There is an observable phenomenon taking place in America’s major cities that has to do with a particular theological perspective dominating and perverting the church planting enterprise, causing destruction wherever it goes. The theological perspective is New Calvinism (more on what that means shortly). And the destruction it causes is multifaceted, but some of which entails: a distorted picture of God, subordination of women, perpetuation of white supremacy, and spiritual abuse. These alone should give the broader church in America cause for alarm, but many don’t have the vision to see its destructiveness. So it has been allowed to take over.
I’ve been calling attention to the destructiveness of this movement for well over a decade. But only now are a few more voices stepping forward to join me. I welcome the added attention this phenomenon is attracting, but lament that it has taken this long. In particular, I find it outrageous that has taken long enough to allow these church planters to cause the destruction they have in precious urban communities I love. Which brings me to the city of Boston.
Urban Ministry in Boston
My family and I moved to Boston in 2005, after evacuating from New Orleans due to hurricane Katrina. After several years of urban ministry in New Orleans, we lost nearly everything to the storm. We had to almost completely start over in Boston. But, we took the opportunity God afforded us in Boston to build a new life and pursue God’s call on our lives. I enrolled in seminary and we became members of a small but wonderful Baptist church in Cambridge. It was through the wise and loving leaders and members of that church that I became connected with many other wise and loving Christian leaders in Boston—many of whom were (and still are) connected to the Emmanuel Gospel Center (hereafter EGC).
EGC factors prominently in this story because of their unique perspective on this phenomenon. EGC has been serving the church in Boston since at least the 70s, and by “the church” I mean the entire body of Christ in Boston—Catholic, Protestant; Conservative, Liberal; Complementarian, Egalitarian; Charismatic, Ceasationist; Orthodox, Heterodox; Asian American, Hispanic American, Latino American, African American, etc. etc.. EGC is a ministry in Boston that strives to serve every part of Christ’s Body. This is important detail because who gets to decide who is counted as part of the Body of Christ is an important part of this story.
As I settled into seminary and my family settled into life in Boston, I vividly remember how difficult it was to gain the trust of long-time Boston residents. Those who have been born and raised in Boston and those who have generations of family members from Boston, are a breed like none other I’ve met. They are keenly suspicious of the hundreds of thousands of outsiders who invade their city each year to consume its historical and educational bounty and then retreat to their respective regions with the trophy of a Boston education. They are also incredibly adept at recognizing inauthenticity. A mentor-professor in seminary told me matter-of-factly that it would take five years before Boston feels like home and others begin to accept me as part of their city. I laughed then, but it proved far more true than I could have imagined.
This complexity—the complexity of a living, urban system like Boston—is one of the primary things I was taught in seminary by veteran urban ministers like Dr. Doug and Judy Hall, Jeff Bass, Dr. Eldin Villafañe, and Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. They taught me that all cities, including Boston, are living systems that are better approached like a surgeon than a mechanic. Mechanical things can be taken apart, examined, and put back together without damaging the system. But living systems cannot be treated that way. Cities are more like a cat than a toaster.
And yet, not everyone gets this kind of teaching about urban ministry in seminary. Many, if not most, Conservative, “Evangelical,” seminaries in the United States treat urban ministry no different than ministry in rural or suburban areas. And, these seminaries emphasize the teaching of doctrine and apologetics over systems thinking or even community development—to say nothing of critical race theory or sociology or social psychology! Knowing this, it was no surprise to me that when “church planting” became a hot trend among young, mostly white, 20-somethings to 30-somethings, the approach they took was mechanical and doctrinal. Here’s where New Calvinism comes in.
