As most readers know, last September I accepted a call to the Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania. We’ve applied for our visa and are waiting for the approval to come through. I expect, however, that within six months we’ll be moving to Australia. That means a farewell to the Canadian Reformed Churches is imminent. As my departure approaches, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the CanRC, who we are, where we are, and where we’re going. I think to myself: if I were to come back in 10 or 20 years, would I still recognize these churches? I see several significant challenges facing the CanRC. Below I’m going to discuss three of the most prominent. I have written about each of these challenges separately, but here I’d like to address them together and identify the common denominator.
Challenge #1 — Nominalism and Christless Christianity
One of the greatest challenges that faces many immigrant churches is getting past their identity as immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. This is well-documented and it has challenged us as well. Still today, in many of our communities, we are known as a “Dutch church” and we sometimes think of ourselves as such too. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a Dutch heritage — in fact, we can even celebrate it. The problem comes when that’s what defines us. We go to church merely because that’s what the descendants of Dutch immigrants do. The church becomes a social club, rather than the gathering of Christian believers and their children. Closely related to that is the phenomenon Michael Horton has described as “Christless Christianity.” In his book of that title, he described much of American evangelicalism as Christless, but his critique bears upon us as well. At least some CanRC people are very comfortable speaking about God and debating points of theology but become quite uncomfortable when it comes to speaking about their Saviour Jesus and a personal relationship with him through true faith. Jesus is more of a concept to think about and debate, than a person with whom you relate and to whom you may even speak. To complicate matters, an emphasis on “covenant obligations” misunderstood only as strict moral imperatives has sometimes led to a twisted conception of Christianity as a system of law-keeping. Law and gospel become hopelessly confused. For these reasons, and others, the spirituality of some in the CanRC has far less vitality than one would hope for.
Challenge # 2 — Undermining the Authority of Scripture
There is an ongoing debate in the CanRC regarding origins. We need to recognize that there is a story behind this debate. The back-story began with unbiblical ideas about hermeneutics and the nature of Scripture. Those advocating openness to a variety of positions regarding origins come at these questions from a certain standpoint. They have their presuppositions or pre-commitments. Those of us resisting this openness also have our presuppositions. These (typically non-negotiable) presuppositions determine where you’ll land. The challenge is, when it comes to hermeneutics and the nature/authority of Scripture, are we going to start with Scripture itself? Or do we approach Scripture as autonomous judges with criteria we’ve developed ourselves for ascertaining how and when Scripture will speak to us? You see, the real issue is not fundamentalist “creation science” vs. mainstream science. The issue is: will we take the Word of God on its own terms and have it as our starting place and ultimate authority in every endeavour, including science?
Challenge # 3 — Maintaining a Reformed Identity
What does it mean to be Reformed? I was sometimes asked what “Reformed” means when I was a missionary. My answer was always: “back to the Bible.” Reformed people are historically people of the Word. Yes, some of what we do in our churches is culturally conditioned. But much more is biblically conditioned, arising from careful reflection on and application of the Word of God. There is a sound reason why a Reformed worship service in Brazil looks virtually the same as a Reformed worship service in Canada or the Philippines — because they all want to follow Scripture. It seems to me that some are too quick to want to throw out certain aspects of our Reformed identity without really asking the questions that need to be asked. Why do we this or that? Why do we say things this way in our confessions? What are the reasons? What’s the history behind it? In general, our age is not known for careful reflection and deep thought. Unfortunately, this sometimes spills into the church too. Some get carried away with their own preferences, their own feelings, their own desire for a certain type of “worship experience.” We see other churches who seem to attract a lot of interest, who also seem to captivate some of our people and draw them away, and we begin to wonder if we shouldn’t emulate them in some respects. Along the way, our Reformed identity begins to get watered down and sometimes almost completely obscured. If our traditional Reformed identity is more cultural than biblical, this is no big deal. But if it’s the other way around, we have a challenge on our hands.
The Common Denominator
Far more could be said about each of those challenges, but let me conclude by identifying the common denominator shared between each of those challenges. Each of them emerges when the Word of God is ignored or disbelieved. You cannot underestimate how important the Word of God was for the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century. Literacy, printing, and vernacular Bible translation were God’s gifts to allow his church to recover his Word and reform accordingly. Today I fear we are in grave danger of taking these gifts for granted. Look at the challenges again. True spiritual vitality can only exist where people love the Word of God, read it for themselves, treasure it as it’s preached, and embrace its gospel promises. The Word is the answer to challenge #1. Challenge #2 has to do with the authority of the Word. When God’s people humbly submit to his Word as their starting point and their ultimate authority in absolutely everything, they will not get carried away by the wisdom of this age. Similarly, when it comes to a Reformed identity, the Word is everything. It must sovereignly determine our worship, our piety, and our polity (church government).
How do we address these challenges? It starts with each of us examining ourselves and our attitude towards the Word. Do we really love the Word of God? Is it delightful for us to read and study it personally? Do we love to hear the voice of our Saviour speaking through the preaching? Do we humbly submit to that Word as children respecting their exalted Father, as subjects respecting their majestic King, as creatures respecting their sovereign Creator? Healthy, joyful, gospel-centered, outward-looking, God-honouring churches are produced by the Word of God and its impact on individual believers. No good for ourselves or others will ever come from neglecting the Scriptures.
I know that this might come off as quite negative about the Canadian Reformed Churches. I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that all is dark and hopeless. I see many positive and promising developments in our churches too. Yet the challenges that I’ve been discussing are not to be sloughed off or casually dismissed. One only need to see where our Dutch sister churches are to recognize that, left unaddressed, these challenges will lead down the same road. I don’t want that to happen, for I love the Canadian Reformed Churches. For 40+ years, these churches have been my spiritual home. By God’s grace, in these churches and through them, I have come to know the Saviour and believe the gospel. I have much to be thankful for as a CanRC member. I pray for these churches to flourish and continue to grow to the glory of God — and I pray that this growth will be on the only solid foundation available, the infallible and inerrant Word of God.