An open letter to Steve Highfill of EFCA West. Steve is the “air traffic controller” of this district. This post is about the worst airline disaster in United States history (minus 9-11) and is about American Airlines flight 191 in Chicago. Are there parallels between that infamous flight and the trajectory of the Evangelical Free denomination? Also this explains the how the autonomous nature of the EFCA is being exploited by Neo-Calvinists, and why Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church must be resolved. Its a test for the denomination’s polity as all eyes are on Elverson, Pennsylvania.
“As the aircraft got closer, I noticed what appeared to be vapor or smoke of some type coming from the leading edge of the wing and the No. 1 engine pylon. I noticed that the No. 1 engine was bouncing up and down quite a bit and just about the time the aircraft got opposite my position and started rotation, the engine came off, went up over the top of the wing, and rolled back down onto the runway… Before going over the wing, the engine went forward and up just as if it had lift and was actually climbing. It didn’t strike the top of the wing on its way, rather it followed the clear path of the airflow of the wing, up and over the top of it, then down below the tail. The aircraft continued a fairly normal climb until it started a turn to the left. And at that point, I thought he was going to come back to the airport.”
Robert Graham Supervisor for Maintenance of American Airlines on watching flight 191 take off.
“And of course, the theological spectrum held by the EFCA is ideally suited to my own preference: tenaciously orthodox, yet focused on a few nonnegotiables rather than a hundred secondary distinctives. I love a recent phrase I’ve heard: The EFCA is the radical middle.”
EFCA West Director Steve Highfill
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3: 26-29 NIV
American Airlines 191 in distress seconds before crashing at O’Hare, source Wikipedia
As I start this open letter I would like to share a story with you. May 25, 1979 was a beautiful day in Chicago. It was pleasant, nice and the start of the Memorial Day weekend. One of the busiest routes that American Airlines serves is from Chicago to Los Angeles. On that particular day the flight, which was a DC-10 was piloted by Captain Walter Lux and First Officer James Dillard. At 2:50 central daylight time the DC-10 pushed back from the gate at Chicago O’Hare. American Airlines flight 191 was cleared to take off from runway 32R, and began its roll at 3:02. As the aircraft hit take off speed the pylon assembly on the number one engine on the left wing came off. In a matter of seconds the number one engine separated in take off and came up and over the wing and landed on the run way. When the engine fell off the wing it created a number of other problems that would doom this flight. This DC-10 lost electricity which resulted in the black box from recording any further information. The last words the black box captured were the first officer saying “damn!” Immediately other systems also failed as a result of the engine coming off. The number one hydraulic system ceased operating, and hydraulic system number three was hemorrhaging fluid. The electrical bus which was attached to the engine also failed causing electrical systems, such as the captain’s instruments, his stick shaker, and slat disagreement sensors to go off line. This all happened as the jet was committed to take off, and there was no way that it could be aborted. The best bet Captain De Lux had was to take the plane airborne, turn around and make an emergency landing at O’Hare.
The slats on the left wing were retracting, and as a result the airplane started to stall. The left wing was failing, but the right wing was operating fine. What happened is that the airplane started to bank sharply to the left to the point that the left wing was pointed toward the ground and the right wing was pointed up. The plane could no longer be controlled by the pilot and it proceeded to fly into the ground and smashed into a field just beyond the run way. The force of the crash was so great that flaming debris landed in a nearby mobile home park and killed two people. This DC-10 was loaded with jet fuel for a transcontinental flight and it erupted into a fireball. 271 people on the plane would be killed in this tragic disaster. In the end American Airlines flight 191 never got higher than 350 feet above the ground and was in the air for only 50 seconds. Excluding what occurred on September 11, 2001, American Airlines 191 remains the greatest air disaster in United States history. In the larger scheme of things this disaster also came at a difficult time in the industry. A year earlier in 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act which removed the United States government control over things such as routes, fares and preventing new airlines from joining the industry. The free market was introduced into the airline industry. Airlines started to struggle and in the course of time several would fail. The first carrier that failed was Braniff International Airways, which in 1979 experienced its first operating loss of $30 million dollars. In addition the DC-10 was operating under a shadow when this crash at Chicago’s O’Hare occurred. This jet was involved in two serious incidents by 1979. The DC-10 was built by McDonnell- Douglas and after testing and certification debuted on American Airlines for the flight from Chicago to Los Angeles on August 5, 1971. American Airlines rostered the most DC-10s in civil aviation with 66, that was followed by United Airlines which had 51 in their fleet.
