From Embers to a Flame 2

Remember and Repent

The first two revitalization strategies are remember and repent.

Chapter 3: Revitalization Strategy 1: Connect to the Past

Harry Reeder encourages churches to learn from the past without living in the past. Congregations benefit from being connected to their local church’s history, as from an awareness of the great tradition of the Christian faith. Reeder writes: “A revitalization pastor will learn from the past in order to live in the present so that the church can change the future” (38).

Original fcv church
Original building of the Cutlerville Christian Reformed Church

The History of the Local Church. Reeder emphasizes the importance of working to understand a congregation’s history. He tells the story of a pastor who followed two very successful predecessors. Someone said to the new pastor: “You sure have some big shoes to fill.” And the new pastor replied: “I brought my own shoes, thank you.” Reeder emphasizes that we must avoid being trapped or dominated by the past. New pastors, he says, should neither demean the former ministry nor try to duplicate it.


The History of the Universal Church. Reeder laments that American Christians often know little about international Christianity and the history of Christianity. Our creeds and confessions, when used in worship, connect us with the great tradition of our faith, as do classic hymns. Reeder argues for beginning with “the great classical worship that at one time was contemporary and has now become tried and true, and then build on it, being ready to absorb that which is excellent in the present” (42). Good worship, he contends, avoids both “the arrogance of modernity, which disconnects from the past” and “the idolatry of traditionalism, which lives in the past.” Instead, it “is connected to the past without living in the past, contextualized in the present without accommodating the present, and setting a pattern to shape the future instead of becoming dated in the future” (42). Reeder also recommends incorporating illustrations from church history into sermons. –Who am I to argue with that?! Another suggestion is to teach people about the Old Testament.

In order not to be a maintenance ministry, but rather, a movement ministry, Reeder suggests three courses of action: Investigate, Contemplate, Celebrate.

  1. Investigate past blessings.
  2. Contemplate the lessons and principles that the Lord blessed in the past.
  3. Celebrate them and continue to implement them in ways that fit the gifts and resources that you currently have in your church and use the celebrations to set up new initiatives in the ministry vision that the Lord is laying out to take the church to the next level in serving Christ and expanding the kingdom.

Here at First Cutlerville, we just celebrated 20 years in our current building, on June 12, 2016. As I was preparing my sermon, I read the commemorative booklets from the 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversaries of the congregation. I learned much about our history, but perhaps also about our present character. I think it could be valuable to scan these documents and make them available online for our leaders and members. In the Church Renewal Lab, we heard that most churches work forward from their past, but we should really work backward from our future. That is: envision where God wants to lead us tomorrow, and then discern what that means for what we do today in order to get to that place.

Chapter 4: Revitalization Strategy 2: A Call to Repentance

Reeder’s second strategy, a communal, corporate repenting from past wrongs, is not a downer, he argues, but an opportunity for God to do a new thing.2 Chronicles 714 [mobile-1262x1262].png But before you can encourage a community of people to truly repent and confess sin, one must first cultivate an atmosphere of grace. We don’t repent to feel bad about ourselves; we repent joyfully because we are sure of God’s loving forgiveness earned at the high cost of Christ’s blood. Secondly, Reeder says we must also emphasize personal responsibility. We should not be making excuses for ourselves or for others. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the Serpent. Third, we then have to expect the fruits of repentance. Reeder summarizes these fruits in three words: restitution, restoration, and reconciliation. His summary is helpful: “Restitution is paying back what is owed, restoration is setting things right again, and reconciliation is the renewing of relationships that have been broken by sin” (50).

Repentance in the Leaders. Reeder tells the story of a church that had gone through a process of renewal. The council of this church came to a place where they felt led to confess to the congregation the sin of acting as a board of directors rather than as shepherds of the flock. They read a letter to the congregation asking for forgiveness. “As a show of unity they all brought stones marked with their names and Bible verses and piled them up together to mark the day of a new beginning rooted in the forgiveness and reconciling power of the gospel” (51).

Repentance in the Church. The Bible contains stories of how “sin in the camp” can have a negative impact on the whole community of God’s people. The story of Achan who stole booty from Jericho, is an example (Joshua 7). Reeder observes that sometimes there is “a need for corporate confession because the body as a whole has not faithfully followed God’s Word” (53). Reeder’s church ended up asking forgiveness, in a very general way, from four hundred (!) families that had left the church over 13 years. One of the results was that it put an end to a lot of negative talk in the community about the congregation. In addition, Reeder notes that very specific sins may also need to be confessed by the church.

For part three click here.


