A lasting image of Synod 2022 of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) is of the synod as gatekeeper, swinging the gate shut on people in same sex marriages, locking it, and saying: No more of that. The same for those who would question whether a belated atonement theology known as “penal substitutionary atonement” is the best way to understand the biblical witness to the cross of Jesus Christ. Synod said: It is; shut the gate; discussion over.
This is not to say that synods should not be gatekeepers. Gatekeeping is an important part of what synods do, not just in 2022 but every year. Synods are about the work of negotiating the center and the circumference of the denomination. It’s the job of synods to ask what do we stand for? Who are we? How large is our tent? Who’s inside and who isn’t? It’s not the gatekeeping that is troubling about Synod 2022; it’s the zeal with which they went about it. Among some delegates, there was an unseemly eagerness to draw lines and to insist that those lines, once drawn, are no longer negotiable.
Some of this eagerness can be chalked up to the particular style and theological orientation of a recent movement known as “New Calvinism,” a movement that has come lately to the CRC. In the post just previous to this one I gave a bit of an introduction to New Calvinism (including the important distinction between New Calvinism and the older, Kuyperian version of Calvinism known as “neo-Calvinism”: https://peripateticpastor.com/2022/08/17/the-new-calvinism-theses-on-denominational-life-2/). In this post, I’ll look at gatekeeping in general and at the importance of gatekeeping for the New Calvinist movement.
Our guide for this task will be Brad Vermurlen. Vermurlen is a sociologist. For his PhD dissertation at Notre Dame, written under the direction of Christian Smith, a scholar well-known for his studies of contemporary evangelical culture, Vermurlen examined the phenomenon of New Calvinism as a religious movement. His study has been published by Oxford University Press as Reformed Resurgence: The New Calvinist Movement and the Battle over American Evangelicalism (2020). The book is much more than sociological monograph. Vermurlen carefully, systematically, takes the measure of the New Calvinist movement.
Two questions are particularly important for the study. The first is whether there actually has been a “Reformed resurgence.” The word “resurgence” Vermurlen takes from the movement itself. Its leaders frequently claim a resurgence of Calvinist conviction in evangelical churches. Part of the charm of using “resurgence” as a way to describe this movement is that it suggests that the New Calvinism is not in fact new but simply a revitalization of an old tradition, a new “awakening.” But is this the case? Is there any evidence that over the past decade and a half a Reformed resurgence has taken place?
Vermurlen’s answer to the question is nuanced. He says that there is little evidence that the membership of Reformed-leaning congregations has grown numerically vis-a-vis the rest of the evangelical world. The percentage of Calvinists compared to other evangelicals has remained fairly constant.
For purposes of comparison, Vermurlen distinguishes four evangelical “tribes”: mainstream evangelicals (think Rick Warren and Saddleback Church), neo-Anabaptists (Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way), progressives (Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and others), and, of course, New Calvinists (Tim Keller, John Piper, and the “Young, Restless, Reformed” crowd). Mainstream evangelicals are the most numerous by far, perhaps three times as many as the largest of the other tribes, the New Calvinists. The other two tribes are smaller by an order of magnitude. These market shares seem stable. The percentage of Reformed churches and leaders among the evangelicals has remained fairly constant, even during the time they were said to be “resurging.” If “resurgence” refers primarily to numbers, there’s not much evidence there has been a Reformed resurgence.
But, argues Vermurlen, numbers don’t count for everything. What counts for more than numbers are power and influence. In terms of power and influence, New Calvinists hit above their numerical weight in the evangelical world. So, the second question for Vermurlen and the focus of the book is why that should be the case. How is it that New Calvinists exercise the power and influence in contemporary evangelicalism greater than their numbers would predict?
To answer the question Vermurlen employs a sociological approach he calls a “field-theoretic model,” a sociological “theory” (it’s not really a theory, as far as I can see) based in part on field theory in physics. It’s best not to get too far into the weeds at this point, but the “field” in field theory is characterized by forces that act on objects in the field. A magnetic field would be an example; the forces of magnetism act on objects in the field. The force fields in Vermurlen’s model are movements in contemporary culture, the magnetic forces with which every church and church leader must contend.
Vermurlen identifies some of the forces that he thinks are important in the rise of the New Calvinism. Among them are “the gender and sexual revolutions . . . since the 1960s,” “the rise of religious pluralism and fluidity,” and the triumph of “the therapeutic approach” to faith and preaching.
If these are the field forces acting on church and church leaders, there are also what Vermurlen calls “discursive opportunities”—opportunities to stake out one’s position in the field. Again, he names three: (1) the advent of the internet, which permitted a new kind of communication; (2) the events of 9/11/2001, which ended the era of good feelings after the end of the Cold War; and (3) and postmodernism and the Emerging Church, which seemed to many to threaten the bedrock absolutes of the faith. The leaders of New Calvinism were well positioned for taking advantage of these opportunities.
