Author Archives: Wes Bredenhof

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania.

The GKV’s Major Leap off the Cliff

Last week, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decided to open all the offices of the church (minister, elder, deacon) to women. Here’s a reflection from someone who’s seen the downward spiral of the RCN from the inside.

tulipinstitute

20170619 - Leap of Faith_Flickr Photo by Sabrina c via Flickr (CC)

When asked by a friend for a response to the decision by the Dutch GKV (Reformed Churches (Liberated)) to ordain women in all offices, I felt emotionally numb. As an adult convert to Christianity, the GKV was the church I was catechized and baptized in and where I discovered the richness of Reformed doctrine. Sure, in places that beauty was encrusted with the barnacles of cultural traditions that had arisen out of the peculiar history of the denomination and the cultural and intramural fights that had taken place over the preceding fifty years but the gospel was there.

Since moving to the United States in 2002, however, I have witnessed from a distance the rapid march towards a new hermeneutic and ecclesiology heavily infused with postmodern views of culture. It is hard to diagnose where things started to go wrong, and in any…

View original post 1,105 more words


How the Mighty Have Fallen

I have been writing for about 25 years.  My first published article appeared in the January 1992 issue of a Canadian Reformed youth magazine called In Holy Array.  The article was entitled “Women in Office” and it discussed the opening of ecclesiastical offices to women in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.  In 1990, the CRC Synod decided to allow churches to admit women to the offices of minister, elder, and deacon.  This set in motion the large-scale departure from the CRC which eventually led to the formation of the United Reformed Churches.  My article expressed bewilderment that this could happen in a church with which, less than 50 years earlier, we had enjoyed Christian unity.

Now here we are 25 years later and I am again bewildered.  A church federation with whom we still officially have sister-church relations (though suspended) has officially decided to do what the CRC did in the early 1990s.  Over the last two days, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN) have decided at Synod Meppel to admit women to all the offices of the church.  Their sister-churches in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Korea, the US, and others all warned them not to but, regrettably, they did not heed these warnings.  Especially amongst the immigrant churches in Canada and Australia, these decisions bring an enormous amount of sadness.

I know there are still faithful believers in the RCN.  One such brother e-mailed me this morning to share his grief and consternation.  These brothers and sisters will need our prayers as they seek to discern God’s will for them in terms of church membership.  It would not be easy to leave the church of your youth, the church where you made profession of faith, the church where you were married, and where your children were baptized.  It wasn’t easy for the concerned CRC members in the early 1990s either.  Yet they didn’t choose the easy path; instead, they chose the faithful path.

As for ecumenical relations, next year there will be a Free Reformed synod here in Australia.  The Dutch churches were warned that, apart from repentance, our relationship with them would be severed at Synod 2018.  We will be forced to follow through on that warning.  The Canadian Reformed Churches have said something similar in regard to their next synod in 2019.

And then there’s the ICRC, the International Conference of Reformed Churches.  The RCN have badly miscalculated if they thought that these decisions would have no bearing on their membership in the ICRC.  Next month, July 13-19, the next meeting of the ICRC is scheduled to take place in Jordan, Ontario.  Again, one cannot but help think of what happened with the Christian Reformed Church in the 1990s.  The CRCNA was one of the founding members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), just like the RCN is one of the founding members of the ICRC.  In 1997, NAPARC voted to suspend the membership of the CRC over their decision regarding women in office.  Amongst the churches leading that initiative were two current sister-churches of the RCN — the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church in the United States.  The OPC and RCUS are still in NAPARC — and also in the ICRC.  Have the OPC and RCUS softened their stand on this issue since the 1990s?  The writing is on the wall for RCN membership in the ICRC.  The only question is one of time.

After the fall of the mighty CRCNA, many post-mortem analyses have been essayed.  Most of them, including mine, lay the blame at the foot of developments regarding the authority of Scripture tracing back to the 1960s.  Over the coming days, similar analyses will be written about the RCN.  It’s a familiar story and it illustrates man’s wickedness in departing from God’s Word.  It’s not “Reformation” when you scorn the Scriptures and have women office bearers — it’s deformation.  I’ve seen the story already play out twice in my short lifetime.  I pray I won’t see it a third time.  I pray that we will have learned something from the sad fall of these two federations of churches that were once faithful and mighty in the LORD.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

1 Corinthians 10:12


Pastoral Q & A: Vaccinations

A parishioner wrote and asked:  What is the Christian position on vaccinations?  Should we get our children vaccinated?

