Someone from the western United States emailed me and asked what are the problems in the EFCA? They are new to the organization and are trying to figure it out. I decided to tackle their question and give an overview of my thoughts about the EFCA from the 10,000 foot level. The EFCA has some great people, churches and leaders. However, it also has serious challenges inside the organization. This post from The Wondering Eagle looks at the EFCA from a broad perspective and offers analysis on the organization.
“Truth is, I’ll never know all there is to know about you just as you will never know all there is to know about me. Humans are by nature too complicated to be understood fully. So, we can choose either to approach our fellow human beings with suspicion or to approach them with an open mind, a dash of optimism and a great deal of candour.”
“As a nation we have the right to decide our own affairs, to mould our own future. This does not pose any danger to anybody. Our nation is fully aware of the responsibility for its own fate in the complicated situation of the contemporary world.”
This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace.
Colossians 1:6 NLT
Crossway Fellowship Church in Manassas, Virginia
Lets do an overview of the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and how I view the organization. Today’s post is in response to an email that I received from someone in the western United States. What are the issues in the EFCA? Part of that I already covered in another post. What I would like to do is step back and do an overview of the EFCA from a bird’s eye view look at the organization. There are many different angles to consider but let’s look at congregationalism first.
I View Congregationalism Like Democracy
In order to understand the EFCA you need to understand congregationalism. The EFCA is a denomination of about 1,500 churches from California to Maine. I am not going to get into the history or the role The Wondering Eagle plays in writing about the EFCA. If you would like to read more I will direct you to the following posts. “A Brief History of the Evangelical Free Church of America, plus the History of the First Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles“,”First Free Wichita Wants to Introduce you to the EFCA; Plus The Wondering Eagle’s Long Term Goals and Agenda with the EFCA” and “Wanted: Evangelical Free Church Stories.” The EFCA is autonomous and each church is self governed. Congregationalism by definition according to Collins dictionary is “a form of church organization in which each local congregation is self-governing.” I liken congregationalism to democracy. But here is the catch. You have to be a member to vote and you have to stay within the bounds of EFCA theology. The challenges of it is that since many people never show up at meetings its always the same people who are voting. Votes can be close and if there are problems the issue is tabled for more prayer and greater consensus. Its important to remember each EFCA Church is going to be different. So what you can see at one church can very in another. However, it will always happen in a congregational framework.
Now I have studied history in college and grad school and I am spun up on it deeply. Plus I continue to read and learn more in the passage of time. As stated above I view congregationalism like democracy. In a healthy democracy you need people to vote, be informed and involved. Healthy participation is a must in order for democracies to thrive and continue. In a congregational form of government people should vote (if they are members) and become informed on the trends and issues that are happening in Christianity. If people are involved and engage their church leadership and vote then it can be a very viable and good way to run a church. That is the positive side to congregationalism as I view it. There can be a dark side which I think can mirror some of the events happening in the world today. For example democracy can be tinkered with it. It can be altered. In history there are people who have used democracy to destroy it. Historically, that is the lesson of Germany, the Nazis used democracy to destroy it. Personally I believe we are in an era of world history that mirrors the period of fascism in the 1930’s with the rise of populists and illiberal governments in Europe and elsewhere. That lesson is being learned today especially with the governments of Hungary and Poland. In those illiberal democracies people are using democracy to dismantle or tear it down. The situation is so disturbing that the survivors of the Holocaust who are dying out are afraid that history will repeat itself.
So why am I speaking about all this? Why am I bringing up Poland and Hungary? How is that related to congregationalism? Well congregationalism needs to be maintained and kept up. People need to take a vested interest in their church. Churches can be hijacked or taken over and tipped. A church can become very authoritarian. It happens. I say that because I get emails about it. The elder board can be tipped, a pastor can load the board behind the scenes and engineer who goes forward to be voted. Plus you also have the Neo-Calvinist movement which can be authorterian. The EFCA is autonomous and like much of evangelical Christianity vulnerable to fads. It can easily go from the Purpose Driven Church to a 9 Marks church. The effects of both of those models on church culture and its influence on congregationalism are not to be dismissed. Congregationalism can be tinkered with and yes its possible to go from an elder led to an elder rule church. Though if its elder rule its outside the boundaries of the EFCA. This is the part of the EFCA that is problematic. In the hands of those who maintain it, congregationalism can be good. In the hands of those who don’t like it or are authorterian in their nature congregationalism can be the path to undermining the church. But there are other aspects to consider as well. In many EFCA churches you do not have to become a member. And if you are not a member then you are free to leave a church if there are problems that develop. But there are good attributes to the EFCA, let’s look at them.