Orthodoxy and Submission

There is a theological debate going on in which Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have proposed an eternal subordination of the Son in the Trinity. In other words, they claim that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father in the Godhead. This is an unorthodox understanding of the relationship of the divine persons of the Godhead, akin to the ancient heresy of Arianism, because it puts the Son in a lesser, subordinate position to the Father. Leading Patristic scholars and Trinitarian experts like Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres leave no doubt about the fact that these writers are advocating heterodoxy (false doctrine, heresy), or veering toward heresy, or at the very least using very confused language that would lead to heretical formulations regarding the Trinity. Another Trinity expert, Steven Holmes, writes that “Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can Trinity-295x300keep his ‘complementarianism.’” But the doctrine of the Trinity is not the main reason for this post. It’s the “complementarianism” that moves me to write today. This new and controversial understanding of the Trinity is driven by a theological anthropology (that is, a particular view of humanity) that sees women (not wives but women per se) as subordinate in function to men (not husbands). This hierarchical anthropology is then projected onto the Trinity, in order to bolster the anthropology. That theory of humanity that views women as created by God to submit to male leadership is called complementarianism.  An old friend of mine, an outstanding historical theologian and a complementarian, Carl Trueman, writes of this latest controversy about the Trinity and complementarianism:


“…it is sad that the desire to maintain a biblical view of complementarity has come to be synonymous with advocating not only a very 1950s American view of masculinity but now also this submission-driven teaching on the Trinity. In the long run such a tight pairing of complementarianism with this theology can only do one of two things. It will either turn complementarian evangelicals into Arians or tritheists; or it will cause orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.”

I agree, except that I see the latter option as not only preferable, but desirable.


Orthodox believers should abandon complementarianism. Not because there is no distinction between male or female. Not because, in a general sense, men and women, husbands and wives, are not “complementary” in many ways. But precisely because they are. Women provide a much-needed complement to men…also in positions of leadership and authority. This is true in a marriage, in a household, in the church, in a business, and in society in general. And the idea that God created women to be subject to men is simply no longer credible. Women are subject to men in the Bible because, as John Calvin taught, God accommodates and adapts the Bible to the time, culture, and conventions of ancient near eastern peoples. That does not mean that God intends women to be perpetually subject to men.


The most important reason why orthodox Christians should seriously reconsider the claims of complementarianism is that it is not as biblically sound as its proponents claim. This post is not about the detailed exegetical and theological arguments to that end, but I will briefly point to Fuller Theological Seminary’s (dated but still valuable) statement on women in ministry, and a compelling exegetical argument by D. Heidebrecht. In sum, as Heidebrecht writes, “Reading 1 Timothy 2:9-15 within its literary context indicates that Paul is not addressing women here simply because they are women.” Carl Trueman once displayed utter disbelief that I could support the ordination of women, but I daresay he has the weaker exegetical argument. I should say that I have many friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect who are complementarians, so don’t take this as an attack. But even that is not the main reason for my post.

John Calvin, like most thinkers in the sixteenth century, did not think women should be pastors, nor, ideally, that should they be rulers. He did, however, argue that God did in fact raise up female rulers as a concession to human sin, and that the authority of female rulers is to be considered legitimate and to be obeyed. Not only that, but Calvin was ashamed and embarrassed by John Knox, who in a misogynist diatribe claimed that it was contrary to God’s will and the order of nature that women should hold positions of authority in government, and that female monarchs were illegitimate and should be overthrown by force of arms. Knox had very specific women in mind: Mary Queen of Scots, and Mary I of England (styled “Bloody Mary,” and not because she invented the drink). But he also claimed that women in general were “weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish.” Calvin saw that Knox was undermining support for the Reformation by Protestant Queens. In fact, Calvin said that Knox was guilty of “thoughtless arrogance” by writing this inflammatory tract. Indeed, Knox ended up shooting himself in the foot and doing irreversible harm to the cause of thoroughgoing Reform in England generally when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne; she despised him for his he-man woman-hating rhetoric, and extended her disdain to Geneva, to the dismay of Calvin and Theodore Beza. But while I have a compulsion to include Reformation debates in everything, this is not the main reason for this post.

Today’s complementarians would never repeat the vile things that Knox said. But too often, in my reading of many complementarians (and not all of them, mind you), the anti-female bias comes out in a patronizing way. John Piper, for example portrays women as soft and weak and vulnerable, and he even goes so far as to claim that “God made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” But this is not the Bible; this is John Piper’s projection onto the Bible of his own preferred reality. It seems to me that this is a species of idolatry, a fetishizing of masculinity, and a rather bizarre one at that. In addition, the volume Piper edited with Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, made arguments that I found not only weak, but sometimes downright offensive (for a review of that volume by a person who had a similar assessment, start here.)

