(I received a free copy of this book for review purposes from the author. I am not being paid for this review.)
Amanda Farmer’s book Once An Insider, Now Without A Church Home: One Couple’s Faith Crisis Due to the Infiltration and Spread of Authoritarianism, Calvinism, Complementarianism, and Covenants in the Am Evangelical Church is available on Amazon here. The book description states,
This is the story of one couple’s faith crisis after realizing the church they have spent 25 years serving as leaders in has made subtle but profound changes over the years. It is their journey from being trusting followers of Jesus to questioning everything about their faith. Who is really following the Bible? Who is really interpreting the Bible correctly? This is a personal memoir that follows the changes in the American Evangelical Church as it becomes more popular to embrace Calvinism, Authoritarianism, Complementarianism, and Covenants and the effect this can have on one’s faith. The story illustrates the pain of going from being an accepted member of a church – from being on the inside – to realizing that the leadership desires that you leave the fellowship.
My first impression is that this book is well-written. I’m pulled in right away to the author’s story, and several similarities:
1–She comes from a strict denomination, Mennonite. My church (Nazarene) let us wear pretty much whatever we wanted to–short hair, makeup, pants, shorts, etc.–but wouldn’t let us drink, dance, go to movies, that kind of thing. Meanwhile, I heard that our churches in the South were a lot like the Pentecostals, restricting your appearance along with your behavior.
2–Her husband Gordon comes from the same denomination as mine (LCMS), and she, like me, did not convert to it because she’d been raised to believe her own denomination’s view of Scripture is correct. Meanwhile, he did not want to convert to her denomination, either.
3–Which–same as with us–led them to search for a denomination that would serve as a compromise where they both could feel comfortable. And–same as with my husband and me–they felt the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) would suit, because of a freedom in belief and practice from strict rules or legalism.
4–Just as with us, their first experiences with the church are good, full of wonderful experiences and growing closer to people, making friends, getting more involved in the church. Some of my best memories are from that time.
5–And also–same as us–this couple never heard of John Piper or Neo-Calvinism, until long after their influence had begun, and had come to their church.
At the time they start attending the Evangelical Free Church in town, while their church believes in male headship, women are still very much a part of the church life, teaching and ministering, and have leadership roles as well. In fact, the contributions of women are respected.
When a Calvinist preacher is hired for their church, they don’t know at first that he is a Calvinist. He is charismatic and beloved, and the author and her husband become close friends with him–same as our experience.
Then in 2008, according to a quoted blog post by an EFCA pastor, the EFCA Statement of Faith is changed to make room for Calvinist/Reformed doctrine. Before, it leaned toward Arminian dispensationalism, but now there are a lot more Reformed pastors in the denomination than there were in 1950.
Wayne Grudem’s book on Systematic Theology (PDF here) is introduced into the church via a weekly Bible study required for the elders.
Grudem, along with John Piper (a neo-Calvinist theological superstar), helped to edit Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism and co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. While in some circles their theological writings are praised, in some others they are accused of bringing spiritually abusive doctrines into the Evangelical churches, while also trying to put women “back in their place” (ie, the kitchen, as they obey their husbands and keep quiet in church). For more information on this criticism, see blogs such as Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch.
Calvinism didn’t use to be so big in Evangelical churches, but in the last few decades, “neo-Calvinism” has been spreading and taking hold in churches all over America. Wikipedia traces it to 2006, but it (and the works of Piper) hit my EFCA church much sooner, maybe around 2002.
Like many of us, Gordon, an elder, is not familiar enough with Calvinism to recognize what the change in the Statement of Faith would mean, or what the introduction of Grudem’s ideas would mean. He is of “simple faith.”
Pastor Travis, over time, starts making more demands on the people, starting with the elder board. Prayers led by the elders or other men in church have to follow a particular formula, which leads to nobody wanting to lead prayers. The elders have to attend a particular leader training course in order to be elders, which introduces “servant leadership” and “shepherding.”
(The Shepherding Movement has been rife with spiritual abuse. It started back in the 70s and was very controversial; even Pat Robertson compared it to Jonestown. It sounds like it died out for a time because it was so abusive, but now here it is again, re-emerging in the 2000s.)
And then Pastor Travis insists that they jump into the next church building project without any sort of planning, trusting God will provide, because this is the “biblical” way to do it. With that, he goes on an 8-week sabbatical–which also raises a red flag for me, because that’s when our own EFCA pastor came back preaching John Piperism.
When a new member joins the church and becomes Amanda’s subordinate (she is church treasurer), she senses a new dynamic: He starts going around her, leaving her out of discussions which require the input of the treasurer. Eventually he resigns; later on, he becomes chairman of the administrative council, only to resign in disgust from there as well. His reason: because she is a woman and he feels it is disgraceful for her to be in a position of leadership over him, or in any leadership role.
