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

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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).

Theology

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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Pastor Chuck Smith, a Paradigm: Engaging Bible Teachers Critically, From the Bible

I grew up as the son of a Conservative Baptist preacher-man. I came to Christ at an early age; I walked with Christ for many years from an early age. After chucksmithgraduation from high school (1992 … oh my!) I became quite luke-warm, and immature (retarded) in my walk with Christ. The LORD got a hold of me in 1995 through some drastic circumstances. I grew up in Southern California (Temecula and Long Beach CA, the latter being the motherland), and so it was somewhat natural for me—given my Evangelical situation, and the ubiquitous presence of Calvary Chapels through their radio station 107.9 KWVE, The Wave of Living Waterfor me to be attracted to their ministry—and so I began attending Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa (Chuck Smith’s church, the founder of Calvary Chapel, and predominate voice during the ‘Jesus People’ movement in the late 60’s early 70’s). As things progressed, I felt led to attend Bible College; Calvary Chapel had a Bible College (when I started it was at Twin Peaks, Arrowhead, CA; but then we moved to their current facility at Murrieta Hot Springs, CA), and so I attended there for a year (before I went to Multnomah in Portland, OR).

I share all of the above history to get to the point I want to make through the remainder of this post. As part of the curriculum at Calvary Chapel Bible College we all had to listen to what we endearingly called “Chuck tapes.” As you walked around campus you could often hear Chuck preaching through the Bible in chipmunk voice (people would speed up their tape players to triple speed to get through the tapes faster). Anyway, this was an integral part of what Calvary Chapel Bible College considered hermeneutics; i.e. the art and science of biblical interpretation. The belief was such that if the bible student (like me) absorbed enough of Chuck Smith’s interpretation of scripture, that he or she would be on solid ground (for the rest of their lives) to interpret scripture, univocally, from Chuck’s interpretive work. So obviously there was an interpretive magesterium at work here; there was such a veneration (still is!) of Chuck Smith among Calvary pastors and the faithful, that whatever Chuck says, preaches, or writes must be anointed by God, and thus sound and true.

Being a Baptist, I didn’t have this same kind of devotion to Chuck; I respected him as a pastor, but I didn’t see him as Moses (as many do in Calvary Chapel leadership, they have for their philosophy of ministry what they call ‘The Moses Model’). In fact, this is one of the reasons I ended up leaving Calvary Chapel Bible College early (it was a two year program, I left after a year); I wanted to go somewhere where the Bible was still seen as God’s special ordained place of encounter with us, and at the same time go somewhere where this, the Bible, was taught more critically (and actually learn the biblical languages, and all of the hermeneutical tools available). This is what led me to Multnomah Bible College, and then terminating at Multnomah Biblical Seminary.

My concern now, after having spent quite a bit of time—again!—devoted to a few dominant voices (John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance); is that I am simply repeating what was happening to me at Calvary Chapel Bible College. That is, that I am beginning to simply defend someone else’s particular (and even idiosyncratic) interpretation of scripture; instead of critically checking what they are offering as interpretation (or not). I am not suggesting that there aren’t a symphony of voices that help contribute to our interpretation of the text of scripture; but this presupposes something, that is, that scripture is the norma normans, the ‘norming norm’ of what really is theological opinion (theologoumena). This presupposes something further; that is that scripture has a clarity to it, that can be critically engaged and understood.

My basic point in this post is this; while there are multitudinous voices available as faithful interpreters of scripture in the history of the Christian church, scripture alone still has the dominant say. There is an interchange that takes place between the text’s original inception, and its ongoing reception in the church (as I have been reading about Gadamer a bit). In other words, scripture’s interpretation involves a dialogical exchange between its interpreters; but scripture’s dialogue is ultimately determined by what the authors (or Author) have intended (which includes its implicit horizon’s of meaning).

All I am trying to say, is that I want to critically engage Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Augustine, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Chuck Smith, and whoever else, by the clarity of scripture’s determining voice as it finds its full attestation in the resurrected Jesus. I don’t want to simply parrot one teacher or interpreter over another; I want to engage with certain voices who I find creative and imaginative (in good ways), critically, from the text of scripture. And I want to be a participant in this rich dialogical exchange that we have been called to as we grow in sensitivity to scripture’s voice; which is ultimately God’s voice in Jesus Christ, God’s triune speech act given disclosure through the human media inspired and illuminated by the Holy Spirit’s creative activity (which is ongoing in an illuminating way).