Trickle Down Theology


Back in my days of Semi-Pelagianism I was repulsed by the arrogant attitude of the first “Calvinists” I met embodied in a group of Primitive Baptists. I will never forget the smug smirk on the face of one as we debated the issue. I raised several of the basic objections and verses to support, all of the kind any Calvinist should be able to respond to. And rather than an argument I was asked incredulously, “You actually believe that?” followed by titters of laughter from the rest of the group. It was the kind of condescending flippancy that Screwtape recommends so highly to be cultivated in a patient. No argument or joke had been made but they all assumed it had been. Their favorite word to call anyone who disagreed with them was, immature. Their faces, and eventually their words, all said, “that is all the proof we need in order to assure us that anyone outside of our thinking is not really a christian.” They managed to level up another night when I decided a fruitless conversation along the same lines was being held and just ended the evening. They weren’t done and continued on my front lawn yelling at one of my guests, a young lady, until she cried with them shouting that if she could not affirm the Doctrines of Grace she was probably going to hell. It was the kind of stupid behavior that displayed a fatal failure to understand the concepts of grace, doctrines, and The Doctrines of Grace. Today I would consider them not to be Calvinists but determinist pharisees. They were to put is as kindly as I can, a bunch of assholes. And that is me being kind. It kept me as far away from reformed theology as I possibly could get and remain protestant, until God proved his predestining power in my life and brought me to himself kicking and screaming. My friend who was yelled at joined an Eastern Orthodox church partly because in order to join you are required to denounce the heresy of Calvinism, and she did so with glee.

My point with this story is to point out that a smug, self important, swaggering approach to a topic, no matter how true the facts are, immediately drives people off. My problem is the topic I wish to work through today is next to impossible to consider without my sounding condescending. I have re-written this about three times now and at pains to keep statements that sound arrogant to a minimum, but if the topic is to be discussed then clarity must trump perception. 

My contention is that there are three kinds of people in the average reformed church, the numbers in each group vary by church but they are there. Now there are many ways to skin a dead cat and finding categories to break churches down into are just as numerous.  It is usually thought of along, racial, political, socio-economic, age, marital status, and level of education. that last one comes close to the category I want to consider, also socio-economic status can play into it but perhaps not as much as would seem obvious. We need to think of congregational groups in terms of brain power. I term the groups, from low to high, along a spectrum from: Ignorant, Intentionally Ignorant, and Intellectual. 

Sketching out the Groups

Ignorant: From the offset this could be the most diverse group with many sub categories, such as brand new Christians. But because my gaol is brain power what I am referring to here are the genuine believers who operate on what Teddy Roosevelt would describe as, “0.02 guinea pig brain power.” My point is not to belittle, but we do no one any service by lying to or flattering people. There are Godly people who were made in the image of God and operate on a low level intellectually. This can be compounded by poverty, a lack of education, discipline, substance abuse, and early influences. As a result these people are prone to foolishness, a lack of self-control, and little emotional control. They are constant targets of scams, conspiracy theories, and prosperity heresy. This does not mean they can not learn, but they are not going to become theological powerhouses. Bookishness is simply not on their radar. They serve faithfully with what little they have and at their best serve as conduits for the good kind of Old Time Religion that is healthy for a church from time to time. Usually though they are kept at an arms length from the upper echelons because they can contribute little to the leadership outside of physical labor.

Intentionally Ignorant: This group is a bit stickier. These are the people who tend to be more middle class, have the resources and capacity to use their minds well, and yet refuse to out of a sense of pride masked as humility. The stereotype would be people who live in suburbs, attended good colleges, have well paying white collar jobs, but insist on acting like the ignorant in some way or another. They paradoxically saw their schooling as something to endure in order to make enough money to support their alma mater’s sports program to which they are fiercely loyal. In my area their aesthetic is redneck chic. In others is could be to take on the “old neighborhood” caricature. And in our churches they are the ones who could grow in grace and knowledge, but refuse to because they don’t want to get all hoity toity, it is pride masked as humility. Pop theology books are their jam, and they are prone to read and adopt bad theology or Instagram devotional thinking. Interestingly this group tends to endear themselves to church leaderships because they tend to hit an easy stride when it comes to shepherding. They don’t require a ton of work typically and they don’t like having the boat rocked any more than the leadership does. They are impressed by charisma and with a little pushing can be made useful to smooth operations.

