Dysfunctional Calvinism

I hope that my writings in support of Calvinism gives me the credibility to offer a few words concerning dysfunctional Calvinism.  If not, I am going to say it anyway. 🙂

Most of the Calvinists I have met are robustly evangelical and passionate about the gospel.  They love the church and have found their soteriological understanding as empowering to their Christian life, causing them to function with greater confidence and courage under the sovereign purposes of God.  However, there is a Calvinist here and a Calvinist there, few to be sure, who have provided sufficient provocation to address dysfunctional Calvinism.

What am I taking about, you might ask?

Dysfunctional Calvinism is the practice of embracing human responsibility in converting people to Calvinism but denying human responsibility in converting people to Christ.

Dysfunctional Calvinism likes to play the “sovereignty card” as a “get out of evangelism” exception clause.

Dysfunctional Calvinism gives an articulation of the doctrines of grace without exhibiting grace to those who disagree with them.

Dysfunctional Calvinism embraces “word” ministry to the exclusion of “deed” ministry–that is the love for the truth does not go far enough.  Let’s just have another Bible Study.

Dysfunctional Calvinism finds it easier to talk to Christians about election than the free grace of God to sinners.

Dysfunctional Calvinism turns your right theology in a wrong-headed way, sometimes as a heresy hunter/watchdog blogger and other times a tacit gnosticism.

Dysfunctional Calvinism is gospel-centered insofar as it satisfies their intellectual inquiry but does not inflame their affections and transforms their will in becoming “all things to all men that by all possible means I might save some.”

Dysfunctional Calvinism gets mad that I am willing to call out the dysfunctionality and complains that I am not going after Arminians.

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22 Comments on “Dysfunctional Calvinism”

  1. Kyle Says:


    The charismatic side of me desperately wants to also point out that similar criticisms of “disfunctional” charismatics are given as proof that charismatic doctrines themselves are wrong.

  2. This is a very good article. Thanks. Well said.

  3. will herndon Says:

    I must say, although I have only met a few “calvinist”, you must be one of the few “non-dysfunctional calvinist” I know.
    I don’t mean this in a negative way, all the contrary, it simply helps to move a step closer in “understanding” the calvinist POV.

  4. Excellent! Dysfunctional Calvinists certainly exist (I’ve met some and think they need to be confronted with these truths), but I thank God that they’re few and far between.

  5. Matt Svoboda Says:

    What! Where is the dysfunctional Arminianism post!!! 😉

  6. Good points! I like how you had the foresight to cover yourself from whining dysfunctional calvinists with the final point!

  7. Arthur Sido Says:

    Excellent post. Which is the more urgent need, the billions of lost people worldwide or the misguided Arminian next door?

    • Kaitiaki Says:

      I am reminded of Archibald Alexandra who was writing a commentary. He raised the question of whether it was more important to expound the book for the ordinary Christian or for seminary students. His answer was instructive: He decided to do it for the theological students since, properly equipped, they could reach more people than he could himself.

      I think your question (and, sadly, Alexandra’s) makes a false division. If I answer “the lost people worldwide” it leaves the impression that the Aminian error is insignificant. If I answer “the misguided Arminian next door” I am saying as you imply the billions of lost do not count. The correct answer is both the lost and the Arminian.

      We are called to be all things to all men. That means, it seems to me that we are to provide for whatever needs the people we meet have. Why stop with the misguided Arminian? Surely Tim has shown it’s important to meet the needs of the “dysfunctional Calvinist” as well 🙂

  8. Jim Pemberton Says:

    Absolutely! Good post, Justin.

    There are a few different levels of the manifestation of Truth in this world. The lowest level consists of objective facts about God. We have those theological facts that are necessary for salvation and sufficient for sustained spiritual growth throughout our fallen lifetimes. There are always facts that we have not learned well and there may be facts that are not necessary or sufficient which God has not made available to us.

    But these facts are not all there is to the Christian life. The Holy Spirit also gives us necessary inclinations. First, there is the inclination to desire the Truth beyond our own delusional self-comfort. This leads one to pursue a better understanding of the facts. Then there is the desire to know the Truth through the apprehension of the facts and act on that understanding. All in all, there is the transcendent desire not merely to know about God, but to know God; and not merely to know God but to glorify him by helping others know him in word and deed.

