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The YRRM and the Separateness of the Church

The New Calvinists of the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement (YYRM) burst into the public consciousness with Colin Hansen’s 2006 Christianity Today article and follow up book.I have recounted some of that history before and will not do so again at length here. In short, the YRRM was essentially a recovery of the doctrines of grace, sovereignty of God, and Calvinist soteriology (i.e. TULIP), predominately by evangelical Baptists.

Since its inception, the YRRM has been frequently critiqued by people like R. Scott Clark, who have commented on the incongruence with most members of the movement—including many of its de facto leaders—and the Reformed confessional tradition, specifically regarding the sacraments, covenant theology, ecclesiology, and the gifts of the Spirit. As Richard Muller has shown before, adherence to TULIP does not a real Calvinist make. Employing the term “Calvinism” itself is problematic, because it implies that Calvin was the self-conscious standard bearer of the theology he championed. In reality, Calvin was the first among equals. The original Reformed “movement’ was not a struggle or discussion over one man, as Lutheranism arguably was. In the context of this post, it is worth noting that other reformers like Peter Martyr, Henirich Bullinger, or Martin Bucer are rarely invoked by the self-professed Calvinists of the YRRM. This exposes the one-dimensional focus of the YRRM and its relative discontinuity with the historic Reformed tradition. To quote R. Scott Clark again, “The Reformed Churches confess much more than the doctrine of predestination. We confess a whole system of doctrine, i.e. a theology, a piety, and a churchly practice.” TULIP (an anachronistic acrostic) is necessary, but not sufficient for a Reformed church.

Others have criticized the YRRM’s reliance on pastor celebrity culture and a perpetual conference circuit. This attribute of the YRRM has caused it to remain somewhat detached from ecclesiological questions and has given it a somewhat individualistic flair amongst its adherents. One may affirm a “Calvinist” soteriology in a state of detachment from a Reformed ecclesiological context. To be “Reformed” obviously does not require affirming every jot and tittle of Calvin’s Institutes or the Canons of Dort. But it does require an affirmation of some facet of the accepted Reformed confessional tradition that extends far beyond affirming predestination, and always includes an ecclesiological context.2 As James Cassidy has argued, “The Reformation was self-consciously a renewal of the church and her polity, bringing the structure of the church into greater conformity with the Scriptures. A non-accountable, non-denominational disconnectionalism fits at odds with a Calvinistic theology. There were differences immediately among the Reformed in terms of polity, but there was also a general agreement on some basic polity issues which are all but ignored in the current climate.”

As these critiques evince, for a while most commentators predicted that the YRRM would fracture along ecclesiological lines. Yet, while those critiques are apt and still stand, it now seems that the bane of the movement may come from another source: politics.

A tenet—beyond affirmation of predestination and the sovereignty of God—of the unofficial New Calvinist creed, is its cultural transformationalism. Early on, Mark Driscoll and others identified this “missional” attitude as a distinctive of the new brand of Calvinism. Colin Hansen described the New Calvinists identity as, in large part, one of repudiation of what it saw as distasteful characteristics of the evangelical culture that preceded it. Namely, its members sought to protest against the seeker church model, church-growth marketing, and the celebrity culture of broader American Christianity. The YRR’s also rejected the politicization of Christianity at the behest of the baby boomer, moral majority generation. Many YRR’ers rebelled against the pragmatic concessions that the prior generation had made to the world, allegedly for the sake of evangelism and redirecting culture toward biblical norms, wherein Christians sought to influence the culture for Christ via cultural influencers. For the baby boomers, it was a rejection of the stuffy fundamentalism that had come even before them. But in the eyes of some millennials, these were just power plays.

This rebellion was expressed via the YRRM’s transformationist persuasion. In a nutshell, Christians of this persuasion argue that believers are still bound to the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. By continuing in this, the cultural will be “transformed” or “redeemed.” The New Calvinists tend to see this type of engagement as being more relevant, missional, and less politically, focused. They want to “redeem” rather than control. But it is often difficult to see the distinction between the two brands of cultural engagement. As will be shown below, this approach to culture and politics stands in opposition to the theology of Calvin. Ironically, it is the transformationist approach itself that is now causing problems for the movement that espouses it.

