Popeye, Evangelism, and the Reformed Faith

I hate cooked spinach; always have, always will. Always looked to me like seaweed, and tasted just as bad. I blamed Popeye for it. The cartoon character with the forearms and the muscle-generating can of spinach caused many boys (and girls) to eat more of the green stuff than they wanted. At least I could console myself with the knowledge that spinach had so much iron in it that it was the “best thing on the planet to eat”, and would build strong bones, blood, and biceps.

Or so I thought. Not too many years ago, the FDA in Washington DC revealed that spinach, while good for you, has nowhere near the amount of iron in it that Americans have thought for many decades. Seemed that a scientist many years ago misplaced a decimal. Spinach is only one-tenth as good for you as they said! That mistake led scientists, cartoon writers and moms to believe in the “doctrine of the value of spinach”, thus foisting the horrid tasting stuff on generations of children. Oh, the power of a mistake!

 Doctrine Shapes Life

“Doctrine shapes life”, Christians always say, and rightly so. But mistakes in doctrine shape life, too, often with terrible consequences. Think of how people once read the Biblical descriptions of the system of slavery in the Roman world as prescriptions allowing for the trafficking in human flesh. It led to horrifying abuses of human beings created in the image of God.

In this article, I want to reflect on how misunderstandings, distortions, and errors in doctrine have compromised some Presbyterian and Reformed churches in regard to evangelism. Specifically, how such errors have undercut evangelistic zeal, activity, and success in many of our churches. I hope such reflection makes you think about your perspective, and about your church.

A scant bit of history is in order. In the centuries prior to this one, some of the greatest evangelists in this country were Calvinists. Who has not heard of George Whitefield, the passionate Methodist – but thoroughly Calvinistic – preacher who was used of God to evangelize much of this land in the mid 18th Century? Recently, a Baptist acquaintance who is a careful student of early American Baptists, reminded me that in the United States, early Baptists were almost universally Calvinistic in doctrine. They led the way in evangelistic fervor and success. Calvinism, back then, meant evangelistic fervor!



Yet, despite this legacy, Presbyterian/Reformed churches in this generation do not lead the North American Christian world with a passion for evangelism. In fact, in many Calvinistic churches in the U.S., about the only “evangelism” that takes place is marital. That is, a son or daughter of the church falls in love with and marries a person with non-Calvinist (and/or non-Christian) roots.

Members of Calvinistic churches, with few notable exceptions, are not passionate about the lost. Budgets in such churches support “missions” – but often only to the extent that they send money to others. Local evangelism is almost nonexistent. Sadly, a correlative attitude seems to be acceptable and popular among Calvinists these days: “people get saved in Baptist or other fundamentalistic churches, and then they learn good theology and become Calvinists.” If it weren’t so arrogant, it might be funny. Fact is, not many “get saved” through the evangelism efforts of Calvinistic churches in today’s Christian world. And that’s a shame.

Why is this so? I believe there are several reasons, and I commend them to you for your reflection, and prayer.


First of all, Calvinistic theology – which once drove missionaries to all lands – has seen many distortions that seem to justify evangelistic inactivity.

In the first place, Calvinists I know argue that “evangelism” is properly an activity in which only official preachers in their official pulpits are to be engaged. Thus, the common believer’s only duty is to “get people into church” where they can “hear the preaching”. But this minimizes the role of all believers in “witness” and “testimony” – those legal-sounding terms the NT uses to describe the calling of all Christians to bear witness to their Lord and Savior. To be sure, preachers preach, and steelworkers don’t. But recall that preachers preach “to equip the saints – including steelworkers – for their ministry.” (Ephesians 4:11–12) And that ministry commissions each believer as a testifier, a witness-bearer, who must live his/her life “on the witness stand”, thus testifying and speaking of the power of the crucified and risen Lord.

Secondly, the doctrine of election seems to be used with greater frequency to argue that “evangelism is God’s business; if He chooses people, He’ll bring them in. I have nothing to do with it. In fact, I cannot affect the outcome by my efforts!” I know pastors and even groups of churches that use such argumentation to oppose what I’ve heard called the “Arminian practice of evangelism”. Such an argument seems to ignore that those chosen before the foundations of the earth (Ephesians 1:4,11) are “included in Christ” when they hear the gospel. (Ephesians 1:13) In other words, our spiritual forebears were right: the Calvinistic doctrine of election demands and drives evangelism, rather than excusing us from it!


