"If you're a theologically minded, deeply convictional young evangelical, if you're committed to the Gospel and you want to see the nations rejoice in the name of Christ, if you want to see Gospel built and structured and committed churches, your theology is just gonna end up basically being Reformed, basically being something like this New Calvinism."
My father was a standout fullback in high school. At our family reunions my uncles and aunts would often regale me on how my dad would score touchdown after touchdown, usually bringing his team to victory. According to them, he was unstoppable! He could have attended college on a football scholarship but decided instead to join the Air Force during the Korean Conflict. No doubt he caught the opposing team off guard many times by running plays like the one pictured above.
Through personal experience and the testimonies of our brothers and sisters in Christ, Dee and I have discovered that there is a Calvinista playbook.
For those of you who may be new to TWW, here is what we mean by "Calvinista" (from our glossary of terms):
Calvinista: These are Calvinists gone wild. They are self-important, self-assured, and absolutely convinced that they know what the Bible says on every subject. They also believe anyone who doesn't agree with them is utterly wrong. They spend lots of time running around to conferences, getting together with other guys (women have no place in this discussion) who also agree with them 100%. In fact, they spend more time speaking at conferences than pastoring their churches.
New Calvinism is another way to describe this theological trend that is affecting (we would say infecting) conservative, traditional churches far and wide. If you are unfamiliar with these terms and unaware of this trend to 'restore the Gospel' to its reformed roots, then let me be frank – you and your congregation are sitting ducks (and the Calvinistas couldn't be more thrilled!)
Southern Baptist seminaries, along with some Reformed ones, are cranking out New Calvinist clones at an alarming rate. These "enlightened" seminary grads are poised to transform traditional churches to fit the Calvinista mold. Here are Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ligon Duncan, Chancellor of the Reformed Theological Seminary, and Kevin DeYoung, a Presbyterian pastor and seminary professor, discussing this trend:
Let's carefully consider Al Mohler's edict (beginning at the 1:09 mark):
That's another aspect to this and that is where else are they gonna go? I mean what options are there? If you're a theologically minded, deeply convictional young evangelical, if you're committed to the Gospel and you want to see the nations rejoice in the name of Christ, if you want to see Gospel built and structured and committed churches, your theology is just gonna end up basically being Reformed, basically being something like this New Calvinism, uh or you're gonna have to invent some other label for what's just gonna be the same thing. There just are not options out there and that's something that I think frustrates some people, but when I'm asked about the New Calvinism, I'm gonna say, well just basically where else are they gonna go? Who else is gonna answer the questions? Where else are they gonna find the resources they need? And where else are they gonna connect? This is a generation that understands they want to say the same thing Paul said. They want to stand with the apostles, they want to stand with old dead people, and uh and they know they're gonna have to if they're gonna preach and teach the truth.
Those words are stunning! If you have never heard of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, then it's time to get educated! The first time Dee and I became aware of this movement was in September 2006 when our latest issue of Christianity Today arrived in the mail. The front cover was adorned with a picture of someone wearing a yellow tee shirt bearing these words: "JONATHAN EDWARDS IS MY HOMEBOY". Of course, Edwards is best known for his fiery sermon: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God".
The CT article was entitled: "Young, Restless Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback–and shaking up the church" (link). At first Dee and I didn't comprehend the significance of this article because we hadn't been affected by the YRR movement and had little knowledge of its leaders. Several years later, while doing research, the light bulb came on for us so to speak.
Now we are fully aware that Al Mohler and gang have a growing army of lieutenants who are poised to gain access to the pastoral reins of your church and steer it down the 'correct' path toward reformational truth. In their theological construct, Reformed (Calvinistic) Theology is the only true doctrine.