Intellectual: The term intellectual is not meant in the sense of a true scholar but in the sense of, again, brain power. Also that that brain power is applied and applied well*. These people know the difference between being arrogant and being confident. They are willing to teach and are eager to be resources. Reading is best done with copious footnotes in their view, There can be a tendency to debate things like angels dancing on pinheads. But more often than not they are more interested in the practical day to day application of Scripture and doctrine to Christian life in stark, clear, and piercing terms. Devotion to them is not just a time in the morning it is a way of thinking, a way of life. Unfortunately, unless they also posses a talent of winsomeness, they are seen by pastors as theological curmudgeons, too brainy and not practical, sometimes even upstarts.**

How the Game is Being Played

These three groups then will all be in a church but are all frustrated with each other. Intentionally Ignorant think the Intellectuals are opaque and brainy. The Intellectuals are vexed by the Intentionally Ignorants refusal to apply themselves. And though compassionate with the Ignorant, they have little in common and difficulty creating friendships over this lack of relate-ability. The Ignorant are similarly annoyed with the incomprehensibility of the Intellectuals preferences and life. And presiding over all of this are pastors and elders who love all these people but don’t tend to like the people on the polar ends. They aim all their efforts and attention at the manageable middle. 

This is also compounded by the fact that the church has become less of a place where we gather to do things and instead is a place where we come for therapy. We have lost the idea that we are coming to worship a holy God and instead it is about us. Instead of us singing we are sung to, by trained pros. Instead of us coming to Sunday SCHOOL we have community groups where we talk about us. The Ignorant and the Intellectuals struggle mightily with this model because they are always going to be the odd men out. For the Ignorant they are invited usually into a much nicer home that theirs, where they listen to comfortable people complain about their middle class feelings and and struggles which seem comparatively small. For the Intellectuals they are similarly not welcome to talk because their hard truths hurt soft feelings and assumptions. Nothing is taught, nothing is learned, nothing is accomplished.

In some churches people are paid to preform the music are employed to lead the children’s church. We do don’t do anything, it is man centered not God centered, we don’t give our time we simply fund a country club and Ted Talks. As a result the Ignorant and Intentionally Ignorant are lethargic, and the Intellectuals are frustrated. 

A Better Way

I propose that a church, or churches, or reformed churches undertake an experiment. 1. Recognize that these separate groups exist. 2. Stop aiming and the milquetoast middle, or the Intentionally Ignorant. 3. Cultivate the Intellectuals to teach the Intentionally Ignorant in order to teach the Ignorant. In other words trickle down theology.

A few years ago I had a student named Joseph. Jospeh was/is a stereotypical Intentionally Ignorant person. He had adopted a true down home, country boy, southern accent. Which was interesting because his parents spoke completely clear english with a small Mississippi accent. But Joseph doubled down. He wanted acres in Mississippi, guns, boots, a honeymoon on a pontoon boat and he earned a masters degree on a full scholarship. This kid possesses brain power and loves Jesus. Here is the kicker, he speaks a language that is foreign to me. He is able to teach and minister to people that I would never have an audience with. But because I taught him, he can translate those principals into a world I would fail to communicate in. He stands with one foot in each world. And that is the key.

The reason this is difficult is that Pastors and elders will, for a time have to do extra work. They will have to engage with, wrestle with, and occasionally admits defeat to the ideas of the Intellectuals. Those theological curmudgeons in their churches that are pushing for uncomfortable things like application not emotional support. But if those guys learn how to teach, they can teach teachers, they can teach teachers who can teach people who are very different from the first source. In other words it is discipleship. Mature Believers producing, reproducing mature believers. 

Practically speaking the best method for doing this is in the context of reviving Sunday School. The emphasis being, school. This can sound condescending, but schools have grades based on the intellectual abilities of children. In an adult church context this can seem sticky. And it would appear historically that the answer has been to have a baseline “gospel class” then age groups. And that is not a bad instinct. But what it should be is the kind of model where Sunday School teachers pay attention to their class and know when to recognize that someone is in over their head. They can then direct that person to a class that is more understandable to them. And if those teachers have been training teachers then they will have an idea of where to send that person.

And just as a side note to assuage the concerns of pastors worried that this means more coordinating work for them. The roll of Sunday School Superintendent (or deacon) is a thing. Find that guy and let him execute this.


Uncomfortable distinctions and conversations are not wrong, they are just not… comfortable. For too long I think that the most marginalized groups in Reformed churches are the ones at either end of the intellectual spectrum. The Intelligent are not utilized and end up leaving trying to find a place that wants them, or they go off into increasingly niche theology and make themselves pariahs. The Ignorant are used for their labor but burn out because they are not fed more than sensitive fluff, cotton candy theology, with not practical application on things like not buying lottery tickets and why not to do that. And in the middle is a lethargic group pridefully sitting in their laziness because, looking sideways at that bookish guy, “I thank the Lord I am not like that uptight runt.”

Is it any wonder our churches are not healthy?

*Here I exclude “Cage Stage Calvinists” because I see them as belonging in group two. In my experience a cage stager has done the minimum amount of learning, just enough to get him hopped up and thinking he is an expert. Akin to a guy I knew once that would read the preface of a book then claim he read it and was an expert on the subject. He could read the rest but he could not be bothered, therefore: intentionally ignorant.

%d bloggers like this: