“Are you sure that we belong in the Christian Reformed Church?” I asked my husband after a weekend conference in which I had bounced between clusters of friends who represented many of the different strands in the denomination. By the end, I felt like I had gone tubing down a rocky river and come out bruised.

Perhaps one of the challenges to the denomination in the 21st century is to learn to live under a Reformed canopy that includes pietists, Kuyperians, doctrinalists, charismatics and more — with appreciation for the emphases God gives to his church through these different perspectives rather sparking fresh internecine battles. We would be fools not to admit that the Reformed tradition has spawned splintering churches. Theological arguments begun in the Netherlands, Scotland and England slid into the Americas and were given fresh grist with a fundamentalist approach to Scripture and a democratic social climate.

In recent decades, theological disputes about women in the church and the approach to Genesis 1-3 have created vigorous arguments and fractured congregations, and left a host of small “purified” denominations. At the same time, Reformed cynicism toward pietism and evangelicalism has encouraged a steady stream of warm-hearted Calvinists to slide into non-Reformed congregations where their knowledge of Scripture is appreciated and their inclination toward praise and worship songs shared.

I flinch at hearing “evangelical” used as short-hand for theologically sloppy, mega-church oriented worship and wince at hearing “Reformed” used to mean abstract doctrinal complexity. But some of my best friends do one or the other. And all of them now probably feel cross at me. I will admit that there is some truth in the negative associations ascribed to each label, yet bristle at those who focus on the worst features. If we insist on using these labels in the most critical and least charitable forms, surely we will shred ourselves to death.

Good News for all People

As a Christian Reformed chaplain serving the University of Northern BC, I seldom found any of the labels for sub-categories of Christians useful.

“Are you a Christian chaplain?” a graduate student asked early in the semester. I affirmed that I was.

“So you believe that I’m going to hell?” was his next comment. Does it matter whether his perspective on Christians was shaped by watching The Simpsons, attending a Salvation Army summer camp as a kid, or listening with half an ear to the Reformed preacher from the pew beside his grandmother?

“I believe that God loves you and me and this screwed up world so much that he became a human — Jesus — in order to fix things,” I answered. “What do you think could fix messed up people in a messed up world?” We sat down and had a very good conversation.

I would argue that my response shows my evangelical tendencies — an insistence that God’s message is good news rooted in Christ — as well as a postmodern inclination to carry on a conversation via questions. (A style of conversation also modeled by Jesus!) The next day I sent a note to a small cluster from the pietistic side of our campus ministry supporters, describing the conversation and asking them to hold this graduate student before the Lord in prayer.

Why should the Reformed patterns that shape my understanding of God and his world —  creation, fall, redemption; covenantal theology; cultural mandates and the Kingdom — be in tension with an evangelical or pietistic warmth of heart? Abraham Kuyper certainly blended the strands.

What would it take to convince one another that it really is good to share charismatic enthusiasm, neoCalvinist drive and rich church liturgies under a broad Reformed umbrella?


  • Virginia Lettinga

    Virginia Lettinga spent two decades teaching art history to university students before spending most of a decade as the CR chaplain at the University of Northern BC in Prince George, BC. Since 2012, she and her husband, Neil have been working as a pastoral team in specialized transitional ministries. Currently they are living in Victoria, B.C.

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