Calvinism’s bully problem

When I say I’m a Calvinist, what I mean is that my views on divine sovereignty, predestination and grace line up well with the tradition of “Reformed” theology and churches. I understand debatable texts (such as Romans 9) to mean that God is His own counselor when it comes to the salvation of sinners. He is neither compelled by goodness in us or knowledge of what we will eventually choose. His election is sovereign, free and merciful.

This is a profound mystery. A wise man has called it the difficult doctrine of the love of God. I believe in it because I see it in Scripture and am persuaded that this interpretation makes the most sense of the Bible. I know and love others who disagree at various levels. They would call me a Calvinist.

I must confess, I am as close as I’ve ever been to dropping that word completely and denying that it applies to me. I say this not because of a change in me or my theology but because of a change in the culture of American Calvinism. Calvinism in evangelical America has a bully problem. We have too many bullies in our ranks, and too many of those have risen to levels of leadership, ministry and public trust.

Not every bully is a “bully problem.” A bully problem happens when a bully is empowered by those around him to continue in his behavior. He becomes emboldened in his hatefulness because he sees that he has the support (this can be silence) of a network.

Why do people stay silent? The biggest reason is that they don’t want to legitimize the criticisms of those outside their theological camp. This is called “culture war.” In culture war those with opposing beliefs become strategic enemies whose arguments must be explicitly rebuffed or ignored, in hopes that the correct theological culture will gradually choke them out. Agreeing with a culture war opponent is an unacceptable risk because it invites people to ask where else the theological tribe may be mistaken. So if a pastor or other public figure is a member of theological camp A, and says or does offensive things which are called out by theological camp B, the other folks in theological camp A are loth to say anything in order to avoid a potentially damaging overlap with camp B.

This is exactly what happened with Mark Driscoll and my Calvinist camp. Driscoll’s bullying ways were well known for many years, but because the only people speaking out about it were members of another theological tribe, my tribe went silent in order to not legitimize their platform. This went on until Driscoll finally started offending the sensibilities of his own camp. But by that time Driscoll, with the support of the silent tribe, had done much that was either irreversible or inexplicable.

And now the silent Calvinist camp can only stare at our feet while hearing stories of how J.D. Hall, a Calvinist pastor from Montana, harassed the son of one of his theological opponents on Twitter. Hall’s campaign against Ergun Caner stretches back many years and involves some  very legitimate complaints about Caner’s honesty and fitness for ministry. But Hall took it to another level on July 4 when he tweeted out to Caner’s son Braxton, confronting him about the “immorality” on Braxton’s Twitter page (by which he referred to a picture of 15 year old Braxton kissing his girlfriend) and saying that “immorality surrounds [Ergun Caner].”

Braxton Caner committed suicide a few weeks later.

Did Hall’s tweets motivate Braxton’s decision? The only honest answer is that we don’t know. What we do know is that Hall, an ordained pastor and leader of Reformation Montana,  bullied a teenage boy in order to humiliate him and his father.

What has been the response of the Reformed community? James White, a Calvinist apologetics professor who has also ruthlessly pursued Caner through his Tweets and blogs, posted this just hours after news of Braxton’s death:

Sadly, I have already seen some using this event as a pretext for criticism—not of Ergun Caner, but of those who have sought honesty and integrity in his life. This needs to stop, immediately.The issues surrounding Ergun Caner’s past can, and must, be set aside for the time being.

This is remarkably callous. White, who was stone silent during Hall’s Twitter warpath, steps in only to say that the critics of Caner’s critics need to stop talking.

No, Dr. White. J.D. Hall is the one who needs to stop talking. And his and mine fellow Calvinists across the evangelical world need to start talking about how theological conviction is never a license to bully. We need to start talking about Calvinism’s bully problem, and why many of our seminary graduates are arrogant jerks who use social media to slander and harass the “heretics” into submission. We need to ask serious questions about the state of Reformed education and why it seems unable–or unwilling–to extricate itself from a culture of bullies and tribalism.

Theological liberalism is a great threat. But so are hatefulness, arrogance and cruelty. What will it take before we become honest about the enormous plank in our eye? What will have to happen before Calvinists admit that we have a culture problem, one that stays silent while teachers and preachers engage in abusive behavior?

I hope for the sake of the church that the Reformed subculture in American evangelicalism prayerfully addresses this ugly reality. It can’t afford to go on.

Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:23-24

[Edit: Just hours after this post went up, news broke that the Acts 29 network, which Mark Driscoll founded and led for many years, has removed Driscoll and Mars Hill church from membership and asked Driscoll to resign from ministry and seek help.

I believe this is a good decision by the Acts 29 leadership and one that demonstrates what needs to happen within evangelical Calvinism.]

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One comment

  1. Sidra Zimmerman · August 8, 2014

    Thank you for this, Sam. This is the sort of grace Calvinism needs at the moment, and I’ve been moved by how I’ve been hearing the same sort of thoughts expressed by other Calvinists as of late. I think recognizing there has been bullying, taking into account of the character of Christ, and then acting on those realizations with discernment will led Reformed Christians to revival. Even though it’s been rough with all of the inappropriate aggression, I believe God’s glory will be revealed through this, and that’s all that matters.

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