Between Hyper-Calvinism and Pragmatism

For the past couple of weeks, I have been working through the book of Nehemiah.  One of the books that has been helpful to me is J.I. Packer’s A Passion for Faithfulness. This week, I have been working through chapter 3, which is quite fascinating.  In his chapter on “Man-management,” Packer explains how some people can “decry organization as a focus of carnal confidence and an intrinsically Spirit-quenching development.”  The argument is generally made to the effect that “the Spirit of God has to do it” or “the root of the problem is spiritual, not structural.”  Therefore, we need to wait for the Spirit to work upon the hearts of people to move them to action.

The upshot to this thinking is that any kind of practical, structural, or organizational change is superfluous or inconsequential.  Strategy, planning, and developing a system or process are inherently un-spiritual.  It is like inefficiency is godly and spiritual and practical usefulness is suspect.  If I could employ the trisperspectival model to leadership (prophets, priests, and kings), the Reformed tradition, of which I belong, is strongly prophetic and priestly.  However, there is an inhibition or reservation about being strong in the kingly role of leadership–by that I mean administration, planning, developmental processes, etc.

Now I think that some of this inhibition is a reaction to the pragmatism and methodology-driven models of church that are not driven by the gospel and dependent on the Word and Spirit of God.  The popular pragmatism of our day leads churches to be so efficient that they could do church without God and not ever know it.  If you apply these best practices, have these techniques polished, and check off the trends that scratch where people are itching, then you can, like Joel Osteen, pack out an arena of 40,000 people.  Those intentional about doing church God’s way are tempted to react to pragmatism wholesale and think that even being practical is un-spiritual. While the impulse is right and good, I’m afraid that it can lean toward the direction of hyper-Calvinism, a rejection of means, and a denial of personal responsibility.

But could it not be that the making of structural changes and organizational development are a result of the Spirit of God at work among the leaders?  Perhaps a clue to this is comes from 1 Cor. 14 where Paul explains the functioning of gifts of the Spirit and at the same time arguing that God is not a God of confusion and therefore things should be done in an orderly way (1 Cor. 14:20, 33).  Moreover, I believe Nehemiah’s memoirs makes this most clear.  Here was a man who was relentlessly God-centered, deeply spiritual, fervently prayerful, and at the same time was unashamedly strategic in his planning, unavoidably intentional in his organization, and unstoppable in his tireless work ethic.  Nehemiah was both a motivational speaker and a prayerful leader, and the spiritual and practical were not two but one.  Because the “good hand of God was upon him,” he did not fold his hands since God was in it.  Instead, he worked night and day precisely because he believed God would give him success.

Consider the words of Packer when it comes to the harmony of spiritual and practical leadership in the church:

“… in our churches a leader’s charisma, communal willingness to serve, ministry gifts found and honed in the entire congregation, and good organization to make the best use of them, must all combine for true renewal.  Neither the most powerful preaching nor the most exuberant display of spiritual manifestations will build up the local church without the organization wisdom that sets goals and devises means to ends.  The preaching pastors who have left behind them the most virile and mature churches have been those whose pulpit work was linked with good organizing, done by others if not by themselves.  Check it out: you will find that it is so” (89-90, emphasis mine).

To my Reformed friends, do not substitute the spirit of pragmatism for the spirit of hyper-Calvinism.  Do not feel dirty or guilty for prayerfully coming up with ambitious goals, carefully structuring for gospel growth, and developing systems and processes within the organization of the church that will result in better stewardship of God’s blessings and the Great Commission entrusted to us.  Don’t let those sold to pragmatism be the only ones who write books and articles about the practical life of the church.  Rather, be like Nehemiah who brought a God-centered vision to a God-wrought burden for a God-sized task to be carried out by a God-dependent people.

There will always be those who, on the one hand reject the use of means, and on the other hand make the means become the end.  However, for those who believe that good methodology flows from good theology, best practices ought to be implemented by those who care deepest about God’s Word.  After all, when we look in the mirror, we are reminded that it is the effectual doer that is blessed in what he does (James 1:25).  The kind of work on the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah’s leadership was very spiritual, though handing bricks made not have felt like it.  The same is true today for those who, because of their love for the church and the gospel, are strategically planning and working to see that the matters of first importance entrusted to us are addressed in such a way that we display the excellencies of the God who calls us to a ministry of excellence.

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6 Comments on “Between Hyper-Calvinism and Pragmatism”


  1. […] Between Hyper-Calvinism and Pragmatism […]

  2. Mark Says:

    So true. I also think there is a difference between pragmatism and being practical or pragmatic in carrying something out. The tendency, it seems, is to go too far and label just about everything as pragmatism.


  3. […] Between Hyper-Calvinism and Pragmatism from Provocations and Pantings: “To my Reformed friends, do not substitute the spirit of pragmatism for the spirit of […]

  4. Jim Pemberton Says:

    It’s rare if it ever happens that a ministry will be free from internal struggles. The big decisions of a righteous ministry are not and should not be made monolithically. And I’m convinced that it is by God’s design that we will struggle with the brothers and sisters we work with for at least 3 reasons: 1) That we not trust our decision-making over trusting God. 2) That we not devolve into indecision but 3) That we see clearly that any success is a result of God working in spite of our sorry bumbling around with our decisions. This is so because we do have a penchant for loving the things we do rather than loving God.

    God doesn’t want any well-oiled ministry of ours to get in the way of us seeing his glory.

    So answers to questions like this are not easy because God wants us to have a little tension with each other. When our hearts are truly for him, then a little tension in the fellowship can be a healthy thing. That’s why we have a policy among the deacons of our church. The go in to meet and discuss the issues of the day. They unify in prayer. They debate passionately (and I mean we have VERY opinionated and stubborn deacons). Once the vote is made and the decision rendered it is understood that this is the process by which God leads us and they are then ALL required to get behind the decision. When they leave the room, whether they were for or against a motion, they back the decision – period. No grudges. No resentment. No haughtiness. No back-biting. Just love and submission once direction for the church has been determined.

    So I guess you can say that’s how we play out the balance to issues like this.


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