And that brings me to the main reason for this post. Complementarians are varied in their views, but increasingly, I find the whole complementarian perspective not only mistaken, but also untenable. Not in the sense that it cannot be rationally or exegetically defended, but in the sense that holding to complementarianism in the modern church is harmful to the mission  and witness of the church, and therefore can no longer be held. At its worst, complementarianism leads to extremist statements like those by John Piper that women can’t hold most positions of authority over a man, or even his deeply offensive and frankly bizarre assertion that a pastor can’t read a commentary written by a woman unless he excludes from his mind all traces of her femininity, particularly her dangerous, feminine body. This is misogyny, pure and simple* (see this perceptive article in Christianity Today, as well as this blog post). I am certain John Piper does not intend it as such, but it is in fact a derogatory view of women, and it is thus ungodly, sinful, unholy, and it should be repudiated. Ultimately I judge complementarianism to be based on a simplistic reading of Scripture, but one that claims to be the “simple” and plain reading, uninfluenced by cultural assumptions. This interpretation unwittingly projects older western cultural views of women’s roles onto Pauline texts (and charges that opponents are projecting “feminism” onto the texts), while failing to distinguish incidental historical context (for example, the gender roles assumed in first century Jewish culture) from the invariable intent of Paul’s doctrine. It also minimizes the role that women actually played in Paul’s ministry.

For the complementarians, the tail is wagging the dog. To cite Steve Holmes again:


I reflect, however, that these continually-shifting arguments to defend the same conclusion start to look suspicious: by the time someone has offered four different defences of the same position, one has to wonder whether their commitment is fundamentally to the position, not to faithful theology. Judging by his essay in this book, Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can keep his ‘complementarianism’; other writers here are less blunt, but the same challenge may be presented. How many particular defences of a position need to be proved false before we may assert that the position itself is obviously false?

Not only my study of scripture and theology, but my pastoral experience, demonstrates to me that complementarianism is “obviously false,” to borrow Holmes’ phrase. Increasingly, this is and will be the perspective of theologians and biblical scholars.


For my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, I think we need to be done once and for all with the unwritten assumption among many conservatives that the really orthodox, really confessionally Reformed people will of course be complementarians. Especially since zealous defenders of a male-only pulpit are now abandoning Nicene Orthodoxy in order to advance their agenda. This agenda is now eroding orthodoxy! Not among all complementarians (witness Carl Trueman as just one of many leading examples), but the link between keeping women in their place and orthodoxy should now be dissolved once and for all. I am orthodox and confessional, and I reject complementarianism. I did so after many years of careful, painstaking study, and much wavering in the early years of my theological education. In fact, I think that complementarianism, apart from being theologically and exegetically flawed, and impossible to practice with any real consistency, is a significant hindrance to our ministry, and particularly our witness to younger generations. It undermines our witness in a society and culture that rightly assumes that women as just as capable and gifted as men, a generation that correctly rejects subordinationist views of women as a relic from the past. Assuming that women take a back seat to men is a residue of our western history of subjugating women–women who only received the right to vote in the United States less than a century ago, and who only were declared “persons” in Canada in 1930, when the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council overturned the Canadian Supreme Court decision that excluded women from the Senate, deciding that they were not qualified “persons.”


If God’s Word clearly and obviously forbade female leadership in the church (as complementarians insist), I would join them. But it does not. Some two decades ago, Carl Trueman, in exasperation with me, suggested that I was deliberately twisting the Bible to support the ordination of women. I remember that with a smile and don’t hold it against him. I am sure he can defend his own position. But I am doing no such thing. And I am an expert on the history of biblical interpretation, so I know what I am talking about. The only text that can be legitimately employed to argue against women in church leadership,  I Timothy 2:11-15, is not a reference to the created order; it is an illustration–of a kind common in Jewish biblical interpretation–of how certain women in Ephesus were deceived by false teachers. The context of the Pauline letters makes it clear to me that there were women being deceived by false teachers in the church of Ephesus, and that his proscriptions on women teaching and wresting authority (αὐθεντεῖν–a very obscure word) from a man are specific to that context. There is a not a “creation ordinance” that subordinates women to men; that is an assumption and projection of western culture and tradition onto the text. If it were a statement of the enduring created order, one would have to conclude that women are inherently more susceptible to deception (v. 14). Who in good conscience would dare make such a claim? And if this text is clear and obvious, what in the world does Paul mean (v. 15) by saying that women will be saved through bearing children? In fact, this text is very difficult to unravel. It is one of the most obscure texts in the Bible, if not the most obscure. But what it cannot mean is that women are spiritually inferior or inherently more susceptible to deception (which would be a degrading and patently false teaching regarding half the human race). It cannot mean that only Eve became a sinner, since Paul locates the origin of human sin in Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:12-17–Paul never mentions Eve here); nor can it mean that women are saved through having children, since Paul clearly teaches that salvation comes by grace through faith. And how do these proscriptions jive with Paul’s actual practice of including women as coworkers in his ministry? I have heard many women express the feeling that Paul was down on women–but I would contend, on the contrary, that he was revolutionary when it came to women. In Philippians 4:2-3 the Apostle addresses two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who contended at Paul’s side in the work of the ministry (ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ συνήθλησάν μοι); Paul includes them among his coworkers in the ministry (συνεργῶν μου). It is not likely that Paul would have to urge these two women to resolve whatever dispute they had if they were not persons of influence in the church at Philippi. Priscilla and her husband Aquila are also named as Paul’s coworkers (συνεργοί) in the ministry, Romans 16:3. Not only that, but Paul usually mentions Priscilla’s name first–a very curious reversal of convention, which indicates to me that Priscilla took the lead in the work of the ministry. Who cannot think of examples of women in their local congregation who are more invested in the work of the ministry than their husbands? And some husbands are more invested than their wives. There is no general rule.


