Category Archives: Church life

A Supervised Lord’s Supper?

Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have practiced elder supervision over admission to the Lord’s Supper.  This historic practice has unfortunately been discarded in many churches.  In other churches, even in the Canadian Reformed Churches, the practice is under pressure.  When it seems like you’re the only ones doing this, it becomes difficult to maintain.  After all, are we the only ones who see it rightly?

I’ve noted before how at least one historian attributed the loss of this practice in Presbyterianism to laxity in discipline.  There may be other factors at work as well.  Whatever the reasons may be for why an open table (with a verbal warning at best) is now the norm, those of us who still follow the historic practice need to review our reasons for doing so.  If we’re going to maintain it, we ought to be confident that we’re doing this for sound biblical reasons and not simply out of tradition.

At the church I currently serve, we try to be sensitive to our guests.  If we know someone will be attending on a Lord’s Supper Sunday, we try to speak with them ahead of time and tell them about our policy.  On the liturgy sheet that Lord’s Day we also include our policy and an explanation of it.  This policy is borrowed from the last church I served, which in turn, borrowed it from another Canadian Reformed Church.  This is how it reads:

To Our Visitors and Guests:  Our Supervised Lord’s Supper Celebration Policy

Welcome!  We’re glad that you’re with us this Lord’s Day!  You will notice that today we are celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  We want to briefly explain to you our policy regarding who may partake of this sacrament at the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.

We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a celebration for and by the local congregation as body of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our official policy is that normally only those guests are admitted who are members of a Free Reformed church or a sister church and have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life.  As a rule, the status of these guests is articulated in an “attestation” [testimony] issued by the elders of the church in which this guest is a member.  Such a written attestation assists the elders of the church in their supervision over the table of our Lord.  It is the responsibility of the local elders to keep the celebration of the Lord’s Supper holy.  They are called to be sure these guests are true believers who are faithful in their adherence to the Reformed faith and walking a godly life.  The elders are the shepherds of God’s flock and they have a responsibility to protect the flock from the judgment that would fall on the whole congregation if the table would be profaned (see 1 Pet. 5:2 and 1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Please understand that with this policy, we make no judgment on your personal faith or relationship with Christ.  We understand that it is somewhat unusual in the broader Christian context, yet we believe that it is biblical and what is biblical is best for our congregation.  Moreover, we may be assured that by hearing the Word and watching the celebration of this sacrament, you will still be edified through the working of the Holy Spirit.  Our Lord Jesus gave the sacraments as visible signs and seals for the strengthening of our faith as we focus our faith on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation.  May its observance direct you to seek your life outside of yourself in Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins and everlasting life.  May the Lord bless your attendance at our service!

If you have any questions about this policy, please speak to one of our elders or our pastor.

Most guests will read this policy, understand it, and respect our practice.  I have only had one or two occasions where a visitor was offended or upset by our way of supervising the Lord’s Supper.

Let me also recommend an article by Rev. George van Popta on this topic.  He explains the history and rationale more completely.  He also goes into the way the Christian Reformed Church in North America changed course on this matter in 1975.  You can find his helpful article here:  Admission of Guests to the Lord’s Table.


The Reformation and Psalm-Singing

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Worship was one of the key issues that led to the break with Rome.  The Reformation was not only about theology, but also about doxology — about the proper way of giving all glory to God.  When I speak about worship here, let me clarify that I’m referring to the corporate worship of the church.  This is about what happens when the church gathers together for public worship.

When it comes to the Reformation of worship in the 1500s, there are several directions we could go.  A fruitful area of consideration for our day would be the singing of Psalms.  This is because of the fact that so much Protestant worship today either totally ignores the Psalms, or reduces them to the occasional singing of something like “Create in Me a Clean Heart.”  As in the medieval church prior to the Reformation, the Psalms have fallen on hard times.

In the early church, the Psalms were highly valued and extensively used in worship.  In his dissertation, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, Hughes Oliphant Old notes that Augustine indicates several times in his sermons that his church in Hippo customarily sang the Psalms.  Basil the Great also spoke in a similar vein, as did John Chrysostom.  Old concludes, “The early Christians sang psalms in the celebration of the Eucharist [the Lord’s Supper] and in the daily morning and evening prayers during the week.  Psalms were sung at meal time as a table blessing, they were sung at work and during the quiet times of meditation at midday and evening” (258).  While the Psalms were not used exclusively, they were given preference and formed the primary song material of the Church.

