I wrote the original version of the following article as a comment on a spiritual abuse survivor blog post about a controversy involving a “Calvinista” denunciation of gender parity in a particular parachurch ministry’s leadership teams. This “neo-Reformed” movement has become pervasive in the past few years, and I have already written extensively on many of the individual elements in its faith and practice. So, I thought I would edit my comment and present it here as a summary of how I define and describe this movement of “the Calvinistas,” based on my readings about individuals and organizations that have been so labeled, and my analyses of their paradigms (dominant forms of information processing, values, beliefs, organizational structures, forms of collaboration, and cultures).
NOTES: To keep this article from being totally technical, I’ve gone back through to re-edit it to make the language more accessible, and to add some descriptions of what it is and isn’t. Also, please note that I DO NOT categorize all Calvinist/Reformed theologians as “Calvinistas.” There are very specific “markers” that identify the differences between the two.
UPDATE January 2, 2015. At the bottom, I’ve added a comment that addresses the wider question of this being a paradigm problem instead of just a theological situation, and what kinds of theological systems are most susceptible to this kind of toxicity.
The article introduces the militant “Calvinistas” movement; overviews some core issues in its ideology; and examines its typical authoritarian pyramid of privilege, its mission, and some of what distinguishes it from other contemporary movements in the post-Christendom era. It concludes with why our understanding this movement is vitally important for the health and future of the church in North America.
Introducing the “Calvinistas”
In the past few years, a militant, neo-Reformed theological presence within the conservative-evangelical-fundamentalist wings of the Western Church has made itself known. This has been in both the church and in culture. Some have referred to this movement as the “Calvinistas,” and for them, it holds a negative connotation. The term was coined late in the 2000 decade by Dee and Deb – originators of The Wartburg Watch blog – to describe this emerging movement that includes neo-Reformed theologians, pastors, church planters, etc.
I had witnessed the phenomenon growing for over a decade, but did then have a name for it. In fact, the first place I found the term Calvinista used was at The Wartburg Watch – TWW for short. TWW is a research blog on trends affecting the Christian community. It focuses on survivors of spiritual abuse.
Anyway, TWW’s term Calvinistas is now used in a far wider context, especially among the spiritual abuse survivors’ community. But the most extensive investigations and documentations of the individuals and organizations involved are still found in the Calvinism/Calvinista category at TWW. But since the facilitators of that blog coined the term, it is important to consider their definition of it, found on the TWW Definitions subpage under their page called “The Basics.” So – here is their original definition of the term they created:
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.
I’ve been studying subcultural formation since the early 1990s, and gradually getting more specific on how to profile people’s paradigms – how they think, what they value, how the set up their organizations, how they do/don’t collaborate, what their stance is toward culture. As I have continued to study this particular movement, I’ve confirmed what Deb and Dee said in their initial definition: neo-Reformed individuals and their organizations tend to be activist and contentious. They also seem increasingly characterized by controversies in the public space.
Many of the controversies relate to their elevation of “secondary” doctrinal issues to the status of “primary.” Primary doctrinal elements constitute the core of orthodox Christianity. The absence, twisting, or over-detailing of primary elements usually indicates heresy. The elevation of a secondary issue to confessional faith is done through dogmatic practice – though rarely is such a thing ever said overtly, and in fact, is usually denied. (For instance, in 2012, one question that dominated discussions is whether gender complementarianism is “a gospel essential” or not. In other words, if you don’t believe that men and women have distinct, biblically specified roles in marriage, family, church, and society, you “don’t really believe the gospel.”)
Other public controversies and conflicts deal more with organizational and leadership issues. These include:
- Failures of celebrity figures through money, sex, power, and/or negligence, etc.
- Allegations of organizational infiltration and take-over to “convert” the entity to their version of Reformed theology.
- Lawsuits (sometimes filed by them, other times filed against them).
- “Dueling blog battles.”
There also appears to be a strong leaning within the Calvinista movement toward self-protection for the organization. Because of this, numerous controversies have arisen about:
- Ethical issues in the hiring and firing of staff.
