A Birds-eye View of Calvary Chapel’s Senior Pastor’s Conference, 2013: And a Reflection on the Trajectory of Calvary as a Movement


As I have referenced previously, I have had involvement in Calvary Chapel since in and around 1995. I attended their Bible College for a year in 1996-97; attended the flagship church of Calvary Chapel, founding pastor Chuck Smith’s church in Costa Mesa, CA (for four years); and more recently we attended Calvary Chapel, Vancouver (WA), now Calvary Downtown for a couple of years. Before all of this Calvary Chapel stuff came into my life—as most of you know by now—I grew up in the Conservative Baptist Association (CBA), my dad as one of this denomination’s ordained pastors. Currently we attend Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, WA; this has become a better fit for us (my wife and I), theologically (and the church, and in particular the senior pastor, Dr. Fitz Neal, has a great sense of the Spirit’s koinonial presence). That said, I am still very intrigued and interested in the politics and the goings-on in the Calvary Chapel movement. I am still friends with the pastor at our former Calvary Chapel here in Washington, and am able to kind of stay aware of how the movement is going. The reason I am writing about this right now is because today is the kick off day for the 2013 Calvary Chapel Senior Pastor’s Conference (which goes from today 06-03 through Friday 06-07). The rest of this post will be a description and reflection on the polity, politics, theology, and church government that defines Calvary Chapel as a movement.

History and Inception

Here is how the Calvary Chapel Association (and by the way, this ‘Association’ language is rather new, Calvary prides itself on not being a denomination [point of fact, they are one of the most denominational non-denominations you might ever encounter]) describes the history and founding of Calvary Chapel by Chuck Smith:

[I]n 1965, Pastor Chuck Smith began his ministry at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa with just twenty-five people. From the beginning, Pastor Chuck welcomed all, young and old, without judgment, placing his emphasis on the teaching of the Word of God. His simple, yet sound, biblical approach draws 25,000 people weekly.

With a sincere concern for the lost, Pastor Chuck made room in his heart and his home for a generation of hippies and surfers; generating a movement of the Holy Spirit that spread from the West Coast to the East Coast, and now, throughout the world.

What began as a small local church has now grown into an international ministry of over 1500 fellowships throughout the world.

Here in our website, we invite you to find out more about who we are today, what we believe, where we are throughout the world and we invite you to join us as we meet and worship our wonderful Lord and Savior, study His Word, fellowship together, grow in His grace and desire to make disciples and go into all the world. [website]

So this movement really started when Chuck Smith opened the doors of his church to the hippies and surfers (and this whole kind of 60’s culture) when nobody else really would. From there the Lord did radical things in the lives of many many people, and most of the most prominent (and even less) Calvary Chapel pastors today can trace their lineage back to being saved out of the drug and free-sex culture of the 60’s and 70’s under the leadership of pastor Chuck Smith; in fact the common refrain among most Calvary Chapel pastors today is that Chuck Smith is their pastor. Interestingly, this kind of clues you in to the kind of implicit hierarchical ‘episcopalian’ style of church government that gives the Calvary churches their shape (Chuck=Pope, his inner circle of big named pastors=the college of cardinals, the regional leadership they have in place=archbishops, and their local pastors=bishops) (you can read more about the kind of fall out this government has been producing of late in the Calvary movement in general here).


By and large, Calvary Chapel (given its background in Foursquare ecclesiology and theology) is broadly what can be called ‘semi-charismatic’. They believe in what some have called the ‘second-blessing’ (which they would repudiate this language), or what they call ‘the baptism of the Holy Spirit’; this is a post-conversion experience and event, wherein a Christian person needs to be baptized with the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish the work of the ministry, and to experience a powerful life of sanctification where victory over personal sin is the sign; along with this ‘baptism’, they like other charismatics believe that a sign of this will be speaking in tongues (in the charismatic understanding of this)—unlike other charismatics, they do not press that a person needs to speak in tongues, and they restrain speaking in tongues from happening in the main church service (they have what is called ‘after-glow’ services where such “gifts” can be practiced freely).

As far as their doctrine of God; they are typically Evangelical, and affirm that God is triune, and that He has incarnated Himself for us in Christ, dying for all people (so universal atonement) to forgive them of their sins and reconcile them unto God.

Their view of salvation is essentially Arminian (but I would argue that the way it is usually communicated in most Calvary Chapels, incidentally as it is, that it actually tends more towards a historic understanding of semi-Pelagian); they believe and teach (and I generalize, because there is a range of belief here among the various pastors; I base my generalization on the teaching of pastor Chuck Smith who is the pastor’s Pastor) that essentially a person could conceivably fall away, but they usually caveat this with the qualification of “but why would a true Christian ever fall away’? This teaching can be quite unnerving the contemplative type.

Ultimately, Calvary Chapel, in line with their heritage (Foursquare) is anti-intellectual. One example of this from my personal experience is this: I told my fellow students at Calvary Chapel Bible College that I was going to be leaving there to attend Multnomah Bible College (where they had real doctors for faculty etc.); their instant and unanimous response was “oh brother, be careful that you don’t quench the Spirit!” I have also heard multiple times from various prominent pastors in Calvary Chapel that one of the real dangers facing the Calvary movement is intellectualism; the only caveat they have for this, is that they will appeal to sanctioned intellectuals (mostly from Dallas Theological Seminary), who meet the snuff relative to their heavy heavy dependence upon classical Dispensational theology. And this leads me to my next point; if they do have a theological approach and hermeneutic, it is classical Dispensationalism.