This pattern continued into the medieval period.  For most of the Middle Ages, the Psalter was the primary material for the singing and chanting of the Church.  This singing and chanting were done by the clergy and in Latin, and thus disconnected from the congregation.  Yet the primary material remained the Psalter.  This began to change in the early 1300s.  During that time, we see the introduction of numerous Latin hymns and the primary place of the Psalter begins to slip.  When there was singing or chanting of the Psalms, often this was reduced to one or two verses.

During the 1500s, God brought about the Reformation of the Church and this included changes in how God was worshipped in song.  I’ll mention five specific changes.

First, the Psalms were translated into the common language of the people and then set to metrical tunes.  In Geneva, under Calvin’s leadership, the Psalms were translated and versified by Clement Marot and others.  Musicians such as Louis Bourgeois composed the tunes — they were custom-made for each of the psalms.

Second, the Psalms were to be sung by the entire congregation.  Since they were in the common language, and since they were set to tunes that were (relatively) easy to sing, this was now feasible.  You did not need to be a professional musician to sing in church.  That said, in places like Geneva, the Reformation did introduce an emphasis on music education.  Why?  Because church leaders wanted congregational singing to be as beautiful as possible to give the maximum glory to God!

Third, there was a movement back towards the priority that the early church gave to the Psalter.  Says Old, “It was simply a matter of preferring to sing the hymns that had been inspired by the Holy Spirit” (259).

Fourth, the Reformation brought back the singing of all the Psalms.  When the Genevan Psalter first appeared in 1542, it only contained 30 psalms.  However, the goal was always to include all 150 Psalms, and by 1562 that goal had been accomplished.  Not only were all the Psalms included, but the intention was to sing all of them.  The 1562 Genevan Psalter included a type of schedule by which the church would sing each of the Psalms in the course of six months (see here for more details).

Finally, the Reformation reintroduced the singing of whole Psalms.  While it was not always possible, the preference was to sing the entire Psalm from beginning to end.  That this was the preferred practice is clear from the source mentioned above in my fourth point.  This was possible because the Genevan tunes were originally composed to be sung briskly, not at a funereal pace.  How and why they came to be sung otherwise is another story, but for now let’s just note that the singing of whole Psalms was the ideal which the Reformation restored.

This history is relevant at several levels.  In much of evangelical worship today, it’s almost like we’re back to the worst of the medieval period.  Instead of congregational singing, there are worship leaders doing the singing for the church.  Oftentimes the music is so technical and the material so unfamiliar, that congregational singing in worship is virtually impossible (see Tim Challies’ reflections on this here).  It’s like the Reformation and its return to congregational singing never happened!

That particular trend has been resisted in many confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  Yet we still have our problems.  Think of the primacy of the Psalter.  In churches that practice exclusive psalmody, it’s not an issue.  The Psalms are their only song material.  But for those of us who see the Scriptures as commending or even commanding hymnody alongside the Psalter, the challenge is there to keep the Psalter in the highest place.  Especially when we don’t understand what we’re singing, the tendency is going to be to drift towards more uninspired hymnody.  Pastors especially have a calling to make sure that our churches understand the Psalter, especially in how it speaks of Christ.

Another problem faced by Reformed and Presbyterian churches is the singing of only some Psalms, and then also the singing only of partial Psalms.  I am as much a part of this problem as anyone else.  There are Psalms that I have never chosen for singing in public worship in my nearly 18 years of preaching.  There are reasons for this (difficulty of the tune, not relevant to the sermon for the day or the occasion, etc.).  That can be overcome by revisiting the idea of a psalm-singing lectionary (see here again).  The other problem is easier to overcome.  If a metrical Psalm only has three or four stanzas (or less), why not sing the whole thing?  Especially if our accompaniment keeps the tempo brisk (as intended!), I can hardly think of a reason not to.

I love the Psalms.  I love the way this inspired songbook honestly acknowledges the whole range of human emotions.  We are led to praise God with explosive joy, but also to lament with flowing tears.  We see Christ the Redeemer prophetically represented, but we also encounter our sin which put Christ on the cross.  We’re taught to pray and give thanks.  We’re taught to confess and repent.  I can’t imagine worship without the Psalms.  Let’s be thankful to God that the Reformation restored their rightful place in our worship!


New Resource on Women in Office

When I teach the Belgic Confession to my catechism students, I now spend a lesson on the topic of women in office.  I never had to do this before, but sadly, the times have changed.  I’ve added the outline for my lesson on this to the resources on Yinkahdinay — you can find it under “Teaching Tools” or through this direct link.  PLEASE NOTE:  this is just an outline.  Obviously, a lot more would be said in a catechism class than what is just on this one page.   However, if anyone is studying or teaching on the issue, at least you’ll have a bare bones idea of the history, the relevant Scripture passages, where the confessions speak to this, and some of the common objections.  If you want to dig even deeper, see here for a short booklet published some years ago when the Christian Reformed Church in North America was dealing with this.  For an even more comprehensive treatment, see Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.