Joe Russell from Riverview outside San Diego, California
There are Pockets of Good EFCA Churches, Pastors and Leaders
In writing this blog I also want to be careful. The very existence of a blog doesn’t mean that a church has problems or issues. Not every blog post should be about scandal. There are a number of EFCA churches that I think are fine, and there are a number of pastors that I believe have good intentions and get it. Here at The Wondering Eagle I have written about a number of EFCA churches in the United States that I think are solid. Let me do a brief list of some of the articles that have been written about the EFCA and some good churches and pastors.
- Outside San Diego, California you have Riverview. When I was calculating the growth of Neo-Calvinism in EFCA West I came across a blog that is called Our Special Heart. Joe is the Pastor of Young Families and Junior High at Riverview. Joe, along with his wife wrote a very transparent and raw blog about his son’s Stephen heart defect and the road they walked through. The fact that Joe is willing to share and discuss in intimate detail the issue of pain and suffering makes him unique. Riverview is a church that has a lot of positive attributes to it. You can read more about Joe Russell in, “Riverview’s Joe and Kim Russell’s Beautiful Transparency that is Shared in their Son’s Medical Crisis” and “An Open Letter to Joe Russell (Pastor of Young Families and Junior High at Riverview Evangelical Free outside San Diego)”
- This is another good example of an EFCA church that is promising. In Lincoln, Nebraska you have First Free Lincoln. This church is led by Mark Brunott. Mark has written a number of posts at his blog that tackle difficult issues or tenderly communicates a lot of grace and love. For me this is deeply encouraging to see regularly. You can read more in, “Do Evangelicals Make Studying the Bible Idolatry? Some Thoughts from the Senior Pastor of First Free Lincoln” and “Mark Brunott of First Free Lincoln on What to Say and Do in Times of Profound Loss.”
- Also in Nebraska is Mike Hellum’s Westmark Evangelical Free in Loomis. At his website he referenced Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God.” I had a brief email conversation with him and Mike explained his history in the Assembly of God movement (IIRC..) and discussed why he likes the EFCA. The fact that Mike can tackle a difficult subject such as pain and suffering is encouraging. Mike is a pastor who gets it, and Loomis is fortunate to have him. You can read more in, “Why Do Neo-Calvinists have a Problem with Phillip Yancey? Plus Mike Hellum of Westmark Evangelical Free in Loomis, Nebraska Promotes “Disappointment with God.”
- Down in Texas you have Shine Bible Fellowship which is in Cypress. As Hurricane Harvey took aim at Houston Jaron Jones taught and encouraged people through a live feed on Facebook during the storm. This is yet another example of an EFCA pastor who gets it. You can read more in, “As Hurricane Harvey Aims at Houston Jaron Jones of Shine Bible Fellowship Gets It; How Many Evangelical Pastors Fail to Address Situations in their Midst.”
- Nearby in San Antonio, Texas you have Dave Smith of Northwest Community Church that writes what I think is one of the more humble blogs in the EFCA. How I wish he would resume writing. You can read what Dave Smith says about the “least of these” in, “Dave Smith of Northwest Community Church of San Antonio on Serving “The Least of These.”
- Back in California you have an amazing deaf ministry that is unique and that stands out in the EFCA. Its a deaf church that is run by deaf people. This happens at The Bridge Fresno and you can read more in, “The Bridge Fresno’s Deaf Church, can this be a Model for the EFCA When it Comes to Church for those Who are Deaf?” As encouraging as this is there is actually more to write about regarding The Bridge Fresno below.
- In Manassas, Virginia you have Crossway Fellowship. I interacted with Kyle Brennon in the past and was impressed with what I saw. Plus I had a good conversation about membership covenants, Neo-Calvinism and more with one of the elders on staff. When I heard how this church operated I was deeply impressed with what was heard. This is a church that is an asset to the EFCA. You can read more in, “Crossway Fellowship in Manassas, Virginia Gets a New Senior Pastor, and a Look at the EFCA in the Washington, D.C. Area.”