    Short of these God-given desires we may tend to pursue knowledge of facts without knowing Truth. If the desire is for the accurate knowledge of the facts, then the rest may come as the sin of the pride of knowledge is mortified.

    As it is, Biblical Calvinism still holds an uncomfortable balance between the absolute sovereignty of God and our responsibility for our sin. But the Truth doesn’t lie necessarily in reconciling these factually. God wisely makes it thus so we are forced to realize that all is for the glory of God. God is glorified when we accept responsibility for our sin and submit ourselves to his judgment trusting in his promise of grace. God is glorified when we give him the credit for our faith. So whether we sin under the weight of our own rebellious will or are cleansed in every way by the work of Christ in grace, then God receives the glory. I cannot say that God made me sin or that I had anything to do with the good thing that God worked in me. That is Truth.

  9. Louis Says:

    I think you may have missed one.

    Dysfunctional Calvinism finds comfort in agreeing with the good theology of this post but will never consider it a possiblity that this post applies to them.

  10. JGray Says:

    Good word, Timmy.

    I would add that God has given us the responsibility and privilege to call all men everywhere to repent and believe…He has also given us the responsibility and privilege to aide our brothers and sisters in Christ to understand His Word more clearly and love Him for who He truly is.

    Too often people view these things as mutually exclusive or that our responsibilities can be divided. But they cannot. If we are not doing both of these things simultaneously (as they are interwoven and extensions of one another), then we are negligent in our duties.

    May God give all of us the wisdom to see how to best utilize our time to do what He has called us to do, to the best of our abilities, to His glory.

  11. Phillip Woodfin Says:

    Although not a calvinist myself, I have to say I have seen some of the above behaviors in people I know sadly and not just Calvinists. It’s in every “theological spectrum” if you will.

  12. […] want to add a hearty AMEN to Timmy Brister who recently blogged about “Dysfunctional Calvinism”.  Timmy […]

  13. Tyler Nuzum Says:

    Thanks for this. I am a more recently “convinced” Calvinist. I left the Word of Faith Movement and the Hyper-Charismatic Movement in February 2003 (just now realized it’s been 7 years since I walked away from that…wow)to only be taught that it’s not my faith and it’s all of grace.

    It took me years to be “okay” with some “charismatic” stuff but I have learned to be gracious where it’s not an essential doctrine and put more emphasis on the essentials, the main and plain things.

    God is good.


  14. Blaine Says:

    Great points! These misunderstandings need to be made known. 🙂 It seems like the rotten apples are the ones that are always picked to represent the whole fruit stand! That is to say, I think probably many folks understand Calvinism based on its dysfunctional examples.

  15. […] Brister muses on dysfunctional Calvinism. Great pithy […]

  16. Chad Says:

    Would you call Paul dysfunctional for publicly rebuking Peter when he was wrong? Just a thought.

  17. Kaitiaki Says:

    I’d like to suggest:

    Dysfunctional Calvinism is being so concerned for our theological categories that we forget the Bible on which we base these categories does not always make the same distinctions as clearly as we would like.

    As an example: Calvinists are comfortable with the idea that we co-operate with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification but less comfortable that the command “Repent and believe” implies an action of the part of the sinner. That the Holy Spirit enables us to see the consequences of sin and fear them and that leads us, inevitably, to repent and trust in Christ does not make the decision any less *our* decision. We also, therefore co-operate in our conversion as well as in our sanctification. John Angell James has an excellent explanation of this in his “The Need for an Earnest Ministry” (I think that’s the title).

    Other examples might be cited.

    • Joe Says:


      I have read your comments on other blogs. Though they seem to fall on deaf ears (eyes that read but ignore), I want you know, they have been meaningful to me.

      Thank you,


  18. mjdmook19 Says:

    Unfortunately, this is true. The church is the only institution that I know that kills its wounded and eats its dead. But I believe that this is a problem with all brands of Christianity, not just Calvinism.

    “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35

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