These forces and opportunities helped to create the New Calvinist moment. Leaders like John Piper, Tim Keller, and, at the time, Mark Driscoll, each in their own way, used the cultural moment to create strongly counter-cultural messages, and their appeal was precisely that they were counter-cultural. Against the backdrop of the gender and sexual revolutions and in the wake of a culture-shaking event like 9/11/2011, holding up an old, severe, absolute theology seemed the essence of edginess. It may be a bit of a parody, but put tight jeans and the latest sneakers on the preacher, crank up the volume of the music, and shout that it’s time for men to be men and to step up against the whole namby-pamby therapeutic culture of contemporary church seemed a bracingly new message, and people—especially young men looking for an identity—found in it just what they were looking for.
We should be clear about what this analysis tells us. It’s not saying that New Calvinism is not affected by the culture. Quite the contrary. Counter cultural movements, like New Calvinism, often style themselves as outside the culture. Those other people, they say, are the ones bending to the winds of the time, but we are standing firm. The winds don’t touch us. But in fact counter cultural movements depend as much on the winds of the times as do those who go with the flow.
Think of sailing. One can “butterfly” the boat—put out the sails like butterfly wings opposite of each other—and sail with the wind. A sailor will tell you that sailing in that way is hard and usually fast. Most of sailing is into the wind, not directly, of course, but with the wind just off the bow. It’s there that one gets the speed. The Reformed resurgence was just that, a kind of sailing into the wind, using the strength of the wind to drive the ecclesiastical boat in the other direction. But it’s still powered by the wind. It is as much a contemporary cultural movement as anything that it opposes.
Precisely because New Calvinism is oppositional, gatekeeping is built into it. What do New Calvinist preachers and writers do? In the face of what’s happening in the broader culture, they assert the old faith. Or, rather, their version of the old faith, tailored to the times. They claim the legacy of Calvinism, but it’s their version of Calvinism.
It’s important in this regard to understand two things about Calvinism. One is that Calvinism is not and has never been a monolithic movement. There are Calvinists and there are Calvinists. Even John Calvin himself can be read in different ways. The second thing to know about Calvinism is that in its full-blown development, it is enormously complex.
In the time after Calvin (and even during Calvin’s time), Calvinist theology was articulated into a more and more complex system. Debates were held, for example, about the order of God’s eternal decrees: did God first decide whom to save and whom to leave to eternal punishment or did God first decide to create a world and then whom to choose? Supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism. Covenants were articulated: the covenant of redemption (between God the Father and God the Son), the covenant of works (between God and Adam), the covenant of grace (between God the Father and Jesus Christ), and sometimes more. Imputations multiplied: Adam’s sin imputed to Adam’s descendants, human sin imputed to Jesus, and the righteousness of Jesus imputed to believers. Distinctions were made and distinctions added to the distinctions. None of this was actually biblical. At a certain point the system was driven less and less by reading the Bible and more and more by the internal logic of the system itself. Biblical texts were attached to the various points in the Calvinist system, but they were attached secondarily. The system grew, morphed, got complicated. Very complicated.
This is part of the appeal of Calvinism, especially to a certain kind of theological nerd. I once attended the examination of a candidate for the ministry at which one of the members of the classis asked the bewildered candidate how many imputations there were in Reformed theology. No one, not the candidate, nor the other pastors in the room, nor anyone else, could come up with more than three. The questioner wanted four. I have since forgotten what the fourth was. This sheer complication with all its fine distinctions and long simmering debates lends itself to gatekeeping. It rewards those who can say with assurance, that way of thinking is right and that way is wrong.
Using the language of sociological literature, Vermurlen notes that this sort of gatekeeping is strategic: “. . . New Calvinist leaders . . . strategically position themselves as the rightful gatekeepers of their fields established ‘orthodoxy,’ functioning as if they had real authority to claim which other players are ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the American Evangelical field.” “Their concern,” says Vermurlen, “is: who really, truly is an evangelical Christian, and who, despite what they might say, is not?” (italics original) New Calvinists have positioned themselves to be the gatekeepers. They rule on who and what is in and out.
Vermurlen gives a couple of examples of this sort of gatekeeping. He names first Rob Bell, once the pastor of the other, completely independent, Mars Hill Church, this one in Grand Rapids and filled with ex-CRC people. In 2011, Bell wrote Love Wins. Before it hit the bookstores, he teased it with a video in which he wondered about the eternal fate of Mahatma Gandhi. The video went viral. It was the video, as much as the book, that called out the New Calvinists.
When the book appeared, it trotted out an old idea, one suggested by, among others, C. S. Lewis: the idea of an intermediate place between heaven and hell where one could still choose life over death—“purgatory” by another name. Primed by the video, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) crowd was waiting, knives in hand. Kevin De Young, a young TGC star, quickly wrote a 20 page review amply condemning the book.