- Then out in Viroqua, Wisconsin I interacted with Rich Maurer from Grace Evangelical Free. Rich as I learned in interacting with him is a pastor who is loving, kind, and compassionate. This is a shepherd who I am grateful is in the pulpit, its really the place where he belongs. You can read how he engaged different people online in, “Practicing Discernment: Rich Maurer’s Grace Evangelical Free in Viroqua, Wisconsin.”
This blog has led me to do a lot of traveling over the course of time. In the process of writing about the EFCA I realized that it is important to get to know other people and to reach out of my bubble. After all tribalism is a major issue in our culture and society today. So what happens is that when I have traveled I have stopped in one EFCA church on the East Coast. In this case of trying to comprehend Neo-Calvinism I sought out a place to try and understand it. So I have attended this Neo-Calvinist EFCA church and listened to their expository talks. Sat through Sunday school and listened to Wayne Grudem being discussed. I have gotten to know and interact with the pastoral staff and some of the elders. In this case one of the pastors loves John Piper, respects Tim Challies and Dave Harvey, and has a history in an Acts 29 church in the Midwest. Furthermore that Acts 29 pastor inspired him to go into ministry. Recently I was up in the area and attended church and after the service I hung out and spoke with the pastor. The subject of gossip came up and then after I drove home to Washington, D.C. the question popped up in my mind. “How does _______ define gossip?” And I emailed him, and he gave me a response. Now I am not into Neo-Calvinist theology because from my perspective it makes the problem of evil worse. I wrote about that in, “How Reformed Theology/Neo-Calvinism Make the Problem of Evil Worse: John Piper, Adam Lanza and a Massacre in Connecticut.” Plus I am not a big Wayne Grudem fan, you can read all the reasons why in, “Wayne Grudem’s Un-Orthodox View of the Trinity and the Question that Must Be Asked: Can the ESV Bible be Trusted?” Now having said all that I deeply admire and respect the pastors and elders from this Neo-Calvinist EFCA church. To walk in the hallway and hear a person from the congregation say a kind word about the pastor, and know they love their pastors is good. For me to hear things from another point of view is healthy. People from differing perspectives do not sit down and discuss or even listen to those who do not think like them today. Listening to someone from a different perspective is something that I appreciate. And in that way I am grateful this EFCA church exists and believe they contribute quite a bit both to the Neo-Calvinist movement and also the EFCA. Would I want their church closed? No. Would I want to see them grow gradually over the course of time? Yes. And I’ll be honest its challenging and it gets me to think. I had to wrestle with the with the fact that not all Neo-Calvinists are totalitarian and rule their church in the same manner Joseph Stalin governed the Soviet Union. When you get out of your bubble and try and get to know others its a very challenging way to function, but its healthy. From time to time in D.C. I actually listen to some of the sermons and I appreciate that in this modern era that can be done.
Eastern District EFCA Superintendent Eddie Cole
So we covered EFCA churches but what about EFCA leadership? There are also good EFCA leaders as well. When I was writing about the saga of Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania one of the neat things for me is to hear from the former members of that church admire and respect Eastern District Superintendent Eddie Cole. To watch their perspective change over time was really amazing to witness first hand behind the scenes. I have met a lot of people in my life from all around the country. Eddie as I learned is appreciated and loved by many people from Salem Church in Staten Island, New York which he led for a little over a decade. When I interacted with him I found him smooth and very diplomatic. That Eastern Tennessee drawl can help disarm a person, even some one who can be skeptical at times of evangelicalism like myself. But I am deeply grateful that Eddie Cole is in his position and likewise I heard good things from other sources as well. You can read more in the following open letter that I wrote to the Eastern District Superintendent in, “An Open Letter to Eddie Cole (Eastern District Superintendent of the EFCA)”
Glen Schrieber of the EFCA Southeast District
Then there are EFCA Churches that Have Problems or Serious Issues; and there are Leaders that are Concerning
I listed the good side to the EFCA in the previous section. But the reality is that the EFCA also can have challenges and problems. What happens when people in a self autonomous church goes off the rails or its theologically hijacked? I have written about these situations as well. You had the story of Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania. In Amish country the senior pastor’s son allegedly raped his wife and pointed a loaded gun at her. When the daughter-in-law of the senior pastor filed for divorce the church practiced church discipline and excommunicated her. It became an issue that went to the top of the EFCA in Minneapolis. You can read the story in “Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania: A Painful Story of Domestic Abuse, Inappropriate Church Discipline, and Failed EFCA Polity.” Then you also had the story of Matt Boedy and James Walden’s Riverside Community Church in Columbia, South Carolina. In that story a joint EFCA/Acts 29 