Two recent conferences, MLK50 and Together for the Gospel (T4G), predominantly New Calvinist gatherings, illustrate the issue. Both conferences were overwhelmingly focused on social justice issues that have come to the fore in the wake of the 2016 election (and all that it brought with it) and the subsequent Roy Moore senate campaign. Both events deepened, or at least made noticeable, racial divisions in America.  

Accordingly, at T4G, David Platt preached a sermon entitled, “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters: Racism and Our Need for Repentance” addressing what he perceived as persistent and rampant racism within evangelical churches:

May it be said of us that we eagerly anticipated future salvation while acknowledging present sin. May it not be said of us that we indulged in worship while ignoring justice, and may it not be said of us that we carried on religion while we refused to repent.

Going on to reference God’s declaration of judgment on Israel in Amos chapter five, wherein Israel neglected justice for the poor, Platt suggested that white evangelicals who do not address racial injustice from the pulpit “will not be found faithful” by God and are thereby directly deepening the racial divide in America. Platt then identified the unemployment disparities between white and black Americans, income inequality, high abortion and murder rates in African American communities, among other things, as evidence of racism and injustice. Matt Chandler backed up Platt’s polemic in his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, arguing that the doctrines of grace are not an excuse for neglecting the necessity of moral living.

I do not seek here to comment on the exegetical merits of the T4G sermons. Others have already done so. Darryl Harrison in particular offers helpful commentary on the relevant issues. The point is that, rightly or wrongly, the rhetoric therein presents a political and social ethic, and ties certain related activity to Christian faithfulness.

Paul Carter, in reflecting on the T4G conference, recently predicted that political factionalism over “issues of race and politics” will be the death knell of the YRRM. Carter writes that whilst the baby boomers were “indifferent to doctrine” but “in bed with the Republican Party,” the YRRM wanted to distinguish itself by shoring up its doctrine and avoiding politicization of said doctrine. “At T4G ‘18 that all began to change,” says Carter. “Politics was back on the table.” And at least for the SBC, the predominate home of the New Calvinists, it has begun to have adverse effects. The anti-Calvinist wing of the SBC has already drafted resolutions against the use of social justice language and concepts to present at this year’s convention. Following both MLK50 and T4G, some black SBC’ers have spoken out against the rhetoric.

For better or worse, the New Calvinists, like their parents, are now bringing politics forcefully back into the discussion. This move may lessen the force of their criticism of cultural, politicized evangelicalism. Whether fair or not, the old evangelical guard, who see this shift as capitulation to the secular culture, will take issue with this perceived hypocrisy. Beyond pragmatic concerns, this move threatens the separateness of the church, and the two kingdoms paradigm, as the reformers saw it. The thrust of these critiques is that the Gospel is being directly identified with requirements related to social justice and identity politics. And this criticism has some teeth to it.   

The New Calvinists are arguably taking a page out of the Chicago Declaration playbook from the 1970s, which presented a terse confession of complicity in national sins (race, poverty, and war) and insisted that social justice, what Jim Wallis of Sojourners later began to refer to simply as “civic responsibility,” was a central calling of the faith. This represented a shift in evangelical thought which had previously exhibited a more libertarian approach to politics. Accordingly, the National Association of Evangelicals called upon Christians to “shape wise laws pertaining to the creation of wealth, wages, education, taxation, immigration, health care, and social welfare that will protect those trapped in poverty and empower the poor to improve their circumstances.” D.G. Hart has commented extensively on this shift toward activism in evangelicalism.

The recent and enthusiastic embrace of Martin Luther King, Jr. by the Gospel Coalition and the SBC, a move that has received some appropriate and thoughtful critique, exposes a conflation of the kingdoms. At both the MLK50 and T4G conferences, King was held up as an example and used as an encouragement for transformationist sympathies. “Justice,” which is usually meant to mean social or racial justice, both elusive terms, in these contexts, has been touted as being central to the faith. The adoption of MLK as a standard bearer is perhaps unsurprising, given his political theology. Matthew Tuininga has written on the deficiency in King’s theology regarding the two kingdoms distinction:

King himself did often conflate the kingdom of Christ and temporal politics in his rhetoric, I believe, as did the broader trajectory of mainline clerical activism that took its inspiration from him in following decades. We cannot use political means to establish the kingdom of God, nor should we confuse the liberation that comes through Christ with the justice that can be accomplished through politics.

