A recently published book looks at the growing problem of Neo-Calvinist theology inside the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). Its the story of “Truth Evangelical Free Church” outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is a story of how a church goes from elder led to elder rule. Along the way you see how a traditional EFCA church was theologically flipped. In this heartbreaking story you will learn about how it became authoritarian. In the process the Neo-Calvinists are violating the “Significance of Silence” which is core to the EFCA. This is a solid book that this blog heartily recommends.
“Before the military coup in Chile, we had the idea that military coups happen in Banana Republics, somewhere in Central America. It would never happen in Chile. Chile was such a solid democracy. And when it happened, it had brutal characteristics.”
“I don’t like this kind of life where every month you are faced with some kind of a coup.”
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Hebrews 13:17 ESV
This blog, The Wondering Eagle has been writing about the EFCA. One of the issues that this blog has been documenting is the growth and problems inside the EFCA that pertain to Neo-Calvinism. Earlier this year this blog told the story of a Neo-Calvinist hijacking that took place in Minnesota. It happened in the North Central District. The story was significant because it dealt with how inside the EFCA, Neo-Calvinists are violating the “Significance of Silence” as they flip churches. You can read the original posts in, “A Neo-Calvinist Hijacking at an EFCA Church in Minnesota That Took Place in the Shadow of John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist” and “Inside the EFCA are Neo-Calvinists Violating the “Significance of Silence” to Hijack Churches?”
After that narrative was told Amanda Farmer turned her EFCA story into a book. Its a work that is detailed and packed with information. The book is called, “Once An Insider, Now Without a Church Home” and is 217 pages long. What amazed me when I read it is the level of detail Amanda puts into the book. Another strong feature of this book is the flow. Amanda is a talented writer and she expresses herself clearly. When I read this book I could not put it down. I felt like I had become a member of “Truth Evangelical Free Church.” In this book you learn about Senior Pastor Travis and Pastor Josh. All names have been changed so as to not identify people. This book makes its case with detailed notes from church meetings, documents that the church has drawn up, and emails that have been exchanged. In all this you are drawn into an intimate story to where you feel like you are a member of “Truth Evangelical Free Church.” You are sitting in pastoral meetings, administrative council meetings, and membership meetings. So when you read this buckle up and get ready for a thought provoking topic. You are going to become a witness to how a church is theologically flipped.
The Most Heartbreaking Moment of the Book
One aspect of the book that struck me is the way Amanda writes affectionately of her husband who is called, “Gordan.” Early in the book you read about how they met, married and how they become involved in the EFCA. You also learn of Gordon’s love for Truth Evangelical Free Church. Reading about Vacation Bible School and the elaborate construction projects made me want to be a kid and attend those classes. In the church you learn of the role Gordan played in being an elder for years. As pastors come and go, it is Gordan who teaches, and helped the church get through each transition. In the process of reading this book I learn of the love and affection Gordan had for people who he regarded as family.
We then start to deal with a slowly changing church that in the course of time is trying to duplicate John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist. But the heaviest section of the book deals with how Gordan was rejected from the being on the elder board. Its has to do with the church becoming very authoritarian. Its on page 98. In order to understand this section Gordan is off the elder board. He has served faithfully for about 15 to 17 years as an elder.
“Gordan begins to again think about whether he should accept a spot on the elder board if asked. We both believe he will be asked. There is no reason that they would not ask. He said no last year last year just because he needed more time away to regroup. Gordan struggles with this decision. We pray about it and he wrestles with whether he is prepared spiritually and mentally to meet the challenges and expectations Pastor Travis has for his elders. He finally makes the decision that he will say yes when asked. December comes and goes but no one asks. No candidate is published for consideration. Finally at the annual meeting in January 2013, it is announced to the congregation, “No one could be found willing to step into the elder role.” Therefore, they will run with only three elders and not four. Shock and disbelief flood through us. NO ONE could be found?? How can they say that? No one asked Gordan. What does that mean for my loyal dedicated husband. He finally gets the courage to ask the remaining elder, “Why wasn’t I considered for the elder position?” “You didn’t have enough faith,” was the shocking answer.
