In 2008 I began to take theology seriously, at the height of the movement Young, restless and reformed in evangelicalism. At the time he was being discipled by a Methodist pastor, who trained me in the ways of "five point" Arminianism while serving under him as youth pastor. He knew all the arguments against the Calvinistic "five-point" soteriology and applied them wildly whenever he could.
But growing up in Dallas-Fort Worth, the youth and reform movement was close to home, with figures like Matt Chandler drawing a large crowd in the area. Without hesitation, I began to attend The Village Church in the evenings and was soon converted to the ways of Calvinism. As you can imagine, I became adept at using new arguments against my old arguments.
Many have called this "cage stage" Calvinism, and I was a willing combatant. Looking back, the most negative consequence of my time in the cage was (just for a while, praise God) how my relationship with my mentor deteriorated. I went from deeply respecting him as a pastor and theologian to doubting his intelligence and sincerity.
But he hadn't changed, I had.
How to Diagnose Cage Stage
The "cage stage" mentality is prevalent in various circles. It almost seems a necessary consequence of theological discovery. I see it now in those who, like me, are concerned with theological recovery. But I hope the next generation avoids theological recovery in the manner of the cage stage, and avoids some of the mistakes of my generation.
These are four signs of cage-stage theology, from an ancient practitioner.
1. You despise your previous spiritual and theological heroes or mentors.
We are quick to criticize or even slander those who came before us—those who taught us!—because we now feel that we have surpassed them. We become cynical about their abilities and tend to extol our newfound intelligence, curiously insulting ourselves who previously believed the same.
I wish I could track it down, but I once saw a tweet that essentially said, "I now disagree with [X teólogo], but I am only able to disagree because it was he who made me love theology in the first place." This seems like the proper way to honor those who came before us. Like adult children, we should not allow pride to dishonor our (theological) parents just because we have left them behind in some respects. They gave us the passion and the tools to get interested in theology.
Frankly, a 20-something seminarian lashing out at someone whose major work was published before the student was born. can right in some facts, but rarely right in his attitude. Those of us who have been there recognize how difficult it is to see that blind spot in youth, but it is crucial that those around you point it out to you. Wisdom allows for humility and kindness, especially in disagreement.
2. You create cynical disciples of their previous heroes or mentors.
As a teacher, I often see students go through the whiplash of realizing that their parents, pastors, or favorite authors are apparently wrong about something. In the cage stage, it is tempting to think that decades of faithful ministry are now (or always have been) worthless and of little benefit to the academy or the church. These students begin to question their mentors or friends for being too "shallow."
This is for those of us in positions of influence: let's not fan the flames of the cage stage. In part, this requires that we correct someone when it happens. For example, I rarely allow a student to criticize their parents or their pastors in front of me. You may think I'll understand the stupidity of your pastor's perspective because you've heard me disagree with it, but I usually shut down that conversation.
We must also model this kind of theological generosity. Whenever we teach, we must represent the audience fairly and substantially. If we don't leave the cage stage as leaders, we will continue to raise proud students who won't learn to recognize how little they know and how they may disagree with themselves in the future.
3. You reduce orthodoxy to a set of clearly defined categories.
The cage stage can create a kind of fundamentalism that eschews generous orthodoxy in favor of a select group "in" the crowd, reminiscent of a small group of high school students. It is easy to exclude someone from our group of theological friends if they challenge or question us. But if you really trust your convictions, they can be challenged by the better from the other side. Humility allows you to stand by your convictions while being open to changing your mind.
You don't have to protect your own platform or prestige. You're not competing to be the king of the dance. I cannot count the number of times I have repeated that Arminians "are based on works" and "have no appreciation for God's sovereignty." He had even read Wesley's works and knew better, but in a cage you should punch, not hug.
4. You tend to create a personal brand that makes you a self-proclaimed savior from orthodoxy.
We feel the need to protect our brand; after all, it is what has given us the influence we have. At its worst, the cage stage pushes us to conveniently interpret deceased theologians as basically agreeing with us. It's a great way to score cheap points in a debate, but not to do theology or history.
It is tempting to build history in our own image, arguing anachronistically or superficially that theologians of the past agree with all our little nuances. Criticizing them becomes a direct criticism of us.
Humility allows you to stand by your convictions while being open to changing your mind.
We all have a long way to go. Sin is always coming. But beware of us-versus-them theologians, who frame the entire discourse around their role in saving you from an enemy (either a person or a generic "them"). Paul directly warns the Corinthians against the “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos” mentality (1 Cor 3:4). Instead, he later says that love "suffers everything, believes everything, hopes everything, endures everything" (1 Cor 13: 7).
Theological love of neighbor
It is basic love for your neighbor to ask clarifying questions to those with whom you disagree. I imagine Satan loves it when we assume evil intent, judge a person's theology or character based on a tweet or article, or use the failures of others as props for our own platforms.
It is tragic, then, that Christians are sometimes the most ruthless towards each other. When we are in the cage, we are unable to see out of it and we do not have the wisdom to judge between biblical discernment and the division that destroys the church.
Instead, we can all pray that God will break our pride, soften our hearts, and give us the wisdom to balance our convictions with love for others. Thinking back to the Corinthian church, I notice that Paul seems willing to allow the Corinthians to disagree on a whole host of issues, as long as they unite around the gospel. This unit must include generosity towards our predecessors and introspection about our own convictions and abilities.
The reality is that all the senseless division between brothers and sisters in Christ will be eradicated in the new creation. We will live in a communion of unity and forgiveness for all eternity, thanks to the One who overcomes our rivalries. Meanwhile, what if we modeled eschatological unity instead of myopic division? What would happen if we tried harder, by the power of the Spirit, to treat one another as we will in the new creation?