So how is the Young Restless and Reformed crowd (whom we call Calvinistas) 'shaking up the church'? Recently, we received an email from a sister in Christ who experienced such a 'shake-up' first hand. She has provided an extremely detailed account of what happened at her church in hopes that others will recognize the stealth moves of these YRR pastors before it's too late…
Here is how the Calvinista playbook was implemented at a church in the Midwest. Our hope is that should a newly hired pastor at your church attempt to run some of these tricky plays, you will recognize them immediately and be able to defend against them before your congregation is completely overtaken.
Testimony from a Sister in Christ in the Midwest
I have been reading your blog for the past year and a half, and this is the first time I felt led to write you. First of all, thank you for the work you both are doing in researching, writing, and creating awareness on trends in the Christian community. You both seem to genuinely care about the flock of Christ and specifically those who have been hurt by harmful shepherds.
I want to share the story of what my husband and I recently went through in our former church, which is located in the Midwest. You will unfortunately find it all too familiar to others' stories. As far as myself, I’m a stay at home mom (former corporate girl with an MBA), and I work part time on projects for my old company from home. My husband and I have been married for over 16 years and share a love of Christ, having been believers since our late teens. I felt a similarity to your backgrounds as well.
I believe sharing my story with people who understand will not only be therapeutic but will help me move forward in my Christian walk. The short story is that two years ago my husband and I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave our church home of over eight years due to a Neo-Cal takeover.
Here is the long story:
In late 2006, my husband and I relocated to a Midwestern city to be closer to work and family after living in a far out suburb. I was pregnant with our first child. We had been members of a Baptist church in our former community, but the 45-minute drive to remain at the same church didn’t seem viable as we were expecting and wanting to get plugged into the new community.
After visiting a couple of churches, we found "A. B. Church (ABC)" — an unaffiliated local Baptist church. It was a good blend of both of our church backgrounds. The legalism my husband experienced in the IFB was not an issue. Women could serve in many capacities though not as a pastor. (I grew up in a Quaker church with a woman pastor). Anyway, the people there were warm and welcoming. The messages were sound and challenging, and we made the decision to attend regularly.
During this time, ABC was in the process of searching for a new senior pastor as the former one had recently stepped down due to some disagreements. The associate pastors took turns filling in from the pulpit. We welcomed our son in spring of 2007, and I transitioned to working part-time. (My husband accepted a new job at my same company.) The ABC church body was there for us with meals and support after the birth, and they were what won us over. We started feeling connected to the community, so in the latter part of 2007, we joined the church and dedicated our infant son there.
In early 2008 the pastor search committee announced that after almost 18 months they had found a candidate for Senior Pastor. The candidate then did a guest sermon and a few meet and greets. The congregation, including my husband and I, were very impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm, and we voted him in as Senior Pastor in March of 2008. At the time all I knew was that he came from a large church in Los Angeles and that he had served and studied under John MacArthur, whom I remotely remembered listening to on the radio from time to time.
Nothing earth shattering happened over the next couple of years. My husband and I became involved in a wonderful small group and made friendships that continue to this day. In May of 2010, we welcomed our second child, a daughter, and our church family was there to celebrate and support us with meals and prayers. I transitioned to staying home full-time with the kids and became more involved at church, helping out with VBS and getting involved in Bible study.
Now the changes begin to happen…
During the summer of 2010 the pastors and elders announced at a members' meeting that we would be voting to drop our rather large sports ministry. They had determined that it was becoming mostly 'inreach' for ABC families and children who attend other churches versus truly reaching unchurched kids. We didn't see any big deal in that reasoning and voted in favor of the change.
Also, at that meeting, it was decided by the leadership (not a vote) that ABC would be dropping its Preschool and Mothers Day Out program as enrollment was down, and we were in a part of the city where there was a church preschool and MDO program literally around every block. Again, it seemed reasonable for legitimate reasons. Some people voiced their disdain, but there was little drama. We were a little bummed as our son was set to start preschool in the fall, and it would have been nice to have him at our familiar church, but we agreed the leadership was right and there were many quality programs in the area from which to choose. During this time the associate pastor overseeing the sports ministry stepped down to move into the mission field.
