Category Archives: Church life

Don’t Antagonize, Instead Pursue Peace

Back in 1982, the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) were one of the founding members of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC).  This organization has proved to be an instrument for fellowship amongst like-minded Reformed and Presbyterian churches for nearly 40 years.  However, in the FRCA it proved to be a massive bone of contention – the reasons for this really don’t matter in what I’m about to write.  The key fact is that membership in the ICRC threatened to pull the FRCA apart in the 1990s.  So, in 1996, an FRCA Synod decided to terminate membership in the ICRC.  This was done for the sake of harmony and unity in the federation.  The cost/benefit analysis indicated it wasn’t worth it to break apart the federation for the sake of continuing in the ICRC.

Although I lament the attitudes and perspectives which necessitated it, I can see the wisdom in the 1996 decision.  No one wants to be responsible for unnecessarily causing disharmony in the bond of churches.  Because we love them, we aim to be patient with our brothers and sisters who differ with us.  To preserve the peace, we may even have to make accommodations for them.  This is part of what it means to live in a federation of churches.

The Bible and Fraternal Peace

Indeed, the Bible teaches us to “strive for peace with everyone…” (Heb. 12:14).  In Romans 14:19, the Holy Spirit says, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”  Likewise, in 2 Cor. 13:11, he says, “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace…”  The apostles learned this as disciples of our Lord Jesus.  In Mark 9:50 he taught, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  This teaching is impressed not only upon all disciples of Christ, but also specifically upon church leaders.  Titus was exhorted, “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9).  The pursuit of peace in the church is certainly a frequent topic in the New Testament.  It makes sense, since there are so many ways through which Satan and our own sinful hearts can break apart fraternal bonds.  There are many ways we can antagonize one another and drive a wedge in our fellowship.  When that happens, our gospel witness is impacted too.  We lose credibility as gospel witnesses when we can’t live at peace with one another.

That can happen within local congregations, but I want to focus on the way in which that can happen within church federations too.  Within a church federation, the decisions of a local congregation can antagonize the other churches and disrupt the peace.  Let me give a couple of generic examples.

Two Ways to Antagonize

I recently posted this article about the History and Character of Our Reformed Church Order.  I pointed out that the Church Order is our agreement for life together as churches in a federation.  We expect that the other churches in the federation will abide by what has been agreed upon.  A local church can make a decision or implement a practice which might be perceived as violating that agreement — we’ll leave aside the question of whether or not it is actually violating the agreement.  Such a situation can easily antagonize the other churches, particularly if no public clarification or explanation is provided.

There is another way that can antagonize and polarize.  In the aforementioned article, I also pointed out that there are unspoken assumptions and expectations in our Reformed church polity.  There are widespread consensual interpretations and applications of our Church Order.  These cannot be casually disregarded by a local church without causing dismay and concern to others.  You may technically still be following the letter of what’s agreed upon in the Church Order, but congratulations, you succeeded in jeopardizing the peace in your church federation.  What have you gained?

So, what is the way forward?  Just follow what Scripture says about the pursuit of peace.  If a church believes changes need to be made in local practice, we have to think about the consequences for our closest brethren elsewhere, for our federation.  We cannot afford to be independentistic.  Changes that fall under the two headings above need to be approached with extreme caution.  At the bare minimum, advice should be sought at a classis.  However, it could happen that a classical region contains a good number of like-minded people.  Then it would also be wise to seek advice from a wider pool of churches at another broader assembly.

There is one more angle to this.  I have often thought about the process of change, particularly changing a church culture, both locally and federatively.  There are different ways it can be approached.  It’s a question of leadership and persuasion.