Like MLK, the New Calvinists, contra Calvin, are inching toward conflation of the two kingdoms, as their fathers often did. The transformationalist attitudes of some New Calvinists are drawing somewhat from later manifestations of Calvinist political thought (e.g. Kuyperianism), but more clearly from twentieth- century, decidedly non-Calvinist, evangelical thought (e.g. the NAE).   

It is becoming apparent, at least to its critics, that the real issue for the YRRM was not the politicization of the faith per se by their parents, but rather the content of the politics therein.

Chameleonic Evangelicalism

Any movement that is reactionary or characterized by protestation and repudiation of something before it, usually ends up either disintegrating once it has accomplished its original creative purpose or, ironically, mimicking the very thing it allegedly detested, thus revealing the true impetus for its existence: angst rather than reform. As stated, the YRRM emerged in part out of a desire to be different than the preceding generation. This explains why it has been marked more by its restlessness than reform of what came before, and why it is now beginning to mimic evangelicalism, or rather, reveal itself as having never really been distinct therefrom.

Part of this perhaps unintended continuity between the YRRM and evangelicalism is attributable not to any self-conscious action by the proponents of the YRRM, but rather to evangelicalism’s propensity for adaptation. It is able to absorb “movements” like the YRRM seamlessly.

Chris Armstrong, writing for Public Discourse, has correctly pointed out that “Evangelicalism is and has always been chameleonic,” and pragmatic, exhibiting “uniquely strong… ‘translatability.’” Looking back over its history, “the evangelical flame has…flashed through almost every neighborhood of Protestantism’s heavenly city.” Armstrong continues, “As each new generation of evangelicals has forged its own culturally attuned modes…Want to know which way the cultural wind is blowing at any time and place? Look to the innovative, pragmatic, malleable evangelicals.”

Armstrong’s assessment is basically correct. Evangelicalism, for all its aspirations of cultural engagement and reform, is dictated by the culture, both positively and negatively, rather than the other way round.In general, “[m]odern American evangelicalism has neither critiqued nor transformed the political landscape” but has “largely bought into the polarized politics of the two-party system and lost its ability to be critical of the American way.”3 And the YRRM has done precious little to remedy the situation. If anything, it has by its transformationalist, “missional” outlook, complicated the issue. Carl Trueman has surmised that “Despite its distinct and in many ways sophisticated theology, the ‘young, restless, and reformed’ movement has always been in some respects simply the latest manifestation of the weakest aspects of American Evangelicalism.” To critics of the YRRM, the adoption of the language of identity politics and the embrace of social justice causes is nothing less than the YRRM being dictated to by the broader culture, much like evangelicalism always has been.

If the YRRM is not that different from the evangelicalism that both preceded it and has arguably subsumed it, then it is prone to the same problems faced by its predecessor because, by embracing a transformationist outlook, it has refused to remain separate. In addition to what Hart points out, the “missional” mindset, also “baked into” New Calvinism4 drives their brand of political engagement. They assert that theirs is a more compassionate and relevant form of such, but in reality, it differs little from that of their parents.

The drive to be “relevant” and reformed has birthed the urge for people everywhere to be compelled by the loving merit of Christianity. But being “relevant” and reformed is an unworkable contradiction. The problem with the YRRM, which has been often identified, is the limited scope of their “reformed” doctrine. For the YRRers, the ordinary means of grace as the duties of the church is not enough, because it lacks relevance for the world. The relevant and reformed have made “reformed” to stand for societal reform, and thus they have birthed a new moralism and newly baptized political ideology, though it differs in substance from what preceded them.

The YRRM can maintain its jeremiad against the politicization of the faith by past generations and maintain a biblical view of justice and Christian unity, if it also is willing to adopt Calvin’s view of the church’s fundamental separateness, which is drawn from Luther’s two kingdoms paradigm.5 

Calvin’s Separateness 

Having noted the spiritual nature of the kingdom of Christ, and that the human condition on earth is “bitter and wretched,” Calvin asks,

What then would it avail us to be ranged under the government of a heavenly king, if its benefits were not realized beyond the present earthly life? We must, therefore, know that the happiness which is promised to us in Christ does not consist in external advantage… such as the flesh is wont to long for… but properly belongs to the heavenly life.

