A Neo-Calvinist Hijacking at an EFCA Church in Minnesota That Took Place in the Shadow of John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist

In the shadow of Bethlehem Baptist where John Piper taught for 33 years an Evangelical Free church is theologically hijacked by Neo-Calvinists. This is the story of Linda and her husband and how they lost their church home of 25 years. In the process they faced shunning and were forced to leave. This sad situation stands as a dire warning about the EFCA and about being careful as to what one becomes involved in. 

“People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes.”

Sheila McKechnie

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”

Irish Proverb 

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. 3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it;[a] but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NLT 

This post looks at the dark side of the EFCA. It considers how the autonomous nature of the denomination is being exploited by the Neo-Calvinists and forcing people from their church homes. Recently on the national EFCA blog Greg Strand wrote about the “Significance of Silence” which is meant to bring about unity inside the greater EFCA.  You can read that post in, “Why Do We Adhere to the “Significance of Silence”?” In light of today’s story The Wondering Eagle would like to ask if Neo-Calvinists inside the EFCA are using the “Significance of Silence” to advance their theology and take over a church? That is what Linda and her husband experienced in losing her church home, being shunned and faced with the decision to leave.  She and her husband as a young married couple enthusiastically joined their local church and poured their life into it. 25 years later what does she have to show for it? Pain, shunning, thousands of dollars thrown away and a warning about the EFCA. 

Currently I am working through the North Central District which is led by Brian Farone. I am in the process of studying 154 EFCA churches in the North Central District and seeing where they stand on Neo-Calvinist theology. One of the things I learned in working through many EFCA churches in the Twin Cities area is that a number have come under the spell of John Piper. That was something I wondered if I would see as I went through this district, after all his former church is nearby. Some of those churches influenced by John Piper includes Hope Community Church which is also 9 Marks and Trinity City Church in St. Paul. In Rosemount you have City on a Hill Church which also is a part of the 9 Marks network. Also included are Antioch Community Church which is in Minneapolis. I would also include First Evangelical Free in Maplewood which is ten minutes away from downtown St. Paul. 

One of the issues that exists in autonomous churches is that they are subject to fads. John Piper is an example of that problem. To be honest I remain baffled as to why so many people adore him. To give you another perspective you can read, “My Mother’s Pancreatic Cancer, John Piper and Me.” That post deals with how a young Kool Aid drinker gave his Mother John Piper’s pamphlet telling her that her pancreatic cancer that she survived was a gift from God because John Piper declared how cancer is a gift. The greatest problem I would suggest with celebrity pastors like John Piper is that they cause great harm to people’s faith. How you ask? Quite simply they teach people what to think and not how to think. People rush to embrace what Piper says and regurgitate it and as a result they never wrestle with the problem of evil. They never try and figure out what to believe about atonement. When life hits hard, as it does many of these individuals are bound for a faith crisis. That is one of the many harms John Piper has long posed. To read more about that you can do so in, “John Piper and Guns: How the Celebrity Pastor Movement is Crippling People’s Faith.” You will see the issues that emerge with John Piper in her story below. With that I will turn over the rest of this post to Linda. You will read about what happens when an EFCA church in the Minneapolis vicinity tries to emulate and model Bethlehem Baptist. In this case it led to a married couple becoming spiritually homeless. This stands as a stark warning as to what can happen in other EFCA churches as well. 

Our story begins in 1990. My husband and I joined the local Evangelical Free church after our marriage that year. It offered basic Christian beliefs in its statement of faith. It offered Christian liberty in “non-essentials.” It was just the church we were looking for. Looking back, it would have been classified “Arminian” though I don’t think anyone would have recognized that term. We just all knew that salvation was for ALL people and Christ’s atonement was sufficient for ALL people. We knew that each person had a choice to make whether to accept Christ as their personal savior.

Over the years, my husband and I heavily invested ourselves in this church. We served in almost every capacity that there was. My husband took care of projects involving the church building, served as an elder, taught Sunday School (children and adult), served on two search committees, and preached after the departure of one pastor in 2001. For a while, people thought he was the pastor. I, alongside my husband, taught Sunday School, was SS superintendent, Children’s church coordinator, and Nursery coordinator as well as the Treasurer of the church at various times during these first 12 years of being members.

In 2002, a new pastor was hired. This man contained all the characteristics that the people were looking for in a pastor. Everyone was excited. What was not realized at the time was that this man had a Calvinistic leaning in his beliefs which he had picked up in seminary. In fact, those on the search committee would have had no understanding of such things if the issue was even addressed. About 2 years into his pastorate at this church, the pastor preached a sermon on “predestination.” This brought protest from a few members of the congregation of which we would have been one of them. After much spiritual struggle and reassurance from the pastor that he would not be focusing on this, we made a decision to stay in this local church we loved and to continue our high level of participation and support.

