Straightjacket Christianity


The following article is written by guest blogger Paul Jubenvill, a friend of mine and a dear brother in Christ.  Both of us were born outside of the Canadian Reformed Churches and raised in different churches… and there is no Dutch heritage in either of us! Because of these things we often joke that we feel like Gentiles among the Jews as we struggle to learn new customs and traditions. Many of these customs and traditions are beautiful, some cause us to smile, and others we question.  Regardless of these customs and traditions, within the Canadian Reformed Churches we certainly find the true gospel of Jesus Christ preached and defended. This heartfelt article demonstrates the faithfulness of our Father in heaven in his sovereign love, grace and mercy, and it also reveals the struggles of trying to fit in to a new sub-culture of Christianity. I hope you enjoy this article.

Straightjacket Christianity By Paul Jubenvill

I was raised in a church that doesn’t take a name, but is known by outsiders as the “Two by Twos.”  I was a zealous member of this group. We were not allowed to read or listen to Christian material outside of our fellowship—any such material would be “false.”

The so-called gospel that I tried to embrace involved the possibility of Jesus saving me in the future if I would only open the door of my heart to God.

I was frustrated and despairing under this system, because I was a slave to sin and could never seem to give God what He required.

My church and my conscience kept telling me to just stop sinning, but why would I stop? I loved my sin, and I had a pocketful of lies that seemed justification enough to continue. Only a series of earthquakes sent by Almighty God would shake me out of this slavery. One after another, God’s chastening blows knocked me down—in mercy, for my salvation.

At the same time, I began to hear something of the doctrines of grace from my brother, who evidently comprehended them by reading the Bible. Eventually, I permitted myself to read “false” Christian books. The first one that amazed me was “The Holiness of God”  by R.C. Sproul.

I found a John Piper article called, “What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism“. I showed my brother, and he said, “It’s everything we already knew from the Bible.”

This “new” Gospel was the one that I found freedom in. It wasn’t impossible, because it depended on God’s faithfulness, not my own. Slowly, I began to see the fruits of repentance in my life.

Throughout this time, I visited many different churches, and was mostly disappointed by how shallow they were. After studying the denominations, I decided that the Reformed/Presbyterian/Calvinist path was the Biblical one. I typed “reformed church cloverdale” into Google, and the first hit was the Cloverdale Canadian Reformed Church. I read the confessions and listened to the sermons, and I knew that’s where we belonged.

In 2008, I started attending the Canadian Reformed Church as a regular visitor. As far as I knew at the time, I was under no obligation to be there. I was there because I was eager to hear the gospel, and I loved the privilege of marching into the sanctuary of God, as it were, calling him “Father,” and singing his praises. My boys and I sat at the front every week, because this was the first institution I’d ever encountered where the Head of the organization had personally reserved a seat for an undesirable like me.

After a year, I publicly professed my faith, and my sons were baptized in the same church.

As time went by, I learned that the Canadian Reformed Church has an extensive set of Biblical doctrines and healthy traditions. I investigated each one in turn as I encountered them. I got in trouble for taking one of my boys’ friends to the corner store on a Sunday. I was rebuked by my elder for believing that one service might be enough some Sundays. I’m growing fond of eating dessert before eating soup. I love listening to the covenant promises recited for an infant who is receiving baptism. I’m developing new good habits and discarding old bad habits.

More time has passed, and I’m a much better conformist. I know more of the doctrines and traditions, and I understand why most of them exist. I’m fitting in.


I’ve also observed that it’s possible for Canadian Reformed members to have an impeccable stance in doctrine and a religious adherence to traditions, but miss the very Spirit that ought to be behind these things. We go to church because it’s our duty (and so it is), but not because our heart burns to be there out of passion for the Gospel. We do all the right things—send our kids to catechism and the Christian school, have devotions before or after meals, attend two services every Sunday, pray with our spouses—but we rarely express a genuine, heartfelt care about God or why the Gospel personally matters to us.

As I seek to “put on” a Canadian Reformed identity, I feel something like a straightjacket pulling over my soul, threatening to snuff the passion that first drew me to the true Gospel.

My identity is Christ.

I’ll call him “Master” under the roof of the Canadian Reformed Church, because there I find true doctrine and healthy traditions, but I must not hide behind a denominational zeal, be it a Canadian Reformed zeal or otherwise, and miss the Spirit of Christ.