Now that’s a dangerous question!  Emotions run high on both sides of the debate.  The pro-vaccination crowd accuses the anti-vaccination crowd of being reckless with the health of our children.  The anti-vaxxers respond by accusing the pro-vaxxers of wanting to poison their children.  Things get all the more intense when we bring Christian arguments about God’s providence or abortion into the debate.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Bible gave a clear answer to this question?  As it stands, there are no Bible passages that give us explicit instructions about whether to vaccinate our children.  There are biblical principles that we need to consider and apply, but we must recognize that we’re in an area where Christians do and can disagree.  Our church does not hold to a position on vaccinations.  Our confessions don’t stake a position on this.  There is no single “Reformed” position, rather a diversity of views exist among Reformed people.  We therefore have to be careful with the way we debate this issue.  We can still be brothers and sisters in Christ and disagree on this question.

In my view, there are at least three biblical principles that we need to consider and apply.

First and foremost, we are not to recklessly endanger lives, whether our own or those of others.  This is derived from the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not kill” (HC QA 105).  Vaccinations are proven to prevent diseases, many of which can be life-threatening.  However, it should also be recognized that there may be individuals who might experience life-threatening side-effects or reactions to vaccinations.  By way of exception, therefore, it can be granted that some individual children ought not to be vaccinated.

Second, children are entrusted by God to the parents (Psalm 127:3).  The parents have the ultimate responsibility to care for their children and make decisions relating to their health and welfare.  Parents also have the calling to be responsible in caring for their children.  Moreover, they are accountable to God for the decisions they make.  If your child dies from a disease you could have prevented by having your child vaccinated, that’s on your conscience.  You have to be prepared to accept that risk if you choose not to vaccinate your children.

Third, since the government is mandated by God to uphold justice (Romans 13:1-4), vaccinations are also a matter of public health policy.  Justice includes preventing unnecessary deaths due to bad public health practices.  At the very least, civil governments have the responsibility to educate the public on the value of vaccinations.  Going beyond that, one is faced with an inevitable conflict between the rights of parents and the responsibility of the government to protect the public from harm.  At the moment, I don’t know exactly how to resolve that.  Perhaps it would be resolved by recognizing parents have the freedom to choose, but still holding them criminally responsible for any public health consequences from their choice.

And what about God’s providence?  Yes, we believe that he is sovereignly in control over all things.  Nothing happens to us by chance.  But we can never use that truth to evade the truth of our human responsibility.  I don’t get in the car and say, “I don’t need to wear a seatbelt because God is sovereign.  If he wants me to die in a crash, then it’s my time.”  We all realize that’s foolish talk with seatbelts — it’s equally foolish with vaccinations.  If there’s a means to preserve the life of you or your child, you’re required to use it.

Finally, objections are sometimes raised about the contents of vaccines.  One objection says that vaccines contain toxic/poisonous chemicals.  Since our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, we ought not to inject these substances into them.  However, my understanding is that the levels of these chemicals found in vaccines is so small as to have no negative effect on your overall health.  I’m not a medical doctor, but the Australian Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association, and others all stand behind the safety of vaccines, and I’ll take their word for it.  Think about it:  if doctors and medical researchers are aware of the content of these vaccines, and they really knew it was harmful and hid it from us, would they allow their own children to be vaccinated?  There’s no proof that doctors are secretly leading the way in keeping their children unvaccinated — in fact, the opposite is the case with the vast majority (as illustrated from this research with doctors in Switzerland).

The other objection is far more weighty and has to do with the use of aborted human babies in developing vaccines.  This is a reality which we need to acknowledge and come to terms with.  While the number of babies that were used to develop certain cell lines for vaccines was small, they each represent a human life unjustly killed.  Even if they weren’t expressly killed for medical research, murder made it possible.  That said, there are several medical advances commonly used today which have their origins in highly unethical circumstances.  One of the most well-known is a treatment for hypothermia discovered by researchers in Nazi Germany.  Are we forbidden from using that life-saving treatment because a number of people were murdered by the Nazis in the process of developing it?  No, we recognize that Scripture teaches that God can and does bring good out of horrible evil (think of the cross!).  We are not approving of the evil when we make use of the good that has come from it.  Yes, by all means, if there are alternatives not developed from human fetal cell lines, we would rather use those.  Furthermore, we would certainly want to encourage medical/pharmaceutical companies to be ethical.  However, this argument need not be an obstacle for Christian parents when it comes to vaccinations.

