The question is often asked, “can an Arminian / Calvinist attend a Calvinist / Arminian church?” This question is asked by Christians who move, perhaps to small town, and discover that the only evangelical church holds different theological convictions than they do. The question deals with very serious issues related to how unity in worship can and should be maintained in diverse theological contexts, and it has baffled scholars and pastors alike for as long as it has been asked.
I suppose the most common answer to this question proposes that, assuming fidelity to the gospel of Christ is present, one should seek a meeting with the church’s pastor to make one’s position known, inquiring about to what extent and capacity one would be welcome in the church, and then begin worshiping with the church to whatever extent and in whatever capacity one is welcome in the church.
What I would like to do in this post, however, is to address this question from the perspective of a pastor; “Could I pastor a Calvinist?”
Some nuance at this point may benefit my answer. Although I am Arminian by theological persuasion (assuming “Arminianism” is properly understood, which it rarely is), I have both read and fellowshiped extensively in Reformed and Calvinistic circles; few authors have impacted me the way that D.A. Carson and Martyn Lloyd Jones have, and few systematic theologies have been as enlightening as John Frame’s four volume Lordship Theology series. Indeed, the profound contributions made by such classical writers as Augustine, Owens, and Edwards cannot be denied by anyone who has seriously considered their works. I hold these and other Reformed / Calvinistic minds in high esteem, and recognize that the Lord has used them mightily to equip and advance the kingdom of God. So, while I may not be Calvinist, it is not for lack of serious study and close relationships with other Calvinists. These are my beloved brothers and sisters, and I feel that I understand and respect Calvinsim as a system of Christian thought even though I disagree with its conclusions.
Therefore, the answer I give may not be suitable to someone who is unfamiliar with the teachings of Calvinism (or, for a Calvinist, the teachings Arminianism). Some degree of familiarity with the beliefs of your flock is necessary to faithfully shepherd their souls. It is also necessary to show them the respect they deserve as God’s children. Without being first acquainted with the beliefs others hold, it is certain that misunderstandings will lead to miscommunications, misrepresentations, quarrels, and division. Indeed, this is how most interactions between Arminians and Calvinists play out: misunderstanding, miscommunication, misrepresentations, quarrels, and division.
Could I Pastor a Calvinist?
The more common question, “would I attend a (Calvinist / Arminian) church?” is often asked without giving much consideration to whether or not a pastor could shepherd a (Calvinist / Arminian). In fact, this may even be the more important question because when a pastor takes on the role to shepherd the children of God, he takes on certain responsibilities that cannot be taken lightly and pledges before God to watch over the souls of God’s children (Hebrews 13:17).
For me, this is not a hypothetical question; it is my current reality (*numbers are approximations):
About 62% of our members are undefined, meaning they have either not demonstrated or expressed any particular theological convictions one way or the other, or have not yet expressed faith in Christ. This includes children who are either too young to confess faith, or who are entering a season where it will soon become evident whether or not they have received the faith of Christ. This also includes adults who simply believe that God’s words are the words of life and they follow him therein by faith.
About 14% of our church are Calvinist / Reformed in their theological convictions. These brothers and sisters in Christ have studied God’s word with intensity and become convinced of the Calvinist theological system of faith.
Another 14% of our church are Arminian in their theological convictions.
And about 7% of our church are Traditionalist in their theological convictions.
So, the obvious answer to my question is “yes, I would pastor a Calvinist”. I believe an Arminian can render sincere pastoral care to Calvinists because I believe pastoral care is primarily about feeding the word of God to his children and rendering Christ’s love to their souls. Unfortunately, we sometimes conflate our interpretations of complex issues with God’s word itself. But the two are not the same. Human interpretations of God’s word are fallible attempts to understand the meaning of God’s word. Only God’s word itself is infallible and only God’s intended meaning therein is divine. Treating human interpretations as infallible and loyally following them is described by Paul to the Corinthians as “carnal” and “infantile”.
How Should an Arminian Pastor a Calvinist?
When an Arminian pastor accepts the responsibility to pastor a Calvinist it means that he must be very careful in his preaching to be sensitive to the theological perspectives of his church. Indeed, his flock will learn how to be patient with him when he fails to be as sensitive as he ought – as I have done many times.
The pastor’s aim in preaching is not to convince his brothers and sisters of his theological convictions, but to nourish and equip their souls with God’s word. While he must not refrain from teaching his true theological convictions in their relevant texts, he also must show respect to the theological convictions of his church by giving attention to the relevant texts that show their theological convictions as well. And most of all, it means he must go to great lengths to guard his preaching against theological assumption and eisegesis, which lead to theological bias and arrogance.
Pastoring someone who holds different theological convictions can only succeed if it is based on mutual respect and the ultimate authority of God’s word to shape and direct our lives. When Christians defer to the teachings and interpretations of other men to settle disagreements, they are likely to divide, but when they turn to God’s word being committed to loving one another in Christ, they will be able to find agreement in the end objective and outworking of Scripture.
Why An Arminian Can Pastor a Calvinist
One of the primary reasons I believe that pastors can shepherd Christians under different theological convictions than them is because of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. When I first entered ministry, I read 1st Timothy weekly (sometimes daily) for the first 3 years of my ministry. And during the course of reading Paul’s first pastoral epistle to Timothy I discovered that pastoral ministry is not about guarding sectarian lines, but rather, it is about ministering God’s will to his sheep through the word.