It worked. In the last congregation I served as an interim pastor I was told not to mention Rob Bell from the pulpit. The word was out: Rob Bell is outside the pale, not proper fare for serious Christians. I’m not sure many members of that congregation had ever read his books but that’s just the point: no need to read Love Wins; we know it’s wrong. The gatekeepers have told us so.
A second example: World Vision. In 2014, World Vision, the popular humanitarian aid agency, announced that it was changing its employment policy to allow employees to be in same sex as well as opposite sex marriages. The requirement for their employees would simply be that they be married. There was an immediate and fierce backlash. De Young, again, blasted away at the proposal. He said in apocalyptic tones, “We are entering the days and the decade of a great shifting and sifting of Evangelicalism,” calling the World Vision change of policy, “a capitulation” (quoted from Vermurlen, Reformed Resurgence, 200). World Vision quickly backed off its proposal.
Much of the power of the New Calvinism lies in this style of gatekeeping—the eager drawing of lines. These lines may have little effect on, say, Rob Bell. His books still sell. He travels with the likes of Oprah. What it does affect are the churches that hear the insinuation that Rob Bell is somehow outside the pale. His name becomes an accusation, a byword. I carry no brief here for Rob Bell’s theology one way or the other (although I once wrote an essay on how to read the Bible for a companion volume to Love Wins.) But the questions Bell raises are serious questions. They deserve a deeper conversation in the church. Slamming the gate on him makes the evangelical church poorer.
It’s this same style of gatekeeping that was much in evidence at Synod 2022. Synod was concerned to rule things in and rule things out. Rule in penal substitutionary atonement; rule out those who would question it, even though in the New Testament and in the broader church penal substitutionary atonement is something of an outlier. Rule in the idea that same sex marriage is always wrong; rule out those who would read the biblical texts differently. Rule in those who read the Bible as the inerrancy crowd dictates; rule out those who would read the Bible in other ways.
Which brings me back to gatekeeping itself. I began this essay by saying that gatekeeping is a legitimate function of synods. The history of the Christian Reformed Church is replete with examples of synodical gatekeeping, some wise and some not. Some instances led to greater clarity and unity for the church; some left a long legacy of bitterness. Reflecting on that long history led me back one more time to mine own experience of synodical gatekeeping and perhaps to a bit of wisdom. It’s to that I turn. Indulge me.
In two notable instances, I was the singular subject of synodical gatekeeping. In the first, in 1981, the synod decided that my reading of the early chapters of Genesis was a step too far for the denomination. They ruled me out. Or, at least, partially so. What the synod decided was not to present me to the churches as a candidate for the office of Minister of the Word.
So the synod decided in 1981, but the church had not yet fully made up its mind. The first sign of this came immediately after synod had made its decision. A group of men—at that time, synods were exclusively men—gathered around me in the parking lot of the Calvin Fine Arts Center to pray for me and to encourage me to stay. In subsequent days, my classis and my congregation signaled their determination to stand with me, and when five years later I went back to the synod, still others stepped up to sponsor my candidacy The decision was reversed.
In retrospect, there is much to be learned from that sort of gatekeeping. Although I didn’t think then and don’t think now that Synod 1981 had warrant to reject my candidacy, I recognize that it was an early attempt by the denomination to come to terms with how to read the Bible. As is almost always the case, the first reaction from the church to anything new is to reject it. But the rejection was not final. Over the five years between Synod 1981’s rejection of my candidacy and Synod 1986’s acceptance of it, the position of the church shifted subtly. Nothing official changed, but in 1986 for whatever reason there was more room in the church for my reading of Genesis. And by now, what I said at Synod 1981 is standard fare.
Perhaps the lesson here is that we should always see gatekeeping in terms of both exclusion and inclusion. Or, better, whenever possible, exclusion on the way to inclusion. Synods do have to make decisions about what is in and what is not. Such decisions perforce exclude. They must do so. And exclusion is always painful.
While Synod 1981 debated my candidacy in executive session, I, excluded from the discussion inside the auditorium, waited outside the doors. No one much talked to me. Hours later the doors burst open, and the delegates rushed out on their way to dinner. No one bothered to give me official notice of what they had decided. They simply rushed out of the doors, ignorning me. As they rushed, I overheard a delegate tell someone else that I had been rejected. It was poorly handled, and, yes, it was painful.
The action of synod signified exclusion: my views were not the views of the church. But exclusion in my case was quickly tempered by inclusion. Those who gathered around me in the parking lot and those who kept faith with me in my congregation and my classis urged me to remain in the denomination. They told by words and actions that I belonged. They suggested that the conversation was not over, as indeed it was not. I am writing this, and you are reading it, because that conversation was not over.
