Calvinist Pastors and Non-Calvinist Churches: Candidating, Pastoring, and Moving On

Article
02.05.2019

When asked to introduce myself, I don’t typically identify myself as a Calvinist. But maybe that was the problem.

In 2009, I began preaching at a church near the seminary where I was studying. Within six months, my pulpit supply turned into an interim role as preaching pastor, which then resulted in being called as senior pastor.

During the candidating process, the church heard me preach dozens of times, the search committee asked me countless questions, the people got to know me and my family, and the subject of Calvinism never came up—except once.

In a conversation during my interim preaching, I learned a previous interim had been “terminated” for his Calvinist views. This dismissal, however, resulted in a quick “re-hire” and as far as I knew the interim pastor served the remainder of his time without incident.

In my naïvete, I assumed this course correction meant that while the church was not Calvinistic, neither was it antagonistic toward Calvinism. After all, they’d seen the error of their ways, and brought this brother-pastor back to preach. Right? Wrong.

That assumption was a mistake, one that would have ongoing repercussions for the next five years of my life.

In what follows, I want to share a few things that might be helpful for you—Calvinist pastor—if the Lord leads you to a church that doesn’t celebrate the doctrines of grace. At the same time, for any non-Calvinist listening in on the conversation, I pray the reflections given here might spur us all toward love and good deeds, greater understanding and commitment, love for God, and love for one another.

Non-Calvinists vs. Anti-Calvinists

Fast forward five years and the church had taken a decided turn toward anti-Calvinism.

In our church, I’d attempted to navigate a positive vision of gospel-centered, missions-minded ministry. This meshed well with the SBC’s 2008 agreement to disagree on the finer points of Calvinism, while majoring on the gospel and the need to reach the lost. [1] Sadly, all such endeavors spiraled downward.

Over time, it became clear that there’s a great difference between non-Calvinists and anti-Calvinists. Therefore, any counsel I might give here depends on what kind of non-Calvinist you find leading (or influencing) your church. This difference is about far more than doctrine; it’s about tone, temperament, and a willingness to unify over other shared doctrines like Scripture, salvation, and service.

If you find yourself in a situation where the tide has turned against Calvinism, then you’re in a much different place than if you’re in a church where the doctrines of grace are relatively unknown. Moreover, you must be aware of the influences—denominational or otherwise—that surround your church.

Simply put, pastoral ministry is no longer purely local. I’ve found that virtual voices and social media sources have an exaggerated and typically deleterious impact on the members of our churches. Therefore, Calvinist pastor, it’s wise to know what kind of non-Calvinist you are shepherding and what voices they’re listening to.

Even more, the most important thing you can do in serving the Lord faithfully is to build relationships with your people, so that when debates about doctrine come—and they will come—your care for them will disprove the caricatures they find online. Though your relational efforts may still not overcome this theological divide, for the integrity of your ministry and the good of the church, personal ministry is key.

Where Do Anti-Calvinists Come From?

Okay, so what happened at my church? What brought about this unhappy conversion? As I reflect, three elements contributed to the rise of anti-Calvinism in our church.

1. The Internet

Never before have people trusted themselves or strangers more than with the advent of the internet. Sadly, as our church considered the merits and demerits of the doctrines of grace, a chief consultant was Google. As a result, instead of finding irenic voices that could explain the historic debate, Google searches led to skewed sources that unfavorably misrepresented the other side. [2]

In general, pastors need to appreciate the way our heroes of old preached, prayed, loved, and stayed in congregations that were not impacted by the information age. By faithful exposition of the Scriptures, they led their people into a greater understanding of biblical truth without the intrusion of internet hotheads. Today, however, circumstances have changed, and the internet may force Calvinist pastors in non-Calvinist churches to give an account for their doctrine.

This doesn’t mean the internet has ruined the “subversive” operations of Calvinist pastors sneaking into non-Calvinist churches. It does mean that Calvinist and non-Calvinist Christians alike will have a far more difficult time sitting under the Word of God together when both sides appeal to the nuclear arsenal of the World Wide Web.