In late summer 2011, the long-time Children's Director resigned. We were all saddened as she had such a wonderful heart for children and served and led by example. About this same time, the senior pastor started "theology reading groups" that met to read and discuss Wayne Grudem's massive book, "Systematic Theology." It was by invitation only, and men's and women's groups met separately. I was kind of ticked my husband and I were not invited to join one, but looking back, it was a blessing in disguise! Also during this time, my husband was voted in as a deacon and helped with servicing some of the equipment on the church property. I continued helping with VBS, nursery duty once a month, and participated in Bible study.
The next year a search committee was put in place for a pastor to replace the Children's Director. The leadership rephrased the job title to “Pastor of Family Life and Discipleship” so that the new hire would not be solely responsible for the children's ministry. About this time, the long time Youth Pastor (12 + years at ABC) decided to go to the mission field for a short time. In late summer of 2012, the new Family Life and Discipleship pastor was hired. He was a millennial (not quite 30), married with children, and had finished his Master’s Degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He had also previously served as a pastoral assistant at Mark Dever's Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
Then in the fall of 2012, the elders proposed a new church constitution as they said the old one was over 30 years old, outdated, and didn't provide legal protection for the church with issues such as same sex marriage agendas being pushed, etc. My husband (still a deacon) and I scrutinized the proposed document. We both felt uneasy about it as it seemed to stress membership covenants, more rigid rules, and discipline. Some of the long-time members on the Deacon board were really concerned about it, and my husband discussed it with them in a couple of meetings. The church sent a pastor or elder to each of our small groups to answer any questions or concerns we had about the constitution. It seemed my husband and I were the only ones in our group who raised objections, specifically about what constitutes ‘discipline’. I remember a couple gals in our small group almost rebuking my husband for asking such questions and insisting that we need to submit to authority (whatever!). Anyway, the pastor who came to our group said the discipline wasn't meant to be a game of "gotcha" and it was clearly stated in Matthew 18 as ongoing, unrepentant known sin (which still could encompass a lot of things in my opinion).
In January of 2013, the membership was set to vote on the new constitution. Several amendments were added, but they were for other issues such as not having women deacons and a few minor wordings on things. The deep stuff we were opposed to was still on the amended proposed constitution, and we felt it gave a lot of power to the senior pastor and elders with minimal congregational input as well as it being heavier on discipline. Our church voted on the final draft of the constitution, and even though I voted against it, it did pass. After the new constitution was adopted, we noticed that several long-time members of ABC left. My husband and I were still uneasy about it but held a "wait and see" approach to observe how it was implemented and possibly abused.
In the spring of 2013, the aforementioned youth pastor who left to embark on a year long mission trip to Japan with his family returned to ABC. Not long after returning, he stepped down from his position at ABC, stating that God was leading him in a different direction. He actually switched churches and left for stateside missions in South Florida, which has a non-Christian population of roughly 95% in the Miami area. He was missed by many in the church. His parents, who were long-time members, also left the church.
In summer of 2013, the elders stated they were searching for a new pastor to take the place of the former youth pastor. Again, they chose one who was a millennial (late 20s-early 30s guy) with a young family. He earned his Master’s degree from The Master's Seminary (where our senior pastor has come from). Also, he had been on staff at Grace Community Church, where John MacArthur serves as senior pastor. At this point, the only original pastoral staff member remaining from when we started was the much older part-time, Congregational Care pastor. He was the one who ran our membership class and did our son's baby dedication prior to the hiring of the senior pastor.
In fall of 2013, I found out I was expecting our third child. Around the same time the elders, who now had much more decision making control, proposed ABC join with the Southern Baptist Convention. They said it would help open up the resources for missionaries and also offer a 50% tuition discount at any of their seminaries. Interestingly, the senior pastor was currently getting his PhD from Southern Seminary, along with one of the pastoral interns. ABC’s senior pastor seemed to be a big fan of Albert Mohler, which makes sense in hindsight. Many in the congregation raised questions and concerns as the elders seemed to slip this into the agenda rather quickly. It did not get voted on that night during the members meeting, as they had planned, so it was pushed back to another special meeting. It finally passed. After this we noticed that more long-time members and even a few folks our age left the church. We were still uneasy but did not feel led to go.
