When I arrived at Bible college in the Fall of 2007, I quickly discovered there were two groups of Christians on campus. There were the “cool” Christians, and there were the “super” Christians. The cool Christians listened to secular music, watched rated “R” movies, attended public school, played sports, cussed a little, read Harry Potter and had somewhat of a fashion sense. The “super” Christians did none of these while spending an exuberant amount of time in the library. All of this was explained to me by a few upperclassmen who took me under their wing when I arrived on campus.
The irony is that most Bible colleges typically draw from the same demographic. Nearly all of my friends were white evangelicals coming from middle-class right-wing families. Everyone on campus professed faith in Jesus Christ, and believed the Bible to be God’s word. If for some strange reason a student would have transferred in from NYU, they would have been shocked by the uniformity of beliefs on campus. No amount of baggy jeans, crass language or choosing Flyleaf over Amy Grant would make up for the fact that we were all largely the same.
Narcissism of minor beliefs
Why are groups of people who share similar beliefs and values sometimes hostile to one another? Often due to relatively minor details or differences of opinion? For example, why were the “cool” Christians on campus trying hard to not be lumped in with the “super” Christians? Why do teenagers try very hard to not be like their parents? Why do people work so hard at distinguishing themselves within narrow categories?
Freud labeled this tendency the narcissism of small differences. This intriguing theory teaches that communities within adjoining territories and close relationships are especially likely to engage in feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation.
In layman’s terms, people and communities closest to one another tend to fight over minor differences. Freud believed this constant infighting helped build community identity; cohesion is formed as group members are reminded of group essentials while aggressively debating minor differences. Freud said, “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.”
In my opinion, no clearer example of this can be found than in Christian social media. If you are unfamiliar, consider yourself lucky. Thousands of blog pages, internet forums, Facebook groups, podcasts, and verified Twitter handles go to war with each other daily. Although there are a few bright lights, Christian social media tends to be divisive, uncharitable, abrasive, combative, defensive, cramped and a little weird. To quote Bin-Kenobi, “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
To my shame, I have contributed to the overall weirdness of Christian social media for a long time. Since becoming a Reformed Christian ten years ago, I have suffered serious bouts of Keyboard Cowboy Disease. Enamored with the doctrines of grace and equipped with the rich truths of scripture, I took it upon myself to right every wrong on the internet by any means necessary.
Cage-Stage Calvinism. Does it end?
Theologian Michael Horton uses the term “Cage-stage Calvinism” to describe the pietistic behavior many new Calvinists fall into when they discover the truths of Reformed theology. The title suggests that newly minted Calvinists should be locked in cages for a while (like wild animals) until they mature enough so they won’t attack people. And for good reason, Cage-stagers typically treat every doctrinal issue with life or death seriousness and insist on turning every conversation back to the five Solas and/or points of Calvinism.
There’s nothing wrong with zealously contending for the truth within a world of unbelief. But there’s a big difference in contending and being contentious. The Bible calls us to contend for the faith, but it also commands us to be loving, gentle, patient and respectful. There’s also a difference in confronting unbelievers with the truths of the gospel and attacking Christian brothers and sisters over secondary and tertiary issues. Too often that is the case with cage-stagers, especially online.
Calvinists are well aware of the pejorative cage-stage label, and consider it a badge of honor when they no longer feel themselves to be obnoxious. But from my perspective, many cage-stagers never grow out of this abrasive stage. They simply trade cages for different ones, i.e. different hills to die on. For example, the cage-stage Calvinist grows tired of defending the five points online, so he moves on to exclusive psalmody, presuppositional apologetics, strict subscriptionism, adherence to the regulative principle, textus receptus only, one kingdom v.s. Two, Amill, postmill or premill, and so forth. In each case, he elevates a minor theological distinctive, tolerated within the bonds of confessionalism and places them center stage. The worst of the cage stagers will condemn you to hell for not holding their theological perspectives. I speak from experience.
Which leads me back to the narcissism of minor differences. Freud may have believed constant infighting within groups was healthy, but our Lord and Savior certainly does not. If Jesus commanded us to love and pray for our enemies, how much more are we to respect our Christian brothers and sisters with whom we slightly disagree? For those of us who claim to hold to Sola Scriptura, we seem to forget scriptural commands to be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving, edifying, gracious, affectionate, respectful, sympathetic, humble, peaceful, selfless, compassionate, meek, patient, and non-partial (Eph 4:32; Lk 6:31; Eph 4:29-32; Jn 15:12; Mt 7:12; 1 Jn 4:20-21; Rm 12:10, 15:1-2; Pr 24:17; 1 Pt 2:17, 3:8-12; Ph 2:4; Cl 3:12-14).
A friend of mine recently shared a story that summed up this conundrum well. While on a date, his partner lamented “I do not understand why you get fighting-mad over things I have never heard of.” How many times have you had to explain the importance of your online activity to family and friends, only to receive back blank stares? I confess I’ve had to do this many times.
The late theologian Francis Schaeffer was a founding member of the Bible Presbyterian Church, which split from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church merely a year after its split from the Presbyterian Church in the USA. The BPC split from the OPC over issues of Christian liberty (drinking and smoking) and eschatology; issues tolerated within the bounds of confessionalism. In his years overseas, Schaeffer lamented the way he treated his Presbyterian brothers on both sides of the split, and mailed letters expressing his remorse.
“But “the movement” rolls on, and now differences arise between us. Quickly the pattern repeats itself; the habit is too well learned. I am sure “separation” is correct, but it is only one principle. There are others to be kept as well. The command to love should mean something. I am not suggesting I have learned to live in the light of Christ’s command of love—first toward God, then the brethren, and then the lost. But I want to learn, and I know I must if I am to have that closeness to the Lord I wish to have, with its accompanying joy and spiritual power
…God willing, I will push and politic no more…the mountains are too high, history is too long, and eternity is longer. God is too great, man is too small, there are many of God’s dear children, and all around there are men going to hell. And if one man and a small group of men do not approve of where I am and what I do, does it prove I’ve missed success? No; only one thing will determine that- whether this day I’m where the Lord of lords and King of kings wants me to be. To win as many as I can, to help strengthen the hands of those who fight unbelief in the historical setting in which they are place, to know the reality of “the Lord is my song,” and to be committed to the Holy Spirit—that is what I wish I could known to be the reality of each day as it closes.”
Have I learned all this? No, but I would not exchange that portion of it which I have, by God’s grace, for all the handclapping I have had when I have been on the top of the pile. I have been a poor learner, but I’m further on than I was three years ago and I like it.”
Like Schaeffer, I have experienced the terrible separation that comes from God while lambasting Christians online. I am reminded of John’s words, “But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.” For too long I have blindly assaulted my Christian family online (something I would never have done in person), and for the sake of my soul I cannot keep it up. I am far more concerned with winning souls and edifying the church than dividing it over trivial secondary issues.
I sincerely apologize to those who have fallen under the wrath of this Keyboard Cowboy, and in the words of Schaeffer, “I will push and politic no more.”