The Oxford American Dictionary gives this informal usage of the noun jerk:
a contemptibly obnoxious person
About as soon as I left my evangelical (Southern Baptist) congregation and started associating with Reformed folk, I began to hear this question. I remember taking someone to a Reformed congregation and afterward she was in tears. Why? In part, she said, because she had never met such a cold congregation. Over the years I’ve fielded this question repeatedly, and it came up again recently. My (partial) answer is complex, so this post is a little long.
We need to challenge the premise of the question. Sometimes the question assumes a model of niceness and/or sweetness that may or may not have anything to do with the biblical doctrine of charity. In some cases we’re dealing with assumptions rooted in culture rather than Scripture. E.g., When we lived in England, we found that folk never asked us about our health. It’s considered rude. The day we left England, however, as soon as we got on the plane, we were pelted with questions by an American woman who was just being polite. What was rude in England was polite in Dallas. Was she nice or not? It depends upon where one lives.
There can be different congregational cultures. Will the members “be there” when you are ill or in serious need? Perhaps that’s a better test? Are there rude broadly evangelical congregations? I guess so. Are there friendly Reformed congregations? Absolutely! There can be a real cultural shock, however, when one from a “happy-clappy” evangelical culture attends a more serious Reformed service. That can take some adjustment. The values are different. The orientation is different. In any case, there is a culture shift involved. Are the people in France more or less rude than the people in England? Who can say? They’re different cultures.
Let’s admit, however, that sometimes, upon first becoming Reformed, some folk become jerks. Sometimes this phase is temporary. Mike Horton calls this the “cage phase,” when a new convert to Reformed Christianity needs to be put in a cage until he matures. Some, when they first discover “the doctrines of grace” (code for unconditional predestination and justification by grace alone, through faith alone) can actually become angry that they’ve been denied these truths for so long. It’s as if one grew up in England (pay attention Carl) and suddenly discovers that food can be pleasant, that just a few miles to the southeast there is a people of strange tongues and marvelous food beyond one’s wildest dreams! Gaining this knowledge can produce genuine frustration. Having tasted French food, our Englishman is beside himself. It’s all he can talk about. It’s all he wants to read about. It’s all he cooks. The first time his Mum brings out the usual Thursday night dinner, he rages at her, but she doesn’t know any better. She’s never been to France and wouldn’t know pain au chocolate if it hit her on the head.
This temporary frustration and obsession with something new is understandable, if immature. If he continues this way, however, it’s a sign of persistent immaturity and sin.
This same thing often happens to folk when they first adopt the Reformed doctrine of predestination or discover the Reformation doctrine of Christian liberty. They overreact to their Arminian or fundamentalist past or they’re so intoxicated with what they’ve learned that they believe that everyone one else must come to share their new found passions and freedom as quickly and intensely as they. Usually folks get over it, but there is a period where maybe our young convert to predestination and Christian liberty is still in his Arminian and/or fundamentalist congregation. The stage is set for a culture clash. His friends in the Arminian/fundamentalist congregation don’t have any idea about the things he’s learning. They define Christianity as a personal experience of the risen Christ and/or as a set of rules about smoking and drinking. He’s coming to define Christianity quite differently. Add to this culture clash a dash of arrogance and impatience, and presto! The first encounter our evangelicals have with a “Reformed” guy is not very happy, and the Reformed movement and churches get a black eye.
Sadly, some newly Reformed folk never get over it. They take their arrogance into their new congregation. Or worse still, an earnest evangelical wanders into a Reformed congregation and finds genuine rudeness, impatience, and intolerance from folk who have been Reformed all their lives. In the first case, a little knowledge, in the wrong hands, is a dangerous thing. Our fellow is still in the cage phase. He might need some counsel from the elders.
The second case is even more difficult and inexcusable. How can this happen? After all, of all folk, shouldn’t Calvinists know God’s amazing grace? Sure they should. So why do they sometimes “cop an attitude?” 1. They are sinners. 2. It’s possible to grow up in a Reformed congregation and never really have any contact with the outside (i.e., broader evangelical) world. Most Reformed folk probably don’t know that there are only 500,000 confessional Reformed people in North America and that there are sixty million evangelicals of every possible stripe. They may not realize that they are ambassadors for a very small movement in North American Christianity and that they might be the first or only Reformed folk some evangelicals ever meet.
Of course it’s not fair for evangelicals to judge all Reformed folk on the basis of one episode, but the Reformed are the minority so we don’t get to set the rules. Fair or not, we have to be on our best behavior all the time. We don’t get to let our hair down (if we have any!).