Bad and Good Leadership

Bad leadership rams changes through and runs over all opposition in the process.  A good example of this is Mark Driscoll’s book, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons From an Emerging Missional Church.  He tells readers to ask whether they “have the guts to shoot their dogs.”  Dogs include “loser leaders” and “pathetic people.”  He writes, “…it is vital to name with brutal candor the people, programs, structures, and ministry philosophies that are dogs needing to be shot.  Be sure to make it count and shoot them only once so that they don’t come back and bite you” (34-35).  Elsewhere in the book he writes about how the church is a body and one of the most important parts is the colon:  “Like the human body, any church body without a colon is destined for sickness that leads to death” (131).  This is in the context of a discussion of getting rid of problem people in the missional church – “shooting the dogs” is the same thing as getting rid of waste from the body.  This is wicked, bad leadership – and one wonders whether it contributed to Mark Driscoll’s undoing at Mars Hill in Seattle.

Good leadership seeks to lead through timely, patient persuasion.  It’s not only leadership in the local church, but also leadership in the federation.  If we want to see cultural changes on a large scale, then we need to persuade our brothers and sisters of the need for such changes.  Try and dialogue.  Put the books out there, write the blog posts, send the articles into the church magazine, use social media – there’s no shortage of options.

You may have read this article, read between the lines, and imagined I had a particular situation or two in mind.  I did.  However, I especially wrote this for myself and my own local church.  Without going into details, we’re contemplating some changes falling under the second category of ways that might antagonize.  I’m sensitive to the possibility we could do that and I just don’t want to go there.  Instead, I want to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).  Let’s do that together, shall we?

 


CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (4)

The synod finished last week Thursday evening and all the acts are now available here.  As before, let me just review a few of the highlights from where I’m sitting.

Article 85 dealt with overtures from both regional synods regarding licensure of seminary students.  They both proposed that students be permitted to speak an edifying word after two years of seminary, as opposed to the current three.  The synod decided to give the green light for that under certain conditions.  One of the conditions is that students licensed under these provisions have to preach under the supervision of a mentor for a full summer immediately following.  But another condition is that the Pastoral Training Plan funding is still going to cover only one full summer internship, and usually that’s the internship following completion of the third year at CRTS.  I guess the students will have to sort out how this is going to work in practice.

Remarriage after divorce is often a contentious issue in Reformed churches.  In article 93, the synod considered an appeal from a couple concerning their consistory’s decision to pray for God’s blessing on such a marriage.  The appeal went up through classis and regional synod, and thus landed on Synod 2019’s table.  The appeal was denied.  One of the grounds was that there is exegetical freedom in the CanRC on this matter.  This is the way it should be, in my view.

Another appeal was considered in article 130.  Blessings Christian Church appealed a decision of Regional Synod East regarding article 55 of the CanRC Church Order.  In CO article 55, the churches agree that they will only sing “the metrical psalms adopted by general synod as well as the hymns approved by general synod.”  A proposal was adopted by a Classis Central Ontario to revise article 55 to read as follows:

The 150 psalms shall have the principal place in public worship.  The metrical psalms and hymns adopted by General Synod, as well as songs approved by the consistory that faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, shall be sung in public worship.

This proposal then went to a Regional Synod East where it was defeated.  But this synod still ended up dealing with it via the appeal of Blessings.  However, the synod decided to deny it.  There are several grounds, some of which deal with the question whether it is a matter for the churches in common.  Synod decided that it remains so.

Article 139 dealt with the perennial topic of the United Reformed Churches.  Synod decided not to reappoint the Committee for Church Unity.  The process towards a merger is now officially on hold from both sides.  However, the CanRC and URNCA will continue as sister churches.

Finally, they left one of the most interesting items almost to the very end.  A Regional Synod West submitted an overture regarding the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) jointly developed by the OPC and URCNA.  The overture asked the TPH be adopted for public worship in the CanRC per Church Order article 55.  This overture was dealt with in article 142 of the Acts.  Essentially the overture was denied — but some of the substance of it was reworked.  The Standing Committee for the Book of Praise was mandated to consider improvements for both the psalm and hymn sections of the Book of Praise:

4.2  Mandate the SCBP:

4.2.1 Concerning the Psalms:

     4.2.1.1  to seek input from the churches as to which non-Genevan renditions of the Psalms could be added to enhance the Psalm section of the BoP.