In late spring 2014, we welcomed our third child. My husband had been asked to serve a second term on the Deacon board. He noticed several changes starting to happen. In the fall, the leaders of our small group called a meeting with us and decided to step down as leaders. They were now empty nesters, traveling a lot and in the process of downsizing their large home, so they couldn’t continue to lead us. We were sad but we said we needed to step out of our small group as well because our children were keeping us so busy, and it was hard to participate in church activities during the evening.
As time went on, I noticed that more Grudem study groups were forming. It was during this time that I began to hear about "doctrines of grace", Reformed theology, and Calvinism. The once Robust children's ministry was slowly being whittled down. Children's church ceased to exist, and kids ages 6 and up were required to attend the adult service with their parents. Our son accepted Christ at age 6. For the next two years he asked about getting baptized. We tried to get a pastor to meet with him to determine if he had a grasp on the gospel (we believed he did) so he could be baptized. We were put off on this a couple different times so we finally dropped it. We noticed that children under the age of 16 were not being baptized at ABC, even though we had other friends whose children had also made professions of faith. This was extremely upsetting (to us and our son)! Those who had not been baptized were discouraged from partaking in communion.
The Family Life pastor who replaced the long-time children's director (who had previously resigned) did not fill her shoes in the same capacity at all. He pushed for more and more volunteers to take over duties such as nursery volunteer coordinating, sign in's, leading VBS, and leading the fall festival (our former outreach for families). Also, the youth group for the older kids was dwindling under the new youth pastor, who was given additional duties not involving the youth.
During this time I stopped attending evening Bible studies because taking care of my new baby took precedence. However, I noticed all the studies were from books written by Calvinist pastors and writers. My husband and I didn't like the emphasis on Reformed theology. We pored over scripture and various resources about Calvinism and felt very uneasy about election, limited atonement, etc. We did not buy this line of theology and did not interpret the Bible or God’s love in that way.
Another thing we noticed was that it seemed the pastors (not the older congressional care pastor) were touting each other from the pulpit and beyond. The Family Life pastor's wife had another baby the week after I gave birth to my third. The senior pastor's wife sent out an email to over 60 people, including me, stating we should serve their family with meals because of how they serve us. At the time, I and two other women on the email list had just had babies of our own.
A few months later, the Youth Pastor was involved in a car accident and did not have collision coverage on the vehicle, as it was his second car. Fortunately, he was not hurt, but the senior pastor led an impromptu benevolence offering during a Sunday service to provide him with a replacement car since he didn't have insurance on it and it was totaled. He and his wife already had another car. The problem we had with that benevolence offering was there were several unemployed folks at the church who were struggling just to put food on the table. They could have benefited more from the thousands of dollars that were raised! The Youth Pastor was then outfitted with a very nice used second van, courtesy of the impromptu benevolence offering.
During our final years at the church, we noticed the senior pastor was becoming less and less accessible to ABC members. On one occasion I had to attend a small group leaders’ meeting in place of our leader in order to take notes. During that meeting the senior pastor stated that he was reluctant to provide counsel to anyone unless they were already in a small group – where they could receive counsel.
We noticed the pastors and several male members would regularly attend Together for the Gospel (T4G). The senior pastor was gone from time to time to preach at other churches or attend conferences. In his absence, one of the associate pastors would preach or a preacher friend of the pastor (who we later learned were YRR guys).
Church discipline began to be administered on different occasions per the constitution. The senior pastor would name the person as well as their unrepentant sin from the pulpit. Most of the cases were people choosing to divorce their spouse and not desiring to reconcile. Per the new constitution, the senior pastor could not be subjected to this public discipline!
