Reverend Rensselaer (Ren) Broekhuizen graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary with a Bachelor of Divinity (Master of Divinity equivalent) in 1961. Ren was privileged to study under the seminary’s early faculty) including Drs. Cornelius Van Til and John Murray. He was a founding pastor of Ridge Point Community Church in Holland, Michigan. Ren also served congregations of the Christian Reformed Church in Florida and Pennsylvania and as a missionary in Liberia, West Africa.
In February 2021, Westminster’s Dr. John Currie sat down with Rev. Ren Broekhuizen to discuss his calling to pastoral ministry and the mission field, engagement with public theology, and advice for the next generation of pastors. The interview has been lightly compressed and edited for this issue.
John Currie: Welcome to this conversation on pastoral theology with Dr. Ren Broekhuizen. My name is John Currie, and I have the privilege of serving as the Dean of Pastoral Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. Today, we have the wonderful opportunity of having a conversation with my good friend Ren. We hope it will be an encouragement to pastors and leaders as we draw on some of Ren's experiences and perspectives during his years as a pastor, missionary, and leader of leaders. Ren, we're so glad to be with you.
Ren Broekhuizen: Thank you, John. I'm happy to be here.
John Currie: Ren, can you please tell us about how the Lord brought you into ministry?
Ren Broekhuizen: What attracted me [to ministry] was the three pastors I had growing up. One was a little roly-poly guy who managed to make people smile in a very dignified church. Another was the pastor I modeled my life after. I came from a wonderful Christian home with wonderful Christian parents. I attended Christian day schools, and my life centered on the church. But there was a lot of conflict, anger, and distance in the home. And so that pastor was the one I wanted to be. In fact, in my ministry, I'm a lot like him. The third pastor was all business who had great teaching and presence.
I started my university studies as a civil engineering student. At that time, I made a profession of faith at my home church. As the elders examined me, they said, "We've been watching you and feel that you have the gifts for ministry." Well, that made me think. When I returned to school, I dropped a civil engineering course and began taking a Latin course where a seminarian asked, "Ren, have you ever thought about becoming a pastor?" The next semester I started Greek, German, Dutch, and history courses, and it went well. The Lord then led me to finish university and come to Westminster.
John Currie: And we're so glad you did. Your story illustrates the point of this interview. In your experience, modeling [after other pastors] was part of the incentive, and you said, "I want to be a pastor."
Ren Broekhuizen: When I preach, I always take a minute at the beginning of the service and explain, "I'm thankful to see young people here. You can serve Jesus in any way in your life. And one of the ways you can serve him is by being a pastor. And maybe you ought to think about that."
When I was in university, other seminary students all had the call. One was there because his uncle died in a car accident. Another one just heard the Lord speaking. I felt guilty because I never felt that. But when I looked at myself, I knew that I loved Jesus, people, and studying. I just loved to be with people. A few times where I was able to speak, the results were good. I thought, "How can I best use my abilities for Jesus?" And it seemed that becoming a pastor was the best way.
John Currie: So, tell us about your first ministry experiences. What did you learn?
Ren Broekhuizen: My first experience was after my second year at Westminster. I wanted to learn how to preach, so I wrote to seven churches in Canada that had no pastors and asked, "If you let me preach and live in the parsonage, I will preach for free." One church wrote back and said, "In three weeks, we have a pastor coming from the Netherlands. You can come for three weeks." The pastor didn't come for 13 weeks. The congregation was made up of 800 Dutch immigrants. My concept of ministry included morning study and afternoon visits with church members. That's what I did, week after week. I came to love those people. When the people said goodbye to me at the end of the summer, nobody said, "Your sermons were fantastic." But almost everyone said, "You were on my farm. You watched me milk. You came to Toronto, when I was in the hospital. You visited my daughter when she wanted to marry a non-Christian."
My next experience was in Florida as an ordained pastor with a home-missions church that just experienced a split. The home missions board asked me to go because I was one of the older, mature students at 28. Here, I saw what a fractured church could be and felt what it was like to be mistrusted. It was tough work there.
After that, I was at another church just south of Pittsburgh as a home missionary. That was sweet because none of them were from my background. People came because they were thirsty for the word. I had nothing to offer except the word. It was a good time; they loved us, and I loved them.
John Currie: There is a common theme of love running through your pastoral ministry. Paul says in 1 Timothy that the goal of our instruction is love. It seems to me [your experience is] a great example for our younger guys.
Ren Broekhuizen: In the old expression, "I don't care what you know until I know that you care."
John Currie: Exactly. Ren, I know that your ministry was infused with a heart for evangelism and loving lost people. Can you talk about how the Lord led you to shift from being a pastor to a missionary?