2. External Leaders

When members begin to question the fidelity of their pastor’s teaching, they rarely (regrettably) go to their pastor. This is true in general, but perhaps more so when it comes to Calvinism. Often, concerned members will seek out former pastors or outside help, which may or may not help at all!

When outside consultants and denominational workers feed fears instead of understanding, the opportunity for Christians to grow in biblical truth and love for others who don’t share their theological convictions is lost. Outside sources could help the situation if they pointed concerned members back to their pastor. In my own situation, however, these outside “experts” often fed the false narrative of Calvinist pastors and their hidden agendas.

3. Weak Relationships

Still, above these two external factors, anti-Calvinists exist mainly because of the loss of relationships between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. As I look back on my five years in a non-Calvinist church, I’m deeply aware of how little time I spent with people.

Finishing a doctoral degree during this same season, coupled with a personal inclination toward the study and not the front porch, made my relationships too weak to sustain the weight of this theological divide. While many friendships were strong before the onslaught of internet-fed accusations, they simply couldn’t withstand the pressure when arguments came.

Just as our nation in the Internet Age has experienced increased political separation and hostility, so have Calvinists and Non-Calvinists in the local church. Religious zealots can be found on both sides, those who prize their so-called “camp” more than their common salvation in Christ. Of course, the information age only increases this challenge.

Calvinist pastors in non-Calvinist churches, therefore, must foster relationships so that the church is not ripped apart by doctrinal disagreements. They must teach that personal relationships are more valuable and worthwhile than virtual relationships, and then they must go out and model this truth. In my five years at a non-Calvinist church, I didn’t establish relationships deep enough to withstand the onslaught of anti-Calvinist voices, and as a result my time there was cut short.

Under God’s sovereignty, I see the wisdom of my departure from this church—for the good of that church and the grace of God in a new pastoral setting. Still, my heart grieves at how this non-Calvinist church came under the influence of anti-Calvinist voices and how my own ministry lacked the relational capital to shepherd this congregation well.

Nonetheless, God teaches from our failures and in what follows I want to share five points that might help a Calvinist pastor serve a non-Calvinist congregation.

Embrace a New TULIP

If Calvinist pastors are to serve with grace and truth, they need to learn a new TULIP. This is true for Calvinist pastors candidating at a non-Calvinist church as well as those who currently serve a non-Calvinist church. In one sense, I despise the harsh divisions these labels bring, because they fall prey to and reinforce the stereotypes of these terms, but for sake of brevity, I will use them.

1. Trust in God’s Sovereignty

Candidating Pastor

Don’t hide your doctrinal beliefs just to get the job. I don’t think I did this when I candidated, but I’ve spent more than a few restless nights trying to recall my motivations in 2009. Did I intentionally deceive the church I grew to love as I went from pulpit supply to interim to pastor? I don’t think so, but that was the repeated accusation as my tenure ended, one that I have had to consider and submit to the Lordship of Christ (cf. Psalm 139).

That said, if you’re a pastoral candidate, trust God for his placement and don’t hide your doctrinal convictions. If the church doesn’t have the theological acumen to ask you about it, bring it up with gentleness and patience. Show them how you will teach these doctrines and how important they are to you. (This will vary with each candidate and will show why one Calvinist can lead a non-Calvinist church and another cannot). Far better to “disqualify” yourself in the candidating process than to receive a call to a place where theological debate will follow immediately.

Current Pastor

Don’t question God’s sovereignty. Whether you knew what you were getting into or not, take heart. God knew. God knows. You are where he put you.

Therefore, trust in God’s sovereign rule in your life and ministry. Indeed, if your doctrine is only a theory, it will lead to murmuring and envy. But if God’s sovereignty is your meat and drink, it will supply you with all you need to shepherd God’s church—whether he calls you to stay or go.

2. Unconditionally Love the Church

Candidating Pastor

Calvinism is not the gospel. I believe it’s the best expression of the gospel and that the doctrines of grace motivate missions, equip churches, humble saints, and retain the truths of the gospel across generations. But predestination and effectual calling aren’t the message that saves. Christ crucified and raised from the dead is (1 Cor. 15:1–8).