Synod 2022 had the opportunity to do something like this. The synod took strong action against Neland Avenue Church, a historic Grand Rapids congregation. Neland Avenue had appointed a woman in a same-sex marriage as a deacon. Synod demanded that Neland Avenue “immediately rescind its decision to ordain a deacon in a same-sex marriage, thus nullifying this deacon’s current term,” further demanding that the congregation “uphold our shared denominational covenants and procedures as laid out in the Church Order and the Covenant for Officebearers.” To ensure compliance with these rulings, the synod instructed “the Executive Director to appoint a committee in loco.” A committee in loco is a special synodical committee empowered to carry out the will of the synod.
The vote on these matters was not close. After the vote, devastating as it was for the Neland congregation, the chair of synod gave Dr. Larry Louters time to address the synod. Louters was a delegate to synod from Classis Grand Rapids East and also the chair of the Neland Avenue council. In his speech, he took a largely conciliatory tone, expressing the continued loyalty of Neland Avenue Church to the denomination and acknowledging at the same time the pain that these decisions would cause for the congregation. They needed time, he said, to heal and decide.
Had Synod 2022 been wiser, they would have at that moment formed the equivalent of the prayer circle in the parking lot after I had been rejected for candidacy. They would have prayed their way towards reconciliation. They would have affirmed that as much as the bonds of belonging had been stretched over the previous days and the decisions of synod, the bonds still held.
In fairness, sentiments like these were indeed expressed on the floor of synod. Later. But before anyone could respond to Louters, before, in fact, he had finished his speech, a delegate jumped up and shouted for Louters to stop. He said, “We have just made a decision, and you have the gall to say that you are not going to abide by it. Please stop.” After a few confused and confusing moments, Louters was allowed to finish his speech. When it was done, another delegate stood to propose that disciplinary proceedings be begun against Louters. This delegate was ruled out of order, but by this time, the fragile unity of the synod had been frayed to the breaking point.
Gatekeeping is always about belonging. Who belongs; who doesn’t. What belonging means. On display in the Neland debate were two quite different ideas about belonging. The one, the older of the two in the CRC, was that belonging has the nature of sort of extended family. Neland Avenue has been a church in the CRC for more than a hundred years. A long list of CRC luminaries have graced its pulpit and its pews. This is the belonging of long continuity—a faithfulness over the years.
In this kind of belonging there is room for disagreement. Not every member of the family will have the same point of view. There will be conflicts. There will be times when the bonds of belonging are stretched, it would seem, too far, and the family may split apart. Even then the members of the family belong. Belonging in this view precedes and underlies agreement. It’s to this sort of belonging Jesus seems to be pointing when he says, “By this they will know you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:35).
But at Synod 2022 this was not the only or perhaps the primary idea of belonging on view. For others, the long story of the denominational family is of little consequence. Belonging is not a story told over time, but doctrinal agreement. Agreement, in this view, precedes belonging. A denomination is first of all what it thinks. If the denomination thinks that sex between same sex partners is always wrong, then anyone who doesn’t think the same way or act in accordance with that belief no longer belongs. If a denomination thinks that penal substitutionary atonement is the best way to understand the cross of Jesus Christ, then anyone who thinks differently should go to another church or file a gravamen.
It’s this sort of gatekeeping that is at the heart of New Calvinism. New Calvinists are nothing if not sure of their opinions and sure that what’s most important to God is the doctrinal purity of the church. What’s ironic about this is that this approach to unity, despite the New Calvinist claim that they are simply following the Bible, is not in the spirit of the Bible at all. For the Bible belonging is covenantal. Not covenantal in the sense it has come to be used in Reformed theology but what the Bible has in mind by covenant: the commitment of God to God’s own people and the commitment of God’s own people to God. The faithfulness that is required by covenant is not theological—ideas about God—but personal. The Old Testament word for this is ḥesed, “loyalty.” In the New Testament, ḥesed becomes ‘agapē, “love.”
The great question hanging over the New Testament and the Second Temple era generally is whether in the face of the massive unfaithfulness of God’s people God would keep ḥesed. The Christian answer is yes, the yes of the cross. It’s this Paul says at a key point in his argument in Romans: “Now apart from the law [Torah], the righteousness of God has been manifested . . . through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. . . .” The “righteousness of God” is God’s faithfulness. When we get it wrong, God gets it right. God’s loyalty does not depend on our loyalty. This is the most essential Reformed insight. Again, Paul in Romans: “While we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Here’s the point for our denominational life. The God we worship is a God of inclusion, not exclusion. If God is faithful even to those who get it wrong, should not we seek to be faithful to each other, even when we think someone does not think or act in the way we think to be right? Which is first: belonging or righteousness, our righteousness? Somehow, it seems to me, we have turned things upside down. The question that faces the CRC is whether we can once again put it right side up.