I know a pastor who thinks militant Calvinism is about to overtake the Southern Baptist Convention and lead to multiple church splits. In personal conversation, he is constantly going back to the dangers of Reformed theology and the damage it is doing across the evangelical world.

I have a friend on the other side of the spectrum – a truly Reformed guy convinced that the contemporary church movement, particularly its Purpose-Driven manifestation, is man-centered, God-dishonoring and infecting evangelicalism all over the place, leaving us powerless for mission and divided in our churches. Whenever I talk with him, he is constantly railing against church growth and numbers-obsessed pastors who only want to build monuments to themselves.

I have another friend who has a visceral reaction whenever someone is expressive in worship. He talks often about how people are just showing off. Their enthusiasm isn’t real. If it gets out of hand, it will cause problems.

The Common Thread: A Story

Do you know these types? Maybe it’s not Calvinism or church growth or charismatic expression but something else. The common thread you find is that they are almost obsessive in their critique of a movement, theological persuasion, or church practice they think is doing damage to the kingdom of God.

There’s one thing all these guys have in common: a past experience. Behind every theological crusader, you can usually find a story.

For the anti-Calvinist pastor, it was a church he labored over for many years. When he moved to another city, the church called a Reformed pastor who immediately began pushing a theological agenda that surprised and startled the congregation. A heated battle took place, and the church went through a messy split. The former pastor felt like much of the work he had done was obliterated by his Calvinistic successor.

For the anti-Purpose-Driven guy, it was a church he belonged to for many years. When a new pastor came in and began changing the direction of the church to become primarily focused on seekers, my friend felt increasingly uncomfortable. The new pastor downplayed doctrine and theology, leaving a number of church members feeling marginalized and antiquated. My friend’s concerns were shoved aside and ignored. Eventually, they had a painful parting with the church, and the pastor dismissed them as being more focused on theology than evangelism.

For the anti-charismatic guy, it was a church split that took place as a result of extreme charismatic expression. The wrangling and politics and behind-the-scenes infighting that was covered up by talk of “God moving” and “revival breaking out” causes him to resist any talk of that sort, even if it is perfectly biblical.

In these and other cases, you notice there’s usually a painful story that serves as the backdrop for their current crusade. And you can probably think of similar examples yourself. These guys may be at different points on the theological spectrum, but they are united by their similar story: bad leadership, painful parting, heartbreaking results – now leading to a passionate crusade.

What to Learn from the Crusader

Why is it important to note that behind theological crusaders there is often a story? Because you can learn something from their experiences. You can learn about bad leadership styles and unwise decisions. You can also see how quickly one can be blindly biased toward a whole segment of evangelicalism because of a painful history.

No doubt there are angry, militant Calvinists who have split churches over hills not worth dying on. No doubt there are Purpose-Driven guys who have burned people as they made changes in churches. No doubt there are excesses in charismatic expression and situations of pastoral abuse of authority. While most Christians understand that you can’t judge a whole movement or theology based on these sad situations, the people in the thick of a controversy can and do. 

I’ve found that whenever I come across “issue Christians” – whether they be Calvinist, anti-Calvinist, church growth, anti-church growth, Dispensationalist, or charismatic – I ought to hear their story.

What is it about seeing a noted Calvinist author quoted in the bulletin that bugs you so much? We had a fierce battle over Calvinism a few years ago, and the church has not recovered.

What is it about contemporary worship music that makes you mad? I got burned by a pastor who ramrodded his agenda in a way that caused angst and division.

What is it about raising your hands in worship that bothers you so much? My church split when the pastor led us in a charismatic direction where people were being slain in the Spirit.

How to Help: Return to Grace

Sometimes the crusader just wants to be heard. So let them tell their story. That said, debating the finer points of theology is not the way to go. Debating the strengths and weaknesses of the charismatic worship movement or the man-centered or God-centered nature of Calvinism or church growth isn’t the point. When someone’s been burned, they need a bandage, not an explanation of how the burning takes place.

Instead, it’s best to point them away from the bad examples of leadership they’ve seen to what’s good in the movement they crusade against. There is always a mixture of good and bad in every cycle that comes through church history. Every revival has its excesses. Every leader has shortcomings. Lower the level of idealism a bit. And then bring the conversation back around to grace.

You know, it’s sad that you had such a bad experience with a pastor who talks so much about grace. Isn’t that just another reminder of how badly we all need God’s grace?

Sorry to hear about your pastor marginalizing you in the name of welcoming new people. His motivations may very well have been wrong. Makes me shudder to think of my own motivations at times. Aren’t you glad we’re not saved by our perfect sincerity? We’d all be in trouble if that were the case.

I’m sorry to hear about the hypocrisy you saw during those worship services. Just goes to show you how messed up the church is, doesn’t it? My heart isn’t always fully engaged in worship either. Another reminder of how badly we’ve fallen and how much we need Jesus!

Don’t try to persuade them to give up the crusade. It’s probably not going to work. And theological crusades can distract us from the mission God has called us to.

Instead, offer to pray with them. Listen to them. Learn from them. Give them guidance if they ask for it. And then challenge the crusader to channel that passion back toward the Great Commission. Encourage them to not let their back story keep them from moving forward.