4.2.1.2  to compile a list of suitable Psalm renditions for possible inclusion in the Book of Praise, using the TPH as a primary resource.

4.2.2 Concerning the Hymns

4.2.2.1  to seek input from the churches concerning replaceable and additional hymns for the 2014 Book of Praise, using the TPH as a primary resource.

4.2.2.2  to compile a list of such hymns keeping mind that at this time the final number of hymns in the Book of Praise should not exceed 100 (as per GS 2004) and being flexible with the structural template (Apostles’ Creed) of the hymn section of the 2014 Book of Praise.

4.2.3  To send, at least 18 months before the next general synod, an explanatory report to the churches together with a provisional list of songs for immediate testing, in the worship services if so desired, so there can be well-considered feedback to the next general synod.

To sum it up, you can be sure that the CanRC Book of Praise will still exist four or five years from now, but it will look quite different to the way it does now.  Additionally, it is going to be quite different to the Aussie Book of Praise which is probably going to appear in the next year or so.  I suppose change is inevitable — as long as it’s change for the better.  I do think that expanding the hymn section is warranted — there are some sections of the Book of Praise hymnary that are thread-bare.  For example, there could definitely be more hymns that are directly about the cross and Christ’s sufferings there in our place.  Expanding the hymnary carefully, looking to the TPH, and with a limit of 100 hymns seems a good way forward.


CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (3)

We now have some provisional Acts to survey.  For those interested in the details, the Acts can be found here at the CanRC website.  Let me just mention a few of the highlights from the last few days.

In article 23, the synod considered a request to update the Lord’s Supper forms.  This is in regard to the use of masculine pronouns.  The synod decided to mandate the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise (SCBP) to study the matter and propose any linguistic changes they might think necessary.  From my point of view, that’s a good development.  The use of the masculine pronoun in the Lord’s Supper forms grates on me (along with other infelicities in the forms).  However, I will be interested to see how the SCBP will work around this.  An easy way to fix it would be to switch it all to first or second person:  “Let us all consider our sins and accursedness that we may humble ourselves before God” or “All of you ought to consider your sins and accursedness so that you may humble yourselves before God.”  It shouldn’t be difficult to fix.

In article 41 we find the decision about the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  I’ve already commented in general about that decision.  Now that we have the full text, I find the following consideration noteworthy:

Ecclesiastical Fellowship is extended to churches where we find the marks of the true church (Article 29, Belgic Confession).  The presence of the marks of the church are premised on a given church accepting the authority of the Word of God.  Now that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands approve of developments contrary to the Lord’s instruction in his Word, the marks of the true church cannot with confidence be said to be consistently present in these churches.

This is well-worded.  It doesn’t go to the extreme of saying that the RCN are a federation of false churches.

Last of all, I would note the synod’s discussion of an item from the Blessings Christian Church in Hamilton, ON.  This is in article 64.  Blessings sent a “request for revision” of a decision made by Synod 1983 regarding the forms for baptism and public profession of faith.  They asked Synod 2019 to judge that Synod 1983 erred in inserting “confessions” into the questions where once stood “articles of the Christian faith.”  Synod 2019 decided that this request had come improperly — Blessings has to go back and follow the ecclesiastical route of presenting a proposal via classis and regional synod.  The proper process needs to be followed.  Now I have to say that I don’t have the “request for revision” from Blessings in front of me — I haven’t seen it.  All I have is what we find in the Acts.  The quoted summary in 3.2 of article 64 reads:

In light of new research, the emergence of a new ecumenical landscape, and the conviction that previous appeals to synods (1986, 1989, 1992) were inadequately considered and therefore unjustly denied, the Blessings Christian Church requests a revision of the 1983 (Cloverdale) General Synod’s decision to modify the questions in the liturgical forms for Baptism and Profession of Faith by replacing the phrase “articles of the Christian faith” (or the tentatively approved “Apostles’ Creed”) with the term “confessions.”