As you might have gathered, all our children have been vaccinated for the usual assortment of preventable illnesses.  My wife and I believe that was the responsible thing to do — and certainly no ill effects have resulted from that choice.  I respect the right of other Christian parents to reach a different conclusion, so long as they’re being thoughtful and responsible in the way they reason and act.  In the spirit of Romans 14:1-12, we ought to all give one another the same Christian courtesy.

 


Revisiting Boer and Bucer

In 2011, Reformation Media and Press published For the Cause of the Son of God, a revised form of my doctoral dissertation.  This book discussed at length the missionary significance of the Belgic Confession.  My main foils were voices within the Christian Reformed Church of North America who had argued that the Belgic Confession was not only irrelevant for mission, but even a liability to a missionary church.  Among the CRC scholars with whom I interacted was Harry R. Boer.

Early in his own revised doctoral dissertation Pentecost and Missions, Boer argued that Reformers like Calvin and Luther believed that the Great Commission (in Matthew 28:18-20 and parallels) was meant only for the apostles.  Then Boer gets to Martin Bucer and he has to admit that Bucer was different.  He had a missionary concern.  Yet, Boer detected an inconsistency in Bucer’s missionary outlook, one which allegedly lined him up with Calvin, Luther and others Reformers on the limited nature of the Great Commission.  Boer quoted from Bucer’s 1538 book Von der waren Seelsorge:

What Christians in general and the civil authorities neglect to do with respect to seeking the lost lambs, this the elders of the Church shall undertake to make good in every possible way.  And though they do not have an apostolic call and command to go to strange nations, yet they shall not in their several churches…permit anyone who is not associated with the congregation of Christ to be lost in error.

The italics were added by Boer and I assume that the translation was his own (he does not indicate otherwise).  From this Boer concludes that “even Bucer did not free himself from the Reformation conception that the Great Commission was limited to the apostles” (Pentecost and Missions, 20).

When I came across this quote and conclusion in my doctoral research, I was perplexed.  Certainly a later book by Bucer (De Regno Christi) sang a different tune.  However, I was faced with two problems:  1) I did not have ready access to the German original of Von der waren Seelsorge (no Post-Reformation Digital Library yet) and 2) Bucer’s book had not yet been translated into English.  I had no way of verifying Boer’s conclusion, but yet I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this was in the literature and offer a possible explanation.  I decided to be charitable to Boer and posited that the difference between Von der waren Seelsorge and De Regno Christi might be chalked up to Bucer changing his mind over time, the former book preceding the latter by about 12 years.  Alternatively, I wrote, perhaps the difference is attributable to the fact that Bucer was writing about elders in Boer’s quote, whereas in De Regno Christi, he was writing about minister-evangelists.

I have recently had the opportunity to revisit this question and I think I have put it to rest.  In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be speaking at two conferences in Brazil about the Reformation and evangelism.  I decided to dig a little deeper into Martin Bucer.  Now I have the opportunity to do that with the help of Peter Beale’s English translation of Bucer’s earlier book, Concerning the True Care of Souls.  More than ever, I’m convinced that Boer got Bucer wrong.

Chapter 3 deals with the management of the church.  Specifically, it is about “how our Lord Jesus carries out his pastoral office and the work of our salvation through his ordained ministers.”  As he does in each chapter, Bucer begins with some relevant Scripture passages.  The very first one in this chapter is Matthew 28:18-20!  After a number of other passages, Bucer offers some explanation.  He says again that it is through his ordained ministers that Christ does his work on earth.  He says, “Through them he calls all nations to reformation and declares to them forgiveness of sins…” (page 21).  This, he writes, is shown by the first text mentioned.  The Great Commission is applied to the ministers of the church.

The most intriguing chapter is the seventh, “How the Lost Sheep Are To Be Sought.”  Again, one finds a number of Scripture texts at the beginning and among them is Mark’s version of the Great Commission in Mark 16:15.  Writes Bucer, “There are three things to learn from these texts.  The first is that those who exercise Christ’s ministry in the church are to seek to bring all people to the knowledge of Christ” (page 76).  In the first paragraph sub-heading, Bucer writes, “All people are to acknowledge Christ as their Lord, therefore his kingdom must be proclaimed and offered to all nations” (page 76).  In that paragraph he acknowledged that not all are elect.  But we have no access to “the secrets of his election.”  So “he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature” (page 77).  He is paraphrasing Mark 16:15, the Great Commission, and says that it applies to “us.”