Shortly after this tragedy in Chicago the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) opened an investigation to find out what went wrong. After a long and detailed investigation the NTSB revealed that it was maintenance errors that American committed that helped for the accident to eventually come about. American, as had other airlines had disconnected the pylons and saved 200 man hours in maintenance. It was faster, cheaper and helped turn the aircraft around and get it back in the air. It was also more risky as they did it with forklifts and it led to metal being bent and cracked. The maintenance that was performed went against the recommendations of McDonnell-Douglas. The NTSB released a final report on December 21, 1979 and in the process faulted American Airlines, the FAA and in the process I believe the pilots were exonerated from any error. One disturbing aspect of this maintenance error that airlines were committing is that in the end in inspecting other DC-10’s they discovered similar cracks and problems developing that led to the situation with 191. I believe about 10 planes were caught and accidents were prevented. You can read what the FAA has on their website about flight 191 here. Plus there are many other articles you can read such as this Chicago Tribune article here and this Tulsa World journalistic piece and finally this blog account here.
So Steve why am I writing about all this, and why did I start this article with such a detailed history? That ominous picture at the top of this page of an airplane in distress, I wonder if it could also symbolize the direction of the Evangelical Free Church of America? My first introduction to the Evangelical Free happened in 1999 at Fresno Evangelical Free. I plan to write a post a personal reflection on my experience which was pleasant. I still remember my first service and slowly getting involved. I did it while I was involved in Campus Crusade for Christ at Fresno State. I found the church to be warm, and the staff caring. I remember individuals such as Josh Hawley, Ed Noble, Amy Mark, plus I recall worship by Micah Johnson and Riche Shehadey. I recall sitting in my first church Bible study a couple of times in someone’s back yard in 1999 around a pool. As I recall Amy Mark was one of the people who helped teach it. It was engaging, warm, yet conservative and done well. I was baptized there on April 16, 2000. I briefly attended an Evangelical Free in Milwaukee when I moved there for grad school. When I found myself in D.C. I checked out Cornerstone once, and found it to be way too conservative as a reformed church. I then moved on to other denominations. Then I had my faith crisis which kept me away from Christianity for 5 years. You can read what that faith crisis felt like here, and here. I briefly looked at an Evangelical Free and saw that it was helping to plant an Acts 29 affiliated church in the D.C. area. I was baffled given all the problems hemorrhaging out of Acts 29 and Mark Driscoll. If you want to see how “Christianity” can be viewed through the lens of a skeptic at the time I would recommend you read this post here. I surveyed the Evangelical Free movement and I honestly didn’t recognize it. I found something more authoritarian, more fundamentalist, and much more legalistic. I found an ugly form of reformed theology growing in the denomination. It was a type of reformed theology influenced by John Piper. It was nothing but fundamentalism with a determinist or fatalist bent. What do I mean about the fatalist or determinist slant? The rape was willed by God. The mass shooting Adam Lanza committed in Newtown, Connecticut was willed by God. Cancer was willed by God. So I made a decision that despite my history and heritage in the Evangelical Free I will not be a part of it. There are two points I want to stress in this letter and then I want to list issues that this denomination is going to have to resolve. The first major point is the growth of Reformed Theology/Neo Calvinism in the denomination, and the second is a horrific situation in Elverson, Pennsylvania at Community Evangelical Free Church which disciplined an alleged sexual assault and domestic abuse victim who knows she could be dead.