When she protests to the pastor, he reacts in anger, saying this is biblical–that women are allowed input, but men are to be leaders–that this is somehow “equal.” She notes that decisions are now being made by male leaders without even the input of the congregation.
Men in the congregation are now beginning to feel like very few are “qualified” to be elders. After years of faithful service to the church, Amanda and Gordon are both made to feel like their contributions are not valued and like they’re being judged unworthy.
And I have to note that in my Orthodox church–about as conservative as you can get, with many practices that haven’t changed in centuries, and a strict adherence to doctrine established well over a thousand years ago–it doesn’t get this extreme. Here, a woman can serve on the board, be treasurer or parish president, read the Epistle and other Bible readings in services, serve at the altar and in other capacities during the service, etc. It also never got this extreme in the Nazarene church in which I grew up. So why is it so anathema for women to do this in an EFCA church now–especially when the EFCA did not use to be this extreme?
Finally, Amanda and Gordon discover that Calvinism–which they’d never heard of before this–has infiltrated the church. It makes Gordon feel destined for Hell, and to Amanda the Calvinist god seems like her abusive father.
This is why many of us have rejected Calvinism and Reformed theology, running away screaming, not calling it “good Reformed doctrine.” I had heard of Calvinism when we attended the EFCA church, but didn’t know a whole lot about it beyond predestination. Like us, Amanda and Gordon are horrified at this concept of a god who uses people as tools for his own glory, and chooses that most of them will be damned. Like us, they also look on in disbelief as others in the church welcome the words of John Piper as if he were a prophet.
They also soon discover that most of the people in the church haven’t even heard of Calvinism! I wonder what kind of religious training and schooling people are getting these days in the Evangelical churches, because what I didn’t hear about in church, I learned about in school from literature and history. I knew Calvinism was to be avoided, even though I didn’t know all the tenets.
The flock also has not heard of shepherding or membership covenants, which the leadership team wants to introduce. As with shepherding, membership covenants have been recognized as abusive for many years (I read about them around 2005 when researching spiritual abuse). But the people don’t know, they trust their pastors as the voice of God, and the practice keeps spreading throughout Evangelicalism.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge –KJV, Hosea 4:6
Pastor Travis also introduces a version of the Bible I’m not familiar with–ESV–overseen by Wayne Grudem. The RSV already had an update, the NRSV, but the ESV is another update of the RSV. It was released in 2001, but has had several updates since then which arguably make the Bible seem more patriarchal (such as, removing “sisters” from “brothers and sisters,” even though I found evidence that the latter is correct). By late 2006, I was no longer Protestant, so this translation never made it into my church or studies.
Amanda and Gordon begin to get the strong impression that they’re seen as “troublemakers” for not agreeing with the new Calvinist direction of the church, and–after 25 years of being heavily involved in it–that the pastors and elders would be glad to see them leave. They’re told that they should “submit” to the judgment of the pastors when they disagree.
Their alarm increases when the church elders and pastors decide to implement a membership covenant–especially the parts about submitting to their guidance and not leaving the church until discipline issues are resolved. They suspect that this part is added because the pastor couldn’t stop a woman from divorcing her abusive husband, and then leaving the church because he tried to discipline her over it.
In reviewing the proposed covenant text, I agree–This sounds like the spiritual abuser’s dream! If you agree to it, you sign away your right to disagree with the teachings of the elders/pastors, or even to leave the church–unless you go to another one just like it. You pledge yourself to support the church in every way, including with your finances (note that), and your butt has to be in the seat regularly. You pledge to help evangelize, so hey, more people get brought in to the cult church.
There’s a part about indulging in “freedoms” that would jeopardize someone else’s faith, so I suspect that everything from the occasional cuss word to drinking an occasional beer to listening to Rob Zombie to playing Dungeons and Dragons could be verboten. Supposedly this just means you can’t do it around a member who doesn’t like it. But how do you know who does and doesn’t? Will you be disciplined if a sensitive church member overhears you talk about going to a Goth club?
You also have to go along with church discipline, not just for yourself, but “admonishing” others as well. And if you violate or neglect the covenant, you will be disciplined.
Since only death releases you from the covenant (or going to a church just like it), you are–essentially–trapped in this church. Whether it is binding legally, I can’t say. But someone who signs such a covenant is likely to feel that it is spiritually binding, and fear the wrath of God if they violate it–just as many Christians fear the wrath of God if they divorce an abusive spouse.
Amanda openly brings up her concerns in a congregational meeting. Her bravery makes others willing to speak up as well, so she finds many people disagree with the covenant proposal. But these people are shot down (by the pastor’s wife!) as being mostly women who should be submitting to their husbands–while men don’t feel safe giving their opinions, either.
All of Amanda’s concerns are valid, but the pastors dismiss her and her concerns as divisive; they accuse her of being bitter. They gaslight her. A series of attempts at discussion–in which she feels like they just want to shut her up, and when she gets yelled at like her father used to do–leads to her and Gordon no longer attending, intending to eventually leave for good (after her daughter’s wedding in the church).