What??? What is that supposed to mean? Gordan’s competency first and now his faith has been called into question in the last two years. Gordan is deeply hurt, and we pull back from our involvement in the church. It is the beginning of a slide from which he will not recover. “I was good enough to hold the church together when there was no pastor, but now I am suddenly not good enough?” So what is happening is that the church is not able to find men to fill the role of elder? One man’s take on the matter is “all we learned by going to men’s leadership group was that none of us are good enough to be elders.” That is one aspect is the other aspect of the leadership becoming very exclusive as to who will be asked.”
There were issues that were coming to a head at Truth Evangelical Free. Pastor Travis was interested in a new building and there was concerns about how to finance it. In that section of Amanda’s book you learn about Gordan being rejected by his home church that he served for years. The issue represents the growing authoritarianism taking place at Truth Evangelical Free. Pastor Travis doesn’t want any one questioning or challenging his perception of how church should be. Truth is slowly moving from an elder led to an elder ruled church. As a part of the changes Pastor Travis wanted only “yes men.” People who will blindly go along and not question his authority. Gordan was the voice of reason and for Pastor Travis he was the problem. Gordan represented a healthy faith as well as deeply caring in the community. Gordan worked with people and was a consensus builder, its why he was such a natural leader. Pastor Travis was wanting to consolidate authority. After reading this and thinking about this situation what I propose happened is that in a building project Pastor Travis also believed that Gordan lacked faith because he asked questions about responsible financing.
Other Issues Raised by Amanda’s Book on this EFCA Church
Amanda’s book goes into a number of issues that are worth mentioning. One of the issues that is raised is that of sexual abuse of a child by a person in a leadership role. It deals with the youth pastor who was caught undressing an individual from the youth group in his office. The book briefly touches on my fear that the EFCA under the surface struggles with child sex abuse. I honestly hope that is not the case and that I don’t have to write about that in the course of time. But at Truth Evangelical Free you learn about how this issue hung over the church. Also raised is how a church transforms from an egalitarian theology system to a complementarian one. Amanda at one point is rejected by someone on the Administration Council because she is female. A man never submits to a female nor works for one. Its the result of John Piper’s teaching which is being embraced at Truth. Amanda writes about how it affects church business behind the scenes.
Another issue that is raised is of a church that is becoming very unhealthy. The Senior Pastor Travis has been serving on different church committees simultaneously. In the process there are a many ethics issues that are raised when Pastor Travis hires his wife as the bookkeeper. It puts many people in a bind. When people from the church reach out to the North Central District staff for help in this matter, the District staff casually dismiss the situation. Truth Evangelical Free is allowed to violate their constitution with the blessing of district leadership. At the district level there is no concern for the members in the congregation. In reading this book you realize that if problems develop, and you are in an EFCA church, most likely you are on your own. The situation becomes more problematic when the church comes close to violating federal tax law with the IRS over starting a scholarship fund for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It has to deal with how the finances are handled. This is in pages 110 and 111. Then you also have the issue of the credit cards and how a church handled that situation. Is it transparent for a church to use a member’s social security number to open the card and then not be respectful of their needs or time? Is it respectful for a church that could possibly harm someone’s credit because of how they want to function?
Also raised is the slow manner in which other Bible translations are rejected and the ESV and Wayne Grudem’s material is slowly substituted. It leaves people with asking, “Why are we using the ESV? When did this happen?” Many decisions like this were done without the decision of the congregation. This leads me to my last point. Truth Evangelical Free in my opinion is an example of what happens when a church goes from elder led to elder rule. Many decisions are taken out of the congregation’s hands and the pastor starts to decide for the church. Sometimes decisions are made without the knowledge of members of Truth Evangelical Free Church.