Several more years went by before we noticed that several families from the urban area nearby had started to filter into the church. These people seemed to have similar beliefs in common. They believed that God decreed everything that happened to us. One particular gentleman who often taught Sunday School focused on this and the concept that everything is about God’s glory, not His love. He also stated that “the only people who will be saved are those who were chosen and pre-destined before the world began.” I was confused by the things I was hearing and did not believe them to be true. My husband, as an elder candidate, and I brought up our observations and beliefs to the pastors and current elders. Our concerns were met with shrugs and silence which confused us further. One day while watching a teaching video in Sunday School by John Piper, he made a comment about being a Calvinist. What’s a Calvinist I asked? I went home and looked up Calvinist. I was shocked that Christians would believe any of the things spelled out by the TULIP acronym. But now I understood what was being taught that had vaguely troubled me. I also realized that a large portion of the people in our church would lean towards an Arminian perspective but probably, like me, didn’t even realize that there were two different perspectives or that they were being taught a position different from their basic beliefs.

Around this time, a new pastor was hired. This pastor was young and definitely subscribed to the “neo-Calvinism” beliefs of the “young, restless, and reformed.” He was passionate about them and saw no reason to be sensitive to those on the other side. Now, the pendulum of belief had swung to the side of Calvinism. Both pastors, as well as 2 of 3 elders subscribed to this position on salvation. When approached about the discomfort of some in the congregation about this switch in beliefs, the response was “But we haven’t changed the statement of faith. You can believe either way and serve on the elder board or serve in any other position of the church.” But the question is, Can one truly? The position of the EFCA is that one can robustly debate these issues that they consider “non-essential” (Calvinism vs Arminianism, infant baptism vs adult baptism, creation vs evolution, etc) but not divide. They call this the “significance of silence.” But in real life, when one finds themselves on the minority side being “corrected” by those who have more learning, more authority in the church, and better debating skills, it doesn’t take long until we feel “marginalized.” When we bring this up, we are accused of making a serious charge against the church that must be substantiated. I am also encouraged to “humbly submit your judgement to ours” in non-essential issues.

After many hours and days of study on the topic of Calvinism which has been subtly slid into this EFC church, our faith has been stripped away. Our hearts have been left in a turmoil. For my husband, he sees no reason that he has a chance at salvation if God chose long ago before the world began who would be saved. Those who pride themselves on being of the “chosen” are only deluding themselves as there is no way to know who the chosen ones are until after death if this belief system is true. He begins to question if there is even a God. He cannot believe in a god who makes thousands of people for the sole purpose of sending them to hell (for His glory??) I, as well, begin to question everything I have ever been taught. How is it possible that people can interpret the Bible in so many different ways and all think that they have the “correct” way? All I can see in this Calvinistic god is my father. A god who does not really love me but a stern hard hearted being who uses his created beings as puppets only for His “glory.” A god who is incomprehensible and schizophrenic. When we express our confusion, our anger, and our hopelessness to the pastors, no one seems particularly saddened or empathetic. They simply try to use their debating skills and resources to convince us that the Calvinistic interpretation is the correct one. Gone is the humility of the pastor we hired in 2002 that told us he wouldn’t be stressing this. Now, he declares he must have the freedom to preach his convictions.

I purchase a book by Austin Fischer called, “Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed” which I find extremely helpful and I begin to distribute it to people close to me. For this I am reprimanded by the associate pastor and accused of being “divisive.” I am asked to stop distributing this book and to stop talking to people. The only books recommended to people are those with the “correct” theology such as those by Wayne Grudem, AW Pink, John Piper etc.

We struggle along in this church as we love the peoples and have put much time and financial contributions into it. We try to convince ourselves that this issue is a “non-essential” and to accept that we are the ones who are in the wrong. However, I am so confused by how we ended up in a church that is so far from the one we joined 25 years earlier. It is now Calvinistic and complementarian when it was once Arminian and more egalitarian. I cannot understand, either, how we went from being the insiders to being on the outside of an exclusive group looking in. By now it is early 2016. Then out of the blue, the congregation receives a letter informing us that the elder team wishes to propose a membership covenant. During meetings that follow this, the congregation is informed that when this passes, everyone must sign it or become a non-member. Many in the church raise their voices in opposition. I suspect that this is an attempt to pattern our local church after John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church and my husband and I want no part of it. We cannot sign a document that says, “I pledge to joyfully submit to the elder team by welcoming and testing their instruction from the Scriptures…” We do not believe what they are teaching. How can we sign such a paper? Although the covenant is eventually defeated by the congregation’s opposition, we make the decision to withdraw our membership. Instantly, I am dropped from the church’s Facebook page. I ask to remain a “friend.” “Your resignation and inactivity at ** preclude access to the churches Facebook page” is the response. Ouch!