It’s also true that virtually all Reformed folk (e.g., the RCUS, the OPC, PCA, URC, CAnRC) are part of denominations that have separated from older, more established churches. This can breed a sense of inferiority or defensiveness. We tend to focus on our distinctives (e.g., in soteriology or worship). Sometimes our defensiveness causes us to lose focus on the rest of the faith. Certainly, relative to broad evangelicalism, we confess things that set us apart in theology, piety, and practice, and those distinctives are to be treasured. We tend to focus on one or two of these things and sometimes forget the rest of what we confess. Sometimes the jerks in our midst are obsessed with one or two doctrines while ignoring the ethical or moral teaching of the confessions. In so doing, they are not actually being very confessional. Let’s say our jerks lack humility. If so, they are forgetting the doctrine of Belgic Confession Art. 13
….For His power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that He orders and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what He does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into farther than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, to learn only those things which He has revealed to us in His Word, without transgressing these limits…. (emphasis added)
According to our confession, we affirm the doctrine of predestination resolutely but also with humility. We don’t know the details of the decree. We’re not privy to God’s eternal decisions. The Westminster Confession of Faith 3.8 says the same thing:
The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. (emphasis added)
We’re sinful creatures and the recipients of grace, just like our broadly evangelical and/or fundamentalist friends. Do we have a more biblical account of that grace? Sure. [I understand that in our culture, even my assertion that some folk have a better grasp of Scripture than others is considered necessarily arrogant, but let’s assume my assertion is true for the sake of discussion.] Do we have it because we’re morally superior? No. To think that is to contradict what we confess! Do we have it because we’re smarter? To think that would be to prove that we aren’t smart, wouldn’t it? We’re the recipients of grace. Surely, if we are arrogant, it must be that we haven’t really been gripped by the true nature of grace.
What do we do? We should recognize not only the various cultural obstacles between the Reformed and the evangelical worlds, but we should seek the virtues of true self-knowledge and humility that we confess in Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 192:
What do we pray for in the third petition?
In the third petition (which is, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven,) acknowledging, that by nature we and all men are not only utterly unable and unwilling to know and do the will of God, but prone to rebel against his word, to repine and murmur against his providence, and wholly inclined to do the will of the flesh, and of the devil: we pray, that God would by his Spirit take away from ourselves and others all blindness, weakness, indisposedness, and perverseness of heart; and by his grace make us able and willing to know, do, and submit to his will in all things, with the like humility, cheerfulness, faithfulness, diligence, zeal, sincerity and constancy, as the angels do in heaven. (emphasis added)
I’ve seen and known Reformed jerks — indeed I am the chief of jerks! [And if you catch me being a jerk here or elsewhere, please tell me and give me an opportunity to repent.] I’ve also met the sweetest, gentlest, most gracious people in Reformed congregations, sometimes tucked away in obscure, little congregations. They don’t get much media exposure, and they might not be the first folks that a refugee from the local mega-church meets.
I don’t think we confessional Reformed folk should back down one inch from the things we confess, but I do think we should seek to live out all that we confess, including the virtue of humility. When folk talk about “dead orthodoxy,” they’re really describing partial orthodoxy. They’re not really describing real, full-orbed, confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice. At least sometimes they’re describing the jerks in our movement and churches.
To my broadly evangelical friends, please be patient with us. To my Reformed friends, whether new converts or children of the covenant, the evangelical world is watching. Let’s hope and pray that they see winsome trophies of grace and not something else.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
[This post first appeared in 2006]
Here’s a talk I gave on this a few years back:
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This is great insight into the workings of reformed churches and the people within them. However, one thing should be noted. A jerk is defined as an obnoxious person. This makes “jerk” a noun – not an adjective.
You’re right. Corrected.
R. Scott Clark,
Great! Thanks for correcting it. The English teacher in me couldn’t let it go!
Thank you for your article. It helps explain what happened to us in a church a few years ago.
“I’ve seen and known Reformed jerks — indeed I am the chief of jerks!’
I am so curious what you mean here. May I ask what makes you say you are the “chief of jerks!?” I really hope you are not.
You wrote-“Surely, if we are arrogant, it must be that we haven’t really been gripped by the true nature of grace.” So if one is a “chief of jerks”, what does that say about being “gripped by the true nature of grace?”
I was trying to paraphrase 1 Timothy 1:15
I’m trying to say that I am not exempt from the sin of arrogance and thus in exhorting others not to be jerks I cannot exclude myself from the exhortation.
So, sadly, yes, I have been a jerk but I am endeavoring, by God’s grace, to grow, as we confess:
It really is amazing how knowledge puffs up. We Reformers are all about truth and knowledge and seldom realize how we wrap it around a lead pipe to “help” our misguided brethren. How I wished I understood grace early in my Christian walk. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have been so graceless myself. Many many many folks I have known that understand the graces, seldom see it played out in them, me included. Giving knowledge to a prideful man is like slipping the noose around his neck; he is bound to hang himself unless he gains understanding with it. I’ve been observing Jesus’s behavior when dealing with the non-intelligentsia, down trodden, misguided, and uniformed of His day and he always spoke truth graciously. Should we do less?
“I’m trying to say that I am not exempt from the sin of arrogance and thus in exhorting others not to be jerks I cannot exclude myself from the exhortation.”
Oh absolutely I agree with that. Thank you. We all are jerks at times. Not all are chief of jerks.
What I understand about Paul being “chief” of sinners is not that he was worse than others (even after obeying the gospel), but that he was the foremost example of the grace and loving patience of God-showing that Christ’s saving grace can come to anyone no matter their past–and he had quite a past, as verse 13 states.
Thanks for your reply.