Is the essence of our Christianity a calculated adherence to formulas, or is the essence of our Christianity the Spirit of Christ: love for God and love for our neighbor?

May God graciously prevent us from being content with the correctness of our external conformity.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy these other “Canadian Reformed Church” related articles:

I am Passionate and Frustrated

A Lonely Christian

Why Cities Matter (and let’s plant a church in Burnaby)

The Canadian Reformed Creation Debate

Women’s Voting Rights in the Canadian Reformed Churches

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  1. “I’ve also observed that it’s possible for Canadian Reformed members to have an impeccable stance in doctrine and a religious adherence to traditions, but miss the very Spirit that ought to be behind these things.”
    This makes me think, what would happen if that were said aloud in a congregational meeting. Would the question be met with a, “yes, we could be more exuberant, let’s work on it”, or, “what do you want arms waving during singing, street corner preaching”? I’d say, “Yes, a little of that might be a start”.

  2. Linda says:

    You have hit the nail on it’s proverbial head! I really don’t know where this jacket comes from but it’s there, alive and well, and very daunting! Stifling! I grew up Can Ref, and this has been a major hurdle/struggle for me. My heart is so warmed by those who glow from within, and where holiness/life is not just a head matter. My biggest struggle is that so often head folk,have the same urge to glow but seem so shackled by rules it dulls the inner glow to a set of do’s and don’ts!
    Most would strenuously deny my categorization, or blame it on a tradition/heritage of Dutch ‘keep your feelings to yourself’.
    Thankfully, in the midst of it all there are those who radiate the Spirit- who glow from deep within – and who give me hope for a changed face on the Can Ref, that and a new generation of those willing to share that change.
    I wish you could have met one such soul – who now lives in glory with His Saviour ! George Leffers -to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for his faithful and genuine unstoppable ‘glow’

  3. Minnie Meyer says:

    Much food for thought and I can identify with what you are saying, there is much room for improvement.

  4. Nicole says:

    Great article and definitely food for thought. I struggle with this too, being a “cradle” Can Reffer …. as a matter of fact, just had this conversation recently at a bible study …I would love the freedom to lift my hands in praise during (some!) of our singing in church, but feel I can’t. Shouldn’t. Etc. Wish I could clap sometimes …. wish I could echo an “amen” to prayers that really resonate within my soul. Yes, some might say “just say amen in your head” or “clap in your head” …. but it’s not the same!!! Wondering how things can change …..

  5. Mike Vandergugten says:

    Thanks for a great and thought provoking post Paul. It reminds me of the sermon series from John MacArthur, The Tale of Two Sons, aka The Prodigal Son. I identify with the older brother, being prone to spiritual pride. I agree we must search our hearts when we go through the good routines and orderliness of the Reformed polity and doctrine. In the words of John Piper, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” We can’t help praising things we like or enjoy. We tell someone about this amazing new piece of music or this delicious recipe or some amazing view or we praise the weather. We can’t help ourselves! So God wants us to enjoy Him. It completes our joy! It is its appointed end! (This was taken from John Piper’s sermon God is Most Glorified in Us When We Are Most Satisfied in Him and excerpts from C.S. Lewis.)
    It’s not megalomania when God commands us to praise Him because He is the only thing that truly satifies and God knows that if we praise Him our joy will be complete. To God alone be the glory!

  6. AZ says:

    I can identify with the straightjacket idea. Although, fish sometimes can’t see water. If you’re born into a straightjacket, that’s your normal. You might not stop to think about it. My biggest concern with the traditions of the Reformed community is that is prone to stifle the creative work of the Holy Spirit. There is a cultural structure created around the doctrines to protect them but people begin to place their faith in the structure and not in God. They find their comfort in the structure, they find their identity in it. The structure is what makes them different (better) from their fellow believers in the greater Body of Christ. We see God working throughout the Bible in unconventional ways but the Reformed system doesn’t create the room for God work in His creative ways. It’s as if the structure (box) was set up and we ask that God would please work within the bounds of that structure. Am I saying structure isn’t necessary? Of course not, but I’ve seen that it has a tendency to become an idol.