Calvary Chapel is known (even in the State of Israel itself, i.e. the leadership of the nation of Israel) for being Christian zionists, and this is a result of their internalization of dispensational theology, and the “literal” reading of the text of Scripture. They have, as I’ve heard, directly sent financial support to the nation of Israel (because if you bless Israel God will bless you cf. Gen. 12.1-3ff); they see Israel as the key to interpreting Scripture and Biblical prophecy (instead of Jesus, by implication); and they see all of this support correlate with a proper Pre-tribulational, Premillennial, Dispensational reading of Scripture. Indeed, this is their theological way.

Current Events

So what is interesting to me, currently, is that given all of the above background, what is happening right now in the Calvary Chapel movement is something of either death thralls, birth pangs, or both. The founder, who still tightly holds the reigns of the doctrinal direction of Calvary Chapel as a movement (or now an association), Chuck Smith, is determined that any Calvary Chapel who diverges from a strict Classical Dispensational (so you can’t as a Calvary Chapel pastor even be a Progressive Dispensationalist) reading of Scripture is essentially (and this is not too strong!) a heretic (or someone who does not take Scripture seriously at all). Beyond this, anyone who might even hint at being less Arminian (which they don’t even call themselves Arminian, which illustrates Calvary’s de-emphasis on doing theology) in orientation, and instead Reformed (meaning 5 point Calvinist), or worse, Covenantal (although I have never come across any Calvary pastor who is this far removed from the Calvary way) is basically anathema.

The problem facing the upper leadership of Calvary Chapel right now (well one big problem anyway) is that there is a whole new crop of younger pastors who have grown up in the Calvary Chapel movement, and are 2nd and 3rd generation (in some instances) from their 1st generation forefathers. And this newer crop of pastors have not, for lack of a better word, been as ‘indoctrinated’ into the Calvary way as many of their forebears. And a lot of these newer or younger pastors are much more open (just because of cultural norms) to new theological ideas that do not align, at all, with dispensational theology. The influence for many of these guys might be John Piper and/or The Gospel Coalition, which is much too ‘Reformed’ for Calvary tastes; or they might be being influenced by the writings of N.T. Wright, who is not dispensational, and in fact is quite Covenantal in orientation—and there are many other influences giving shape to the new direction of these younger pastors and their flocks.

Indeed, as I observe this as an informed outsider (now), what I think this current pastors conference is intended to do is to reign a lot of these younger pastors back into the fold of the Calvary way. The problem, as I see it, is that a lot of these pastors (and many of them are actually 1st generation Calvary pastors who have continue to study outside of the Calvary sanctioned scholarship) are not interested, at all, in preaching/teaching and endorsing the hard lines drawn by classic dispensational theology. Furthermore, I don’t think many of these types of Calvary pastors (and most of them are outside the boundaries the hub of Calvary Chapel in Southern California) are actually willing to bend the knee to Chuck Smith (and his cohorts) on having to read Scripture in this hard core (and even idiosyncratic) understanding of Pre-Tribulational, Premillennial Dispensational Theology. And yet, Chuck Smith (and those close to him), have actually been giving these types of pastors in Calvary Chapel, as I see it, an ultimatum. That is, either you teach the Bible as I see it (Chuck Smith), or you can no longer brandish the name of Calvary Chapel—so in effect they will be disassociated. I think this kind of doctrinal fissure is already present in the Calvary movement, and so this, I think, pastor’s conference might be very defining in regard to the way that Calvary Chapel is going to look in the near future. I could actually see a massive rupture or split happening in this movement; if it hasn’t already happened functionally.

Last year they streamed the conference live; unfortunately this year they aren’t. So I will have to wait and hear what happens, if anything. Maybe the leadership will back off on pressing their pastor’s in the direction I have described, but I highly doubt it!

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6 Responses to A Birds-eye View of Calvary Chapel’s Senior Pastor’s Conference, 2013: And a Reflection on the Trajectory of Calvary as a Movement

  1. Thanks for the post, and the update on what’s going on in CC. I grew up in CCs. My (single) mom came to Christ through one when I was three years old, and I continued in them until I went off to study at university. I wanted to study the Bible and enter ministry, but when I wouldn’t take my pastor’s suggestion and go to Murrieta (I went to Biola instead), I became instantly suspect. I took this as my cue and I found more healthy places to follow Christ. I’ve tried to keep up on what’s going on though. It will be very, very interesting to see where they’re at in ten or twenty years.


  2. Bobby Grow says:


    You were wise to head to Biola. Weird, I grew up right in that area (Lakewood, CA). I did make some good friends while at CCBC, but it was a good move for me to finally head to Multnomah.

    How in the world did you end up in Australia studying theology with Ben Myers all the way from Biola? I mean I could understand how you might end up in Scotland or something, but how did you even hear of and then consider heading to Australia to study? Was it because of exposure to Ben at his blog? Just curious.


  3. I was planning to apply to schools in Scotland (Aberdeen or Edinburgh) or England (Oxford), but then I started talking to Ben and I really liked him. That was the biggest reason. I also found out that the school he taught at was only a few miles from where my wife’s family once lived while her dad was on a work assignment. Those two factors, and because I guess I wanted to do something different than everyone else I knew, led me to come to Australia. There were a variety of things along the way that confirmed this was God’s provision for us. It’s been fun. The only time I feel a twinge of regret is when I see my friends’ pictures in their medieval stone offices. All I have to do to cope with this is take a short drive to one of the many beautiful, sunny beaches around Sydney.


  4. Yes, to answer your question, I originally knew of Ben through his blog.


  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Nice, Matt! Ha, yeah, it must be rough heading down to the beach when you know your colleagues in Scotland are hunkered down in drafty stone castle offices in the Highlands :-). That is really cool how you ended up studying with Ben in Aussie, and how the Lord made it so evident that this is the way he had for you guys. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity :-).


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