The Growth of Reformed Theology/Neo-Calvinism
Steve you once gave an interview in EFCA Today that was published in the spring of 2012 in which you explained why you loved the Evangelical Free denomination. The fourth and final point is that you like that the EFCA is orthodox in its theology and focused on a few non negotiable and not a lot of secondary issues. Then you also said the following. “The EFCA is the radical middle.” That middle ground that you believe is what makes the EFCA so unique, and why you call it home is in the process of being destroyed by the Neo-Calvinist/Reformed crowd. Let me explain how this is happening and the ramifications for the denomination. The history of the EFCA goes back to the 1950 merger of the Swedish Evangelical Free and the Norwegian Danish-Evangelical Free church. That merger created a new denomination but from my research the one person who made a difference is EFCA President Dr. Arnold T. Olson who in 1951 who helped break the ethnic issue and move the denomination more into the more diverse evangelical realm. You had mentioned Steve how much you struggled with the roots of the EFCA history, and how control was transferred to the local church. Here is the one flaw that exists in EFCA that I believe will eventually result in the destruction of the denomination one day. That autonomous nature is being exploited by the Neo-Calvinists and the denomination is in the process of being theologically hijacked. Steve the Evangelical Free movement is not designed for Calvinist theology yet the autonomous nature is attracting them and they are exploiting it. Let me ask you this one question is there a reason why when Sovereign Grace imploded in scandal that individuals like Dave Harvey took refuge in the Evangelical Free? Dave and others knew that the polity would protect them to do what they desired. That autonomous nature was designed for freedom and church flexibility, but instead its being exploited by individuals like Dave Harvey.
The EFCA should be deeply concerned about churches that have been around for 30, 40 or 50 years or more that have been theologically hijacked. That causes incredible division and problems. It splits congregations and it lays the roots for more problems down the road. Please understand I write this as someone in the middle because I am not entirely sold out on Arminius theology either. Plus I think of the problems hemorrhaging from Calvary Chapel and like minded movements. Community Evangelical Free in Elverson, Pennsylvania which I have been writing about was theologically hijacked in the 2001, 2002 time frame. What tore apart the congregation and led to over 100 people leave? Infant baptism. In your district Cornerstone Community Church in Atascadero, California was also theologically hijacked at one point. The hijacking of Cornerstone drove a lot of established families and people from the church who strongly disagreed with Neo-Calvinist theology. I wrote about The Bridge in Newbury, Park outside Los Angeles the other day. When Tim Sherreitt was being vetted by the Elder Board and considered did he tell the church that he was proudly into reformed theology? Or did he go through the system and “Surprise!” people found out after the fact? If the latter happened which is the feeling I have in my gut then you have a church that is being not only being hijacked but also undoing all the work and ministry that Steve Larson dedicated his life to which it itself is equally disturbing.
Having explained all that let me tell you why I would not become a member of an Evangelical Free Church, even one that is not Neo-Calvinist. There are no safeguards in place by the denomination to prevent a church from being theologically hijacked. For example my roots are in Fresno Evangelical Free Church, which is today known as The Bridge. It is not a Neo-Calvinist church at this time, and that has not been its history. However, what if I became a member today and I was locked in membership and than in 5 or 10 years down the road they get a new pastor who is Neo-Calvinist? Or a couple of Neo-Calvinists get on the Elder Board and tip the church in that direction and its not known to the congregation? Yes I am starting to get a couple of emails about this happening. So in that scenario what can I do especially if I am a member? I may be stuck because of membership and if I disagree with the teaching of double predestination, and then I may learn that my church is joining 9 Marks and suddenly start hearing about church discipline. Am I going to face church discipline for not believing in double pre-destination and Elder Rule governance? Please note I am not saying Elder Led as there is a major difference between the two. That deep concern explains why I will never become a member of a church again. Watching some of the crap from the Neo-Calvinist community has permanently soured me on membership and changed my mind. And from a couple of emails that I have received I can tell I am not the only one who has such feelings. Membership covenants which I will touch on below complicate this issue further.
So here is what needs to happen. The denomination needs to draw up documents and state that a pastor can not change the theology of the church after coming on board. Each church should have the pastor sign a statement saying he agrees with the theology and that he will not change it. It needs to be a legally binding contract I would suggest. In that contract should be a clause saying that if a pastor tries to change the theology then he is terminated. That should help clarify the situation and bring transparency to the process. Plus a pastor should not hide their theology and keep it form the congregation. At some point Steve the EFCA denomination needs to take a stand and tackle the issue of Neo-Calvinism/Reformed theology. You really can’t have both in the denomination. After all what would happen if a Neo-Calvinist becomes the district head or church planter? Would he turn down church plants and be biased in favor of Neo-Calvinist plants? Would he funnel money to Neo-Calvinist church plants at the expense of others? I know these are difficult and troubling questions but they must be asked.