- Using membership covenants (often vetted by lawyers) that disingenuously have members sign away their right to confidentiality and bind them to various legalistic processes under the cloak of biblical language.
- Extreme use and abuse of church discipline procedures.
The term Calvinistas itself is a “back-formation” word, based on cutting apart existing terms and recombining them into something new. Calvinistas appears to be the recombinant result of CALVIN- (from Reformed theology of Calvinism) plus –ISTAS (from the Sandinistas National Liberation Front, a Nicaraguan guerrilla warfare group that fought to take over their country from the previous prevailing regime). [Although, it is possible that it works with the -STA in gangsta as much as with Sandinistas.]
As with many guerrilla warfare groups, the Calvinistas are noted for strong idealism, focus on power, and dedication to their task. In the sections below, I have listed and overviewed elements typically found in Calvinista theological, leaders, and organizations. Although these individuals and entities may not manifest every single element, I do believe this list offers a comprehensive profile of main indicators. Intriguingly, many of these features are highly similar to various indicators found in the eight classic criteria of a totalitarian “cult,” developed by Robert Jay Lifton. (And here I refer to “cult” in the sociological sense of that term, meaning a group that seeks to hold total control over its members – not in the religious sense of holding to “false doctrine” – although a religious cult often is also a social cult.) So, if we see the connections in the Calvinista profile below with Dr. Lifton’s research work on “brainwashing” and “the psychology of totalism,” it will hopefully make sense why Calvinistas has a very negative connotation. Too many of those involved in the neo-Reformed movement have been identified as potential abusers of spiritual authority or verified by extensive documentation to be so. (For some sources on this last statement, see the sidebar blogroll on Spiritual Abuse Resources. These websites and the related sites they link to will quickly lead you to individuals, churches, organizations, and networks/denominations that can be categorized as Calvinista.)
Idealism, Ideology, and Epistemology (ways of processing information)
In the case of Calvinistas, their ideological paradigm typically includes:
- Dualism – a system of black-or-white thinking that constantly splits holistic phenomena into fragments, while valuing certain parts and devaluing others. [The opposite of dualism is holism - considering the whole to be more than the sum of the parts, and that analyzing or dividing something too much can kill its vitality.]
- Reductionism – a system overfocus on particular philosophical elements while intentionally or ignorantly leaving out others. It favors supposed simplicity and clarity over complexity and nuance. In the case of neo-Reformed/Calvinistas, only elements considered “gospel truth” are of importance and thus dominate faith and practice. For instance, the underlying theology of Calvinistas seems to believe that the effects of The Fall severely impact human emotions, making them utterly trustworthy. However, somehow, the mind is not touched to this degree, and so we can accurately apprehend “truth” through rational thought because the mind is not broken like the emotions are. [The opposite of reductionism is being comprehensive - looking at all the elements or dimensions of something, and valuing the parts AND the whole, and keeping the relationships between them intact.]
- Patriarchalism – an extreme form of the gender complementarian theory that values males and devalues females, while attempting to explain away the inherent implications of devaluation. [The opposite of patriarchalism is gender parity - valuing both men and women, girls and boys as people of worth in God’s eyes, and as equally necessary and vital in their participation to make the Body of Christ all that God intended.]
- Totalism and Authoritarianism – totalism is a legalistic system of comprehensive control over all aspects of the lives of its followers, and which requires their total submission to the authoritarian leaders and to the ideology in order to prove their worthiness to be included in the movement. [The opposite of these is self-determination. This does not mean there is no such thing as authority, but that each disciple, in his or her “priesthood of the believer,” is personally responsible for their own choices and to grow in discernment and no longer be a “spiritual baby.” All forms of legalism rely on some outside expert or pedagogue to make the rules and set the boundaries for you; this means a system of legalism/totalism automatically keeps you spiritually immature.]