Ren Broekhuizen: For as long as I can remember, I had the call to be a world missionary. I grew up in a big church and loved it there. One Sunday night, the church commissioned a missionary nurse to go to Nigeria. I thought, "Wow, that is one way to serve the Lord." During my senior year in university, a missionary came and shared how hard it was and how her children cried to be with their parents. At that time, when you went on world missions, you sent your children away to a mission school. So, when I got married, I faltered and didn't trust the Lord. I had five children in six years and thought my goal was to rear my children. When my youngest started university, I started thinking about my call.
One night, I read about a mission field in Africa where no one knew the gospel. The field was funded but had no one to go. I said, "Lord, I'm ready to go." So, we went to Liberia in West Africa.
John Currie: How old were you when you made that shift?
Ren Broekhuizen: I was 50. And at the time, I was at this church that loved us; and we loved them. But after ten years [of ministry], I thought, "Everything's in place." The church was growing, and everything was fine, but I knew there were people elsewhere who hadn't heard the gospel. Some great missionary said, "I don't want people to hear it twice until everyone has heard it once."
John Currie: I think of Paul's words to Timothy, ". . .so that all may see your progress." Sometimes pastors get seasoned in ministry and think, "well, I'm done growing." But to me, your experience is a wonderful example of wanting the Lord to lead your life, ministry, and leadership.
You shared with me that after ministering some time in Liberia, you had a dramatic departure. Could you tell us a little about that?
Ren Broekhuizen: Well, I don't like to talk about it too much because it might sound heroic. We lived out in a little village with about 250 people, about an hour's drive from Sierra Leone's border. Then civil war came, and every Monday morning, we would pray, "Lord, shall we stay this week?" And so, we stayed. We didn't have a car or radio, and there weren't cell phones, of course. We were out of contact, but that's how we wanted to live; the way the people there lived. A missionary who was leaving left his truck for us, and we parked it behind the house so the soldiers wouldn't see it. One week, the rebels were coming from the Ivory Coast, and the Liberian soldiers were coming through our village, which was caught in the middle.
I looked at my wife, and she had been so nervous. She was covered with a red rash. And I remember praying, "Lord, what do you want from her? Do you want more?" And instead of praying, "Should we stay?" We prayed, "Should we leave?" So, we left early in the morning and drove up to Sierra Leone, where we had a lot of trouble at the border. Because we never paid bribes, it took a long time. We met somebody at the border whom we befriended in Liberia, and he told us where to stay in Freetown. We also met eight people crammed in an old yellow taxi who were escaping the soldiers. We gave them most of our gas and lunch because they were without food and gas for two days. When we got to Freetown, we had to buy $200 worth of Liberian money to be considered legal. It was about 20 leones to the dollar, so we ended up with these big packs of bills. When we stopped to ask for directions, I would give them a pack of bills. When we got to Sierra Leone, we asked a cop for directions to the capital. He ended up riding with us, and we gave him a couple of packs. And that's how we got there.
John Currie : You've told me these stories before, and I love them because, for me, your experience and missionary heart are foundational to how the Lord used you to work with leaders and speak to things in the public square.
Let me transition a little bit and ask how you navigated pastoring leaders who were professionals or academic leaders. What have you learned that you would pass on to younger pastors as they work with leaders?
Ren Broekhuizen: It's so clear that when we give ourselves to the Lord, he does lead us. Psalm 23 tells us, "He leads us in the paths of righteousness." In my second church in Pennsylvania, I was resolved that every time I spoke, I would never speak without mentioning Jesus. One afternoon I sat down to study, and a lady from the church called. She just found out her husband was homosexual, and she was devastated. We talked for two hours. When I hung up the phone, I said, "Jesus, you know, I want to be a scholar, but your people keep interrupting me. So, I commit myself to your word. I am going to focus on you, study the word, love the word and let you speak through it." And that's what I did. When I came to another church where seven of the twelve elders had a PhD or an MD, they would visit me and talk to me about the church. I would always say the same thing, "I don't have anything to offer you except the gospel. I can't give you great thoughts, but I will give you the word." And I found out that's what people were looking for.
I struggled through philosophy and theology. I remember trying to read Tillich and Bultmann and thought, "What are they talking about?" But I understand the Bible. The Bible is so rich, and that's what attracted the people.
John Currie: I think that's one of the great opportunities and challenges of Westminster; to build on the foundation of rigorous study and translate it to pastoral ministry for real people in their real world, as the Lord enabled you to do for decades.
Ren Broekhuizen: And that's all I had to offer. I went to a lot of national meetings and met several highly placed government officials. When I would sit next to them at the dinner table, I wouldn't say, "Well, what do you think about what's going on over there?" I didn't know what was going on over there! But I would ask, "How long have you been married? What are your kids like? Do you have a dog?" And they would talk all night long. That's who we have to be. I love theology because it tells me about the Lord, but people are looking for relationships. They want to know that they matter.