Therefore, don’t deceive yourself into thinking your Calvinism will save a church. The non-Calvinist church doesn’t need your Calvinism. They need the gospel. Therefore, you’ll best love them by pointing them to Christ and the whole counsel of God. Yes, I believe this includes the doctrines of grace, but keep the gospel at the center, and make the church (under God) call you or reject you based upon your fervency for Christ, not your devotion to Calvinism.

Current Pastor

You don’t need Calvinism to be a faithful pastor. Again, I believe the whole counsel of God teaches the doctrines of grace, and if God gives you time, you should love God’s people by teaching them what the Bible teaches about salvation. That said, if your church is allergic to the doctrines of grace, then you can still teach them to trust God’s Word, rejoice in his grace, glory in Jesus, and obey the Great Commission. In time, this might lead some to embrace the grace of God in election, even if it takes three years or three decades. Or you may find steadfast recalcitrance that leads you to another place of ministry. Either way, love them by feeding them the Word of God, not a system of men.

3. Limit the Language of Calvinism, Not the Language of Scripture

Candidating Pastor

In this article, I’ve used the term Calvinist pastor and non-Calvinist church throughout. That said, my personal encouragement would be to avoid labels whenever possible. Because labels are so freighted with misunderstanding, it rarely helps to fly the banner of Calvinism unless you’re willing to accept all the stereotypes that come with it. This is not to deny the value and need for confessionalism; it’s to say that confessionalism depends on the chance to explain from Scripture the doctrines we confess.

Therefore, in your candidating be sure to know what the church’s statement of faith is and how your own doctrinal convictions match up—or don’t. If you’re going to be the teaching pastor, you can demonstrate from the start how you handle the Bible, weigh doctrine (think: theological triage ), and explain competing doctrines with gentleness and patience. While every church and every Calvinist pastor is different, be upfront about your beliefs, seek the counsel of trusted friends, and show how you would teach God’s Word to the non-Calvinist church without overly technical theological verbiage.

Current Pastor

The same advice will serve the Calvinist pastor planted in a non-Calvinist church. While the Lord may allow you to lead the church to an understanding of the doctrines of grace, this should not be the measure of your success. Instead, pray for your people, teach them God’s Word, preach the gospel, organize a prayer meeting, watch what God is doing, and invest in disciple-making. In my five years, I never attempted to implement the doctrines of grace—whatever that means—but I did introduce expositional preaching and helped the people spend more time in God’s Word.

Calvinist pastor, you can have a fruitful ministry even if your people never embrace your theology. Various factors will determine how long you should stay in a church where hostility continues to mount against you and the doctrines you hold. But embrace the words of Paul to Timothy to “remain” where God has planted you (1 Tim. 1:3). Teach the Word of God to the people, and let their rejection of God’s Word—not your theological system—be the measuring rod for staying or going.

Intercede without Ceasing, and Wait Upon the Lord

Whether you’re candidating or currently serving at a non-Calvinist church, the most important thing you can do is pray for the church.

Candidating Pastors

If you’re candidating, then pray God makes the people teachable and yourself able to teach. The truth is, some qualified men simply aren’t well-suited to teach in certain places. While we should always begin with the elder qualifications of Timothy and Titus, there are other more subjective factors for receiving or rejecting a call.

Again, doctrinal statements are useful for discerning the kind of harmony a church and candidate must share. Still, wisdom should be applied when matching a pastor and church together. No church or pastor knows all they’re getting into when they begin, but in all circumstances prayer is vital for keeping our hearts humble and receptive for all that God intends in any ministry.

Current Pastors

Current pastors should also give themselves to prayer—for their own hearts and for God to grow the church in the knowledge of God. Calvinism teaches that knowledge of God is a gift of grace, and accordingly Calvinist pastors should be the most humble, gracious, and long-suffering of all God’s servants. Similarly, our prayer should remind us that unless God opens eyes, the lost, and even the found, will remain in darkness until God grants understanding.