- Perfectionism – a combination of beliefs along the lines that Christians can eradicate their sinful nature, that they can or should live perfectly in line with God’s commands, and/or that repentance and confession are supreme signs of spiritual maturity or growth. [The opposite of perfectionism is redemptive progress - a belief that transformative growth is possible and that this process needs to be pursued for the rest of our life. There is a trajectory to this growth – a unique, specific starting point for each person, depending on his/her background – and a common goal for all disciples to become Christlike in character. Perfectionism typically keeps people orbiting around a few concepts and practices; progress moves people forward into and through deeper stages of developing a large set of biblical concepts and applications.]
- Dominionism – a system of attempted comprehensive control over all aspects of the societies, political processes, and cultures in which the Calvinistas live. [The opposite of dominionism is sojourning - being sensitive to the realities that our home as followers of Christ is in Him and with His Kingdom, and that we are here on earth to serve others for Him – not to control them in efforts to convert them to Him.]
The key personal problem here is that all of these elements are integral parts of a system of legalism and control. And, as the New Testament epistles tell us, the Law always works directly against the Spirit of God. The key social/organizational problem here is that an extensive system of control demonstrated by a Christian leader, ministry, church, or agency legitimately allows people in our communities to consider that entity as a “cult.” And that works directly against the witness of healthy churches and of the Church in those communities.
Calvinista power structures are typically based on authoritarianism. They turn out to be highly hierarchical, but most frequently are oligarchical – ruled by an elite group of leaders. Thus, the Calvinista power structure is rife with:
- Favoritism – preference shown to their celebrity heroes – pastors, speakers, writers, church planters, etc.
- Nepotism – preference given to extended family members.
- Cronyism – preference given to personal friends.
- Church discipline as shown to those who refuse to abide by Calvinistas’ totalism, or who fail in full compliance to it and/or in full submission to the designated leaders.
The key personal problem here is that these kinds of power structures can (and too often do) inherently lead to denial of the priesthood of every believer. They set up authoritarian leaders as mediators between disciples and God, and then demand unconditional submission/obedience to the leaders. This puts men between disciples and God, and negates the role of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide disciples. The key organizational problem here is that a preferential system like this far too often promotes leaders who are UNqualified due to their lack of spiritual maturity, relevant spiritual gifts, and/or appropriate levels of practiced ministry skills. It also far too often promotes leaders who are DISqualified due to their own unrepentant sins and abusive leadership behaviors. The key social problem is that this kind of idolatry of leadership and “respectors of persons” is a turn-off to community members and Christians who oppose bullying.
Mission and Stance Toward Culture
The Calvinistas’ primary goal appears to be ascendance into predominance in the theological conservative-evangelical-fundamentalist streams of Western Christianity. Bluntly put, they want to take over – dominate and replicate – mostly because they “know” they are totally right in the full extent of their doctrinal faith and practice. Thus, they assume the “right” to steward the resources of the Kingdom. The strategic techniques being used to accomplish this mission includes:
- Creation or conversion of new ideologues, mostly through a rigorous – but highly reductionist – curriculum of systematic dogma.
- Replication of training programs that produce Calvinista clones.
- Implantation of new structures (such as church plants, non-profits, schools, and seminaries) and supra-structures (such as associations, networks, and denominations), designed as “factories” for replicating like-minded warriors for their cause.
- Infiltration of existing structures and supra-structures to capitalize on the work and funds already expended by others, and repurpose it for their cause.
- Domination of media, especially by means of preventing or shutting down dissent; agitation through inflammatory language, sarcasm and pseudo-satire; silence on issues of controversy to which they are a party; “scrubbing” of embarrassing information; refusal to allow blog comments; deletion of blog comments; and such like.
Some of the key problems in these approaches boil down to promoting personas over authenticity, conformity over creativity, and corruption over integrity. While this may all sound harsh, numerous case studies brought together in the spiritual abuse survivor community have increasingly documented exactly these kinds of tactics, along with the trauma they cause to people and the damage they cause to the name of Christ. (For instance, see my tutorial on Transformation for the process I use to analyze such case studies of toxicity. You’ll also find a list there of major churches and ministries that are being documented by victims of allegedly abusive behaviors and systems.)