The Problem of Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church
I cannot emphasize how necessary it is that the Evangelical Free Church of America resolve the situation in Elverson, Pennsylvania. Elverson is a small town, but what happened there is horrific and I would suggest its a test to the polity and structure of the Evangelical Free denomination. The Senior Pastor Steve Estes “coached” the church through the excommunication and church discipline of his former daughter-in-law, Hurit. Steve’s son Brock Estes had allegedly raped his wife and on another occasion pointed a loaded gun at her. Hurit could have been killed due to Brock’s alleged reckless endangerment. Many former members contacted district leadership and eventually Minneapolis. Minneapolis was okay with knowing that an alleged domestic abuse victim was being disciplined. Minneapolis was indifferent to this horrific story. I would suggest you read this post, as well as this post. Plus there is also this open letter to Steve Estes that expresses my deep concerns for this situation.
I view this situation in Elverson as a major test for the denomination. How the EFCA will respond, or not respond will speak volumes about its health. By being silent it sends a message that church misconduct, and alleged illegalities are okay in the denomination. That sends a message that a church doesn’t have to follow the laws in the state, or community of where they function. Plus it sends a message that there is no accountability in the denomination. If the EFCA can hold Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church accountable then I think it is a giant step forward in being able to deal with a rogue church. The Stoltzfus family operates like the mafia and their efforts to control the church have brought undue pain on many.
Steve the situation in Elverson, Pennsylvania must be resolved. It can’t be a “well we tried…” and walk away leaving the situation unresolved. There is a lot of pain in this situation and its tearing apart friendships, families and marriages. That is especially true for those who have one person on the inside of the church while another is outside. Up to now the message by the EFCA is that buildings matter more than people. That is what the EFCA communicated when it was willing to give Community Evangelical Free Church a building loan for expansion, yet being indifferent to the pleas by many members to intervene on the behalf of an alleged rape victim who faced church discipline all while protecting Brock Estes, the man who allegedly raped and domestically abused his wife.
This situation in Elverson is being watched by the Evangelical Free denomination. I can’t tell you how people have reacted without deep disgust. How far is this being watched? I heard of a person in an Evangelical Free Church in Seattle that read about Steve Estes and was so upset to ask questions to her pastor to see if the same thing could happen in her church. Seattle is 2,784 miles away from Elverson but its effects are being felt there as well. If Eastern District leader Eddie Cole and the Evangelical Free Church can not resolve the situation in Elverson than my advice for people is that they leave this denomination, as its unsafe, troubled and has a polity that is intrinsically flawed. It is my hope that Steve Estes will back down and repent of what he did, and if he refuses than Minneapolis needs to remove this corrupt church from the denomination. If they go bankrupt, or close their doors then so be it. If that happens that will be the spiritual legacy of Steve Estes. His legacy will be much more dark and tragic especially in light of his connections to Joni Erickson Tada. His corruption will have destroyed a church. But closing the doors permanently would prevent more people from being hurt, and others finding themselves in this situation. That would also help heal a number of marriages and friendships. As I said the Evangelical Free must resolve this situation. Steve Estes needs to be dealt with by the denomination.
Pressing Matters in the EFCA
There are a number of pressing issues I would like to touch on that I believe the Evangelical Free Church is going to have to address.
- One thing that is profoundly troubling is that there have been a couple of recent incidents which makes one wonder if the EFCA is a safe denomination for victims of sexual abuse or sex crimes. D.A. Carson publically went after a rape victim in a Gospel Coalition statement. He did this and there was no pushback, no calling out…hell Steve he wasn’t even challenged. Yes I know this happened at Trinity, but it still deserves a response. Also please note I am not talking about academic freedom at Trinity at all. But is it EFCA policy to go after someone who was raped as a child to defend someone like C.J. Mahaney. Another question that should be asked is this…when D.A. Carson went after someone who was raped in Sovereign Grace to defend C.J. Mahaney, did that silence by the church allow Steve Estes in 2014 to discipline an alleged sexual assault and domestic abuse victim who his son, Brock Estes allegedly could have killed in a gun incident? This gets into my next point.
