(This is being crossposted with the blog by Wondering Eagle, who writes on issues in Evangelicalism and, particularly, the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). My post is a bit longer.)
In the older sections of my website, particularly the theological pages and my conversion story, you will find many writings about and references to a church my husband and I went to for several years around the turn of the century. This church was the catalyst for my religious searching and eventual conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy.
My husband and I came from different backgrounds–him Lutheran, me Nazarene–so for years we searched for a church that would make us both feel comfortable. We went to the local EFCA church starting in 2000. It met in a middle school auditorium, and had about 200 members.
We were there for quite some time, even getting involved in different ministries. I began helping in the youth group, and loved it. I was happy being in this church. My husband (“Jeff”) made friends with the pastor.
I saw little warning signs of extremism way back when we first started there, such as a group who went to witness to a palm reader at her place of business. But I hoped it was just a few people like that. Overall it didn’t seem extremist.
Jeff had some trouble with the tithing talk and Evangelical doctrines, and we were a bit uncomfortable around the hand-waving, but we felt we had found a home. I got used to the contemporary music, and began to like it. Before, I often had trouble getting out of bed on Sunday; with the Evangelical Free Church, I was encouraged to get back into the Sunday church habit. I didn’t want to miss a sermon.
Each year, the pastor and several of the teens and adults went to Russia to evangelize. They helped with a church plant there, or an Evangelical Free church which had been recently started by missionaries and was headed by Russians; they also helped with a church camp.
I didn’t know in those days that the Russian Orthodox Church feels like its toes are being stepped on by all these Protestant missionaries, that they want to rebuild their own church, which was persecuted by the Soviet authorities for so many decades.
I imagine the church that produced so many martyrs during Communism would be upset to hear what my pastor said in church one day after returning from a Russia Team trip: “I visited the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s not Christian. It’s full of idols and paganism.”
He used this as an example of how bleak the spiritual atmosphere supposedly is in Russia after Communism. This must have been in 2003 or 2004; even then, when I had no thought of becoming Orthodox, I knew what he said was wrong. I knew very little about Orthodoxy, but I did know that people in this Evangelical church sometimes judged other Christians wrongly.
Lutherans were not considered Christian unless they had a “born-again experience”; Jeff resented that.
We had a boy in our youth group who was brought in by some of the teens and eventually had his own “born-again experience”; then we considered him a Christian. I knew nothing about his background, just what I had been told about his conversion. When his parents resisted his going to our church and youth group, I thought maybe they were atheists or Pagans who hated Christians. To my shock, I heard they were Catholic–in other words, that this kid was already a Christian from a Christian family.
As for Jeff resenting the attitude toward Lutherans: He never had a conversion experience, because he was raised in the faith and always believed it. How can you “convert” to a religion you’ve always been a part of?
What probably made it worse was that there was a former Lutheran in the congregation who felt he wasn’t a Christian until he converted to Evangelicalism. Once, this person gave me a book, meant for recent converts, to give to Jeff, because somehow he got the idea that Jeff had just had a “born-again experience.”
Another time, the usual sermons were put on hold while the congregation took a series of lessons on how to convert people. I believe it was the Contagious Christian series. Some people left during this time, feeling the church had “lost its focus.”
Jeff didn’t like the constant emphasis on going out and doing things, and people constantly “encouraging” him to join the Russia Team or the Cuba Team. He didn’t feel led to be a missionary, since he did not know those languages, did not like Russian food, and had trouble dealing with people. He felt like the church members were seen as tools, rather than people who needed to be healed and built up themselves before trying to evangelize other people.
I was raised hard-core premillennialist. But sometime in 2001, I used several study Bibles–one of them the Oxford Study Bible–to read Revelations. To my surprise, premillennialism did not make as much sense as the historical or metaphorical interpretations. I began to lean toward amillennialism. But premillennialism was part of the Statement of Faith for the Evangelical Free Church.
Shortly after 9/11, the pastor said that most of the people who died that day had gone to Hell because they weren’t Christians. This pronouncement horrified me. Even before this, I began wondering if people went to Hell when they weren’t Christians–not because they rejected God, but because they believed truth and deity to be more present in their own religion than Christianity.