One of the key issues that is explored in this book is about how the “Significance of Silence” inside the EFCA is violated. Here is how it is violated inside Truth Evangelical Free. The greatest example is the efforts by the church leadership to push through a membership covenant at this EFCA church. After all in the covenant you were to pledge to, “joyfully submit to the elder team…trusting their council, following their leadership.” This is in page 167. As a Neo-Calvinist church that was blossoming with control, people were expected to trust the leadership with their interpretation of scriptures. The doctrine would become Calvinist and you had to submit to the elders and their interpretation. If you were not of that persuasion then you were going against the leadership. This is discussed in page 194. The actual phrasing is, “Biblical submission to the team (the elders) means entrusting them with the roles of teaching God’s Word.” When Amanda writes a letter trying to mitigate the Neo-Calvinist issue, trying to moderate it to a middle-of-the-road approach for those who are not Neo-Calvinist she receives a harsh letter from the church leadership. This is found in pages 152 and 153. They deny they are making these changes and demand Amanda substantiate her charges.
Chapter 21 on page 163 deals with how a church tries to force a membership covenant. This is the rage for the Neo-Calvinists who think John Piper is God, or the 67th book of the Bible. How there is concern and outrage of the control of people. Amanda theorizes that the church is pushing for membership covenants because of a church discipline situation gone wrong. A membership covenant is the answer to the problem. In an animated congregation meeting Pastor Travis wife rebukes the women for being the ones who are speaking up. After all it is believed that women should remain silent. In a hardcore complementarian view women don’t have a voice and should blindly submit to their husband who is authorized by scripture to speak on their behalf. The membership covenant is rejected to the dismay of Pastor Travis and Josh who allegedly are the driving force behind it. In the course of time you read about how a person was forced to leave their church home of 25 years. As a result they are shunned and Pastor Travis comes to her old small group and tells them they are not to engage Amanda.
My Hope with “Once An Insider, Now Without a Church Home.”
It is my hope that this book will start a discussion inside the EFCA on how to manage the Neo-Calvinism issue. How can two very different takes on the Gospel co-exist inside the EFCA? It is a difficult issue which I acknowledge, and one that the EFCA in corporate Minneapolis probably doesn’t want to think about. But you have two choices. You can either stick your head in the sand and act like this is not an issue. Or you can work at managing this issue so that stories like Amanda Farmer do not happen inside the EFCA. I have a lot of respect for Greg Strand but he should be deeply troubled that Neo-Calvinist theology drove someone from their church home of 25 years. The fact that Neo-Calvinism drove Amanda’s husband to being spiritually nothing and done with the Christian faith is a topic that should keep Bill Kynes, who worked on the 2008 statement of faith up at night.
This book contains a lot of topics a number of which I covered up above. In the process of publishing this book it should be noted that all EFCA District Superintendents are going to receive a complementary copy of Amanda’s work. It is hoped that either in the smoke filled back rooms of the next EFCA One or some of the theological conferences that will play out in 2019 that this will lead to discussions and an exchange of ideas. Its really what Amanda and other people who were affected by this theological hijacking in Minnesota will have some hope that peace can come by keeping others from going through what was endured by them.
In writing this review I really can’t think of any negative aspects of this book. Amanda made mistakes and she is honest in discussing them. But the book is a raw read. Its not an academic book that a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School will be familiar with. That might be a criticism by some people in that its not to that academic par. But that is okay as that is not the desire of Amanda’s work.
So if you want do a deep dive into Neo-Calvinist theology, church polity, and congregationalism all at once Amanda’s book is a strong contender. Anyone who wants to understand how toxic John Piper’s Neo-Calvinist movement can be on a local EFCA church should read and add this to their library. You can pick up this book through Amazon here. If you are a part of the EFCA I would place an order to Amazon immediately. Learn from the pain of one person and spare yourself and your loved ones the same difficulty. Educate yourself and be aware of this movement. Its with that said that The Wondering Eagle had the pleasure of reading this book, giving feedback, and I strongly recommend, “Once An Insider, Now Without A Church Home.”