  7. Bill and Liz Oostdyk says:

    Good article, we need to lighten up a little and let our joy show more. What Christ has done for us should give us great joy and that should come out more. When we attend church in the US there is a whole different atmosphere. People talk about their faith more and are not afraid to express their joy in the Lord.

  8. Joel says:

    Thanks for this blog post, Paul, this is a really important conversation to be having!

    Something I think we need to keep in mind is that while attention to form and doctrine is often present where joy is lacking, doctrine and formal liturgy don’t necessarily drive out joy — I’m sure I’m not the only one who has met with wonderful examples of Christian joy in both the CanRC and other, similarly formal Reformed churches. Some of the other commenters here (e.g. Nicole, Mike V.) are right when they identify cultural elements as the stifling straitjacket Paul describes.

    At the end of the blog post there is a dilemma set up: do we choose adherence to formulas or love for God? Part of the problem in CanRC society as Paul has described it is that this is thought of as a choice, as two different things — and they ought not to be. 1 John 4 is part of a beautiful sermon on the love of God that ought also to fill His people, and its application arrives at the beginning of 1 John 5 in verse 3, where John writes “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” Love and obedience, passion and structure, are both at their height when they are inseparable.

    I think that more than anything else we need to be taught to see and share the joy in obedience.

    • adopted3 says:

      Joel, I appreciate your comment. I agree… it doesn’t need to be (shouldn’t be!) an either/or thing. There is love, there is duty, there is diligence, and these things work together.

  9. Rob Schouten says:

    I appreciate the perspective provided by Paul and by some of the comments, too. Growing up in the faith is an amazing gift of God’s grace. It also presents temptations of complacency and spiritual pride. This is a problem not only for Reformed people but for believers of whatever background and culture. Even charismatic Christians have their own “cultural straitjacket.” For them, too, there are ways of being Christian and worshipping God which have become tradition. Some of their youth find refuge from their more experiential heritage in the high liturgy of Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism. So the problem, as I see it, is not the straitjacket of Reformed doctrine and worship; rather, the problem is simply one of stagnation. Being lukewarm, becoming worldly or losing our first love are dangers ever present for the Christian church. We find them identified already in Rev. 2 and 3 where Christ addresses the seven churches of Asia Minor. The solution provided by the Lord Jesus is not to look to another tradition or try out a new worship style. Instead, the answer proclaimed in the seven letters is one word: repentance. When you grow up in the faith and begin to take the faith for granted, you need to turn away from this sin and embrace Christ all over again! For some edifying reading on this matter, consider this book:

  10. cecile says:

    …and not to forget that being joyful is not only ‘feeling joyful’ or speaking about our joy but actually living it through action. What I mean is helping the sick, visiting the lonely, spending time with the distressed. We can get all caught up with ‘feelings’ but being joyful in the practical day to day routines of life in how we relate to others can easily become side tracked.

  11. Darren says:

    I used to believe that the the Can Ref was a church with strict doctrine that everyone knew, but did not want to put into practice. That all the cliches in the world were sufficient; we just needed to know them for when we went to church on Sundays and when we decided ‘we had time’ for spouting them in the occasional bible study.

    Then I realized that I was merely only speaking for myself. And if I could spend my time not in church speaking, reading and delving into sports and everyone knew my love for them, but did not do the same for God…. then I have an idol and I’ve merely been dressing it up in colourful ‘I need my time too’ or, ‘It’s not bad to have other interest’ arguments.

    So… I worked on changing. And I started speaking of my love for God, and really trying to live it. And what did I find? I found that others in my community HAD the love of Christ written on their heart, and truly yearned for his Word. I was just awash with my own sinful, selfish desires that I espoused my feelings on others. And I found there were others in my age group who want to speak of Him, but simply didn’t know how. It’s one thing to know the right words, but it’s quite another to have the passion behind the words and being brave enough to put that passion to words without fear.

    The Can Ref. can come across as ‘straight jacket’ and there indeed is some of that in reality. But there are also those who love the Lord and show it in so many ways. Talk about God, and what he does for you. Talk about him, and how you struggle with your sin to your brethen. Treat each other with love and kindness first, without judgement, and you will see that man/woman in the pew beside you isn’t dead as you believe.

    The Can Reformers are not dead. Sometimes they have forgotten on to speak and live it however.