Bucer also has some advice for rulers in this chapter.  When rulers take their spiritual responsibilities towards their subjects seriously, “then our dear God will also surely entrust them with rightly seeking out and bringing to Christ those who by birth and breeding are estranged from Christ, such as Jews, Turks, and other heathen” (page 86).  Unfortunately, notes Bucer, many rulers have done a disservice to the gospel by invading and robbing foreign countries.  God judges this behaviour by returning the same upon the heads of oppressors:  “Thus the Jews have sucked dry the poor Christians to a remarkable extent by means of their usury, and the Turks day by day strip us of land and people with violence, making quite alarming advances” (page 87).

Now we come to the quote that Boer supplied in Pentecost and Missions.  This is Peter Beale’s translation:

Now, the elders of the church are always to see to the supply of those things which we have concluded in this article to be lacking in the seeking out of lost lambs by ordinary Christians and rulers.  And if they do not have the apostolic call and command to go to foreign people, they must still see that in the churches where the Holy Spirit has appointed them as bishops and overseers no-one anywhere who does not belong to the fellowship of Christ is left to wander, but seek in every case to do what God always entrusts to them, in order to bring such people to the full communion of Christ. (pages 88-89)

This translation is different from that of Boer in one key word.  In the second sentence, Boer had “And though they…”  Beale has “And if they…”  The German original says, “Und wo sie…”  I’m not a German expert, but from what I can tell, Beale’s translation is more accurate.  If that’s the case, then Bucer is making a concession to those who might argue that the Great Commission does not apply to church elders.  By the way, he is explicitly referring to elders — in German, Bucer uses the word “eltisten,” an older form of the modern German “ältesten.”

To me it is clear that Boer was mistaken about Bucer.  Not only in his later book De Regno Christi, but also in his earlier book Von der waren Seelsorge, Bucer viewed the Great Commission having continuing application in the church of Christ.  Bucer never changed his mind; rather Boer misunderstood him.  How and why did Boer get this wrong?   I could only speculate.  What I know for sure is that my own published doctoral work contains errors too (though nothing that negates my overall thesis).  In some instances, I too misunderstood someone or something, in others I had incomplete information.  All of us are merely human and not only prone to sin, but also to mistakes in our research and reasoning.  This is why advancing scholarship in a field has to be a joint venture.  As we study together and check our work, we can detect the mistakes, correct them, and move forward.        

 

 


Pastoral Q & A: Christ’s Intercession

On Ascension Day, I preached on Romans 8:34.  Afterwards, one of my parishioners asked the following question:

Why do we see the intercession of Christ as an ongoing process and not a completed act like his atonement on the cross?

To answer this we need to go back to the Scriptures and pay attention to the exact wording of two key passages that speak of Christ’s intercession.  In Romans 8:34 it says that Christ is interceding for us.  Grammatically speaking, the verb there is in the present tense.  It is describing something that is happening right now and happening continuously.  Similarly, in Hebrews 7:25 it says that Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for believers.  There you not only have the present tense (“lives”), but also an adverb to emphasize that it’s ongoing (“always”).  There is no escaping the teaching of Scripture that Christ’s intercession is a present and ongoing reality.  If the Holy Spirit had meant to say that Christ interceded but once (just as he was sacrificed and made atonement once), certainly there is a grammatical option in Greek to express that (the perfect tense or, less likely, the aorist).

So given that information, our question has to be different: why do the Scriptures teach that Christ’s intercession is present and continuous? Why does he carry on that ministry? I believe the answer to that is that he wants to constantly assure us of his love and interest in our lives. He completed his work on the cross and was raised for us — that’s in the past. But now he wants us to be confident that every minute he is carrying us on his heart. I say that on the basis of passages like John 17 (Christ’s high priestly prayer) and Hebrews 4:14-16.  In John 17, Jesus allowed his disciples to listen in to his prayer — why?  Partly to encourage them with the knowledge that he was praying for them (John 17:9).  In Hebrews 4:14-16, we read of Christ’s position as our high priest.  His sympathetic mediation is the reason why we can confidently go to throne of grace.  His continuous intercession is revealed to us so that we would be constantly encouraged by his love and continue to depend on him in faith each day.