What about a Muslim woman who knew something about Christians, but was taught that Islam was correct and Christianity was for infidels, and went through her whole life–all its joys and sorrows–believing she was doing right? What about Pagans who were kind and loving? What about agnostics who just weren’t sure? What about atheists who didn’t reject God necessarily, but just didn’t believe one existed?
What about the Final Judgment, when Christ divided people based on how loving they were, rather than what religion they followed? I felt like a heretic for thinking this, even though I later discovered that Orthodoxy read the Final Judgment the same way I did.
To become full members of the EFCA, you had to sign a statement agreeing to all the points in the Statement of Faith. These were considered the essentials; on everything else, you could disagree. Jeff and I both, though we disagreed in which points, were not in full agreement with the Statement of Faith, so we never became full members.
In 2002, some big tithers had left the church for various reasons, some disgruntled and some simply moving, leaving the church in financial straits. Once, there had been a building program, which the pastor disbanded due to disagreements between committee members; now, we started going from one building to another because we couldn’t afford our own.
The pastor began preaching heavily on tithing: It must be 10% gross, given to the church, with charitable donations coming afterwards, no matter what your financial situation, or else you just don’t have enough faith. But we just couldn’t give any more. The pastor also said that if you couldn’t afford the tithe, there were people in the church who could come to your house, look over your finances, and help you figure out how to do it. This sent up alarm bells. The tithing talk began driving people away.
The pastor went on sabbatical and did a lot of reading and praying. When he came back, probably early in 2003, everything changed. The tithing talk still came up often, but now there was a new focus.
The pastor must have been reading a lot of books by John Piper and Rick Warren. He began preaching “Cat and Dog Theology,” which used the supremacy of God doctrine which Piper, a Calvinist, has been spreading in Evangelical circles. To us, this was strange doctrine, which we had never heard of before.
Coming from Calvinism, it says that every single thing God does is primarily driven by a passion for his own glory–even the Cross. We knew this was wrong, that the main reason for the Cross and other things was love, though we had no materials besides the Bible to back us up. I mentioned the supremacy doctrine to my parents, who agreed that it was wrong.
We didn’t want to de-emphasize glory; we merely felt that this strange new theology was over-emphasizing glory at the expense of God’s love for us and everything else in the faith. All churches we ever attended said that Christ went to the Cross out of a passion not for himself, but for love for us, our salvation.
Now this love for us, this salvation, seemed more like a side effect which just happened to go along with glorifying God. We could imagine giving God the glory, but could not imagine God primarily seeking glory for himself, like a warrior-king from Beowulf.
The image of the Loving Father was diminished, replaced by a deity that did not seem to care about fairness, justice or mercy, so long as he was glorified. Don’t grieve for the death of loved ones, don’t pray for their healing, because you don’t know what purpose God has for their suffering or even death. Don’t pray for your own needs.
Cats believe we’re saved from Hell; dogs go further, believing we’re saved for the glory of God (which figures greatly into the Calvinist predestination doctrine.) Some people are born to be killed for the glory of God.
Basically, this deity causes death and suffering so he can be glorified. The doctrines about glory were pounded into our heads every week for months.
And yet the pastor seemed to wonder why we didn’t consider this a wonderful theology. We watched in disbelief as other members of the church embraced it and began teaching it to others. Jeff tried to speak to the pastor about it, but felt bullied into agreeing with the glory theology.
We had gone to classes and I had scoured information on the church’s theology, and there was nothing in there about Calvinism. I thought they were pretty lenient about theology. We didn’t know Piper was Calvinist, just that this new theology sounded “wrong.” This got me searching the Internet trying to find out where it came from and how to counter it.
I do recall there was a lot of activity between our church and local Reformed churches, but in those days I did not know that “Reformed” meant “Calvinist,” or that our churches could actually be sharing doctrines. We did not know we were in a church that was becoming Calvinist, since I always thought that Evangelicals were by definition Arminian, that Calvinism was in the strict old-fashioned churches such as the Puritans and the old Presbyterians.