Women in Office = False Church?

It could happen later this year that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decide at their synod to officially allow women in office.  I pray that it doesn’t, but the possibility is definitely there.  That raises questions relating to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Specifically, if a church federation were to adopt women in office does that automatically mean that they have become a false church?  That question needs to be answered carefully.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the idea of women in office in Reformed churches.  Back in the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America first discussed it, and then gradually adopted it.  That adoption was one of the biggest catalysts leading to the mass exodus from the CRC between 1992 and 1994 — over 17,000 members left just in those years.  A good number of those ended up forming what would later become known as the United Reformed Churches.

I remember some of the early talks between the CanRC and URCs in the Bulkley Valley in north-central British Columbia.  This would have been in the early 2000s.  Questions were asked of our URC brothers such as:  do you now view the CRC as a false church?  No URC person would say that.  It was as if some of the CanRC people felt that the ex-CRC people could only have been justified in leaving if they viewed the CRC as a false church.  At least some in the URC would say that the CRC was no longer a true church, but they would not say that having women in office (and the other theological aberrations) resulted in the CRC being a false church.

I think I can see why they said that.  Certainly I don’t believe that a Reformed federation which adopts women in office can be said, by virtue of only that, to have become a false church.  Let me explain.

Let’s agree that article 29 of the Belgic Confession gives a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture about the marks of the true and false church.  Let’s use that as our starting point.  What are the marks of a false church according to the Confession?

  • It assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.
  • It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.
  • It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases.
  • It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.
  • It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

So, while the true church has three marks, the false church has five.  Just as all three marks need to be in order for a church to be true, so it follows that all five marks need to be seen for a church to be false.  In the original context of the 1561 Belgic Confession, there was only one church that fit the bill:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Does a church that adopts women in office become a false church?  Certainly those first two marks are being exhibited, and perhaps the fourth too.  However, not necessarily the third (notice the focus on adding and subtracting in the BC) or the fifth (the persecution envisioned leads to martyrdom).  A church adopting women in office would have to go off the rails in all these other areas for it to be a false church.

But if it is not a false church that doesn’t mean we’re saying that it is true.  Let’s review the marks of a true church:

  • It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
  • It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
  • It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.

Does adopting women in office compromise any of these marks?

“The pure preaching of the gospel” could be understood to refer narrowly to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  However, sometimes the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the Word of God in general.  I believe the latter, broader way is found here in BC 29.  I say that because the French (or Gallican) Confession, upon which the Belgic is largely modelled, does not say “gospel” in its articles 27 and 28, but “the Word of God.”  Therefore, if a church is not proclaiming the Word of God purely about who can serve in the offices of the church, this mark has been compromised.

What about “the pure administration of the sacraments”?  Did Christ institute the Lord’s Supper and Baptism with the intent that women would administer them?  Does administering the sacraments to those who follow false teachings like women in office constitute a pure administration?  We have to conclude that this mark too is imperiled by women in office.

Church discipline is also essential for a church to be true.  When members hold to false teachings like women in office, they need to be admonished and warned that they are departing from the Scriptures.  When local congregations hold to women in office and begin implementing it, then there needs to be brotherly admonition on the ecclesiastical level — and action too, if no change takes place.  But if a Synod decides that black is white and women can be ordained, then all possibility for discipline on this point disappears.  So, yes, here as well we have to conclude that the church which adopts women in office has ceased being a true church.

All three marks of a true church are affected by women in office.  The church which adopts this position ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ.  This is why the Canadian (CanRC) and Australian (FRCA) churches will no longer be able to have ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands if they go in this direction.

That still leaves the question hanging:  if not a false church, and if not a true church, then what?  It’s often forgotten that there is a third category in article 29 of the Belgic Confession:  the sect.  The sect is a religious organization which is not entirely a true church, but not entirely a false church either.  In the days the Confession was written, this was the label applied to the Anabaptist groups in the Netherlands.  Guido de Brès wrote a volume of over 900 pages on the Anabaptists.  He never calls their groups “false churches.”  Instead, consistently, he calls them sects.  If you want a category for the church which adopts women in office, “sect” is what you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, I pray that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands rejects women in office once and for all.  I pray that the faithful members will gain the upper hand and steer the RCN back to God’s Word.  I pray that the churches which are already practicing this false teaching will either repent or be removed from the RCN.  I don’t want to see them become a sect.  I earnestly desire that we can continue to recognize them as a true church of Jesus Christ, our sister churches.  We must keep praying!


