The Burning of the Wooden Shoes
It was a painful decision for my father to leave the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC). He was pulled apart over it. He expressed all of his concerns to the new minister. “The direction you’re taking,” my father said, “is undermining the Great Commission of Jesus.” Immediately, the pastor yelled back, “this is what’s wrong with you Reformed people.” My father retorted, “But aren’t you Reformed?” That is a great question.
By being raised in the CRC I learned a lot about what can happen to a church. I have been a pastor in a confessional Reformed church for almost 15 years now. As I watch the shifts and listen to the discussions, this all seems like déjà vu. What took the CRC thirty to forty years to accomplish, in jettisoning her Reformed heritage, seems to be taking some NAPARC churches about a decade. I am particularly concerned for the PCA, but they are not the only one. There are other Reformed denominations following suit, but the PCA, at the moment, appears to be leading the pack.
The most disturbing part is that many seem completely oblivious to the shifts. Among a new generation of Reformed pastors and churchgoers, there seems to be little awareness that the project they are pursuing, and the shifts they are pushing, have already been tried and have ended with catastrophic consequences in the life of a major Reformed denomination.
I write this out of sincere love and concern for my brothers and sisters in NAPARC churches. Don’t do this. I’ve witnessed families, friends, and churches ripped apart by the direction the CRC chose. I know the pressures are great. I too want success in the church. I too want our Reformed churches to be heard. But that desire has to be controlled by what Christ has commanded us to do. I don’t want to see other faithful churches make the same mistakes that led to the confessional demise of the CRC. We need you! As I attempt to be my brother’s keeper, may the Lord use this as a call to renew all of us together in our commitment to our Biblical and confessional identity as Reformed churches.
The CRC Paradigm
To consider what happened in the CRC, the symbol of the wooden shoes may help. The wooden shoes (klompen) often found on the doorstep of most Dutch households, has always been a symbol of their rich heritage. As the times changed, many in the CRC were conscious (and weary) of the charge that they were culturally exclusive in their churches. In fact, it was this very concern that motivated the editors of the Banner, the denominational magazine of the CRC, to issue its most controversial piece on November 3, 1980 that had a cover photo of klompen burning. This was an abrasive call for the CRC to abandon its parochial, ethnic, and cultural identity.
Unless one appreciates the particular ethos of the CRC, it’s difficult to communicate how momentous and offensive this picture was for the CRC. The perception of the CRC, as an ethnic, exclusive club became the predominant concern in the denominational headquarters and Calvin Seminary as far back as the early 1930s. The Dutch immigrant members of the CRC were under great pressure to assimilate to American culture. They were concerned by the charge that they were too Dutch and only focused on their own people. They were facing a crisis of identity and there was a sincere desire to be more welcoming to all peoples, especially when it came to the American church scene. They didn’t want to be considered clannish or sectarian.
Conscious that such a change was Biblically mandated, the CRC made a serious overhaul of her identity to be a more “embracing” church. The project, at least from a Biblical and confessional perspective, was a failure, and the CRC has followed in the trajectory of other liberal denominations that have stripped away all their particulars until little remained.
The CRC failed to preserve those things that made her distinctively Reformed. Stuffed within the burning shoes were the very confessions that defined her, resulting in the complete loss of any Biblical and confessional identity.
The path was predictable. They began as a confessional Reformed church. In order to fit in with American evangelicalism, she became broadly evangelical and is now assimilated to mainline churches whose theology is increasingly liberal and whose practice is buried under cultural accommodation and social activism.
It will help us to step back and see the doctrinal and practical shifts that occurred in the CRC as she was addressing her own identity crisis and taking on all the social concerns of the day. I count six colossal steps to apostasy in the CRC overhaul:
- The Abandonment of the Authority of Scripture–This was the first domino to tip knocking everything else over. No longer was Scripture the final say regarding doctrine and life, but major doctrines were called into question due to cultural pressure.
- The Abandonment of Reformed Principle of Worship–Historic Reformed convictions and principles laid out in the confessions were abandoned based on seeker sensitive assumptions.
- The Abandonment of the Sabbath and the Second Worship Service–Even the word Sabbath was abandoned in embarrassment. The evening service was jettisoned by claiming better opportunities for Bible studies and home gatherings to reach the lost and love their neighbor.
- The Abandonment of Gospel-Centered Expository Preaching–Expository gospel-centered sermons through books of the Bible were replaced with topical messages often addressing the current social justice discussion of the culture.
- The Abandonment of God Assigned Roles in the Church (Women’s Ordination)–The classic distinctions between creation roles and functional hierarchy were abandoned in support of full equality of function in ecclesiastical offices.
- The Abandonment of Moral Standards for Her Members–Those committing gross sins were no longer called to repentance, but instead welcomed into the life of the church upon the assumption that “justice” demands it. Nicholas Wolterstorff, a professor at Calvin College of over thirty years claimed that biblical justice requires that people of homosexual orientation be granted “the great good of civil and ecclesial marriage.”
Social Justice or Gospel Injustice?