church violated privacy laws by contacting Matt’s counselor. What made the matter worse at the time is the EFCA leadership both at the district and national level. EFCA Southeast District Superintendent Glen Schrieber committed an epic fail in siding with the EFCA/Acts 29 church in the dispute. In the process the District Superintendent went against a number of professional counselors and organizations who found Riverside Community Church in the wrong and that the church had committed a major ethical lapse. Then the issue went up to Kevin Kompelien’s predecessor in Minneapolis. EFCA President, Bill Hamel allegedly responded by threatening legal action against Matt Boedy. You can read about all this in the following posts, “Disturbing Allegations of Spiritual Abuse at James Walden’s Acts 29 Riverside Community Church in Columbia, South Carolina“,”EFCA Southeast Director’s Response to James Walden’s Alleged Ethical Violations: Is Glen Schrieber a Tool of the Acts 29 Network?” and “Who Would Jesus Sue? Did Former Evangelical Free (EFCA) President William Hamel Allegedly Threaten Legal Action Against a Spiritual Abuse Victim in Glen Schrieber’s District?” I will state that based on other information I do not have much confidence that Glen Schrieber can make the right decision in other situations in the EFCA SE District, when they arise. And the fact of the matter is that they will occur because of human nature. In studying all the paperwork and documentation that Matt Boedy gave me about his church situation I was deeply disappointed in the response by Glen Schrieber. This is an example of when the EFCA leadership gets it wrong. Plus the EFCA President at the time allegedly threatening legal action is also profoundly disappointing. Situations like that makes me wonder about the corporate culture of the EFCA in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Out in Atascadero, California you have the tragic saga of inappropriate church discipline in Cornerstone Community Church as led by John Marc Wiemann. This church practiced church discipline on Janet Varin. Janet I believe is a single mother who is raising a son that is handicapped. Janet had a dispute with a contractor who did not complete the job he was hired to do. And in the process he did shoddy work. When Janet contacted the EFCA West District leadership in Turlock, California the office really did not help her. Now to be fair I don’t believe Steve Highfill was in charge of the District at the time this happened in 2012. The previous EFCA West District Superintendent was buddy/buddy with John Marc Wiemann and cronyism became an issue. But even to this day the EFCA failed a woman who I consider to be one of the “least of these.” I very much would like to write about this issue in detail as Cornerstone Community Church needs to be written about. There is a summary of the story in, “Analysis of EFCA West of the Evangelical Free Church of America.” Furthermore Janet Varin writes a blog about the situation called, “I Kissed Church Goodbye.”
Then you also have EFCA churches that have issues to a lesser degree but they are still troubling. My former EFCA church in Fresno, California is falling more into this camp. This blog, The Wondering Eagle, wrote about the scandal in Acts 29 church Fellowship Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee. Its a dark story of a worship leader allegedly engaging in voyeurism in a church restroom, and the manufacturing of child pornography in a church restroom as well. I say that because two of the victim are under the age of 18. While the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper wrote about the scandal, The Wondering Eagle actually dragged out more of the story. And this blog clashed with Bryan Loritts out in California. You can actually see Bryan’s emails and comments in some of the posts that I have written. So what should happen in the course of time? Well, my former EFCA Church The Bridge Fresno decides to have Bryan Loritts speak before the EFCA Church. Yes the same pastor who allegedly was involved in the cover up of the Fellowship Memphis situation, did not contact the police, and who allegedly also played a role in the destruction of child pornography. The fact that The Bridge Fresno wants to put a man like Bryan Loritts before the congregation baffles me. It troubles me deeply. I had hoped that the leadership of The Bridge Fresno as led by Andrew Smith and others such as Jeff Loven would do the right thing and cancel Bryan Loritts. I would hope that this church would care enough about the faith that the profess to actually do the right thing. But as of May 3, 2018 at 11:24 EST Bryan Loritts is still scheduled to speak. If you want to read more about this you can do so in, “Why is Bryan Loritts Speaking at The Bridge Fresno on July 8, 2018? Is Andrew Smith Aware of the Dark and Deviant Scandal that Took Place at Acts 29 Fellowship Memphis?” and “An Open Letter to Jeff Loven (The Bridge Fresno Pastor on Bryan Loritts Scheduled to Speak on July 8, 2018)”
So I write this to also say be careful. There are EFCA churches out there that have issues. The Bryan Loritts story hits home especially when I consider the history I have had with The Bridge Fresno. There are other situations that people need to be mindful of. As the EFCA is autonomous, you are mostly on your own if you have problems or issues. That needs to be kept in mind. That is why its important to know what you are getting involved in, what influences the church is under and also its role in the EFCA. Some churches are more involved in District events and are open to District leadership than others.