The leadership team strikes me as narcissistic and spiritually abusive.
A leadership team commentary on the covenant says that members are not to bring civil lawsuits against each other. On the one hand, I can agree with not suing each other over stupid stuff. For example, the threat of my ex-friends (also Orthodox) to sue me for libel–for speaking out about their abuse of me–would be forbidden under such a clause.
The farther we go, however, the exercise of control and potential for abuse grow stronger. Tithing (at least 10%), regular church attendance, reading the Bible–all are part of the covenant’s stipulations. As are discipling others and evangelizing: things which are considered the “personal responsibility of every Christian,” and include one’s family and others “in our sphere of influence.” This basically sounds like forcing everyone in the church to become annoying, trying to convert everybody they know no matter if it’s welcomed, or if it suits the personal abilities or gifts of each member.
For me, for example, this would be impossible, because even when I believed I was supposed to do these things, I couldn’t do them. I was too shy–and it wasn’t as if I could just go out and make new friends if I scared off the ones I had with all the preaching.
As a kid, I already had a lot of trouble making friends and finding somebody to date, partially because of the shyness, but possibly also because my religion forced me not to act like the other kids. I wouldn’t listen to secular rock or go to movies, and told my 7th-grade science teacher that I couldn’t read that passage out loud because it was about evolution. That kind of crap probably helped take a big chunk out of my social standing. Imagine what it would’ve been like if I tried to convert everybody I knew.
Yeah, that’s what this covenant would force on a whole church full of people: a requirement to be obnoxious to everyone you know, while also giving a chunk of your income whether you could afford it or not, and going to church as often as possible.
Then comes a requirement to submit to the leadership team. Even the elders are to submit. The church’s means of protecting against error and oppression is to elect “biblically qualified men to join the elder team.” But–what about confrontation when a leader is in error?
Then comes the discipline section. On the one hand, sometimes a member will abuse others and will need discipline for that. But many people are disciplined for trivial reasons in these “covenant” churches, such as disagreeing with the leadership or having a different view of whether something is sinful. And this covenant would force such people to stay inside the church. It’s made very clear that a member is not to leave the church for any reason except for 1) death, or 2) to go to another church just like it.
I believe the covenant proposal was ultimately shelved, but Amanda writes here that
The church we left is now proposing constitution changes that allow discipline for being “threatening to the testimony of the church” or being “divisive to the body”; both very vague nebulous wide-open in interpretation statements.
Even after Amanda and Gordon finally leave the church, they still struggle with existential questions caused by Calvinism: Are they saved, does it matter what they believe if God saves whomever he wants to, is it worthwhile sharing with friends about a faith that is so bleak?
I recall reading about a similar struggle in Harriet Beecher Stowe when she was only a little girl; her father was a prominent Calvinist preacher, big on predestination. She’d stare into a mirror and wonder if she was damned and couldn’t change that. This is one reason why I rejected Calvinism–and here it’s happening again with somebody else, just like with Stowe. And of course, Amanda and Gordon wonder how Calvin could both be Spirit-filled and murder people who disagree with his theology.
Amanda also notes that 1 Corinthians 11 is dismissed in modern-day Evangelicalism as “culturally driven and not applicable for today”–except, of course, for the bit about man being the head of the woman (so she’ll submit). Even in the fundamentalist church in which I grew up, the parts about women submitting to men were also dismissed as culturally driven, back in the 80s. But for some reason, neo-Calvinists are especially obsessed with making the wymmenfolk shut up and submit.
I also note that, after leaving the church, Amanda and Gordon have very familiar feelings–that they are afraid to connect again somewhere else, afraid of it all happening again. I felt this after breaking off a destructive, narcissistic, abusive friendship.
I also felt the same way she did, when the other party made no attempt to fix the problems, but instead dismissed it as our decision to break off the friendship, and then simply let go of us without even trying to hold on to us. When that happens, you feel like the other party never actually cared about you to begin with. Amanda and Gordon feel that, after they’ve been a part of this church for decades, the leaders don’t care if they stay or go.
My husband–the one in our case who tried to confront our Calvinist pastor–felt dismissed and abused by the experience; for a while he was sensitive even to the style of music being played in our next church. We got nervous when the pastor went on “sabbatical.” A church-wide disagreement about a dismissed secretary became cause for alarm.
I don’t believe there was anything actually abusive about the next church we went to, but these feelings did not diminish until my husband went back to being Lutheran and I went to an Orthodox church (no Calvinism or weird Protestant trends there!) Lutheranism had nothing to do with the Calvinist vs. Arminian debates, while Orthodoxy actually condemned Calvinism, pronouncing “an anathema upon anyone teaching that God predestined anyone to evil or Hell” (Wikipedia).
In conclusion, this book is a good description of what’s happening in churches today, the cult-like practices which are spreading through Evangelicalism. Hopefully it will save some readers from getting trapped by such a church.