1st Timothy 1:3-4 (CSB) 3 As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach false doctrine 4 or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith.
At first glance, one might take this verse as a proof text for defending sectarian lines. After all, one might conclude that any perceived errors in another’s theology constitute “false doctrine”. But that is the least charitable option and assumes some measure of infallibility in human knowledge and systems. Likewise, and more importantly, I would challenge that stance by examining this text closer. Paul says, “These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith”. In other words, the kind of false doctrines that Paul has in mind are those which undermine God’s plan as it is carried out by faith in the kind of love that he will elucidate in verse five.
When I began to seriously examine the theological claims made by Calvinists, I did not discover a system that undermined God’s plan, which operates by faith. Instead, I discovered one that upheld it! I am not talking about the lazy brand of Calvinism that is often expressed by lay-Calvinists who have not taken the necessary time to study and understand their system of belief enough to really know what it teaches or how it works; these are the tares in God’s field that teach various kinds of “easy believism” and “hyper grace”, which are used to justify sin and rebellion against God. No, I’m talking about the theologically robust and internally consistent system held by Calvinists who have actually read and understood their own system of belief.
Calvinism is a tightly-weaved system – what I refer to as a “closed system” – in the sense that you cannot change any of its principle teachings without weakening the whole system. And, although there are certain teachings that I believe are inconsistent with the doctrine of Scripture and the character of God that prevent me from embracing Calvinism, I have not found any teaching in Calvinism which fundamentally opposes “the plan of God that operates by faith” when measured with any degree of charity and understanding.
An Arminian can pastor a Calvinist because neither Arminianism nor Calvinism are infallible systems; they are human constructs of Scripture’s infallible theology. He can pastor someone with different theological convictions because Scripture teaches him to accurately identify what constitutes “false doctrine”, thereby enabling him to show patience on questionable matters, and because Scripture teaches him the true “purpose of instruction”, enabling him to carry out God’s purposes for pastors.
So, what is God’s purpose for pastoral instruction?
1st Timothy 1:5 (CSB) 5 Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.
The pastor’s primary objective in teaching God’s word is to nurture and grow the kind of love that comes from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from a sincere faith. And while there are many offshoots of these core principles for which the pastor is responsible, all of the theological principles of worship, Christian service, and spiritual fellowship that Paul elucidates as pastoral responsibilities in his first letter to Timothy arise out of these Christ-virtues. Without them, no true worship, Christian service, or spiritual fellowship can take place in any way that is pleasing to God.
Although many will challenge me on this point, I know from both rigorous study and personal experience that both Calvinism and Arminianism can accomplish this goal in their teaching.
Therefore, an Arminian pastor seeking to shepherd one of God’s Calvinist children must feed them with the kind of preaching that can nourish these virtues with the word of God.
Churches Should Seek Theological Diversity!
The theological diversity in our church has enriched our character in ways that I could never have imagined. Whereas I might have once imagined such a church as ours would be doomed to breakdown in quarrels and strife, I have seen Christians growing together in love for one another as we strive together for the unity of the faith.
I don’t want to be guilty of painting our church’s situation with a rose-colored brush; we’re not perfect, we struggle, and forming cohesive relationships as one Christian family has been a real struggle. On top of our theological diversity, because we are a missionary church plant, we represent a dramatic spectrum of cultural, socio-economic, and linguistic diversity as well. Indeed, there are days that I feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face here. But there is something among us that transcends these differences and unifies us in Christ, something that keeps us coming back to worship together and hear God’s word! And that something is our common hope in Christ, which I believe has been amplified by our diversity, not hindered.
In fact, I believe this theological diversity should extend to a church’s leadership as well. My co-pastor is a Traditionalists. One of the missionaries associated with our group is a Calvinist. And our small-group teacher is also a Calvinist. This theological diversity has challenged me in both my theological knowledge and – perhaps more importantly – in my commitment to love my brothers and sisters in Christ the way that Christ loved them. This has done more to complete the love of Christ in my heart and in my life than I could have ever imagined.
Yes, ecclesial life would have been much easier if our group was theologically homogeneous. We wouldn’t have spent more than a year and a half writing and combing through a detailed Biblical ecclesiology. We would have been spared many difficult conversations about God, the nature of salvation, and the functions of the Church. Some of our meetings might have been more productive from a pragmatic point of view. The Lord knows many of our meetings were consumed with these points when we really needed to focus on “getting things done”. But I believe we have learned more about following God’s plan by faith in this setting than we could have ever learned if we remained theologically exclusive.
Theological diversity does not require abandoning your convictions, but it does require forming those convictions carefully. Strongly held convictions that are based on theological assumption and speculation are dangerous and will divide the body if no one is willing to yield to anyone else on those points. Yet Scripture requires strong theological convictions to stand up as the light of Christ’s testimony in a generation that is being swept away in a flood of unbelief and moral depravity. For our church, and especially for our leadership, I believe our theological diversity has amplified our common theological convictions, not dampened them. It has made me realize what it means to “possess your soul by patience”. And it has driven us to depend more heavily on the word of God alone as the voice of Christ’s Lordship in the body.
Most importantly, it has fueled a burning hunger to see the Lord’s desire realized in our body:
John 17:20-23 (CSB) I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. 21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. 22 I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.