There are also cultural reasons evangelism is in trouble in many Presbyterian/Reformed churches. First, many such churches operate like a closed circle. We use “in-house jargon” that only people from our background will understand (think of such terms as “votum and salutation” or “the regulative principle” or some of our theological terms). We tend to move socially only within our own circles of redeemed people. To be sure, we’ll be polite with new folks to the church, but to spend the time and effort to intentionally seek close friendships with unbelievers as a strategic gospel priority? Doubtful. In fact, many of our church members don’t have any close friends who are unbelievers. In such tight and exclusive circles, evangelism is dealt a double stumbling-block: before one can embrace Christ as Lord, he must “fit in” with our socio-economic-cultural group. Doesn’t sound that different from the Judaizers, who demanded that people be circumcised or they couldn’t be in Christ. Frightening.

Second, Calvinists in our generation seem to be flirting with a non-Reformed understanding of the covenant. That is, “being in the covenant” seems to equate, in many Calvinists’ minds, with “being elect” and “being saved.” OT Israel had that view, and it resulted in spiritual destruction! It’s a very small leap indeed to the contemporary corollary, that “we Calvinists are the covenant people. After all, we have the heritage of the faith and the sign of infant baptism for our children!” As a result of this distortion, “election” and “salvation” are somehow connected to being Scottish Presbyterians or Dutch Reformed Calvinists.

Such a view is remarkably arrogant, and wrong on several levels. Being in the covenant does not guarantee that one is saved. Remember Aachan, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram? All of them were members of the covenant; yet all of them were destroyed in their sin. And in Webster’s dictionary, the term “covenant” does not include as one of its definitions a reference that says “see Dutch Calvinism”. God’s covenant is indeed a blessed relationship of God’s gracious favor, of God’s promise. But it demands faith; it does not render faith unnecessary for the children of Calvinists. And God’s covenant is established far and wide, with all kinds of people, both Jew and Gentile, who “repent and believe”, including “their children, and all who are far off, all whom the Lord our God will call unto himself.” (Acts 2:39)

Third, many Reformed churches confuse faith-identity with cultural/ethnic-identity. I can’t even begin to guess how many times I’ve heard Presbyterians or Reformed Christians talk about “our people” and “our churches”, meaning of course not Christians, but Scottish Presbyterians or Dutch Reformed people of the Calvinist worldview. Don’t get me wrong. I enthusiastically subscribe to Calvinist creeds and read Scripture with a worldview shaped by such understandings. But there’s a huge difference between Biblical conservativism (which holds firmly to the truths of Scripture) and ethnic/cultural traditionalism (which holds stubbornly to “the way we’ve always done it, because our way is the only right way.”)

Here’s the point: when we confuse Biblical Christianity with ethnic or cultural traditionalism, we not only don’t seek the lost, but we even hinder evangelism efforts. “Not Dutch? You’re not much!” The bumper sticker famous among Dutch Calvinists might be tongue-in-cheek, but the attitude behind it fairly shouts: “Even if you’re washed in the blood of the Lamb and renewed in the image of God, you don’t fit in here unless you are just like us!” “You don’t go to church twice on Sunday? You’ll never fit in here until you get your ‘sabbath-observance’ straightened out like we do.”

What a shame. For a spiritual heritage that celebrates grace as one of it’s fundamental hinge pins, far too many of our churches’ doors squeak on cultural rust.

Popeye could get away with being wrong about spinach. He was only a cartoon character. But you and I may not be wrong about our doctrine – or the attitudes our doctrine generates — if it destroys our passion for the salvation of the lost. Jesus addressed just such a situation in the parable popularly known as the “prodigal son” in Luke 15. I’ll remind you of the first half of the chapter. Jesus was eating with “sinners”, and the pharisees were indignant. So Jesus told 3 stories. There was a lost lamb. The shepherd left all behind to seek and find it, and invited everyone to celebrate that the lamb was found. There was also a lost coin, for which a woman searched diligently. When found, it was the occasion for a great celebration with friends and neighbor. In both these cases, Jesus commented “in the same way, there will be great rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one sinner who repents.”

And then the point. There was also a lost son. You know the details: wasted an inheritance, worked with accursed pigs, ate their food, came to his senses, was repentant, and was received by his father with a party, a ring, and a robe. But the son had no passion for the salvation of the lost. In bitterness, he was moved by the arrogant envy that a fool received forgiveness and joy even greater than he who was the “good boy”, the “covenant” son.

Jesus taught the parable against the arrogant “covenant people” of the day who had no heart for evangelism. His point is sharp. And it sticks close to home, doesn’t it?

Dr. John R. Sittema serves as an Associate Pastor in the PCA Church and is the author of A Shepherd’s Heart.