Before going further, I should say that I do not personally hold to the reformed theology world view. I also do not want to be (or even sound) condescending about my parents’ beliefs. Those of you who hold to reformed theology: I have no interest in trying to change your mind. We all have our own journey of faith, and have no idea how each of us got to where we are today.
My parents both grew up in a non-denominational, fundamentalist church in the Midwest. They were both still members when I was born; when I was 5 years old my Dad was re-located to Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, we went to another fundamentalist church similar to their former church, but a bit larger. In both of these churches, the teaching centered around personal salvation (going to heaven instead of hell after death) and “behavioral holiness.” The teaching about personal salvation was straightforward in some ways, but eerily vague in other ways. For example, there was always the fear of “losing fellowship with God” because of unconfessed sin. What did this really mean? What were the consequences? What if we have sin that is unknown and therefore unconfessed? I didn’t realize this at the time, but looking back I can see how church leaders (perhaps unconsciously) used this fear as a power-tool for behavioral modification. For my parents (and for me), the result was the constant nagging fear of hell and the ominous "lost fellowship."
In addition to this existential fear, my parents also dealt with the culture of spiritual competitiveness in these churches. One didn’t want to admit to any sort of doubt or disagreement regarding the “fundamentals of the faith.” Without doubt or disagreement, these churches just became more and more homogeneous—not just in theology, but also in behavior and language. And the only way to learn the language is to be immersed in the culture. If you didn’t meet all the criteria of theology, behavior, and language, subtle (and sometimes overt) judgment was passed.
My parents are good people. They have kind and loving hearts, and within their context and their journey they have searched for truth and meaning. Years and years of fundamentalist culture took its toll on them. Eventually (for reasons too lengthy to go into here) they started going to a “reformed” church. Soon afterward, they started sending me links to reformed theology books, blogs, sermons, and podcasts. I could definitely see the excitement and joy they were experiencing, and I had never associated “excitement” and “joy” with my parents and anything associated with the church!
Here’s why I think the reformed movement, and more specifically the new church that they have been attending, has been helpful for them and for our relationship:
- After a life of feeling nothing was ever good enough for God or others, they finally no longer have that constant nagging fear of hell or of “lost fellowship” with God. They have been able to integrate the Calvinist principle of predestination into their own view of personal salvation and the salvation of others. (It’s out of their hands!)
- In their new church, theology, not behavior, is stressed. Granted, disagreement with the core tenants of the theology is discouraged, which again makes the church overly homogeneous. However, because of the principle of God’s work on the cross as TOTAL (any “belief” in Christ is completely a gift from God himself), people in the church don’t worry too much about specific beliefs or even behaviors--again, because it's God's work to change hearts, not theirs. It has a mellowing effect; it also contributes to a much less judgmental environment. This was NOT the case with their former churches, where leaders and members tended to be very grace-less about disagreement.
- With newfound confidence in the work of Christ and their own helplessness, they too have become less judgmental. In fact, until they started going to this church, I did not plan to reveal to them that I was gay. Changing churches and having a more solid theology was transforming for them. Seeing this transformation, I felt compelled to have a more honest and authentic relationship with them. Coming out to them was very difficult; they still look at the relationship I have with my partner as a sin. However, they choose to reconcile my identity as a gay person with their belief that everyone is completely sinful and in need of Christ (who calls whom He will...and no one else.) They see my "sin" as just another one that Christ covered with his death and resurrection. And they love my partner!
UPDATE: Shortly after publishing this post, I saw a riveting new post from Rachel Held Evans called The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. It's an amazing post about the implications of reformed theology, and it makes a great counterpoint to this personal story. A must read!