It was during this time that our small groups began reading and discussing Mark Dever's "9 Marks of a Healthy Church", as requested by the elders. I didn't agree with everything in the book, which seemed heavy on discipline and being accountable to each other a bit more than I was comfortable with; however, we didn't think too much about it, nor did we know (at the time) the extent of the "9 Marks" network. We heard Mark Dever’s name mentioned from the pulpit a couple of times and knew the senior pastor looked up to him as well as John MacArthur and Al Mohler.
Fast forward to our final year – 2015. At this point, we were not involved in a small group or Bible study due to a nightwaking baby, two older kids, and my husband's busy work schedule. My husband still served as a deacon, but that was the extent of his involvement. I no longer served in the nursery despite the Family Life Pastor telling all of us in regards to the nursery, "If you use, you serve" even though he didn't seem to apply this principle to himself (with his many children using the church nursery every week).
Also, we knew several of the older, long-term ABC members that had left. They were the larger contributors of both time and money. Any "new blood" that was brought in was mostly of the millennial crowd, which didn’t have the financial resources or time commitment to make up for those who had left the congregation. The members’ meetings turned into informational sessions on what the elders had decided. The congregation had very little input and rarely voted on church matters. The elders – with no input from the congregation – voted to spend several thousand dollars to upgrade the church library and pastors' offices. The renovations were very fancy for a church with a slowly shrinking budget. Elder approved Calvinist books and study guides were later sold through the new "Resource Center” (the former library).
We were feeling more unrest at ABC, but still the thought of uprooting our kids and leaving the only church we had ever known in our current community was still not quite an option.
The final two straws happened in late winter 2015. One Sunday during a bad snowstorm, we somehow trekked to church in our SUV since we lived just two miles away. Because of the snow, only a fourth of the normal attendees made it to church. In hindsight, I believe it was God's doing that we went that day. In his sermon, the pastor discussed the “U” in TULIP, preaching about Unconditional Election and how we should be so grateful. He also elaborated on other points from TULIP, and I’m fairly certain it was the first time he ever addressed full on Calvinism in a sermon. My husband and I both looked at each other and just shook our heads. Until then, Calvinism had not been pushed from the pulpit, but now it had and we were done!
During this time, my husband was attending extra deacon meetings led by one of the associate pastors/elders. They were reading through a Dever book on becoming better elders and deacons. It was very bait and switch the way it happened…
My husband and the other deacons thought they were being asked to attend 3-4 extra meetings to go over a book to learn about being better deacons. At the last meeting, the pastor/elder (a YRR guy) finished up by telling them that they – the elders – had decided to dismantle the board of deacons. At this point, my husband and a few others were done. After seeing this take place behind the scenes and prior to the roll out to the congregation, my husband offered his resignation from the current board of deacons, stating that he had a difference of opinion regarding ABC’s current theological leanings and the power structure the elders had created.
My husband met with one of the non-pastor elders whom we looked up to and respected. He wanted to go over my husband’s concerns regarding changes to the constitution, power structure (no more checks and balances), whittled down children's ministry (and no baptisms allowed), and the Calvinist leanings. Sadly, this particular Elder had morphed into one of the senior pastor's "yes" men and defended the actions and structure.
At this point, my husband and I were fervently praying and reading scripture for guidance on leaving. We spoke to some of our friends (also long-time members) who were disillusioned, too. I kept asking myself how can men who study the Word of God many hours every week be so deceived or blinded by power and the doctrines of men. We both agreed that it was time to pull the plug and search for a new church home.
So in the spring of 2015, we began looking for a new church. After visiting five churches over a two-month period, we landed at our new and current church home. We met with the senior pastor, and he graciously answered all of our questions about his stance on Calvinism, church polity, women's roles, children's baptism and ministry, etc. He also seemed like a humble servant leader – something we felt we hadn't seen for years at ABC. After meeting with this pastor and attending for a few more months, we joined the church and got involved with a small group there.