And again,

Not being earthly or carnal, and so subject to corruption, but spiritual, it raises us even to eternal life, so that we can patiently live at present under toil, hunger, cold, contempt, disgrace, and other annoyances; contended with this, that our king will never abandon us.6

In short, Calvin is arguing that the attempt to realize the benefits of the kingdom on earth is futile and would, in a sense, cheapen it. The present benefit of belonging to Christ’s kingdom is that the difficulties, injustices, and myriad evils of life can be endured with hope.7 Christ came to separate the Christian from the world, fostering in his people a contempt for the world in that they are no longer in bondage to it.

Although, like Luther, Calvin acknowledges inevitable interaction between the City of God and the City of Man, to borrow Augustine’s description, he held nevertheless that Christians are to think of themselves as separate from the world, and thereby carry with them wholly different concerns and aspirations. The church itself responds to the human condition with the “foolish” means of word and sacrament, not with power.

The Westminster Confession reflects the basic division between the two cities, and thus the separateness of the church.

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers. (23.1)

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (25.3)

Though Calvin affirmed this distinction, contra the Anabaptists, Christians in Geneva were encouraged to hold civic office and engage the public square. Christian civic activity, to Calvin, was necessary to upholding order until the coming of the kingdom. Yet, Christians did so as individuals informed by the doctrines and ministry of the church, not as the institutional church itself. To engage in activism, so to speak, in the civic realm as an institution, the church would risk compromising its distinctiveness and degrading the standing of its spiritual weaponry. However, Christians could undergo church discipline for any sinful dealings outside of the congregation. But the impetus for this was to protect the purity of the church, her witness in the world, and to give a sinner the opportunity to repent. It was not motivated by any aspirations of transforming culture. Thus, the delinquent church attendee was disciplined with as much vigor as the Christian who cheated his business associates. 


New Calvinists would do well to look to J. Gresham Machen’s Calvinism regarding politics and the church. Kevin DeYoung has recently summarized Machen’s approach:

Distinguish between the corporate church and the individual Christian. We need believers in all levels of government and engaged in every kind of public policy debate. But there is a difference between the Bible-informed, Christian citizen and the formal declarations from church pronouncements and church pulpits. In the early part of the 20th century, most evangelicals strongly supported the Eighteenth Amendment, the Volstead Act, and Prohibition in general. When J. Gresham Machen made the unpopular decision to vote against his church voicing support for the amendment, he did so, in part, because such a vote would have failed to recognize “the church in its corporate capacity as distinguished from the activities of its members, on record with regard to such political questions” (Selected Shorter Writings, 394).

To add another insightful Machen quotation:

The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life—nay, all the length of human history—is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth—nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens—are as the dust of the street.8 

The old gadfly of the PCUSA consistently endorsed a thoroughly Calvinist view of the separateness of the church and its corresponding functions. The preservation of the New Calvinist movement may depend on a recovery of this separateness, wherein societal engagement is conducted by the individual, rather than the institution of the church. Calling for the church to adopt a transformationist approach to culture and politics is incongruent with Calvin’s overall view of the world, which was appropriately hopeless. But more importantly, it threatens the purity of the church. “Calvin maintained that God’s kingdom must find social and material expression in the church distinct from political society.”The ordinary marks of the church, the word proclaimed and the sacraments,  must be enough for us. Living as servants and foreigners must be enough for us. One day true freedom and equality will reign  in the kingdom of God, but in the here and now, Christians should expect suffering and persecution, which can only be endured through hope in Christ, offered by a separate and spiritual church.

A programmatic, transformationist approach, which seeks to realize elements of the kingdom here on earth, inevitably politicizes the church by resorting to non-spiritual weaponry. Only disappointment can ensue from such. Matthew Tuininga reminds us that “Calvin cautioned Christians against imagining that political and civil society can be somehow transformed into God’s kingdom this side of Christ’s return.” A recovery of Calvin’s vision will improve ecclesiological commitments and foster a concern for the inner life of the church. That in turn, will lead to spiritually nourished Christians who act justly and lovingly in their dealings with all men. 


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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