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I know a pastor who thinks militant Calvinism is about to overtake the Southern Baptist Convention and lead to multiple church splits. In personal conversation, he is constantly going back to the dangers of Reformed theology and the damage it is doing across the evangelical world.

I have a friend on the other side of the spectrum – a truly Reformed guy convinced that the contemporary church movement, particularly its Purpose-Driven manifestation, is man-centered, God-dishonoring and infecting evangelicalism all over the place, leaving us powerless for mission and divided in our churches. Whenever I talk with him, he is constantly railing against church growth and numbers-obsessed pastors who only want to build monuments to themselves.

I have another friend who has a visceral reaction whenever someone is expressive in worship. He talks often about how people are just showing off. Their enthusiasm isn’t real. If it gets out of hand, it will cause problems.

The Common Thread: A Story

Do you know these types? Maybe it’s not Calvinism or church growth or charismatic expression but something else. The common thread you find is that they are almost obsessive in their critique of a movement, theological persuasion, or church practice they think is doing damage to the kingdom of God.

There’s one thing all these guys have in common: a past experience. Behind every theological crusader, you can usually find a story.

For the anti-Calvinist pastor, it was a church he labored over for many years. When he moved to another city, the church called a Reformed pastor who immediately began pushing a theological agenda that surprised and startled the congregation. A heated battle took place, and the church went through a messy split. The former pastor felt like much of the work he had done was obliterated by his Calvinistic successor.

For the anti-Purpose-Driven guy, it was a church he belonged to for many years. When a new pastor came in and began changing the direction of the church to become primarily focused on seekers, my friend felt increasingly uncomfortable. The new pastor downplayed doctrine and theology, leaving a number of church members feeling marginalized and antiquated. My friend’s concerns were shoved aside and ignored. Eventually, they had a painful parting with the church, and the pastor dismissed them as being more focused on theology than evangelism.

For the anti-charismatic guy, it was a church split that took place as a result of extreme charismatic expression. The wrangling and politics and behind-the-scenes infighting that was covered up by talk of “God moving” and “revival breaking out” causes him to resist any talk of that sort, even if it is perfectly biblical.

In these and other cases, you notice there’s usually a painful story that serves as the backdrop for their current crusade. And you can probably think of similar examples yourself. These guys may be at different points on the theological spectrum, but they are united by their similar story: bad leadership, painful parting, heartbreaking results – now leading to a passionate crusade.

What to Learn from the Crusader

Why is it important to note that behind theological crusaders there is often a story? Because you can learn something from their experiences. You can learn about bad leadership styles and unwise decisions. You can also see how quickly one can be blindly biased toward a whole segment of evangelicalism because of a painful history.

No doubt there are angry, militant Calvinists who have split churches over hills not worth dying on. No doubt there are Purpose-Driven guys who have burned people as they made changes in churches. No doubt there are excesses in charismatic expression and situations of pastoral abuse of authority. While most Christians understand that you can’t judge a whole movement or theology based on these sad situations, the people in the thick of a controversy can and do. 

I’ve found that whenever I come across “issue Christians” – whether they be Calvinist, anti-Calvinist, church growth, anti-church growth, Dispensationalist, or charismatic – I ought to hear their story.

What is it about seeing a noted Calvinist author quoted in the bulletin that bugs you so much? We had a fierce battle over Calvinism a few years ago, and the church has not recovered.

What is it about contemporary worship music that makes you mad? I got burned by a pastor who ramrodded his agenda in a way that caused angst and division.

What is it about raising your hands in worship that bothers you so much? My church split when the pastor led us in a charismatic direction where people were being slain in the Spirit.

How to Help: Return to Grace

Sometimes the crusader just wants to be heard. So let them tell their story. That said, debating the finer points of theology is not the way to go. Debating the strengths and weaknesses of the charismatic worship movement or the man-centered or God-centered nature of Calvinism or church growth isn’t the point. When someone’s been burned, they need a bandage, not an explanation of how the burning takes place.

Instead, it’s best to point them away from the bad examples of leadership they’ve seen to what’s good in the movement they crusade against. There is always a mixture of good and bad in every cycle that comes through church history. Every revival has its excesses. Every leader has shortcomings. Lower the level of idealism a bit. And then bring the conversation back around to grace.