John Currie:As a pastor, how did you decide to engage with issues of civic concern or what we are calling public theology?
Ren Broekhuizen: When I was 10 or 12 years old, there was talk in our house about starting a Christian university in Philadelphia to rival secular universities. And that was based on the quote from Kuyper: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" We grew up knowing that quote just like we knew the pledge of allegiance. We knew that we would use our lives to serve God in the best way that we could. So, when you start looking at life [in this way], the gospel speaks to every area.
When the public learned that one of President Johnson's staff members was homosexual, I prayed for that staff member on the following Sunday, that we would be cared for and come to see how God loved him. People left the church because [they thought] you weren't supposed to do that. At another church, some people were racist, and I said, "These doors will close if everyone is not welcome." If you're going to preach the word and speak of where your people are, you're going to get involved in all sorts of issues. People say that pastors shouldn't talk about political issues. But the gospel is political. We don't mind giving our people directions not to steal. We don't mind giving them directions about having safe marriages. We have to give them directions and prepare them to handle all the day's major issues.
John Currie: I know that sometimes you have written a letter to a paper after reading with a column or story on ana public issue. How do you decide when and what to write?
Ren Broekhuizen: For every letter that I wrote to the newspaper, I probably wrote privately to three or four people. I do a lot behind the scenes. But when I think it's time for the community to hear what the Bible really says, I will write. Someone just objected to the newspaper regarding a neighbor who had a sign that says, "Jesus is Lord over our city." They said, "We can't have that. We have to be inclusive." So, very carefully and gently, I plan to say, "Jesus is Lord over our city, whether we acknowledge him or not."
John Currie: One of the things that I've picked up from you is valuing the person even though you plan to disagree with their position or policy. Could you share how you learned that?
Ren Broekhuizen: [I learned] from studying the scriptures and looking at Jesus. I pray, "Jesus, help me to be instinctively accepting the way you were." Jesus threaded the needle between accepting people without approving them. And that's one of my words that I live by. I accept every person I meet, but that does not mean I approve of them. I've had to explain to people who say, "Oh so you think it's all right. . ." and reply, "No, what they're doing is wrong, but that is a person made in the image of God. That person is going to spend eternity somewhere, and so, I accept them." I have longtime friends who are homosexual. We have agreed to differ, but they are people, and I am waiting for the Lord to open their eyes to the way he has created them. I spent time with a businessman who accepted Jesus and quit using drugs after nine years of using. He said to me, "Ren, I'd still be using if you hadn't been willing to hang with me." And so, I pray, "Help me instinctively to love every person I meet and still be able to testify to the truth."
John Currie: One of the clearest texts we have in the New Testament for the church to engage in public theology is in 1 Timothy 2, where Paul instructs Timothy to pray and lists those in governing authority. When you were pastoring, how did you think through and pray for people in authority?
Ren Broekhuizen: I grew up hearing my father praying every night for all those in authority over us. I grew up hearing my pastor pray for those in government and those making decisions. Beyond prayer, there were state assemblymen and state representatives in the church. We knew others who went into the government who wanted to let their light shine, to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. And so, we always prayed, voted, and encouraged people to vote. I support Christians in government and believe that a person has to stand for what he believes. As an example, if you're running for office, say, "I believe that abortion is killing an innocent human being. If you believe that, vote for me because I'm going to fight for that on political grounds when I'm in office."
John Currie: It strikes me as another example of modeling. You grew into 1 Timothy 2 as a pastor, in part, because you heard prayers for authorities in your home and church. I wonder what would happen over a generation if our children and grandchildren heard their parents and pastor regularly praying for those in authority, and how that might help change the narrative on how we think about where ultimate power is.
Ren Broekhuizen: Oh, yes. I've been praying very hard for the last four or five months for our leaders and those in authority; for revival in the church. Imagine if all the Christians in America would live out the Christian faith. We would control the ebb and flow of everyday life. It wouldn't matter what the policies were; if you were a democrat, independent, republican, we would be living out the gospel and the ones carrying the nation along.
John Currie: One of the ways that a good friend of mine puts it is that as the gospel takes root in an individual's life, the gospel transforms their family and then transforms their neighbors. From there, the gospel transforms the neighborhood and transforms the nation. And so, one of the emphases to pray for is a gospel revival is the vision you're talking about.
As we shift to reflect on the influences in your life, what thinkers, theologians, and teachers have been most helpful as you engage on cultural, ethical, and civic issues?
Ren Broekhuizen: When I started, I was comfortable where I was, reading Time Magazine and watching different networks. I believed I was well-informed. In my sermons, I would include weekly information about what was happening and thought I was nailing the truth. As I grew older, I realized that every magazine and network had a viewpoint. And so, I started to widen my reading. I probably read 70% from conservative authors and 30% from liberal ones.
