The body of Christ has warts. They’re called isms.
I’ve seen lots of them. I was born into Methodism and grew up in Brethrenism, where they taught me Dispensationalism from the Scofield Bible. At university, I encountered the writings of the Puritans and embraced Calvinism, with its inseparable partner, Amillennialism. This taught me, of course, to despise both Dispensationalism and that alleged arch-enemy of thinking Christians, Arminianism.
Later, I flirted with Postmillennialism and got involved with what some called Restorationism. Finally, resisting the advances of (among others) Reconstructionism, Haginism, Wimberism and Classic Premillennialism, I settled on a brilliantly novel idea: I would just try to interpret the Bible sensibly and serve Christ. What a stroke of genius! Maybe I should patent it and market it as Christian Minimalism.
You’re thinking: ‘You pompous ass. It’s impossible to avoid isms altogether! It’s human nature to take even mainstream items of Christian faith, lump them together and stick some ismic label on them. Even good people do that. You can’t beat ’em, so join ’em. Wear your “I’m a Baptist” badge with pride.’
No chance. Seriously, I’ve concluded that every ism must, by definition, be something less than fully-fledged, developing Christian faith. Have you noticed that while each ism is quick to line up supporting Bible proof-texts, it conveniently ignores texts that seem to say something different? Or it explains them away in what seems to me like elastic exegesis.
Take Calvinism, for instance. It maintains its ‘five points’ based on the acronym TULIP, claiming that the five stand or fall together and forbidding us to pick and choose. But Limited Atonement sticks in my craw. It does the same even when they euphemise it as Particular Redemption. An estate agent can insist on describing a house as having ‘great potential’ but in reality it’s still a run-down property.
When I point out to Calvinists that ‘The Lord is…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’, they tell me that ‘everyone’ means ‘everyone without distinction’, not ‘everyone without exception’. My reminder that Christ is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ prompts the retort that it depends what we mean by ‘for’. Certainly I have no business, they insist, to tell people indiscriminately that Christ died for them. Hmmm.
It’s the same with the Perseverance bit. Sure, it is God who saves, and no-one can snatch us out of his, or Christ’s, hands. But if ‘once saved, always saved’ is true, why did the Holy Spirit, in overseeing the compilation of the New Testament, include so many warnings about the dangers of falling away?
The sobering words of Hebrews six and ten apply, Calvinists say, not to the genuine believer but to the person who merely professes to believe. But that’s hard to swallow when he’s described as having ‘shared in the Holy Spirit'. And if he’s liable to the ‘raging fire’ of God’s judgment because he has ‘treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him', in what sense did Christ’s blood sanctify him in the first place?
Yes, yes, I know the standard answers you’re going to throw back at me. I’ve read them all and studied them ad nauseam, and I’m still not convinced.
No, the whole TULIP thing is too simplistic, too neat and tidy for me. It forces on Scripture a scheme that’s less than Scripture and that tends to become a Scripture substitute. It’s an ism and a wart. Bishop Ryle was right when he observed: ‘I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by the idolatrous veneration of a system.' For me it’s out with TULIP and in with CHRYSANTHEMUM—or any other long-named flower that gives scope for all those facets of God’s truth that can’t be made to fit a five-letter acronym.
‘Ah, so you’re an Arminian!’ you say. Not so. ‘Saved today and lost tomorrow’, for instance, doesn’t square with the New Testament’s promises of eternal security for the believer.
‘Oh, come on! You can’t have it both ways!’ Yes, I can, because that’s the way Scripture seems to have it. Like the twin lines of a railway track, divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation run a parallel course, meeting only in eternity and the mind of God. For now, I’m content to run my theological train along both rather than opt for the wobbly ride of any ismic monorail.
I’ll be a Calviminian. If I meet a troubled Christian who lacks assurance, I’ll remind him that Jesus turns away none who come to him. If I meet one who indulges in sinful behaviour without raising a hair, I’ll warn him that his salvation is in jeopardy and quote him Matthew 7:21-23. For myself, I’ll relax in the security of God’s sovereign love and grace that keeps me safe now and for ever, and I’ll hold fast to him as if it all depended on me.
This isn’t a new idea. John Newton, caught up in the Calvinism versus Arminianism debate three centuries ago, wrote that when preaching he tried ‘to keep all shibboleths and terms and forms of distinction out of sight, as we keep knives and razors out of the way of children, and if my hearers had not other means of information I think they would not know from me that there are such creatures as Arminians and Calvinists in the world. But we talk a good deal about Christ.' Wise man.
And here’s another thing: our understanding of the Bible—where we tend to root our isms—is constantly growing and developing. Every ism takes a selection of biblical truths, as understood at the time, and sets them in concrete, leaving no flexibility, no scope for our grasp of God’s amazing truth to be adjusted. That’s never going to sit comfortably with people like me, who feel that, like the potter’s jar in the book of Jeremiah, our traditional ‘jar’ of received doctrine has been smashed beyond repair, and is being reshaped on God’s wheel into a new and more beautiful one.
Isms have another off-putting feature: they lock people into a sub-culture that’s a parody of fully-rounded Christian faith. Methodism, for example, locks its followers into John Wesley, Wesleyan doctrine, Wesleyan hymns, stewards, circuits and moderators, and I don’t want to get stuck in an eighteenth-century rut any more than I want to get stuck into a seventeenth-century Puritan one.
I don’t even want to get stuck in a twenty-first century ‘new church’ sub-culture. Once quite broad, this is rapidly narrowing to ismic proportions. Suggest singing one of Wesley’s hymns in some ‘new churches’ and they’ll laugh at you. Question the ear-splitting volume of the music group’s sound system or propose a period of quiet prayer and they’ll tell you—as someone once told me—that you’re going to be uncomfortable in heaven, because the silence there lasts only half an hour. Suggest that what is commonly called ‘anointing’ is often just hype and they’ll accuse you of not being ‘in the flow of the Spirit’.
I want to break out of denominational sub-cultures and just be a follower of Jesus. That doesn’t mean adopting the pious ‘I belong to Christ’ stance of the Corinthians or becoming the sole member of a church of one. It means acknowledging that the Holy Spirit who speaks through the Bible to me has also spoken through it to others—some of whom are long dead.
That’s why we need at least a nodding acquaintance with church history. Each new movement of the Christian era has picked up neglected Bible truths and handed them like a baton to subsequent generations. Tragically, we tend to throw away the baton of accumulated understanding and manufacture our own flimsy ism, running with it as if it’s the repository of all truth. Inevitably we end up in isolationism and triumphalism—though we never admit to either.
But there’s an end coming to all this. One day, praise God, the warts will all be gone, leaving the body of Christ a fit match for its glorious Head. Meanwhile, we can move things along in that direction. How? By refusing names and labels that mark us out as something less than disciples of Jesus. Let’s put Christ first and, by refusing any lesser loyalty, help turn Christianity’s isms into wasms.
- The Total Depravity of fallen humanity. God’s Unconditional Election of some to be saved. Limited Atonement—Christ died only for the elect. Irresistible Grace that draws the elect to Christ. And the Perseverance of the Saints, who will endure to the end because salvation is God’s work, not man’s.
- 2 Peter 3:9
- 1 John 2:2
- John 10:27-30
- Hebrews 6:4
- Hebrews 10:27
- Hebrews 10:29
- Quoted in N. Douty, The Death of Christ, p60
- Quoted in J. Pollock, Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton, Lion, 1981/1996, p170-1
- Revelation 8:1
- 1 Corinthians 1:12
- Ephesians 4:15-16