You know, it’s sad that you had such a bad experience with a pastor who talks so much about grace. Isn’t that just another reminder of how badly we all need God’s grace?

Sorry to hear about your pastor marginalizing you in the name of welcoming new people. His motivations may very well have been wrong. Makes me shudder to think of my own motivations at times. Aren’t you glad we’re not saved by our perfect sincerity? We’d all be in trouble if that were the case.

I’m sorry to hear about the hypocrisy you saw during those worship services. Just goes to show you how messed up the church is, doesn’t it? My heart isn’t always fully engaged in worship either. Another reminder of how badly we’ve fallen and how much we need Jesus!

Don’t try to persuade them to give up the crusade. It’s probably not going to work. And theological crusades can distract us from the mission God has called us to.

Instead, offer to pray with them. Listen to them. Learn from them. Give them guidance if they ask for it. And then challenge the crusader to channel that passion back toward the Great Commission. Encourage them to not let their back story keep them from moving forward.

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31 thoughts on “Behind Every Theological Crusader There’s Usually a Story”

  1. Rick Lowhorn says:

    Trevin, I appreciate all that you and so many young men are doing to further the representation of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel Project is quiet appealing to me at present and I am in the process of considering the use of it in our group’s ministry for adults. Our children’s and student ministers are also considering it. Well, getting on to the posting at hand. The posting comes across as if you take no position on anything, which I know is not true. I do not want to come across as a “Crusader” because I usually consider myself as being as open as the next person, and at times I am criticized for my openness, but I do believe in some circumstances a person may have to take a position relative to what they believe is truth. In those times they are taking the risk of being considered narrow minded, which is what appears to be your polite suggestion by this article. Even though this risk exist they must stand for what they believe God is presenting as most important in His word. There have always been situations in which men of God had to take a stance, either based on what they had understood as truth or based on truth that was to them new, as was the case during the Reformation. Love the article. If the reason for it is to create discussion it obviously caught my attention. Thanks again for all that you are doing. Rick

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Totally agree, Rick. Luther would be an example. What we have to guard against is the narrowness of theological axe-grinding and the bias that causes us to misrepresent others based on our bad experiences.

      1. Rick Lowhorn says:

        Theological axe-grinding? Would this be anything that I believe or only those things that I believe that maybe should be governed by a more important or more central truth? Example: If a brother believes and is convinced that the “Five Points” are the truth, even though we know that within the five we can have a hugh diversity of thought, that he would never compromise his fellowship with a brother who does not follow/embrace the five, because of the higher standard of our testimony of unity to those who do not even know the most basic and foundational truths of the gospel.

        1. Trevin Wax says:

          I’m not talking about firmness of convictions obviously, but about the inability to see past the one issue. In other words, the bad experience makes the one conviction supreme to the point it becomes an obsession.

          I think your illustration of the five points is good.

  2. Nick Carraway says:

    Thank you for this, Trevin. Yet again, I’m amazed and nourished by your grace, insight and wisdom.

    I can certainly trace my instinctive unease about modern Calvinism back to a single event – but it was a theological shock, rather than the experience of a church-split that left me reeling.

    I was having dinner at college with friends and we were discussing a contemporary debate about whether a well-known woman who had been imprisoned for decades for murder should ever be released.

    My Calvinist friend said: “They should string her up.”

    An evangelical sitting opposite him said: “Ah, you shouldn’t talk like that. Jesus died for her sins, too.”

    The Calvinist said: “That’s not necessarily so.”

    Bang. That’s the “L” in TULIP and, for me, the outworking of Limited Atonement theology in our attitude to the lost. If the Calvinists are right, can I say with conviction to anyone that Jesus died for their sins?

    I worry when the evangelical left plays down the primacy of individual conversion but nothing scares me more than the idea at the heart of Calvinism that the door of salvation is not really open to everyone, that although Jesus is knocking not everyone has the chance to open it.

    That’s why I shudder when I see evangelical conferences with Calvinist-only speakers. It’s why I worry when friends with a passion for evangelism dive into works by reformed celebrities, and why the idea of a reformed resurgence does not make me jump for joy.

