few folks raised in Reformed traditions for whom a major identity marker of their upbringing was deeming Christians from non-Reformed traditions as less faithful, less intelligent, less serious, less whatever. Like the Judaizers of Paul’s day with circumcision, they have added something to the gospel to make grace-plus the sign of true salvation. In fact, it is dangerously possible that many of the worst revilers and repeat offenders online treat Calvinism as their (self-)righteousness precisely because they are not regenerate and do not have Christ’s imputed or imparted to them. Keep a close watch on your life, as well as your doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16); make sure you don’t treat Calvinism as the marks of who’s really a Christian. The biblical tests for salvation place greater emphasis on love and Christlike character than they do secondary or tertiary doctrines.
Calvinism as Crusade
This is a common approach of those who did not grow up in Reformed traditions but came to Reformed theology later in their discipleship. For many of them, they have a newfound resentment of their upbringing to go along with their newfound doctrine. They may feel cheated by those in their church background, that Calvinism was hidden from them or stolen from their experience. This bitterness about what was lacking in their past then fuels a sense of injustice in wanting to right those wrongs. “Everyone must know!” So one’s Christian life becomes about wearing Calvinism on the shirt sleeves, preaching the “gospel” of Calvinistic freedom to those in bondage to their ignorance.
The Calvinistic crusader tends to favor Calvinistic watchblogs and watchdogs, online “discernment ministries” of the Reformed persuasion, and other pugilistic types who picture themselves as walking in the steps of Martin Luther. They’ve come to fix the church. And that means treating those who don’t get with the Reformed program as impediments to the mission and even to the faith. The crusading Calvinist will bulldoze whoever’s necessary to “save” others from the ignorance he himself swam in for too long. He therefore becomes the Glengarry Glenn Ross of the Reformation, barking to himself and to his squad, “Always. Be. Calvinizing.” These guys are absolutely no fun at parties that involve people who aren’t like them.
Calvinism as Compartmentalization
This is a more general theory of one thing inherent to Calvinism philosophically and historically that might lend itself to the temptation toward meanness with others. It basically goes like this: Because Reformed theology is an articulate theology long presented in a rich system of doctrine, the people who resonate with it and who are drawn to it tend to be more systematic-type thinkers, those who appreciate order, categories, and so on. This is, no doubt, a good thing. But sometimes when we love order, systems, and categories, we don’t know what to do with Christians and Christian experiences that don’t fit neatly into these compartments.
If we generally like orderliness, we may struggle with so much of the inefficiency of the Christian life in general. Discipleship is a messy process because people are sinners, and besides that, people are also messy, and the world is broken. If we love our systems more than people or we only want to deal with people who see the world same as we do or who otherwise fit into our comfortable categories, we’ve turned our Calvinism into a way to compartmentalize our experience rather than as a window through which to see the glory of Christ in his purposes with all people and things.
Calvinism, rightly adhered to, is meant to stir our affections for Christ, not our disdain for our brethren. And if we are frequently charged with treating others in uncharitable ways, the humility necessary to the doctrine ought to produce a humility in its doctrinaires to ask if our lives actually contradict the doctrine we preach with our mouths.
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
— 1 John 3:18
* Mean Calvinists hate caveats.