We try to continue to attend our small group where we are accepted. Soon we are told our presence there is “divisive” even though we have not been expressing our opposing thoughts at all.  Subsequently, the senior pastor (who we considered to be a close friend) shows up unannounced at one of the small group meetings to “set the record straight” about us. So this is what the true church of Jesus Christ behaves like? Any desire to be part of a church went out the window. This is how we are treated after 25 years of faithful, consistent service and support? Are we atheists, you ask? I guess I wouldn’t go that far but I no longer know what I believe and what the “truth” is. We keep trying to hold onto our belief that Jesus died for us but neither one of us has any trust in the evangelical church as it has become today. We especially will not have anything to do with a Free Church again. But I am also aware that so many independent churches are patterned after the loudest voices in the evangelical world today and not necessarily the Bible. In fact, I refuse to be trapped in a church by a membership agreement ever again. We would have been treated better if we had never been members. I have tried to comment or send a letter a couple of times to the EFCA leadership and my letters are simply ignored and/or not approved for posting.

Understand that this is a very short version of what happened. Linda (a pen name)


8 thoughts on “A Neo-Calvinist Hijacking at an EFCA Church in Minnesota That Took Place in the Shadow of John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist

  1. First and foremost Linda, I am so sorry for the spiritual abuse you and your husband suffered under theological tyrants. I know that pain first-hand, and my story of my time in an EFCA church and the upper eschalons of the EFCA/Reachglobal will be coming out hopefully next month here on Eagle’s blog. My faith was driven to atheism, then eventually to universalism. It was when I stood over the bodies of nearly a million people in Rwanda that I realized with absolute clarity how cruel Calvinism is, and how loving God actually is. I know it’s a strange place to understand the depths of Her love for humanity, but it was the joy of the survivors and their unwavering faith in God’s mercy that led me to deeper study and universalism. When God said He so love the “world”, He meant It! I’m praying for you both, and if you ever wnt to talk to a fellow survivor Eagle can give you my contact info. Blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so sorry for your pain which has resulted from the transition to a church leadership that opposed and pushed out those whose views didn’t align with their interpretations.

    We should be able to (as the denomination calls for) agree to disagree on the non-essentials outside the basic statement of faith. Sadly, you encountered a group schooled in an interpretation which sees these questions as absolute essentials and considers any other Christian interpretations to amount to heresy. That pride in being so sure of having the “absolutely correct” theological interpretation is inherently divisive. There is no room in that world for “agreement to disagree.” It is either 100% agreement or they charge apostasy.

    In their zeal for “doctrinal purity,” these people have no idea what damage theIr approach is having on people. (Nor, I think, do they really care.) I hope that you can find a church or community where you can find healing and where your faith can be refreshed instead of attacked and belittled.

    Side note, if you haven’t looked at it before, you may find the Patheos blog of Roger Olson to be interesting. He is a professor in the seminary of Baylor University and a staunch (and capable) evangelical defender of Arminianism. He writes on a wide variety of topics but his columns dealing with Arminianism/Calvinism relate to some of the “faith understanding” concerns you express in your post. I find his defenses to be illuminating and helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly, you encountered a group schooled in an interpretation which sees these questions as absolute essentials and considers any other Christian interpretations to amount to heresy. That pride in being so sure of having the “absolutely correct” theological interpretation is inherently divisive. There is no room in that world for “agreement to disagree.” It is either 100% agreement or they charge apostasy.

      “For in the Devil’s theology, the important thing is to be Absolutely Right and to prove that everybody else is Absolutely Wrong.”
      — Thomas Merton, “Moral Theology of the Devil”

      “Evil seems to be the side most obsessed with Purity.”
      — comment on Internet Monk a couple days ago

      In their zeal for “doctrinal purity,” these people have no idea what damage theIr approach is having on people. (Nor, I think, do they really care.)

      Purity of Ideology, Comrade.
      Purity of Ideology.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Interesting essay you linked to, thought-provoking. I was intrigued by the observations about making sin and evil the centerpieces of the theology.

        I am reminded of the time I sat in a Sunday School class and listened to the (substitute) teacher expressing delight (literally, delight) that those who thought they were getting away with doing wrong would someday suffer the consequences of their actions. He found actual joy in the notion that “those people” would, sooner or later, receive the judgment “they” so richly deserved.

        It was off-putting. It felt very wrong to me. Someone in the class did gingerly raise the point that so often in the Bible we see God withholding judgment, showing patience, extending grace and mercy in love. This observation was immediately met with a firm, “Yes, God is love, but as Christians we make far too much of God’s love.”

        And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is . . . judgment????

        Liked by 2 people

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