    I love and admire many people who have been blessed deeply by Reformed writers. There is beauty and energy and vision and joy in the Gospel Coalition, but are those of us whose want to learn from Augustine and Calvin but believe the gift of salvation is open to all welcome in the fold? And if so, for how long?

    1. Jayesh says:

      Sounds like you’ve been burnt by a hyper-Calvinist, Nick. Some Calvinists are inappropriately grace-less and fatalistic like your friend, but not all (or most, I hope). As Trevin has argued, don’t let your bad experience with one bad egg taint your view of Calvinism. Check out these resources by John Piper (a Calvinist), who speaks on common grace and the love God has for everybody:

  3. So very true. Thanks for this post Trevin, it needs to be heard and applied. Appreciative of your gracefulness.

  4. Trevin,
    Thank you so much for these words. Being a young man in the SBC (GCB) who came to Christ in a “Seeker Church”, has Charismatic tendencies, while holding to a reformed position in theological matters, I understand this all too well. There is so much wisdom in reminding us to hear our siblings in Christ & respond in grace whether than defend our position. The pains that we each have are real & very deep but the importance of the Gospel moving forward for the Glory of God is that much more important. I pray this upcoming generation, which I am apart of, learns the lesson you are teaching quickly before we lose focus of our primary objective in lieu of a terciary subjects. Again, thank you.

  5. Keith Rivas says:

    Nicely said. It’s amazing what kind of view you can have if you step out of the box and mingle with more than your own. Here you are, exposing the lessons learned from interactions with an anti-Calvinist, an anti-Purpose-Driven, and an anti-Charismatic. Your interaction with these folks has given you a detached point of view that allowed you to gather the lesson you just posted. That is what I’m taking away from this. The real testament is that you were able to be with all of these and were able to filter out their “anti” attitudes and still call them friends. That is the way it should be. Everyone that crosses your life’s path has a lesson to teach you. Question is are you willing to learn it.

  6. Rick Owen says:

    Good thoughts to keep in mind when our baggage is about us (e.g., our fears and wounded feelings). There are some experiences, however, which teach us worthwhile things — both mistakes to avoid and workable ideas to carry forward.

    Apart from our experiences, we also can look at Scripture and compare it with our current beliefs and practices in the pursuit of well-grounded, biblical reformation in our personal lives and the church.

    In either case — whether we are stirred from past experiences or present reflections from Scripture — we need to trust God. We can and should be enthusiastic and even zealous for God and His ways without becoming fretful, frantic, fearful or forceful.

    The apostle Paul approached learning and growing in the church as a caring father and nursing mother, who worked hard alongside his fellow brethren, setting a good example by investing his life in them with patience and sacrifice (1 Thess. 2:1-12).

    Paul’s approach resulted in good change: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews” (1 Thess. 2:13-14).

  7. Thank you so much for these words. Being a young man in the SBC (GCB) who came to Christ in a “Seeker Church”, has Charismatic tendencies, while holding to a reformed position in theological matters, I understand this all too well. There is so much wisdom in reminding us to hear our siblings in Christ & respond in grace whether than defend our position. The pains that we each have are real & very deep but the importance of the Gospel moving forward for the Glory of God is that much more important. I pray this upcoming generation, which I am apart of, learns the lesson you are teaching quickly before we lose focus of our primary objective in lieu of a terciary subjects. Again, thank you.

  8. Flyaway says:

    My crusade isn’t against any theology it’s against Christians who support gay marriage and abortion. I pray that they will come to their senses soon and that I will leave it in God’s hands as there is nothing I can do about it.

  9. Chris Howell says:

    Great post. Very insightful and helpful. Thank you, Trevin.

  10. Luma says:

    How glorious is God’s providence! Funny, I was just working on a draft for a post I titled, “Walking Away Graciously.”

    I can’t stress enough how crucial the gospel is in these types of situations!!

  11. Califf lewis says:

    Trevin, this is great! I will admit that I have to battle against making certain movements illegitimate because of some guy who may have demonized a certain theology or deified some philosophy of ministry.The key is humility and the reality is that each believer has a gift for my edification. When I illegitamize someone I run a great risk of choking out my own groth. Humility will see the good and try to love and coach through the rough edges that ALL of us have.

