Private and Personal or Public and Ecclesial?
God calls His people to be truth-loving and truth-speaking people--which is why it's disheartening to see many self-professed Calvinistic and Reformed ministers downplay doctrinal teaching, preaching and transparency. Many years ago, a pastor of an Evangelical and Reformed Presbyterian Church intimated to me that the church he pastored reserved teaching on the doctrine of election for adult Sunday School classes. He said, "We believe that more mature Christians need to hear about those doctrines. The Worship service is for a much larger group of people, including a large number of new believers, seekers or unbelievers. We wouldn't want to run them off by teaching about doctrines that are for mature believers." Sadly, the doctrine of election was rarely--if ever--taught in an adult Sunday School class in that church. Not all that long ago, a pastor of a large community church--who professes to be a Calvinist--told me, "Our people don't need a sermon on limited atonement; they need to know how to have a better marriage." Statements like these reveal that for many pastors biblical doctrine is functionally a private and personal matter rather than a public and ecclesial matter.
To be sure, there will always be stage-cage Calvinistic pastors who annoyingly manage to make almost ever sermon they preach fit a five point outline that follows the five points of Calvinism. There will always be those who, by the emphasis they place on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Heidelberg Catechism, functionally put them on par with Scripture. However, in the grand scheme of things, it is unfathomable that anyone who has spent any amount of time in any church anywhere on the planet could ever conclude that the great problem in most pulpits is that there is too much doctrinal teaching, preaching and transparency. I have never had a congregant visit another church while on vacation only to come back and say, "You know, they were just too doctrinal in their preaching there." In fact, the opposite has always been the case.
In part, the phenomenon of a private and personal approach to Calvinistic doctrine belongs within the realm of what D.A. Carson calls "The Underbelly of Revival"--associated with the 'Young, Restless, Reformed' (YRR). Though a movement that gloriously helped fuel a God-centered view of the world, a Christocentric hermeneutic, Calvinistic and Reformed doctrine and the importance of local church membership, numerous dangers and undesirable consequences have accompanied the YRR movement.
For many, the allure of the YRR movement and its related churches was the fact that "this isn't your grandpa's religion." The caricature that Calvinists were stogy old men in three-piece polyester suits who never evangelized went out the window. Myriads of hip young men with beards and flannel shirts--who had grown up in Arminian churches--zealously started flocking to professedly Calvinistic churches that had high energy, edgy praise bands. The YRR movement had as much a cultural draw as it had a doctrinal appeal. The problem? D.A. Carson has aptly noted, "when things seem to be going swimmingly, the church is likely to attract more people who want to go along for the ride." When that happens, there will always be numerous undesirable consequences. One such inescapable consequence is the relinquishing of widespread discernment. Many assume that if a pastor professes to be Calvinistic, his teaching and preaching must necessarily square with whatever others have defined as "biblically faithful preaching." Many rushed into church and put their imprimatur on self-professed Calvinistic pastors. They loved the pastor's personality and cultural normality; therefore, affinity and assumption started to cloud discernment. As Carson again concludes, "when people are eager to join the people of God and identify with them is precisely when more discernment is needed, not less."
For many in YRR-related churches, a profession of belief in Calvinistic doctrine has begun to become more and more a private and personal matter and less and less a public and ecclesial matter. Add to this the fact that many of the YRR churches were associated with baptistic fellowships which were stridently opposed to Calvinistic doctrine. It has not been uncommon for Calvinistic ministers in these fellowships to convince their people that there was a need to be more careful about what doctrinal terminology was promoted from the pulpit. There was no need to "wear it on your sleeve when you can wear it in your underwear" (as one well known SBC pastor once told me). A culture of walking on doctrinal eggshells leaves the door wide open for pastors who keep most of their doctrine private and personal. In turn, many who think that they are sitting under Calvinistic and Reformed preaching and teaching are, in fact, sitting under preaching and teaching that is high on pragmatism and low on biblical doctrine.
In many cases, those who have genuine concerns about the lack of doctrinal teaching and preaching in their church allow those concerns to be alleviated by the fact that their pastor claims to be Calvinistic or Reformed. I've repeatedly witnessed the process used to alleviate those concerns. Someone is bothered by the lack of doctrinal preaching in their local church. They talk with their pastor about it. He convinces them that they do not want to run out all the newer converts with hyper-intellectual preaching like that which occurs in tiny, confessionally Reformed churches. The concerned member then starts to think to himself or herself, "I really wish the preaching was more substantive, but the church is growing, people are being converted and we're not like those inbred, doctrinally nit picky churches full of homeschoolers and anti-vaccers." The metamorphosis from public and ecclesial doctrinal commitment to that of private and personal has begun.
After one has begun to entertain the idea that the church's doctrine can be private and personal rather than public and ecclesial, they then become susceptible to being convinced that it is, in fact, actually charitable to keep doctrine a private and personal affair. It sounds sweet to the ear when someone insists that it is more important to be loving than to be right. It sounds warm-hearted to downplay what many see as "divisive" in favor of what seems to always makes for peace. However, Jesus wasn't crucified for downplaying doctrine. Everything that Jesus taught and did was doctrinal in nature--and was intended to be utilized for public and ecclesial purposes. When his opponents challenged him about his teaching, Jesus said, "I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret" (John 18:20). In what is arguably his greatest evangelistic sermon, Jesus boldly taught the doctrine of election (John 6:37, 39, 44).
This is no license for ministers of the Gospel to be cold or brazenly mean-spirited in their presentation of biblical truth. A central teaching of Scripture is that pastors are to be "gentle to all," "forbearing," "patient," "nurturing" and "humble" in the way in which they propagate truth. However, this is not in opposition to the biblical call for ministers to be "sound," bold," "unwavering," "zealous," "unashamed" and "fervent" in their proclamation of the pattern of sound words that God has revealed in Scripture--especially in so much as it concerns the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. In fact, when the Apostle Paul was in prison, some were spitefully preaching Christ in order to "afflict him in his imprisonment" (Phil. 1:17). When he heard about their motives, he didn't say, "Guys, we need to be loving. Nobody cares about what you say about Christ. They just need to see how charitable you are." Instead, he wrote, "only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice" (Phil. 1:18).
The best way for us to go forward in carrying out our doctrinal commitments in public and ecclesial ways is to go back to the Scripture and see the way in which God always calls His church to hold fast to the pattern of sound words in Scripture (2 Tim. 1:13). The consistent expositional, doctrinal and exegetical preaching of God's word in our pulpits is certainly one of the best ways for ministers to build into the minds and hearts of God's people the dire need that we have for public and ecclesial doctrinal commitment. This was the way of the Reformation and the Puritan movement of the 16th and 17th centuries. The great ecumenical Protestant Confessions and Catechisms (e.g. the Westminister Standards, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, etc.) were the fruit of the prayerful and diligent biblical study and preaching of those men who were zealous to see the people of God holding fast to the pattern of sound doctrine taught in Scripture. What might God again do in the church if we would commit to such an unashamed adherence to His word? All of this, of course, must be fueled by deep and persistent love to Christ and love for his people. May God give us the grace to be a people who are deeply committed to a loving public and ecclesial--not simply private and personal--propagation of His truth.