“Differentiation” is about identifying critical features that distinguish items or processes that, on the surface of things, appear to be the same. It’s a fancy word for analyzing something, comparing it with something else, and drawing conclusions about what is similar and what is different between the two things. Part of what allows Calvinistas to hide among people of other theologies or missions is the surface similarity they show to many other movements. Here are some key points of differentiation that help distinguish Calvinistas from non-Calvinistas, and distinguish variations within the Calvinista movement.
- Theologies – As a sub-category within “neo-Reformed” theology, the Calvinista theology is not identical to either classic Calvinist or Reformed theologies. Careful detailing of the elements of each theology is needed, in order to compare and contrast the specific doctrines that are similar, and the relative degrees of similarity.
- Generations – A significant percentage of Calvinistas are from younger generations (i.e., 40 and under) and therefore overlap with what has been called YRR – Young, Restless, and Reformed. However, many of the celebrity theologians and figureheads revered by Calvinistas are over the age of 40. There may be a range of variation in ideology, leadership structures, and mission among various generations in the movement.
(I may be adding more to this section as I continue to study the Calvinista movement and have an opportunity to compare and contrast it with other movements within the fundamentalist, conservative, evangelical, emerging, Emergent, and missional streams of the Church.)
Why is This Important?
Given the apparent trajectory of the Calvinista movement over the last few years especially, we can expect their continued actions toward cultural dominance within the more theologically conservative/evangelical wing of the Western Church. However, I expect more public controversies to arise and with fewer apparent wins in the long run for Calvinistas. I believe this is a given, for two reasons.
- Because of the dramatic rise of the spiritual abuse survivor blogs/community in 2012, who are bringing Calvinista individuals and organizations under far more public scrutiny.
- Because of the significant push-back in Christian AND secular cultures against bullying these days.
The key reasons that it’s important to understand this profile came up in a comment by Nick on The Wartburg Watch after I posted the first version of my description. He said:
Futuristic Brad – that is as close to a definitive explanation of “Calvinista” as I’m likely to see. I think you’ve captured just about every element. Especially with the addition of “legalistic” [to the definition of totalism] – the Calivinista dust-cloud reminds me of the “circumcision party” [the Judaizers] who were the bane of Paul’s life and ministry. I’m sure there was no single organisation calling itself The Circumcision Party, and likewise there’s no single human “head” of the YRR / Calvinista / shepherding movement / comp[lementarian] thingy trying to suffocate the church under law today. But I believe they’re driven along by the same spiritual influence.
This was my response to Nick, and it is my answer to the question of, “Why is all this fuss about “Calvinistas” even important?” It is about modern-day Judaizers in some of their most prevalent forms. They put disciples who want to follow Christ back under the Law as if we were Jews, not Christians. As such, this paradigm profile will always be vital for us to understand, if we seek to live by the New Testament systems of grace and empowerment and leading by the Holy Spirit, and not by the rules and regulations of the Mosaic Law.
@Nick Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 07:08 AM … glad that comment was a helpful capturing of the key indicators. And I think you’re on to something absolutely crucial in bringing up the Judaizers. Isn’t that ultimately the essence of the profile that Dee and Deb coined as “the Calvinistas”? We’re warning that the Calvinista approach to Christianity returns people to following the Law, and cuts them off from the Holy Spirit, and grace. We’re not advocating do-what-you-want license; we’re admonishing to counteract legalism.
Along that line, isn’t that the core issue in Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council? As best I understand it, the debate boils down to this: Judaizers demand that gentiles become Jews before they can follow Jesus. But what that actually translates to is that gentiles had to follow the Law of Moses – which Jesus specifically said He came to fulfill – and to follow the Law of Moses meant that the gentiles were required to follow a bunch of men.
In other words, it was/is about legalism and celebrity leaders … ain’t nuthin’ changed in 2,000+ years for the two parallel paths of derailing sincere people from following Jesus Christ directly and experiencing God’s grace and the leading of the Spirit personally. Christlikeness is never, ever achieved through the mediatorship of men and their add-on rules.