Accordingly, current pastors should pray for the light of God to illumine the Word. And they should pray for wisdom to make decisions, including how long they should remain. Inviting others to pray with them is vital in this spiritual battle, as is the need for like-minded friends to give counsel and assistance.

Ultimately, we hold to the doctrines of grace because we believe they’re true to Scripture and best for the health of God’s children. Still, it’s up to God to reveal his truths to his people, and so we must intercede without ceasing for God to work.

Persevere and Make Plans

Candidating Pastor

One of the most difficult times in an aspiring pastor’s life is that season of waiting. As a result, it’s tempting to “just take a position.” Yet, if you trust in God’s absolute sovereignty, then you can persevere in a holding pattern, trusting that God has good works planned for you (Eph. 2:10). Accordingly, my encouragement would be to persevere in a non-vocational role of service instead of prematurely or foolishly jumping into position of ministry that’s not a good fit. [3]

That said, don’t reject a call to non-Calvinist church because they don’t affirm your favorite Reformed confession. There are many reasons for accepting such a call. At the same time, there are many unique challenges as well—for both the pastor and his family. Thus, receiving a call to non-Calvinist church should not be taken lightly, and plans should be made from the outset on how to best serve this congregation. Ideally, the more open you are about your theological convictions and the more committed you are to pastoral care, the better position you’ll be in when doctrinal tensions arise.

Side-note: I’ve written this article out of my own experience in a church that didn’t have a plurality of elders. Should you find a non-Calvinist church with a plurality of elders, there’s a greater chance for theologically robust conversations before entering the role and/or understanding on how to go forward in handling current theological challenges.

Current Pastor

Just the same, perseverance and planning are essential for serving faithfully in a non-Calvinist church. Even if you find that the church is ardently anti-Calvinistic and that staying long term is unlikely, the call to persevere is essential. Whatever God has for you and the church, your perseverance in the face of opposition is essential for the church and your future ministry. The church needs to see how a godly pastor endures suffering for the sake of truth—whether they receive your teaching or not. Perhaps your faithfulness under opposition will prepare the way for another pastor. But most certainly it will be a means of sanctifying you.

Because God designs all of life to mature his disciples, the faithful Calvinist pastor should see this difficult calling as a necessary part of his sanctification and growth. As Paul teaches us, God alone gives the growth in ministry (1 Cor. 3:7). But it seems like we all need to learn this lesson personally. For me, serving a non-Calvinist church did wonders to teach me about God’s grace and sovereignty. Before pastoring this church, I held to many doctrines in theory. But after suffering through many cycles of accusation and opposition, they became heart-felt convictions and greater means of grace.

Truly, our Lord knows how to build his church. Amazingly, he’s doing it with people of various theological beliefs. While not all doctrinal systems are equally biblical, we also know that we can’t claim omniscience. Therefore, as pastors convinced of Calvinist doctrine we must be the most humble, patient, and gracious of all men. Our calling is not to bull-whip sheep into the deeper things of God. We’re called to be humble shepherds who feed the flock and bring them to Jesus.

If that’s your calling and your conviction, pastor, then you can do well in a Calvinist or non-Calvinist church. But regardless of where the Lord has put you today, remain faithful where you are, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, and love those whom God has given you—whether they’re Calvinist, anti-Calvinist, or somewhere in between.


[1] The official title of this document was “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.” Available online athttp://www.sbclife.net/article/2207/truth-trust-and-testimony-in-a-time-of-tension .

[2] Sadly, I discovered this after the fact as some church members showed me the emails that linked to these sources—one of whom, humorously, misspelled the topic of Calvnism.

[3] On the need for churches and pastors to find the right “fit” for ministry, see Tom Fillinger’s helpful, “Pastoral Placement — FIT.” Tom’s ministry at Ignite Us proved invaluable for me, as God used him to find a good fit in ministry.

By:
David Schrock

David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. You can find him on Twitter @DavidSchrock.