Reforming My Attitude: How a Little Church Made Big Impact

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Those who know me well know that I’ve had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Reformed theology and Reformed churches over the years.  A few bad experiences left me with a chip on my shoulder and festering wounds I like to nurse every now and then with a snarky comment or critical post.

I’ve written about some of my experiences before—meeting a six-year-old forced to memorize and recite the Westminster Confession at dinnertime, nearly losing my faith over the notion that God created the majority of the human population for no other purpose but to suffer in hell for eternity, and encountering the famed ‘Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy” T-shirt in the midst of the so-called “Calvinist resurgence.”

Other experiences have been too personal to write about extensively. When some of my Reformed friends learned that I was reading Clark Pinnock’s work on inclusivism, for example, they called me a “cotton candy Christian” and an “enemy of the Church.” For not embracing all the petals of the TULIP, I’ve been asked, “How can you call yourself a Christian?”

For years, I was under the impression that the Reformed approach to the gospel was best summarized by Mark Driscoll, who has said, “The gospel starts with ‘God hates you’ and it’s going to go really really bad forever” a conclusion that is disturbing, yet pretty faithful to the writings of many Reformed theologians throughout history. 

The Reformed approach to women in leadership, I assumed, was best represented by John Piper, who claims that women are designed by God “to affirm, receive, and nurture the strength and leadership of worthy men,” and that “the Bible summons men to bear the burden of primary leadership, provision, and protection in the home and in the church.”  [In light of his position on gender roles, Piper could not bring himself to endorse Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate in the 2008 election, but conceded that “defending abortion is far worse a sin for a man than serving as Vice President is for a woman.”]

So when my mother-in-law invited me and Dan to attend The Hillsborough Reformed Church at Millstone(New Jersey) with her on Mother’s Day, I did so a bit begrudgingly, bracing for an hour of hellfire and damnation among the “frozen chosen.”

Not only was pleasantly surprised, I was moved to tears.

Founded in 1766, The Hillsborough Reformed Church at Millstone meets in a beautifully restored Federal-style building.  Of the Dutch reformed tradition, it is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America.  The congregation follows the Church calendar, and services are generally traditional in style and format.

I liked that the announcements at the beginning of the service revealed that the church members prioritized care for the poor and suffering and that they participated in regular Bible study. I liked that the congregation said the Lord's Prayer in each service. My interest was further piqued when we sang a beautiful hymn, “O God of Every Nation,” a hymn I rarely hear in the conservative, nationalistic churches down South. The lyrics are incredible:

O God of every nation,
of every race and land,
redeem the whole creation
with your almighty hand;
where hate and fear divide us
and bitter threats are hurled,
in love and mercy guide us
and heal our strife-torn world.

From search for wealth and power
and scorn of truth and right,
from trust in bombs that shower
destruction through the night,
from pride of race and nation
and blindness to your way,
deliver every nation,
eternal God, we pray!

Lord, strengthen all who labor
that we may find release
from fear of rattling saber,
from dread of war's increase;
when hope and courage falter,
your still small voice be heard;
with faith that none can alter,
your servants undergird.

Keep bright in us the vision
of days when war shall cease,
when hatred and division
give way to love and peace,
till dawns the morning glorious
when truth and justice reign
and Christ shall rule victorious
o'er all the world's domain.

And then, to my complete surprise, a woman approached the pulpit to deliver the sermon! Student Minister Pam Bakker preached on Acts 8:26-40—the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. Meticulously well-researched, carefully written, and beautifully delivered, the sermon highlighted why the eunuch’s interest in the writings of Isaiah were of particular significance to his own life story, illustrating the inclusive and deeply personal love that God has for all people. It was both encouraging and challenging, both moving and informational.  For Mother’s Day, it was a strange and yet delightfully appropriate message, communicated by a most fitting messenger. 

Bakker preaches regularly, but because she is a student minister (still in seminary, I presume), the congregation filled out a questionnaire critiquing her sermon. As I filled it out, I marveled that anyone could deny such an intelligent and capable woman the chance to share the gospel before her peers simply because she was a woman. It was genuinely one of the best sermons I had heard in years. 

The Lead Pastor, Rev. Dr. Fred Mueller, concluded by quoting the apostle Paul from Galatians 3, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He said it with such warmth and enthusiasm, it brought tears to my eyes. 

I had finally found a church that emphasized care for the poor, that studied Scripture, that celebrated an end to nationalism, war, and hate, that provided equal opportunities women in leadership, that stayed out of politics, and that spoke of God’s inclusive love for all people....and it was in New Jersey....and it was Reformed! 

God indeed has a very good sense of humor. 

Needless to say, the experience humbled me and forced me to re-examine my own prejudices and assumptions. I’ve been doing some research, and have found that not all Reformed churches are the same and that Mark Driscoll and John Piper do not speak for all of my Reformed brothers and sisters. However, I’m still trying to sort through the differences between PCA, RCA, and if you have any insight on this, please post a comment or a link.  I could use your help! 

The truth is, I’ve been making general statements about something I do not understand that well. My dismissal of all things Reformed came from a place of hurt and frustration, and served as a sort of defense mechanism that protected me from seriously engaging those with whom I disagree.  

The truth is, deep down, I wanted all Reformed churches to be the same. I wanted them all to fit neatly into a box so I could pack them away and label them as “bad” or “sexist” or “other.” Labels make life so much easier. Unfortunately, they are seldom entirely accurate.  

So while I obviously have no plans to subscribe to Mark Driscoll’s blog or buy a “Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy” T-shirt, I’m going to try to be more patient with the Reformed perspective.  It seems I haven’t really heard it in its entirety.

What experiences have led you to re-think old denominational prejudices? What is your understanding of Reformed theology and the Reformed tradition?

Note: Just to clear up some possible confusion - I'm working on reforming my attitude, not my theological position! :-) I remain decidedly Arminian in my perspective. To see why, check out my comments (entitled "Why People Like Calvinism" and "Why I Don't") that follow an older post.) 

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