If the Apostles Paul, Peter, John, Jude, etc. were here today, I suspect they’d all be taking to task these Calvinista types who are actually leading people astray in the name of Jesus and the gospel, and overlording them by dictating all details of the discipleship process. Why, the Apostles might even blog about them! Which is essentially what they did, only in the ancient mode of parchment letters.
P.S. Those “posts” of theirs can’t be scrubbed from the archives either, which is why we still know today what happened back then to Diotrephes, Hymenaeus and Alexander, Galatian Peter (hey, that sounds like a great name for a gospel inaction figure!), etc.
So … there is no glee in exposing the darkness, but the truth and the flock must both be protected. And that is one reason I’m thankful for blogs like [The Wartburg Watch] (all y’all rock, Deb and Dee!) that provide a forum for crowd-sourcing questions and answers and personal accounts about contemporary people and paradigms that keep people away from Jesus.
This is a difficult topic because it is personal. I have friends who are in the Calvinistas’ camp. I also have friends whose spiritual life has been devastated by hyper-controlling Calvinista leaders, pastors, church planters, and others. I have friends who are Calvinist/Reformed but who utterly reject the excesses of the Calvinistas. I’ve witnessed the death of churches, ministries, and projects due to Calvinista antics. But, if the Calvinistas indeed do represent one of the main postmodern forms of Judaizing (and I believe they do), as a watchman on the wall and a futurist, I have no other choice but to sound the alarm, even if through a veil of tears.
* * * * * * *
UPDATE ~ JANUARY 2, 2015
I posted the following comment as part of a thread on Warren Throckmorton’s blog — Say Good-Bye to Mars Hill Church’s Web Presence Tonight — analyzing the meltdown of Mars Hill Church.
For what it’s worth, my working theory is that when it’s *not* mostly about a highly charismatic leader who wields power over people, then it *is* about something deeper than just the doctrine going on. It’s about the entire system, and some kind of “poison pill” that gets eventually corrupts and kills the entire paradigm.
The kinds of paradigms that are most susceptible to this kind of authoritarian control and abuse of power are those which at the deepest levels of our processing are too hung up on black-and-white, either/or analyzing, categorizing, and dividing this from that. One or the other side gets valued, the other fully marginalized. Call it fundamentalism or reductionism, it influences every aspect of faith and practice — values, theology, strategies and structures of our organizations, the cultures and lifestyles we affirm or vilify, the kinds of collaborations we engage in or avoid.
In these systems, there is no room for anything in-between, for both/and paradox. It’s about analyzing and separating, not synthesizing and integrating. “Leaders” are divided from “laypeople”; Shepherding Movement. “Right” theology from”wrong-evil-heretical” theology; perfectionism. Men over women, and parents over children; patriarchy. Church/Christendom over the world/culture; dominionism. Whites over blacks; racism (as in apartheid South Africa, a system which happened to be justified by a Calvinistic system).
So, if it’s a paradigm thing, then Calvinism is *not* the only susceptible system. It just so happens that, in the last 15-20 years in North America, perverse forms of “New Calvinism” have become one of the prominent doctrinal approaches that seems to want us all to have perfect theology — as if that will automatically lead to perfect praxology (although I wonder if only abstract faith is valued over concrete practice). It’s been captured by Western reductionist philosophy and the quest for the perfect theology.
And unfortunately, some forms of Calvinism seem to have become among the most prominent forces within church planting movements. So, while there is talk of replicating churches, it often seems to end up as perpetuating authoritarian-leader, theologically-correct, conformity-oriented places.
The doctrinal view doesn’t guarantee toxicity. But add someone who apparently has severe personal pathology into the mix with a tends-toward-corruption-trajectory theology, and you end up with something like Mars Hill Church. And, in terms of system recovery for the survivors of abuse and host cultures in which these despotic leaders played their perfect black-and-white paradigm, sadly, it may take an extra generation or two to overcome the dire impact.
If interested, here is more, with a focus on “New Calvinism” –