Almost ten years ago I read a piece by R. Scott Clark called: “Why (Some) Reformed People Are Such Jerks.” The article was intended to address, as you can probably guess, a common criticism. It has always stuck with me. Admittedly—and somewhat to my own embarrassment—it took a little while for the harsh reality to sink in that I was, indirectly speaking, the subject of that post. Yes, I have been and can be a real jerk. However, I trust that in the years since reading it some of the rougher edges have been smoothed by the work of the Holy Spirit. But I know all too well that the little jerk called “My Sinful Self” is always crouching at the door.
Even though I’m stealing the title (kind of) I don’t want to simply restate what’s already been said–insightful as it is! This is a topic that is worth repeating and a point that is worth remaking because it’s a complaint that’s recurring. The truth is some Reformed folks can be complete jerks. Rather than being the “aroma of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15) we can be the stench of arrogance. Rather than “compelling people to come in” (Luke 14:23) we can repel them. And rather than “contending for the truth” (Jude 1:3) we can be contentious for the truth. And the tragedy is we’re not only doing ourselves a disservice, but we’ve often wounded tender sheep in the process and brought dishonor on Jesus’ name. That’s what our jerkiness can cost.
Now, before I attempt anything that sounds like an answer I want to pause and insert a few qualifications. First, I suppose some people might suggest that jerkiness is inherent in Reformed theology. Of course, that would be to mistaken correlation with causation. I hope even the most logically fallacious among us wouldn’t do that. It might be a strong statement (I’m willing to make it) but one of the most attractive features of Reformed theology, at least to me, is that when it’s consistently explained and applied it shows grace to be grace. And that grace–so central to the message of the gospel–is inconsistent with being a jerk. I’m not persuaded Reformed people can be jerks because of their theology but in spite of it.
My second qualification is this. I have met a lot of Reformed people and among them are some of the godliest men and women I have ever encountered. Even though they hold firmly to their convictions they exude warmth, tenderness, gentleness, and compassion. With few exceptions they’re the ones who are leading a quiet life and tending to their own business (1 Thessalonians 4:11). That means they’re not the ones giving Reformed theology its public face. In my opinion these people are the true salt and light and I thank the Lord for each of them and want, as far as I can, to emulate them.
My third qualification is simply to say that we shouldn’t mistaken jerkiness with conviction. It’s easy to think that people with strong convictions (especially when we disagree with them) are automatically jerks. Yes, sometimes Reformed people have a lot of opinions and convictions on doctrine, worship, polity, and piety. Those convictions, at least today, are in the minority. But many of those convictions are held sincerely before the Lord (Romans 14:22) and just because we have them and discuss them doesn’t automatically imply we’re being rude, mean, insensitive, or a jerk. After all, the author of Hebrews said: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23).
But the question still remains: why can some Reformed people be such jerks? Well, since I have observed it in myself I want to suggest a number of reasons:
- Immaturity: There’s an expression that is often used in Calvinistic circles called the “cage stage.” The idea behind it is to warn people about those who have recently become Calvinists. Often that transition is accompanied with a certain evangelistic zeal that is actually offensive and rude. It’d be better for that person–as the saying goes–to be locked in a cage to work out their newfound Calvinism. Some people regard it as a humorous expression but the idea behind it isn’t. It’s reflective of spiritual immaturity–of a person who doesn’t know how to disagree with others in gentleness, charity, and patience (2 Timothy 2:25). Unfortunately, it seems some never get beyond their “cage stage.”
- Intensity: For some people coming to a Reformed conviction is almost like a re-birth. Sometimes you hear people ask: “So, how did you become Reformed?” the way evangelicals ask “How did you become a Christian?” For some it’s a radical paradigm shift as you begin to see, not only the Bible, but all of life from a different perspective. In that sense it can be very exciting–like Archimedes, it’s a “Eureka, Eureka!” moment. Understandably, that can lead to some unbridled passion–a certain insensitive intensity that, though well-meaning, can easily be confused with being a jerk.
- Imbalance: Every Christian has to find a way to strike the balance of “speaking the truth with love” (Ephesians 4:15). After all, love without truth is a false love, and truth without love is hollow. While we shouldn’t compromise on the content of truth it should be spoken in a manner keeping with the noblest characteristics of love–“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Of course, as every Christian knows, striking that balance isn’t always easy. Admittedly, some Reformed people in their desire to speak truth tend to compromise on a biblical expression of love.
- Identification: Sometimes we Reformed folks can focus on the negative when it comes to self-identification. Imagine if someone came up to you and asked: “Who are you?” and your only responses were: “I’m not a girl,” or “My name isn’t Michael,” or “I’m not that person over there,” etc, etc. Certainly you wouldn’t be surprised if they responded: “You are a pretty negative person.” In light of our distinctions that’s often the way we talk about ourselves–“I’m not (fill in the blank).” While there’s a time and a place for that, if that’s our overwhelming emphasis it’s no wonder people think we’re jerks. I would too!
- Inexperience: It’s one thing to sit in the ivory tower and theologize and another to do so in the midst of real life. In the tower there’s very little cost and very little risk–unless losing a couple Facebook friends counts. But it’s completely different when your theology has to be defined and made sense of when you get a bad doctor’s report, or you sit by the deathbed of another, or you get a dreaded phone call in the middle of the night, or when you look into the eyes of a grieving widow, or you interact in intentional ways with the unsaved. It’s not in the tower where you’re safe and secure that the edges are blunted and burned off, but it’s in the daily cross bearing and in the furnace of affliction. And the reality is many of us are stuck in the tower and there we become cold and unfeeling–we become jerks.
- Intentions: Let’s admit it. Mr. or Mrs. Jerk–who is inside all of us–is about one thing: self. Too often we feel it’s necessary to air all of our convictions for the all the world to hear and our intentions go no further than to satisfy self. That’s sinful! Our only intention should be the glory of Jesus Christ in all things. But we want people to know where we stand, what we’ve read, how witty we are, or how destructive we can be in a debate so they can give us the praise we think we deserve. Here’s a maxim we’d do well to frame our lives with: if I can’t directly trace what I believe to the glory of Jesus then I’d better keep my mouth closed until I can or I’ll betray to a watching world the jerk I really am.
Yes, some Reformed people can be jerks. And I say that to our great shame and embarrassment. Hopefully our brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t share our convictions can demonstrate how “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). But let’s remember, just because we’re Reformed doesn’t mean we’re exempt from needing to express love: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). So, let’s work hard on our public relations as we seek to live soli Deo gloria!