More to the point, I am finding it increasingly difficult to minister in a context where women are not allowed to lead and to preach the Word. I find myself losing patience with the practice of excluding women, though I certainly think that a diversity of views should and must be tolerated. But the complementarian side can no longer have veto power. The implicit threat of people leaving if a congregation makes a change holds a congregation hostage, sometimes creating an atmosphere where the issue can never be discussed openly. Nor is this matter a confessional issue that would be grounds for leaving the church or fomenting a schism, as happened  in the 1990s. You may not prefer to have a woman serve as an elder in your congregation, but it is not grounds for leaving or protest. The Christian Reformed Church, through careful study over many years, has amply demonstrated that there is a solid biblical-theological argument for women to serve in all offices of the church. Our seminary trains women as pastors and church leaders, and approves women as candidates for the ministry. Personally, I am getting to old to fight this battle again and again, and to listen powerlessly while women in my congregation ask me how their church could continue to exclude them from leadership in the Body of Christ. The issue became much more pointed when my own daughter looked at me with disbelief and asked how the church could have such a policy. But God does not exclude them, contrary to an older exegesis that assumed a subordinate role for women. True complementarity excludes subordination. Not only that, at my age, I do not thing I would be willing to entertain a future call to a church or ministry that does not support women in ministry, or at least allow women to serve as officebearers and to preach. Churches that exclude women from the office of deacon, moreover, have absolutely no grounds for doing so apart from tradition, and by doing so, signal that they are a church of the past, not the future. Actually, I think Christian Reformed Churches that exclude women from the office of elder also send that same signal. And, finally, it is my firm conviction that, if our churches continue to insist on this gender qualification for leadership in the church will needlessly lose all credibility with younger generations. If we lose credibility because we are preaching the gospel, that is one thing (as when the Athenians laughed at Paul over the resurrection); but younger generations are right to see that our exclusion of women is not integral to the gospel. And this will be all the more evident when it comes to the much more difficult topic of how Christians and the church should relate to homosexuals and other persons with sexual differences in a Christian and pastoral manner.


 Carl Trueman wrote that the latest Trinitarian heterodoxy may have the unintended consequence of causing “orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.” I would hope so. We need to abandon it.



Christ in Camo

Outreach is difficult for established churches and established Christians. Why? Because church is our comfort zone. And evangelism and outreach tend to terrify a lot of us. Yet the church exists for one reason and one reason alone: to reach out with the love of Jesus Christ and to make disciples for him, as he appointed us to do in the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20. We don’t exist to insulate ourselves from the non-churched world, to shelter our children from sin, or to surround ourselves with the comfort of like-minded people. So, even if the plan for getting an outreach director hasn’t materialized, we can’t use that as an excuse not to experiment with ways to reach out to our neighbors with the message of the gospel.

However, there may be ways to reach out that are not so terrifying. Maybe even some that are exhilarating and fun, activities that we look forward to. If I could dream up my own version, it would involve shooting guns and hunting and fishing. Maybe you could call it Christians in camo. Too bad there isn’t a ministry opportunity there. Or is there?