    Once again, excellent article!


  12. Joel Frady says:

    It seems as if another common thread in the examples you gave is that the conflict was often with a solo pastor. I wonder if our emphasis on the solo pastor rather than a plurality of elders sometimes contributes to an environment where single issues or ministry methodologies can predominate. I know all leadership structures are subject to corruption but there just seems to be a wisdom in multiple perspectives in leadership that may bring needed stability where a church might be less likely to go on a crusade. I say this as one for whom plurality of elders is not a crusade.

  13. Sam Y says:

    While I totally agree in most situations, we have to draw lines. For example, last night I had a two hour discussion with a Church of Christ preacher who denies the orthodox understanding of “by faith alone.” In his mind, Christ’s grace means that we have the ability to earn our salvation through immersion baptism, church attendance, and good works. I may have come off to many as a “theological crusader,” but I hope every one involved in the Gospel Coalition would hold that “by faith alone” is an issue worth crusading over. Minor digressions from truth are to be discussed with charity, major issues with alarm. Otherwise we are suggesting that truth is not important.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Agreed, Sam.

      The theological “crusader” I’m talking about is the one who has a hard time seeing past the issue he/she is worked up about. In the case of an Athanasius, we should be thankful he was a crusader. In the cases I’m talking about, however, the issue is either third or second-order and has been raised to the level of first importance.

  14. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Behind Every Theological Crusader There’s Usually a Story

    I like God’s story in the Bible.

    P.S. Was the formation of TGC (The Gospel Coalition) a theological crusade?

  15. Pete Gross says:

    I think that if we are honest with ourselves, we all have issues with a particular branch of some Christian group because of personal history. We may not “crusade” against them, but in little ways we diminish their touch on our lives (one way I do this is to refuse to listen to a good Bible teacher on the radio because of my history with one of his disciples).

    Once we recognize this about ourselves, it makes it easier to be compassionate towards the more passionate crusader. Maybe we can even grow in our capacity to extend grace and forgiveness to the one who offended us.

  16. Cathy says:

    Wow- I haven’t felt that patronized in a long time. In some ways I agree with your post- it is the people who have been burned the worst by really bad/dangerous teaching that yell the loudest when they see the licks of fire approaching the people they love. And so we should definitely pay attention to what they are saying- not so we can pat them on the head and basically dismiss them as reactionary- but because they have gained some discernment literally by fire. To equivocate all back stories is the opposite of wise counsel. Some people perhaps reacted immaturely to a difficult situation- and maybe they got bent out of shape over minor issues, or maybe they don’t trust the sovereignty of God, or maybe they took something that happened too personally- all of those are possibilities. But what also is possible, is that they were ensnared in really bad teaching or deceived by a wolf – and now they try to warn others out of compassion.

  17. Trevin,

    It would be far too easy (and theologically lazy) to dismiss Luther’s Biblical arguments for Salvation by Grace Alone through Faith Alone by Christ’s work alone by saying he had a “bad experience in the Monastery” (and he most certainly had an awful experience that nearly killed him).

    It would be far to easy to dismiss Athanasius’ argument for the doctrine of the Trinity by pointing to the fact that he had a bad experience at the hands of the Arians who drove him out of his parish and as a result he was nearly killed and was forced into exile in Egypt.

    In Luther’s case, his bad experiences gave him much more credibility and authenticity. He knew of that which he spoke and he knew first hand of the dead end that lies at the heart of every works based religion. That Luther obsessed about that doctrine does in no way detract from the fact that he was right.

    Trevin, the example that you bring up in this post is NOT adiaphora, instead it cuts to the very heart of the Gospel itself (in fact you could boil it down to Monergism vs. Pelagianism). Therefore, taking time to listen to a person’s story (experience) is only part of the process in addressing ‘theological crusaders’. Their experience may have helped lead them to truth or it could have lead them away from the truth. Ultimately, our experiences do not determine theological truth and at the end of the day the “truth question” must be addressed even if the person making the case had a bad experience and as a result has launched a crusade.