We did not know much about Calvinism, or that all the weirdness we were hearing came from it; all we knew about was the big Calvinist doctrine most people knew about, predestination.
The pastor did once say that the Holy Spirit works on us to bring us to faith, that we don’t do it ourselves, which was a new doctrine to me, but didn’t set off any alarm bells.
John Piper believes this to be a wonderful doctrine, because God’s grace saved us with no regard to who we are; to those of us who are not Calvinist, however, it has terrible implications for those who do not come to faith because God did not choose them.
The pastor began complaining about churches with too many “programs.” This meant that, for us, all our programs were disbanded or put on hiatus. No more Sunday School; no more worship team; no more songs which seemed to be about our reaction to God rather than focusing on God.
We now had one worship leader with a guitar, while a PowerPoint setup showed nature pictures. Doing worship this way wasn’t “wrong,” but it was yet another way that the church was being entirely changed from what we were used to, and that people were being told to stop doing what made them happy.
In early 2003, the youth group was disbanded for lack of money to pay the youth pastor, and the youth pastor essentially fired. It was so distressing that at least one of the kids cried.
I had helped in the youth group for nearly 2 years, and it had become my life, possibly a calling. These were my friends. My weeks revolved around youth group and going to leader meetings. The youth pastor was my friend and gifted with his work; I loved the antics of the teenagers, especially two of the older boys who were also youth leaders.
The other youth and adult leaders, Jeff, and I tried to get the group back together, but with little success. The kids started going to other youth groups, and one even said, “I thought we didn’t have a youth group anymore.”
It was now early 2004. It took me a long time to get over the loss of the youth group. I resented the pastor for firing the youth pastor. Fortunately, the youth pastor found new positions; he believed God wanted him to head a new ministry for young adults, which he did for the next several years, and after that he moved on to other ministries.
A thriving Sunday School was one thing which first attracted me to this church. Now that we had a child of our own and would need it, there was none, and there were fewer and fewer children, as parents began taking their kids to churches which had Sunday Schools for them.
The pastor also began taking scripture out of context to make points (“proof-texting”), heavily using paraphrases, and using various translations–apparently whichever one fit the point best.
Jeff wrote a letter to the pastor about the supremacy of God doctrine and some other things (the church was still losing members–gone from nearly 200 in 2000 and 2001 to about 40 or 50 in 2003), but felt ostracized after that. We moved to a different church in June 2004.
To this day, we’re still skittish at the words “glory” and “glorify,” afraid of encountering Calvinism again. Jeff feels the Evangelical Free church was spiritually abusive, especially since it took him a while to recover from it. Even when he’s in a church and hears the same songs the E-Free church began singing before it turned Calvinist, he fears that church will start going in the same direction the E-Free church did.
And yet, I’m glad we went through this experience, because without it I never would have had an inkling that American Evangelicalism is suffering from great sicknesses: Not only is there materialism and pop Christianity in the churches these days, but bad theology keeps going hither and thither.
By the way, on May 2, 2007, I discovered on the EFCA website that a new Statement of Faith was in the works. It went into far more detail than the vague 13 statements we were familiar with. According to page 13 of the third draft revision (no longer available on the Web), “Throughout this Statement, we affirm that God’s glory is the ultimate aim of all God’s works in creation, revelation, and salvation.”
This Calvinist theology was nowhere to be found in the original Statement of Faith; it was not mentioned in the New Member classes; we never heard it in the sermons until the pastor introduced Cat and Dog Theology. So, essentially, it seems like bait-and-switch.
Has the denomination changed its views in the past several years for whatever reason–reading John Piper, following Evangelical trends of bringing in Calvinism? Or has the denomination always believed this way, but kept it under wraps for whatever reason? Supposedly, you could be Calvinist or Arminian in an Evangelical Free church, but the supremacy of God doctrine tilted it toward Calvinism.
In any case, if the old Statement of Faith had been as clear as the third draft revision of the new Statement of Faith, we never would have stayed in the Evangelical Free Church for so long. Rather, we were given to understand that outside of the 13 vague statements in our version, there was plenty of freedom. That would have meant freedom to reject the pastor’s supremacy of God doctrine.