I would be curious to know what this “new research” is, as well as details on how we now have a “new ecumenical landscape,” to say nothing of how previous synod decisions fell short.  Previous synods decided that “confessions” is a linguistic revision (improvement) upon “articles of the Christian faith.”  It clarifies what was meant by “articles of the Christian faith.”  Because of the use of a similar expression in Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism, it could have given the impression that CanRC members only commit to the Apostles’ Creed.  So why would anyone want to go back to the ambiguous expression?   Clarity is always better.  What we read in the Acts of Synod 2019 could give the impression that Blessings wants to move the CanRC away from confessional membership, i.e. the communicant members commit to the Three Forms of Unity.  I’m glad that it didn’t go anywhere this time and I pray it never will.


Another Farewell to the RCN

Not a lot of news has been coming out of the CanRC Synod in Edmonton.  So far, they’ve published some Acts from the beginning of the assembly, but there’s nothing really substantial in there.  The live-streaming has only been happening for the sessions with the speeches from fraternal delegates.  However, they did publish this announcement on the official CanRC website:

With sadness the General Synod 2019 of the Canadian Reformed Churches decided unanimously to discontinue the sister church relationship with the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (GKv) and to implore the CanRCs to remain in prayer for the GKv. May the Lord have mercy on them and on us.

This isn’t surprising.  We all knew it was coming.  Yet it is still lamentable — not the decision itself, but that the RCN didn’t listen to repeated admonitions from Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

What’s going to happen from here?  Like with the Aussies last year, the Canadians and the Dutch go their separate ways.  Meanwhile, there is a movement in the RCN to get the next RCN synod to revise the decision about women in office.  This is their website.  On Saturday there was a meeting in Bunschoten for concerned people in the RCN.  According to this news report in Reformatorisch Dagblad, the meeting saw about 325 people in attendance.  One of the speakers was CanRC seminary professor, Dr. Arjan de Visser.  He was the most sharply critical of the decision about women in office.

Is it possible to roll back this decision in the RCN?  In principle it would be.  But practically speaking, it would seem to have some insurmountable obstacles.  What do you do with local churches that not only decided to have women in office but have already implemented it?  According to this story from September 2018, there are at least 50.  What do you do with the women who have been ordained?  Do you defrock them?  Or do they get “grandfathered” (or maybe “grandmothered”) in?  From where I’m sitting, it seems next to impossible to put this back together when it’s already fallen apart this much.

Speaking historically, how often does a church with women’s ordination later on repudiate it?  It is rare.  Historically, the only realistic way forward for those who value the authority of the Word of God in such matters is separation.  You can’t be part of a church or church federation that insists on undermining the Scriptures.  This is why the United Reformed Churches exist in North America.  There were people who lingered in the Christian Reformed Church because they thought they could perhaps sway the church back the right way.  Did it happen?

Moreover, just like with the Christian Reformed Church, it would be short-sighted to think that overturning one synod decision about women in office would salvage the RCN.  There are more things going on that undermine the authority of Scripture — I think particularly of issues connected to homosexuality.  There’s also the whole problem of a compromised Theological University and the relationship with the NGK.  One revised decision doesn’t magically undo all that.

My heart goes out to the faithful brothers and sisters still in the RCN.  You’re in a tough spot.  You love the RCN.  I can’t imagine how hard it would be to leave — but I also can’t imagine how much worse it would be to stay.


CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (2)

A short while ago I finished watching the live-stream (it’s archived here).  A couple of note-worthy items:  the delegates from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands gave their addresses.  Rev. Rinze Ijbema, who previously served in the CanRC, gave a short, but well-worded address indicating the desire of the RCN to continue in their relationship.  As he did at the FRCA Synod last year, Rev. Dr. Melle Oosterhuis explained the decision of Synod Meppel concerning women in office.   The Reformed Churches of Brazil had Rev. Adriano Gama extend greetings.  Finally, the chairman officially announced that Rev. Dr. William DenHollander (from Langley CanRC) has been appointed as the next professor of New Testament at CRTS.