The pressures being laid upon Reformed churches are many. As a pastor, I have felt the pressure to conform to the American way of church. Among the evangelicals in our community, our Reformed church is pegged as the strict church in town doing things that nobody else does. Downgrading those Reformed practices that are the most off putting is assumed to be the best path forward to reach a broader base of potential churchgoer. This is the very audience the CRC took to evangelicalism. The CRC’s commitment to downgrade became a commitment to the intolerance of its own theological identity, and the toleration of everything else.
The question to be answered is whether other NAPARC churches, like the CRC, have already been sowing these seeds of their own overhaul. In my humble opinion, when I look at the practices of many NAPARC churches, especially when it comes to corporate worship, I see little different from the evangelical church down the street. This is not the case across the board, but neither was it in the CRC. The general trend was clear. Once the CRC hierarchy opened the door to accommodation becoming a more broadly evangelical church, that door remained open for everything else. I fear that history is repeating itself.
The CRC, after remaking itself into another evangelical church, soon found itself absorbed by social justice issues. Synodical meetings were filled with social causes. The irony was, most evangelical churches didn’t fall into social justice as deeply as the CRC did once that door was opened. The thirst for relevance could not be quenched. They were like a man out of prison, running as fast as he can without looking back. Social activism and causes became a dominant focus of church life.
As the present culture is ripped apart with division, especially in terms of race and gender, the church is feeling the pressure unlike ever before. It’s created a kind of perfect storm. Just like the CRC in panic mode, one can see the same pressure to transform. We may not be too Dutch, but we are certainly too white. The last thing the church today can afford to be considered is, especially in our cultural struggle, racist. Let’s face reality. The church frequently failed in bringing together every people and nation. We’re commanded to do this. Racism is sin. Abuse of women is horrendous. It grieves us greatly. The last thing we can afford is to be called homophobic or misogynist. Looking at our terribly slow progress in the Great Commission, there is only one conclusion: we must doing something wrong. Things have to change–now.
There is no question that social justice in the world should be the desire of every Christian. Every faithful pastor should care to apply the law of God to the gross sins and abuses he sees in the world. And there are certainly societal implications of the gospel as Christians begin to look more like Christ in loving their neighbors. The concern is whether there is, in these discussions, something much more dangerous happening.
Because of these struggles, the answer according to some is to rethink the entire mission and mandate of the church. The answer for many in leadership seems to be to push harder than ever these societal questions upon their congregations. The “gospel” all under the rubric of delivering people from social ills is being redefined. The priority of Jesus’ objective work in saving us from our sin by grace alone through faith alone is being sidelined for a “gospel” of deliverance from societal abuses.
Under the new paradigm, many of the classic passages upon which we have relied must be reinterpreted to see that “gospel” is really all about racial reconciliation, equalitarianism, women’s rights, eradication of poverty, and environmental care. Familiar Bible passages that we always understood and confessed as teaching our need to be saved from our sins are now being reread through the lens of social abuse, racial injustice, and more. “Gospel” in this approach is being redefined as deliverance from these societal evils.
As a host of new social justice activists use social media platforms, the pressure to transform the message of the church is stronger than ever. For instance, the PCA seems to be subtly beginning the debate regarding women’s ordination. Has a study committee been organized as it was in the CRC?
Most painful is that the culture’s racial divide has launched the church into a sort of panic that is actually having the effect of “transforming” the church into looking and sounding just like the world in its own divisiveness. In our attempts to accommodate a divided culture, the world’s speech appears now to be dictating ours.
The CRC may have rightly burned the wooden shoes of a parochial, ethnic, and cultural identity but made the mistake of leaving in those shoes the very Reformed confessions that gave her a theological identity. In our attempts to accommodate the culture, to address social injustice, some of which may certainly need to happen, we run the risk of burning the Reformed confessions. This is no small matter and, in the end, it has everything to do with what the Reformation helped us recover: the gospel of Jesus as a Savior from sin.
The best way forward is to remain committed to making known the life, death, resurrection of Christ as the heart of what we do as Reformed churches. The book of Acts teaches us this over and over through the ministry of the apostles. The early church, under the threat of persecution and death, remained committed to the preaching of Jesus to the nations. We too are called by God to continue in what we have learned and firmly believed (2 Tim. 3:14). We too are called to remain committed to making known the Word of God “in season”–when things are convenient, and “out of season”–when everything is against us. As Martyn Lloyd Jones once said, “when the Church performs her primary task these other things [i.e. matters of social justice] invariably result from it.”
The greatest way forward is simply to practice what we already know we should be doing without compromise. Holding on to the Reformed confession is most certainly the hardest thing to do in a culture of overreaction.
NAPARC churches should not forget their older brother, the CRC. Unless these concerns are taken seriously, I foresee the PCA and other Reformed denominations following this trajectory heading for fights, splits, and empty pews. They will be on a fast track to becoming just another mainline liberal denomination scratching its head at General Assembly meetings as they desperately try to find answers. I pray that my dear brothers and sisters in NAPARC will hear this humble plea from a brother in Christ who learned how true it is that those who forget their (church) history, are most certainly doomed to repeat it.
Rev. Christopher J. Gordon is the pastor of Escondido URC and the host of Abounding Grace Radio.