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by Rick Patrick
I will never forget where I was when I first heard the term super spiritual separatism. It was a classroom discussion in one of my first doctoral seminars. I had openly shared my experience about some church members whose preferences were causing conflict in the fellowship. Hot dogs were out since they were a "man made" food instead of a "God made" food. Candy at church, particularly around Halloween, was problematic for their eight children. Even our annual Fall Festival Halloween alternative was offensive, as they preferred to recognize Martin Luther's birthday, presumably by nailing pieces of paper on doors all day long. These people loved Jesus and possessed sweet attitudes in their conversation. It was not so much their behavior that offended everyone, but the unmistakable sense of spiritual superiority manifested in all of their rule following.
Today, super spirituality is not only demonstrated through legalistically exclusive behavior, but also through doctrinally exclusive beliefs. One need not go very far to find that church who believes their preaching is more Christ-centered than others, or that their practices are more gospel-driven than others. They possess a sense of superiority when comparing themselves to all of the routine, run of the mill churches whose emphasis upon Christ and the gospel come across with a more understated attitude.
Perhaps no two words are more precious to me than the words "Christ" and "gospel," which explains why I am so reticent to give up their usual meaning and surrender the semantic ground to those who seem to claim a special relationship with each that simply excludes others like me who describe our view of Christ and the gospel a bit differently.
Unfortunately, the word "gospel" has almost become another word for Calvinism. Conferences like Together for the Gospel and organizations like The Gospel Coalition are exclusively reformed. People may disagree over the content of The Gospel Project Sunday School literature, but as a matter of fact, the creative team responsible contains a greater percentage of reformed theologians than are found among the writers and editors of other Southern Baptist material. If Calvinists truly believe that others who disagree with their soteriology are also preaching the true gospel, then please leave a little gospel for us when you name your events and organizations. When you quote Spurgeon saying, "Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else," you must realize that such a definition places you in an exclusive club in which we apparently have no membership.
One troubling question about which there appears to be great waffling on the part of Calvinists is the issue of whether or not we are all referring to the same gospel. On the one hand, Calvinists who identify with the Founders Ministries define their purpose as "the recovery of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the reformation of local churches." Of course, if the gospel needs to be recovered, this implies that what many churches like mine have embraced is not the true gospel at all. One only recovers that which has been lost, that which is missing. Frankly, while I disagree with the Founders that my gospel needs to be recovered so as to line up with their understanding of it or that my church needs to be reformed to look like theirs, I do at least appreciate their candor and honesty in admitting that we are talking about two distinct gospels and two distinct visions for church life. The Founders are not hiding our differences or pretending we all believe the same thing when we so obviously do not.
On the other hand, try discussing with many Calvinists whether we believe in the same gospel, and you will hear some version of the following: "We agree on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, that God saves sinful man by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We only differ on the minor detail of how God brings that about."
But this perspective of the Gospel Unity Calvinists does not at all reconcile with the perspective of the Founders Calvinists. One cannot say, simultaneously, "Our gospels are exactly the same," and "We want to recover your gospel to make it like ours."
Moving from the subject of a superior gospel to a superior connection to Christ, it is helpful to consider certain claims made by one of the divisive groups in Corinth: What I am saying is this: Each of you says, “I’m with Paul,” or “I’mwith Apollos,” or “I’m with Cephas,” or “I’m with Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12).
Now certainly, as Christians, we are all with Christ. I hope we can at least agree upon that fact. But the issue of claiming a special allegiance to Christ in distinction to that of others is a problem. It adds to the tone of a superior gospel the tone of a superior connection to Christ, one that others evidently do not share. It gives the impression that while Calvinists are deeply and intentionally focused upon Christ, others must enjoy a relationship with Him that is something far less.
Google "Christ Centered Preaching" and you will find title after title by Presbyterian and other reformed theologians. Just as the word gospel is now used almost exclusively to refer to Calvinism, one finds a slew of terms prefaced by the phrase Christ Centered: books, life, journey, lessons, publications, church, music, etc., nearly all of which stem from reformed influences.
In this appeal, I am not speaking to motives, but only to results. If Christ-centered and gospel-driven are virtually synonymous with Calvinism, then Christ-centered, gospel-driven people like me are put in a very awkward position: accept the terms and be associated with doctrines I disaffirm, or reject the terms and seemingly distance myself from my Lord and my message. Calvinists who truly desire unity with Christians like me must somehow find a way to describe their ministries using terms unique to them. Since the terms "Christ" and "gospel" belong to all Christians, please reform your terminology.