New Calvinism & Cookie Cutter Christianity

I thank God for the New Calvinist movement in which scores of nominal Christians have been confronted with the holiness of God, the seriousness of Jesus’ claims on their lives, and the importance of daily, self-denying, and cross-bearing discipleship.

In many ways, this movement has renewed the American evangelical church. In an increasingly polarized society, nominal Christians are giving up their pretenses and committed Christians (many of whom are New Calvinists!) are doubling down on their convictions.

Yet as with all things, the danger of imbalance looms over even the best of intentions. I touched upon some aspects of possible New Calvinist imbalances last month when I blogged about “Big God Theology.”

Today, I want to discuss the potential danger of New Calvinism’s powerful aversion to nominal Christianity. I believe this danger to be most helpfully described as “Cookie Cutter Christianity.”

To many a New Calvinist, nominal Christianity is worse than atheism! For at the Pearly Gates, Bertrand Russell might cry, “Not enough evidence,” but the nominal Christian will cry, “Lord, Lord!” And yet both will hear the response: “I never knew you.” (Matt 7:21-23)

Hence, much of the New Calvinist movement has been devoted to combating the “easy believism” that they believe to be the cardinal sin of the Church Growth movement. To fight “easy believism,” many of the young, restless, and Reformed people have taken up the task of identifying and defining “true” Christians in their churches and parachurches.

This impulse against nominal Christianity is evident in much of the New Calvinist literature, such as John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus, John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life and When I Don’t Desire God, Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, David Platt’s Radical, and Mike McKinley’s Am I Really a Christian?, all of which picture the lifestyles and dispositions of those who have entered the “small gate” and “narrow road” that lead to salvation (Matt 7:14). Such are the ways of “true” Christians.

But is it possible that this “narrow” way has all too often become too narrow? Maybe even narrower than Jesus envisioned?

It was a warm Sunday evening in San Diego. I had driven down from Irvine for this highly anticipated moment. My childhood buddy was getting re-baptized. I beamed with pride as he shared his testimony, especially the part when he mentioned how a conversation with a close friend was a huge turning point in his life. It was all I could do not to cry out: “That was me!” During that moment, few things could’ve brought me more joy. I was actually instrumental in someone’s conversion! Or so I thought…

During my time in college, I witnessed more re-baptisms than I can count. At the time, I was amazed at God’s work amongst the faithful churches that my friends and I had become involved with. “God is blessing our faithful efforts and generating so much fruit!” Yet, for some time now, I’ve begun to wonder about this phenomenon. Is it possible that the New Calvinist ethos, with its admirable emphasis on weeding out nominal Christianity, has become an oppressive machine? Is it possible that in many New Calvinist churches, hordes of young believers are being mechanically shoved into an uncontextualized cookie cutter leading many to the scary, yet false “realization” that they aren’t “true” Christians? What looks like conversion growth to many New Calvinist churches may very well look like brainwashing and sheep stealing to others.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the handfuls of people who have been re-baptized in New Calvinist churches, nor do I want to disrespect their decisions, which are genuine expressions of faithfulness to the Lord. I also do not want to cast shade upon the intentions of New Calvinist churches who tend toward cookie cutter Christianity. However, I can’t help but wonder how many recent conversions were actually just conversions to a New Calvinist cookie cutter.

In the same way that “Big God Theology” can flatten Christian unity into uniformity, so also can the New Calvinist attack on nominal Christianity. A misguided zeal for distinguishing “true” Christians from “fake” Christians will always lead to reductionistic legalism. For such a zeal often simplistically fashions an uncontextualized, one-size-fits-all Christian mold. Subsequently, anyone who does not fit into this mold is not a “true” Christian.

So for example, when I was in college, I used to interrogate unsuspecting people in church about their beliefs. My desire was to “make sure” that people were “truly” Christians. I thought I was being loving by grilling them and pushing them to convince me (the supposedly omniscient judge of true or false faiths) that they were genuine believers. If anyone started off their story with, “I grew up Christian,” an alarm would go off in my head: “Nominal Christian alert!” If anyone couldn’t articulate justification by faith, I seriously doubted their understanding of the gospel, and hence their salvation. Not only this, but there were certain behaviors (NOT EVEN explicit sins) that, to me, were impossible for Christians to engage in. For example, a handful of professing Christians among my peers dated professing non-Christians. To me, to date a non-Christian was clear evidence that Christ was not a priority. After all, if dating is the purpose of marriage (as every good New Calvinist surely believes), and if you’re considering “yoking” yourself to someone who doesn’t even know Christ, how can you genuinely say that you yourself know and love Christ? To me, not only was it foolish for a genuine Christian to date a non-Christian, but it was an impossibility! These huge jumps in my immature Christian logic paid no respect to the contextual differences within the body of Christ.