New Calvinism and Church Planting
Around the same time that “church planting” as a systematic enterprise, economically-advantageous to denominations and “church planting networks,” was taking off, another movement was also gaining steam: New Calvinism. New Calvinism is distinct from the “Neo-Calvinism” of such luminaries as Dr. Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, or even the “Neo-Calvinism” of Abraham Kuyper. New Calvinism could be more accurately called “Neo-Puritanism,” since it is more like a revival of Jonathan Edwards’s brand of Calvinism than Kuyper’s or even Calvin’s. While Calvin and other “Reformed” theologians have emphasized christology (doctrine of Christ), ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), and the sacraments (baptism and communion), these New Calvinists emphasize only soteriology (doctrine of salvation). There is even a crude little acronym for their succinct beliefs about how human beings are “saved”: T.U.L.I.P.—which stands for Total Depravity (people are fundamentally and inescapably sinful); Unconditional Election (so God chooses, before creation, who will be saved); Limited Atonement (therefore, Jesus only died to save the “elect”); Irresistible Grace (God’s calling of election is “effectual”, meaning it can’t be resisted); Perseverance of the Saints (Those whom God has eternally elected and effectually called will necessarily be saved, i.e. there is no “falling away”)
From over a decade of interaction with this camp and their beliefs I know that whenever someone catalogs their beliefs as I just have, the excuses and obfuscation begin. New Calvinists want to believe that they clearly communicate their beliefs and yet when you repeat back to them what they claim to believe, they often object to being caricatured. But, despite their protests, T.U.L.I.P. is no caricature whatsoever. Popular, best-selling authors, celebrity pastors, and conference favorites like John MacArthur and John Piper proudly proclaim it from their pulpits. It is taught as dogma in many, if not most, Conservative, “Evangelical,” seminaries. Conservative Presbyterians (e.g. the Presbyterian Church in America) affirm it; many, if not most, Conservative Southern Baptists (e.g. Dr. Albert Mohler) affirm it, and many other Conservative, “Evangelicals” affirm it. This theological perspective has even produced church planting “networks” like Acts 29 (among several others), that aren’t connected to any one particular ecclesial tradition, but are united by their shared investment in New Calvinism.
When this theological perspective started to become normalized in the American church and networks like Acts 29 began emerging as powerful players in American church planting, I warned of the dangers of their theology, but I was often told I was overreacting. But, today, I’m not alone in recognizing its danger anymore. One important contributing factor was the fall of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He was the poster boy for New Calvinism. He co-founded Acts 29; he was a (we were led to believe) best-selling author, and he was a favorite conference speaker. Many in the American church celebrated his rise to prominence. Then came the fall. Stories of spiritual abuse emerged from both women and men under his care at Mars Hill. Reports that he used church funds to purchase his own books to make them best-sellers. Reports of plagiarism also surfaced. Suddenly, all his macho Christianity didn’t seem so benign anymore. Suddenly, people started paying attention to his theology.
The presenting symptoms of New Calvinism are often associated with its low view and mistreatment of women. Unfortunately, once that’s ruled unacceptable, few ever probe deeper into the disease which produces those symptoms. I have consistently maintained that the kind of patriarchy that triggers red flags in so many is indicative of the New Calvinism that produces it. The unilaterally-controlling god conceptualized in New Calvinism is the very god that produces controlling pastors and husbands. The concept of “sovereignty” that New Calvinism promotes produces churches that embody the same hierarchical form of power. And the exclusionary and callous doctrines of unconditional election and double predestination produce the same exclusionary and callous practices in their churches. In New Calvinism, before creation was brought into being, God had already “sovereignly” chosen who will be “saved” and who will be “damned.” (Also, many, if not most, New Calvinists hold a view of hell as a literal place of eternal, conscious, torment.) Nothing a person does or doesn’t do in his or her life has any bearing on this decree from all eternity. If one’s choices did have some affect on their election, it could no longer be “unconditional,” and New Calvinists vehemently object to any hint of cooperation between God and humanity in salvation. So, this vision of a god who decrees damnation irrespective of any wrong-doing or righteousness is the starting place of their theology. This has serious ramifications for all other aspects of their ministry, such as gender roles and racial justice.
An aspect of New Calvinism that is rarely ever talked about is its perpetuation of white supremacy. New Calvinism venerates the slave-owning preacher Jonathan Edwards and tries to justify it by saying he was a “man of his time.” New Calvinists attempt so disconnect their doctrine from their practice, saying that there is no “genetic link” between New Calvinism and the doctrines that produce it, and oppressive practices like slavery and the subordination of women. But this goes directly against what the church has taught since Jesus, and what God revealed through Israel long before the church was birthed. A person is formed into the image of that which he or she worships. We become what we behold. Thomas Paine once wrote, “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.” And this is what it means to be formed into the image of Christ by beholding the glory of God in Christ and Christ’s body (cf. II Corinthians 3-4).
Orthodoxy—worship that conforms with the Way of Jesus—forms people so that they carry out Orthopraxy—lives that embody the Way of Jesus.