John Currie: So, you're trying to read both sides but recognize the presuppositions in the argument.
Ren Broekhuizen: Yes, for sure. As a leader, I want to be well-informed. At my age, I can't stand up and say in a sermon, "President Truman said. . ." The congregation would say, "Who is that?" We have to know what's happening today. It might be what's happening with the recount or minimum wage, but I have to be informed.
John Currie: As you reflect on your Westminster experience and how that equipped you for ministry, can you tell us about the impact Dr. Van Til and Murray had on you?
Ren Broekhuizen: Well, I want to say first that I have great admiration and affection for every professor I had at Westminster. You know, I was there when the original professors were there. I used to sit there and think, "I'm really part of this. . ." I appreciated Dr. Van Til so much, watching him stand for the truth and never give in. He was attacked on every side by the world and even the church. And he would say, "Christ alone. Christ is Lord in every area of life. There is no middle ground." It was just so impressive to me. Antithesis is a word I grew up hearing. But learning from Dr. Van Til about the church in the world was just wonderful.
John Currie: It sounds like you had the foundations, but Van Til gave you the framework to think through the issues and people you were dealing with.
Ren Broekhuizen: Yes, Exactly. And with Mr. Murray's comprehensive teaching of the word. Sometimes he'd come in with just his Hebrew or Greek testament and lecture. [Relating to] the whole idea of accepting is not approving, being in the world, but not of the world, everyone having their own viewpoint, Murray said, "The difference in an ethical decision is not a chasm, but a razor's edge." And that impacted me in my interpretation of scripture, people, and life.
An example of this would be the prosperity gospel that says, "Trust Jesus, send in your money, and everything will be fine." As I read through Proverbs, one thing I learned is that if you live the Lord's way, you are going to prosper. Now, that sounds mightily like the prosperity gospel, but it's not. It's that razor's edge. And in so many of the theological discussions about the world and the church, it's a question of seeing the razor's edge.
I'm rereading the book you gave me of Murray's sermons, O Death, Where is Thy Sting? from Westminster Seminary Press. His teaching taught me how to be careful with the word when preaching and not put Ren into it.
John Currie: As we think about the next generation of pastors, what encourages you, and what concerns do you have?
Ren Broekhuizen: What encourages me is that they're becoming pastors! The fact that there are those who are still attracted to the calling of the pastorate and that the Lord is still calling them is exciting to me. I taught a course at Calvin College for 15 years to juniors and seniors thinking about becoming pastors. What a joy that was, week after week, sitting with them and encouraging them to do that. The other encouragement is seeing that they are engaged in the world and aware of issues. They want to deal with justice! Justice is the big word today, and we like to hear Amos 5:24 ". . .let justice roll down like waters." But I think those who are interested in justice must also give equal time to righteousness that's mentioned in the second part of the verse, ". . .and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." But I am encouraged by their engagement in the culture and their willingness.
What concerns me is the attrition rate among pastors. You look online and see pastors have left churches after six months, and it's frightening but a fact. I think this is because it has become our ministry instead of the Lord's ministry. When we serve the Lord, we cannot lose. When I spent seven years in Liberia, I don't know if I had any converts. People would always ask how I stuck it out without having any congregants. But it's the Lord's ministry, and the results are his. Young pastors leave because they get discouraged and experience opposition. So, my concern is that they focus on Jesus. Whose work is it? I would like to talk to every pastor in the world if I could and have breakfast with them to encourage them not to give up and not quit. We will reap in due season if we do not faint.
John Currie: Well, let me give you a brief opportunity to speak to the next generation of pastors. What counsel and exhortation would you offer them?
Ren Broekhuizen: First, you have to know Jesus intimately. Second, the Bible is true from cover to cover. If you take the word as truth, you will have more than you could ever teach in a thousand lifetimes. If you give up on that, you will have nothing to say. A lot of people in my generation were trying to be Billy Graham. When I started ministry, I thought, "I'm never going to be a Dr. Van Til, Dr. Stonehouse, Woolley, Murray, or Clowney. But I can love people." The total meaning of obedience to God is to love your neighbor as yourself. So, I felt in my ministry, I'm not going to be a household name, but I can be faithful. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:2, ". . .it is required of stewards that they be found faithful." He doesn't say popular, exciting, successful, or a household name. He says, "faithful." I can love my people and be faithful in my work. One day, I read Proverbs 3:3 "Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart." So, I went to a jeweler and engraved "Love and Faithfulness" on a cross I wear around my heart. But that's all the Lord expects of us; that we love and are faithful.
John Currie: That's great counsel. Thank you for giving us this time and sharing your heart and ministry experience with us.