I cringe thinking upon those times when I tried to “encourage” suspected nominal-Christians toward love and good deeds. I think of how so many have been turned away, not necessarily because they were “goats” rather than “sheep” (Matt 25:31-46), but because they were simply different kinds of sheep. They merely didn’t fit the cookie cutter shape of their churches or parachurches.

I do hesitate to critique cookie cutter Christianity. After all there is a growth in Christ’s likeness that results in unity amongst Christians. And at the end of the day, I can’t judge the hearts of those who appear to be merely cookie cutter Christians. However, I do think cookie cutter Christianity is just as serious a problem as nominal Christianity. I would wager that for every nominal Christian believing himself to be a true Christian on the basis of saying the Sinner’s Prayer, there is a cookie cutter Christian who is equally deceived on the basis of adopting a particular Christian lifestyle. For every Christian who thinks she is genuine on the basis of merely walking an aisle, there is a cookie cutter Christian who thinks she is genuine because her personality and interests match her church’s definition of being “intentional.”

Like the Judaizer gospel in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, cookie cutter Christianity makes no room for the variety of personalities, dispositions, and cultures in Christ’s body. For example, some people just aren’t great readers or find reading Scripture or Christian literature quite difficult for a variety of reasons. However, reading is the essence of the Christian life to many New Calvinists, who forget that for hundreds of years many genuine believers were illiterate, but thanked God that “faith comes from hearing” (Rom 10:17). The silliest example I’ve seen of cookie cutter Christianity is a pastor who rebuked quieter and more introverted people for not being obedient to Paul’s command that we speak the truth in love. For surely, quiet people speak less truth in love than more outspoken people, right? Quiet people could not fit into his idea of faithful Christianity.

And it’s not just a matter of differences in personality and culture, but also in seasons of life. As Ed Welch famously reminded his students at CCEF and Westminster, for someone struggling in a season of depression, something as simple as getting out of bed is a picture of great strength and faith. In cookie cutter Christianity there is no room for a simple faithfulness that merely consists of getting out of bed without daily prayer and/or Scripture reading.

Now, am I just talking about legalism? Yes, I am, but I want to draw our attention to a particular kind of legalism and shift the focus. In the common discourse on legalism, the focus is on one’s behavior as the basis for righteousness in the eyes of God. In cookie cutter Christianity the focus is on one’s behavior as the basis for righteousness in the eyes of the church or parachurch community. Only certain kinds of behaviors are seen as befitting of “true” Christians.

Such a culture is ultimately harmful to the church. Cookie cutter Christianity fails to take seriously the variety of spiritual gifts in the body and its many members (1 Cor 12:4-31). Cookie cutter Christianity unnecessarily excludes genuine Christians on the basis of personality differences, dispositional differences, differences in giftedness, and different seasons of life. Cookie cutter Christianity perpetuates the miserable and oppressive lie that there is only one way to follow Christ.

When it comes to self-professing Christians who differ tremendously from ourselves, let us be slow to speak and quick to listen. Let us toss our cookie cutters and expect to be blessed and encouraged as members of Christ’s diverse body.

In the same way many cookie cutter Christians seek to diagnose who the “true” Christians are, here are a few questions for diagnosing cookie cutter Christianity:

  1. Is your church’s preaching geared more toward presumptuous Christians than unassured Christians?
  2. Is your church’s preaching geared more against the evils of cheap grace and easy believism than the evils of legalism and spiritual rigorism?
  3. Is your church’s mission strategy more about “saving” people within the “wayward evangelical church” than pursuing those outside of it?
  4. Are certain gifts and personalities in your church valued as more beneficial for Christ’s body?
  5. Are certain Christian behaviors or spiritual disciplines more admired and encouraged?
  6. Is it possible that your church’s standard of living fails to account for the variety of different contexts in which many Christians live?

If so, you just might be perpetuating cookie cutter Christianity.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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