The D.A. Carson and C.J. Mahaney Issue Needs to be Addressed by the EFCA
If you were to ask me what is the biggest issue affecting the EFCA that would be hard. Aside from the growth of Neo-Calvinism, or the role that Larry Osborne has played in propping up Mark Driscoll; I think its the SGM scandal which is affecting the EFCA denomination courtesy of D.A. Carson at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In May of 2013 D.A. Carson (as well as Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung) went to bat for C.J. Mahaney and lashed out at at a rape victim from Sovereign Grace. This happened in a statement from The Gospel Coalition that is called, “Why We Have Been Silent about the SGM Lawsuit.” That statement is in response to this story at SGM Survivors. The person in that SGM post was raped when she was 13 at the time. You can read about this in detail in, “From D.A. Carson to Steve Estes the Following Question Must be Asked: Is the Evangelical Free Church of America a Safe Place for Sexual Assault Victims?” I believe this is one of the darker situations in modern evangelicalism. The fact that Carson would attack a rape victim in a statement in 2013 bothers me. However, here we are in 2018 in the middle of the #MeToo movement still unfolding. Today I read in detail in The Washington Post how CBS totally bungled the Charlie Rose situation. That statement at The Gospel Coalition has stood up and the EFCA has been silent about it. Not a word. Not a peep. Nothing. D.A. Carson continues to speak at EFCA Conferences such as EFCA One and others. To have attacked a rape victim in such a profound and verbal way and defend C.J. Mahaney shows the issue of corruption with D.A. Carson. It honestly begs the question. Is the reason why an EFCA church practiced church discipline on an alleged rape victim in Pennsylvania because they knew that that D.A. Carson attacked one in a statement and no one said anything? My question to the EFCA is to ask, when is the #MeToo movement going to arrive at the EFCA? One of the goals that I have at The Wondering Eagle is to get that Gospel Coalition statement down. And for Carson to admit his error and issue an apology. A while back I spoke with another EFCA pastor who stated that Carson is an older person stuck in his ways. So he can’t admit he made a mistake? Why is he teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School? Should he be teaching if he can’t do the basics of Christianity? You know, admit error and make a wrong right? I want to be clear I am not out to get him removed. But if he does the right thing then I think he could be a much better leader and teacher. From my perspective you can find much more Christian attributes in the secular world then you can at a place like Trinity. And D.A. Carson validates that point.
So how Should the EFCA be Viewed?
So to sum all this up. How do I view the EFCA? Well…it’s complicated. The Mike Hellum’s, Jaron Jones, Rich Mauers, and the Eddie Coles are a strong attribute. I honestly hope the EFCA knows how fortunate they are to have every one of those individuals. And then on the other side there are problems. I am not someone who is going to give you a pollyanna view and say all is well. After all consider that I have been writing about my own former church in Fresno, California. That is disappointing for me. But its a reminder of the problems in the EFCA also, and it illustrates why a blog like this is important. Plus it reveals the work that needs to be done with the EFCA. So what am I saying? Should you avoid an EFCA church? Not at all. Actually if you do, you can miss some really loving people. What I am asking you to do is to go in and be aware and cautious. Ask questions. The more questions you ask the better off you will be. Inquire about the hard issues and see how the EFCA Church leadership responds. I would be careful with membership. In an age of membership covenants I would avoid those like you would avoid cancer. I hope this post helps you as you figure out the EFCA. This is my assessment and analysis of the organization. That’s it for the day guys, know that I love you.