For good or for ill, 2017 is in the rear view mirror and a new year is upon us. As we set out into 2018, I find myself pondering some of the issues that may be especially pertinent to Reformed Christians in the year ahead. I am no prophet (see number three below), but do keep my ear to the ground, and am willing to predict a number of issues that I think will prove prominent.
So, here are three themes I predict will prove important for Reformed Christians in 2018.
Further Defining Complementarianism
In 2018, Reformed Christians will further define complementarianism. Complementarianism is, of course, the view that God created men and women to be complementary in both form and function. In this view, God calls men, rather than women, to take leadership roles within the home and church. This theology has been associated with this Reformed resurgence from the outset, but was initially assumed to be complete, a kind of fait accompli as defined in John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s tome Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. But it’s not so simple.
In the past few years we have witnessed many challenges to Piper and Grudem’s understanding and application of the doctrine. Some challenges have come from people who deny the core principles of complementarianism, but many more have come from people who affirm them. Some wish to nuance certain emphases while others wish to massively expand its boundaries to include, for example, women who preach as long as they do so under the authority of male leadership. This year will bring discussion, clarity and, unless we are patient and charitable, potential splintering.
- Questions: What are the boundaries of complementarianism or the core beliefs and practices that must be held to wear the label? Does complementarianism apply only to the home and church or does it have much wider applicability? And, returning to a debate not yet solved, what do we do with the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son and its application to complementarianism?
To Divorce or Stick with Evangelicalism
In 2018, Reformed Christians will be challenged to define their relationship with evangelicalism. To this point in history, “Christian” has been a broad grouping. “Evangelical” a subset of “Christian,” and “Reformed” a subset of “Evangelical.” This means that many people considered themselves Reformed, Evangelical Christians. But recent events have convinced many Reformed folk that the label “Evangelical” has outlived its purpose. These events include the alignment of major Evangelical leaders with President Trump and also the stretching of the label to people who functionally deny the “evangel” (good news) at the heart of the word. Thus, many people see the label “Evangelical” as being more of a liability than an asset, one to be worn with shame rather than pride. They see it as describing political alignment and ideology more than theological convictions. Indeed, a recent listing of top Evangelical leaders includes many who are major political influencers or megachurch leaders but who downplay or deny core Christian doctrines. They are unbelieving and even heretical, yet still considered Evangelical.
2018 will be the year that more and more Reformed believers decide they no longer wish to be labeled as “Evangelicals.” Yet it will also be the year we see others determined to salvage the term.
- Questions: Can anyone actually make the choice to revoke association with a term like “Evangelical?” If they do, will anyone, especially outside the church, listen or care? Should such a significant and meaningful term be rejected or rescued? If it is rejected, what would replace it? What does it even mean to be evangelical today?
The Growth of Charismatic Practice
In 2018, Reformed Christians who hold to charismatic theology will increase their distinctly charismatic practices. Traditionally, Reformed theology has been cessationist, teaching that though God can and does perform miracles in today’s world, the miraculous sign gifts such as prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues are no longer operational. Yet modern-day Calvinism has long been marked by ministries and leaders who insist those gifts remain operational. A majority or large minority of New Calvinists consider themselves “open and cautious,” believing the gifts are operative. These people want to practice those gifts, yet avoid the excesses of the wider charismatic movement.
To this point “open but cautious” has mostly meant “theologically intrigued or convinced but functionally cessationist.” However, a number of people intend to address this, with Sam Storms taking a leading role. Last year he released Practicing the Power (my review), a book meant to address this shortcoming by teaching how to integrate charismatic practices into Reformed theology and worship. He followed this with the Convergence conference which featured Reformed influencers Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, and Andrew Wilson. It was attended by pastors and leadership teams representing a number of influential Reformed churches. There are many Reformed folk, especially younger ones, who are very eager to begin practicing the gifts and are merely waiting for trusted teachers to model how it is done.
In 2018 we will begin to see wider practice of the sign gifts among those who hold to Reformed theology and this will bring some controversy. To this point the debate surrounding cessationism and continuationism has largely been theological, but it will soon become far more practical. We will see churches that are Reformed in much of their theology also practicing prophecy, inviting tongues-speaking, and founding healing ministries.
- Questions: Can Reformed charismatics practice the miraculous gifts while avoiding the excesses that have historically marked so much of the charismatic movement? Do people in the “open but cautious” camp really want to practice these gifts, or will the full expression of such gifts prove too foreign or even too troublesome to them? Charismatics have proven they are willing to participate in and enjoy cessationist worship services but will cessationists be able to participate in and enjoy charismatic services? Can there really be harmony between the sola scriptura emphasis of Reformed theology and the prophetic emphasis of charismatics?
There is much more we could say about 2018. I believe matters of race will continue to play an important role in 2018, but perhaps less so than in 2017, if for no other reason than that I sense a growing sense of weary helplessness toward the issue. I believe Reformed Christians may be more willing than ever to take a closer look at our evangelism to ask why it is that other movements, especially Pentecostalism, seem so much better at drawing unbelievers. And, of course, there will be many surprises along the way as issues arise within and outside the church.
I will end with a question: What themes do you think will be prominent among Reformed people in 2018?