- In addition to the culture of the Evangelical Free which I don’t believe is safe for sexual assault victims, there is also the corruption of D.A. Carson which needs to be challenged. D.A. Carsons’ activities in The Gospel Coalition are affecting the denomination and casting a long shadow over the EFCA. There should be concerns in the denomination when his outside activities are adversely affecting the image of the national EFCA. In many companies and corporations that could create employment issues especially if its creating conflict within an organization itself. The denomination is going to have to challenge D.A. Carson’s corruption.
- Membership covenants are on the rise in the denomination. I would suggest that these membership covenants are not only a form of slavery, but they go against Jesus’s teaching of “let your yes be yes, and your no, be no.” Membership covenants I would suggest are also inviting a lawsuit, which is going to happen one of these days. However, membership covenants also are too controlling and limit a person’s freedom. I made a decision after watching the legalistic surge in membership covenants and requirements, never to become a church member again. It is not worth it. You know the other day I heard from an Acts 29 member who is about 35, and after his experience in an Acts 29 church he told me that he will not become a church member again. He is done with membership. I need to follow up with him, but I am sure if I do, the determining factor in his mind are probably membership covenants.
- Another issue that needs to be done is that all Evangelical Free pastors should be certified so that if there is a failure or flaw then their certification should be yanked. That certification should be contingent upon employment in an EFCA church. In other words if the pastor isn’t certified then he is not employed by the denomination. I believe Greg Strand heads up the certification office and this should be something that should be rolled across the denomination. Mandatory certification is a safe guard that protects all…it protects the denomination, people and pastors as it shows their character and willingness to work within the rules. Pastors and churches should be the most transparent positions that exist and their standards should be higher than that of society and secular jobs. I know my demons and flaws Steve and that is why I would never want to be a pastor or Elder. However, if you want to be in such a position I believe you should be held to a much higher standard.
- While its important to reach out to children and kids, I would suggest that the Evangelical Free also find a new missionary field. That missionary field is that group of people known as “the dones.” The dones are the people who are burned out, and fried. They are often people in their 40’s and older in age. They are both married and single. But many of them are fried, consequences of fundamentalism, or church conflict. Another factor is that they don’t fit it in culture that had made youth an idol. In this frame of mind I want to promote a blog post by someone who I knew in Wisconsin when I lived in Milwaukee. Michelle Van Loon wrote a post about the dones, and who is going to perform funerals on them, and how will they die especially as some are forced away form the church. If I were going to address issues in the EFCA I would also tackle this issue as well.
- There are deep systematic concerns about Acts 29. Some believe that the problem was Mark Driscoll and that now since he is gone, all is well. I couldn’t disagree more. The problem is that mark Driscoll built and created the DNA of the organization, and his legacy is still there. It will always be there. Consider what has happened in Acts 29 since Mark Driscoll left. Matt Chandler’s The Village tried to impose church discipline on Karen Hinkley. What did she do? She annulled her marriage to Jordan Root who was addicted to child pornography and was sexually attracted to children. The Village Church pursued her to North Carolina. Then recently you had the situation in The Journey in St. Louis. Darrin Patrick is out, but people don’t know why? The lack of transparency is another legacy of Mark Driscoll and its still there. The Evangelical Free needs to divorce itself from Acts 29. They need to part ways, as this organization is only harming the EFCA denomination.
That will give you some ideas and issues that are facing the denomination. I have wanted to pen this post after working through several districts in the Evangelical Free and studying the denomination that I used to be involved in. Please don’t dismiss this Steve, many organizations value feedback and I am giving this to you for free. As I wind this post down I thought I’d close with a little more history on the DC-10. Did you know Steve that the final DC-10 flight in the United States occurred on Northwest Airlines on early January 2007 with flight 98 from Hawaii to Minneapolis? Then the final DC-10 flight in civil aviation occurred in February 2014 on Biman Bangladesh Airlines? Aviation enthusiasts traveled to Bangladesh to ride on the last flight to Birmingham, United Kingdom. You can read about that final trip in articles here and here. The sad part is that this DC-10 was scheduled to be preserved in a museum in Seattle but it was turned away due to space issues. Sad to see such a piece of aviation industry not be preserved. Well with all that I have written about American Airlines flight 191 I have to ask the following…are you ready for an airplane ride? Are your bags packed? Are you ready to go? I will stay off this plane trip and watch and write from a distance as I watch the Evangelical Free denomination mirror 191 in its trajectory.