In the summer of 2015, one of the elders at our former church proposed a sabbatical for the senior pastor. The ABC elders approved it, and the senior pastor took a three-month sabbatical. It was an endowment from a not for profit that funds sabbaticals for pastors, allowing them to take time off from the ministry in order to spend time with their families and/or go on a mission trip. Our former pastor chose to go on a nice tour of the Mediterranean with his family. While he was instagramming his amazing vacation, we were in the process of transitioning churches.
We attended our last members’ meeting at ABC in May 2015. They were voting out the former Board of Deacons and also voting to approve a few new members. When the elders read their testimony, the majority of new people said they had always known they were walking with God and that they did not recall a specific time when they repented of their sins and turned to God. Only God knows their standing with Him and their heart. I just thought it was odd as my husband and I both remember feeling broken and sinful and turning to Christ at a specific turning point in our lives. We noticed this same pattern with several new ABC members.
Anyway, this was the last time we stepped foot in ABC. The senior pastor announced he was leaving for his sabbatical in a couple of weeks and provided a schedule of where he was traveling overseas as well as a list of the guest pastors who would be filling in for him while he was gone. When he returned in August 2015, they were going to have a Reinstatement Ceremony during the service, led by none other than his mentor, Albert Mohler, as he (the senior pastor) was finishing his PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
I found this a bit overboard as he was going on a fully funded three-month vacation with his family – a luxury most of the hard working folks in the pew would never have – then having a big celebration welcoming him back! It further confirmed our desire to leave. He sent a follow-up email after the meeting saying that if any ABC members felt led to, we could encourage his mentors in ministry by writing them a letter of appreciation. He then gave us the addresses of both Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and John MacArthur at Grace Community Church in California. I could not believe this elevation of men going on!
Anyway, we hugged the handful of friends who knew we were leaving and promised to get together. We left and transitioned to our new church home. We did leave "their way" by my husband submitting a letter asking for the removal of our membership due to the several reasons I mentioned before such as the Calvinism, Authoritarianism, lack of focus on children, etc. The elders accepted it and did not hound us. They were gracious, and the senior pastor said we were welcome back.
It was hard leaving but at the same time we felt a lot of peace knowing we were following the Holy Spirit's guiding of us. Around the time of our leaving, I found The Wartburg Watch. It helped reassure me and answered my question, "Are we the only ones going through this kind of church takeover?" and "Has this happened to others, and are we the only ones who think this is wrong?" TWW has helped me immensely, and I have stayed up to date on this movement.
It was a long and gradually ramped up change that happened at our old church: the turnover of all associate pastors with new YRR pastors coming, the cutting down of ministry programs, the shepherding/authoritarian hierarchy, the constitutional changes, the new focus to Calvinism in the teachings and sermons, etc. Unfortunately, it has not been happening just to our (former) church, and I am saddened to know of the extensive network of this YRR group. Still, God is in control, and I only bow to Him as the one true Shepherd in my life.
Our story does have a happy ending. Our entire family is flourishing at our new church home. The children are thriving. Our son was finally baptized, and our older daughter has been learning more about God's grace and love. We no longer worry about church discipline and being made to feel like we have to answer to our "under shepherds". We truly feel like co-heirs with Christ. People are coming to faith in salvation every month. We joined a small group that the pastor and his family are a part of, and this has helped us get to know them better. Our pastor and his wife are humble, servant leaders. God is so good! We still maintain friendships with some of our ABC friends that stayed. We love them and pray that God will open their eyes like He did ours.
We were not abused or placed under discipline in the way some of your readers have been. We were able to leave peacefully and quietly. My heart sincerely goes out to the readers who suffered abuse and church discipline. I am thankful for the safe community you have created and the research and concern you provide. I don't think it was an accident in finding your blog.
Thank you for letting me share my heart and my story. It was really long but cathartic in telling this to someone who "gets it" and is also a sister in Christ.