Stop Caring So Much?

confused-man

It’s synod year for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Synod Meppel 2017 is underway and it will prove to be a cross-roads for the RCN — will they adopt women in office?  Better:  will it become the official stance of the RCN?  After all, it is already being done.  If the RCN does go in that direction, Synod 2018 of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) is likely to terminate our sister-church relationship with the RCN.  Like many others, I’m watching and praying.

As I’ve been watching recently, a Supplementary Report from their Deputies for Relations with Foreign Churches (BBK) appeared on the official RCN website.  Before I get to this report, some background is in order.  At Synod Baldivis in 2015, the FRCA decided to send a letter to Synod Meppel of the RCN, explaining their decisions (see here for a summary) and warning the RCN once again.  Synod Baldivis also decided to send this letter to all the local churches of the RCN.  At Synod Dunnville in 2016, the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) also decided to send a letter to Synod Meppel.  Synod Dunnville also decided to forward a copy of its decisions on the RCN (see here for a summary) to all the local churches of the RCN.

Now to the Supplementary Report of the BBK (see here for the original — it’s only in Dutch, sorry!)  As far as I can tell, this report appeared on the RCN website on February 10, 2017.  The report proposes three decisions to Synod Meppel.

The first is that any letter written to Synod Meppel from foreign sister churches with objections be answered with a letter hand-delivered by some members of the Synod plus deputies from the BBK.  So, for example, a response to the FRCA would be delivered in person to Synod Bunbury 2018 by a delegation from Synod Meppel and deputies from BBK.  The grounds note that it’s always better to meet in person — it’s respectful when there are tensions, and it shows serious commitment and good will.  In itself, that’s not a bad thing to propose.  One might wonder whether members of Synod Meppel can actually speak on behalf of a body that no longer exists, but perhaps there’s some new Dutch church polity behind that.

The second decision proposed has to do with the CanRC.  Specifically, the BBK wants to propose that Synod Meppel express its disapproval of the decision of Synod Dunnville to send correspondence to the local churches of the RCN.  The BBK argues that this is interfering in the private life of a sister church.  Moreover, it borders on agitating or inciting the local churches of the RCN.

The third decision is similar and pertains to the FRCA.  Again, Synod Meppel is presented with a proposal to express disapproval at the actions of a sister church.  Specifically, it’s the decision of Synod Baldivis to send a letter to the local churches of the RCN.  However, in their view, the FRCA went further and actually agitated or incited the local churches by sending a cover letter which urged them to take action.  In this regard, the FRCA went beyond what the CanRC did.  The CanRC merely bordered on agitating amongst the local RCNs — the FRCA went over the line.  With both the CanRC and FRCA, the understanding of the BBK appears to be that the only proper way to address the RCN is through the BBK.

I’ll offer some commentary on this.  I have several points:

  1. Why did it take until February of 2017 for the BBK to issue a report about what they perceive as objectionable behaviour from the CanRC and FRCA?
  2. There are rules for ecclesiastical fellowship.  The CanRC rules can be found here.   The FRCA rules can be found here (on page 72).  Nowhere do any of these rules state that a sister church federation is forbidden from contacting the local churches of another federation.   It’s probably never been done before, but that says something about the unusual circumstance in which we find ourselves — see my next point.
  3. I get the sense that the BBK still does not understand the gravity of the situation.  Both the CanRC and FRCA are deeply concerned about the RCN.  It’s out of that deep concern that these actions were taken.  They speak of inciting or agitating amongst the local churches — if we really felt strongly that this was a matter of ultimate importance, why wouldn’t we do that?  Wouldn’t you expect a sister church federation to do everything in its power to warn our beloved brothers and sisters in the Netherlands if they were on the wrong track?  It would be cold and heartless for us to do otherwise.  Perhaps to do otherwise would be very bureaucratically proper, but it would not be Christian.  In that regard, the two proposed decisions about the CanRC and FRCA in this report are confusing.  It’s as if they want us to stop caring so much.  Brothers, you’re asking the impossible.  We don’t let go that easily.
  4. For myself, I hope and pray that these CanRC and FRCA letters did incite local churches to action.  I pray that faithful consistories rose to the occasion and wrote to Synod Meppel to indicate their grave concern about the efforts to officially endorse women in office, and other matters.  I pray that all the delegates to Synod Meppel read these CanRC and FRCA letters too, and will take action, not only to preserve the RCN’s relationship with Canada and Australia, but most importantly to honour what God has revealed in the inerrant Scriptures.