Heterodoxy—worship that cuts against the Way of Jesus—forms people so that they carry out Heteropraxy—lives that are out of step with the Way of Jesus.
New Calvinism is Heterodoxy that produces Hetero-planty—church planting that is out of step with the Way of Jesus.
New Calvinist Church Planting in Boston
This brings me back to Boston and the New Calvinist church planting taking place there. Recall that a wise, veteran urban minister in Boston told me it would take five years before Boston felt like home and Boston residents began to trust me. He was right. And his understanding of urban ministry comes from sound understanding of how the Kingdom of God grows as modeled by Jesus. Jesus didn’t appear in first-century Palestine a grown man and begin preaching. No, the Incarnation entails deep connection with human life and society. Jesus grew up from childhood as a member of his community. He lived among us and experienced a full human life—including sorrow, suffering, and death. When he began preaching he was not an outsider; Jesus was an indigenous leader.
But so often New Calvinism produces leaders who care more about the dissemination of their doctrine than identification with those among whom they serve. One example of this is what has been called “parachute drop” church planting. This is when a church planter from an entirely different region (like the South) is moved to a very different region like Boston and begins planting a church immediately. This can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. A church planter coming from a region of the U.S. like the South, where Christianity is a more common part of public life, to a region like the Northeast, where pluralism is more celebrated and it is thought inappropriate to assume Christianity is the norm, can lead some church planters to believe that the Northeast is somehow in greater need than the South. In fact, it has led to some very negative stereotypes about Boston in particular—that it is overrun by ‘secular humanism’ and that the church is in decline. These sorts of stories are great for fundraising if you’re a church planter moving from the South to the Northeast. But it has been proved patently untrue and also smacks of racism. Allow me to explain.
Several church planters and church planting networks have targeted Boston for new church planting efforts. Boston is an understandable target considering it has such a high concentration of college students, many of whom are coming from other countries. So it’s naturally for church planters to see their mission as “reaching the nations” in a great city like Boston where the nations gather. However, when telling that story, the statistics these church planters draw upon are often highly biased and skewed to present a more bleak picture than is the reality. One church planter based his fundraising campaign in part on low church attendance statistics he culled from a research source that is known to be discriminatory. When citing the statistic that less than 2% of Boston residents attend church regularly, the statistic was flawed from the beginning because it discounted traditions that the researches did not think to include. Furthermore, it only included data from national, denominational databases, which are notoriously incomplete. Jeff Bass, Executive Director of EGC, has sat down with church planters who peddle these stats in their campaigns and tried to kindly correct them. EGC has been doing on-the-ground surveys of churches in Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline for decades. They have a far more accurate picture of what the church looks like in Boston. But, unfortunately, young, white, male and Reformed church planters don’t like to be corrected. They, like their god, are beyond questioning.
The reality of the church in Boston is nothing like the New Calvinists imagine. Rather than being a wasteland, it’s a well-spring of life. Literally hundreds of church plants have been formed from congregations within the city—without needing “parachute drop” planters. Rather than declining, the church in Boston has outpaced the population growth for the last 30 plus years. EGC calls this “The Quiet Revival,” because so often the churches that are growing organically from Boston locals aren’t white, male, or Reformed. So, they aren’t counted in the statistics that fuel New Calvinist church plant fundraising. Ethnic minority churches are rarely counted; churches in historically Black traditions like the African Methodist Episcopal church aren’t counted; Spanish-speaking, non-denominational or Pentecostal churches aren’t counted; and Roman Catholic churches definitely aren’t counted.
What a sad, narrow view of the broad, beautiful Body of Christ.
Some Concluding Thoughts
New Calvinism is the ideology behind many of the destructive affects church planting is having in Boston. There has long been a community of churches that have worked together to see God’s Kingdom arrive, across racial and denominational lines and with no regard for a minister’s gender. But, because of New Calvinism, many churches are not even being considered part of the Body of Christ because they are not “Reformed,” woman ministers are overlooked or worse, discredited, and white cultural dominance is perpetuated. The city of Boston deserves better! But until more churches and ministers have the courage to confront this ideology, the Gospel in Boston will continue to be associated with young, white, “Reformed” males who come from other regions. And much damage will be done to the church’s witness as a result.