We heard in the summer of 2005 that the E-Free church was dying, with so few members they didn’t know if they could get another pastor when that one left. Around that time, the ad for the church stopped appearing in the newspaper. In the 2007-2008 phone book, the church’s listing no longer appeared. For years I thought it was completely gone, especially when another EFCA church moved into town and began to thrive. (Why have two of the same church in a town this small?)
But a few years ago, I discovered it still exists, under new leadership now, and finally with a building.
I’m not sure what to make of it, because–according to its website–the new version of the church has some very restrictive rules for members, and has changed the names of some Christian holidays to match Old Testament counterparts. I have also discovered an Internet review from 2012 which says, “Full of religious fanatics masquerading as christians. Stay far away. And, don’t drink the Kool-Aid!”
On their Facebook page is pictures from 2017 of a protest outside of an inter-denominational celebration of Reformation Day. It included various churches from the city–such as Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans–in order to bring them together.
The Facebook timeline of one of the people in the pictures includes anti-Catholic rants, particularly when he discovers what the celebration is for. This guy is one of those megaphone street preachers outside of abortion and in-vitro fertilization clinics, who fills Youtube and Facebook with rants and videos about the people who argue with him on the street, clinics, the Catholic view of salvation, etc. etc. He’s from Illinois, but he was there, participating with our former church at the protest in Wisconsin, presumably as an invited guest.
A flyer in one picture says “Still Protesting.” In among actual sins–lying, extortion, greed, etc.–are listed homosexuality and unbelief. In another picture is a picket sign which reads, “Catholics, thank you for being so pro-life, but why worship with those who cannot have salvation?”
And in the post which includes those pictures, someone asks, what are you protesting? The response: “The errors of the Catholic Church….It is the 500 [sic] anniversary of the Reformation. October 31st, 1517 Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses. Some today want to say the reformation is over. Unfortunately, the divide actually has become wider. So we are still protesting. Pro= go forth publically. Test-ing = To test and give witness. We declare unashamedly still Salvation is the free gift of God.”
So–They’re protesting another Christian church, one which happens to have similar values, during an inter-faith celebration of unity, simply because they don’t agree with their doctrine or with the other denominations hanging out with them. And saying that they “cannot have salvation”–i.e., that they’re going to Hell because they don’t agree with Evangelicals on how to be saved.
In a PDF posted on the website, I also find an emphasis on male leadership of the church, not just in pastoral positions, but restricting women from any leadership or teaching of men. Also, according to this PDF, women are to submit to husbands and be quiet in church, learning from men.
In fact, from another page on the website, a couple must meet all sorts of high standards in order to be married in this church, so high that they would not have married Jeff and me. One of the stipulations is that a couple “conforms” to the “Biblical teaching on the roles of male and female”! Another is that “Both the man and the woman must be living out consistent Christian lives of worship, growth, giving and outreach.” How do they define this? Is it a set number of church visits in a month? Tithing 10%? Going on mission teams? It all seems very intrusive on the life of a couple, who must be allowed to figure things out for themselves.
Poking around on the website, though the leadership has changed, some names I recognize are still there, and the old pastor is still involved. So these changes are a continuation of what we saw all those years ago–and now it gives me cultish vibes which I never had there before.
For example, I remember the pastor doing a series on wifely submission around 2001 or so, and women and men not being permitted to counsel each other privately. But I don’t recall restrictions on women teaching men, or such strict rules on who the church will marry. So what we saw back then, has been taken to extremes in the years since.
This makes it very clear to me that, despite the guilt and depression I felt when we left this church, we dodged a bullet. Yeah, the Orthodox church has its own issues. But just as the EFCA as a whole does not appear to be extremist like the church I describe above, neither is Orthodoxy. My home church is not extremist, for example.
When we went to the above EFCA church, I felt we could be more moderate, and I knew others who were also moderate–several Democrats, in fact. (Also, in those days I was much more conservative than I am now, with Protestant views of theology.) But these new revelations tell me that things have changed significantly in the years since we left. Maybe all the moderates were winnowed out by the preaching on tithing and glory, leaving extremism behind.