In my own experience. I have talked to men about spiritual matters in a hunting cabin out in the middle of nowhere—men who might never open up anywhere else. A young man who, under normal circumstances, would never talk to a pastor without being physically restrained, showed up at my house early for catechism, just to show me his brand new hunting rifle. I was duly impressed, not only by the rifle, but by the way the Spirit can work in mysterious ways. Shared interests and experiences are a recipe for relationships. Relationships, in turn, are what the Holy Spirit uses to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

I have often thought about how I could intentionally use this interest for ministry and outreach. A number of years ago Rev. Maury DeYoung began a ministry at Kelloggsville CRC which hosted outdoorsy events and even brought in experts in hunting and fishing sports. It attracted many unchurched persons. Rev. DeYoung is now the full-time director of Sportspersons Ministries International, which helps churches to plan outreach events for people who like to wear camo. He will be hosting a training event on the evenings of September 21-22, from 6:30-9:15, at Corinth Reformed Church, with supper provided. I will be attending to explore the possibilities of what we could possibly do here at First Cutlerville, along with people from South Harbor Church and Corinth Reformed. I invite anyone who has a passion for the outdoors and a desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ to come along with me, just to explore the possibilities. Contact me for more information.

This will not be everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and it doesn’t have to be. Another pastor, for example, might be a sports aficionado and bond particularly well with the athletes and fans in his or her congregation. Maybe you have a passion for the lost, but you don’t know how to put it into action. Well, what do you love? Do you love scrapbooking? There’s a possible outreach event there. Do you love books? Start a book club, or if you’re not a club-starter, get your more extroverted friend to start one. Do you play on the church softball team? Invite your neighbor to check out the game, and maybe enjoy the fellowship afterward. Hand out candy on Halloween and take a moment to actually meet the people who live four doors down from you (and don’t buy the hype that it’s Satanic or unchristian. It’s an opportunity to meet your neighbors. See this blog post from a few years ago, by a Canadian Christian mom, that has gone viral: ). But do not do any of these things just to get people into church. Do these things to create relationships with people, because Christ is shared in relationships. But do something. And always be on the lookout for opportunities. Recently I found out that Calvin College encourages students to attend local congregations in the morning. Most of these students are believers, of course, but it’s still a great opportunity to extend hospitality and also enrich our own fellowship with the presence of young believers.

Why must we do these things? Because the Great Commission isn’t optional, or just for a few select Christians. Jesus calls us to be disciples, and to make disciples.

On Being a Missional Church

First Cutlerville CRC Focus article, June 2015

“Missional” is a fairly new term for describing a church that is intentionally outreach-oriented. The term is new; the idea is as old as the church—even older, if you go back to Abraham’s calling in Genesis 12. My family was evangelized into a missional church long before the term was fashionable. But not every congregation is outreach-oriented. Some are much more inwardly-focused. That kind of church can be very comfortable, as long as you’re not a visitor, or someone new to the congregation. That kind of congregation can be supportive; it can have good fellowship, solid preaching, and attractive programs. It might even have a nice outreach statement on paper. But an inward focus not what it means to be church.

Ultimately, an inward-focused church will not grow. It may grow in the short term, but not from evangelism. Growth will largely come from people switching churches based on their preferences. But members will also leave when things change, because the most important thing has become: Does the worship experience fit my needs? It is a consumer approach to church.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, knows what it means to be genuinely missional. He planted a congregation in the most gospel-resistant part of the nation’s largest city, in Manhattan. It’s now a multi-site congregation with over 5,000 members. But it’s rather different from most mega-churches. It is confessionally Reformed. The worship employs liturgy and readings. The sermons are deep and doctrinal. The music is mostly classical, with some services that use jazz or contemporary worship songs.

Worship style is not what makes a church missional. Style varies and changes with time. What is more important is being intentional about outreach. A church that makes it their number one priority to reach people with the message of hope and new life in Christ, and embodying that good news in concrete ways—and a church where that is more important than whether I feel comfortable or feel I get all my needs met—that is a missional church.

Tim Keller ministers in a very secular and skeptical context. But in reality, our context here to the southwest of Grand Rapids is heading in the same direction. We can no longer assume that people believe in God or an afterlife. We cannot presume that people will take the Bible as God’s Word. But Keller reminds us that it’s not all about making a rational argument for the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. He emphasizes that we have to show that Christianity makes emotional sense before we can talk about it making rational sense. (By the way, Tim Keller has written an excellent book about how the Christian faith makes sense, entitled, The Reason for God). In other words, we have to show people that the gospel really changes us in order for people to take seriously the claim that the gospel can change their lives. We can show that the good news of Jesus makes “emotional sense” by our hospitality, by our welcoming embrace of our neighbors, by our willingness to tolerate unsanctified language and undisciplined children, by our commitment to persons and families that are deeply broken, and often chronically broken.

Tim Keller talks about six characteristics of a missional church. Stay tuned…I will talk about those six features in the next edition of the Focus!