    1. Trevin Wax says:


      I know you’re a Lutheran, so you’re not going to like this… ;) But Luther – who was dead right on justification – tended to read justification into texts it is not there, interpreting everything through a narrow lens of law and gospel and imposing a sometimes foreign framework on many passages of Scripture. Many theologians – though recognizing their indebtedness to Luther – believe Calvin to have been a better systematician, perhaps because he didn’t interpret everything through the ‘crusader’s’ eyes. Luther was God’s gift to the church – the revolutionary who got the ball rolling. I thank God for him. But there are places where even in his case, the defining issue of his past led him into areas of misinterpretation.

      That said, the kind of theological crusading I am speaking of in this post is not the Luther or Athanasius kind (as I made clear in a comment earlier).

      And I agree on the “truth question.” Experience does not determine theological truth.

  18. Trevin,

    Who let that cat out of the bag that I’m a Lutheran?? ;-)

    Thanks for letting me comment on your blog and thanks for the courtesy of a response. I’d love to discuss Luther and Calvin with you in more depth sometime. It’d be a fun conversation.


    Chris Rosebrough

  19. Bob Hadley says:


    Nice article. Let me ask you a question… does The Gospel Coalition itself not set itself up as a Theological Crusader of sorts? I mean the focus seems pretty solid here. And consider the following comment you made to Sam’s statement… “The theological “crusader” I’m talking about is the one who has a hard time seeing past the issue he/she is worked up about.”

    Looks to me the real problem here is OUR PERSPECTIVE on why someone is engaged against us in the first place… obviously if they do not agree with us then they must be ignorant of the facts or have some other agenda as you seem to suggest in your article.

    I kind of find that somewhat condescending personally and I do not believe that was intentional. Is it not possible for people to engage in theological discussions and disagree without having as a root problem some physiological or sociological issue as an underlying motivator?


    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Hi Bob,

      I don’t think I can speak for The Gospel Coalition as a whole, since I’m not a council member and since it is an organization. When I am speaking of crusaders, I am referring to individuals (not organizations) who tend to view everything through the lens of a certain theological debate. It may be a particular view on children’s education, a particular view of eschatology, a particular view of earth’s origins, etc. I have met people who tend to make their views on these issues essential to everything, to the point where the importance of such discussions are blown out of proportion.

      I do agree with you that people can engage in civil theological discussions and disagree with each other. This does not mean there is a root problem or a back story. Such discussion should be encouraged. Most of the time, however, what keeps these conversations elevated and civil is the fact they are kept in perspective. Crusaders with a back story have a hard time keeping their favorite issue in perspective, precisely because of the experience that launched them on the crusade. Hope that helps clarify.

      1. Bob Hadley says:


        Obviously there are as you explained well, crusaders with a “back story” that hinders an objective dialogue. But I also have witnessed unfair accusatory remarks cast at individuals with differing perspectives and not just theological… and then comes the idea that there must be some kind of underlying reason for their dissension… either it is that that person does not understand the issues… is being illogical or irrational… etc because if they did, they obviously would not be disagreeing!

        That was my point. Hope you have a GREAT weekend!


        1. Trevin Wax says:

          You are right. This happens often.

          I believe it is condescending to think that the only reason someone disagrees with me is because they don’t understand my position. No… sometimes people disagree because they understand the position and still dissent. Nothing illogical or irrational, just a friendly disagreement.

          The key is to discern whether or not the disagreement is connected to a back story or whether the disagreement is more objective in nature.

          1. Bob Hadley says:

            I am confident that you know that my comment was not in reference to you. While I do not come by here that much, all that I have read that you write has been gracious and fair. But as you can see in the comment below, I have my fans and have dodged a number of bullets in fun of coarse!



    2. Matt says:

      Yep, no one who runs a blog called “SBC Issues” and can’t stop blogging about Calvinism, or the pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Daytona Beach whose church website reads “Non-Calvinist : Non-Reformed” has no issue to grind.

      1. Max says:

        ” … whose church website reads “Non-Calvinist:Non-Reformed” …”

        Wow, Dr. Hadley is brilliant! He has come upon an easy way to fix this thing. Just post Calvinist/Reformed or Non-Calvinist/Non-Reformed on all 45,000 SBC church signs and websites. That way current and prospective members will know the theological leaning of church leadership and can make their choice accordingly … and theological crusades will end!

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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