Category Archives: Church life

CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (1)

The synod is underway, however up till this point we haven’t seen any Acts released.  They do have some live-streaming video being offered here (with archives). I’m told that there have been a few decisions, but nothing public on any of the major items of interest yet.  Apparently in the next few hours, the Synod will announce the new professor of New Testament at CRTS.


CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019

On Tuesday, the Canadian Reformed Churches will have another synod.  It’s being held in my old stomping grounds, Edmonton, Alberta.  As press releases come out (or information flows to me via other means), I plan to again summarize the important decisions.  A couple of important ones I’ll be watching are the decision regarding the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and the overtures regarding the Trinity Psalter Hymnal of the URC/OPC.  Stay tuned…


The Synod of Dort and Catechism

The following is a talk I did for the Dort Conference held in Caruaru, Brazil on March 23, 2019.  The Portuguese version can be found here.   

The scene happens almost every week in Reformed churches in Canada and Australia.  It is usually a Tuesday or a Wednesday evening.  The parents bring all the children between the ages of 12 and 18 to be taught catechism by their pastor.  Most of the time it is the pastor who teaches; if a church is vacant, then an elder or even someone else might do it.  In a large church, the pastor might not be able to teach all the classes.  Because there are so many students, there will have to be others teaching beside the pastor.

In some parts of Australia, these catechism classes are taught by the pastor at the Christian school during the day.  In my congregation, like in Canada, we do the classes in the evening.

Let me describe in more detail what it looks like where I am a pastor.  In Launceston, we have three classes, all on Wednesday evening.  The first class is from 7:00 to 7:45.  This class is for the children between the ages of 12 and 15.  We call it the junior class.  In this class, the children learn the doctrine of the Bible with the help of the Heidelberg Catechism.  They are expected to memorize a part of the Catechism every week.  I teach them what it means with the Bible.

The next class is from 8:00 to 8:45.  This class is for the children between the ages of 15 and 18.  This is the senior class.  This class is divided up into three years.  In the first year, they study the biblical teachings of the Belgic Confession.  They do some memorizing, but they memorize Bible passages and not the Belgic Confession.  In the second year, the focus is on the Canons of Dort.  Then, in the third year, they again study the Heidelberg Catechism.

The last class begins at 9:00.  This is the class for those who hope to make public profession of faith.  This class mostly reviews the biblical teachings of the Reformed confessions, but in my church I also teach our young people several weeks of apologetics – that’s all about how to defend the Christian faith.

As I mentioned, this is standard practice in our Reformed churches in Canada and Australia.  I don’t know about how it goes here in Brazil.  But if something like this is done in Brazil too in your churches, I wonder if the same thing is missing that is often missing in Canada and Australia.  Reformed churches usually do well at teaching their young people.  The thing that is often missing is the parents.  The parents are often not teaching their children.  In the minds of many Christian parents, the church has to teach their children.  But they don’t have to teach.  And so they often don’t.  This is sad.  Our churches could be stronger and more faithful if all the parents were to teach their children Christian doctrine.

This is where we would do well to pay attention to the Synod of Dort.  The Synod discussed a great many more things besides how to deal with the Arminians.  One of the topics discussed early in the Synod was the question of how best to teach the youth of the church.  On November 30, 1618 the Synod of Dort issued its decree on the best manner of catechesis.  In this talk, we will look at what Dort decided on this, why, and what can we learn from it for today.

Why the Synod Discussed Catechism Teaching

We need to begin with some background.  The Reformation placed a strong emphasis on the importance of catechisms for teaching Christian doctrine.  There were many Protestant catechisms written and published in the 1500s.  But without a doubt one of the most popular was the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563.  This Catechism was first translated into Dutch in the same year it appeared in German, 1563.  Before long, the Heidelberg Catechism became the catechism of Reformed churches in the Netherlands.

The Synod of Dort started in 1618.  As I mentioned, the Synod had to deal with the Arminian problem.  But part of the Arminian problem had to do with the Heidelberg Catechism.  The Arminians did not like it.  They had theological issues with it, but they also said it was too difficult for young people.  They said that it didn’t have enough of the Bible in it.  So, as we come to the Synod of Dort, the Heidelberg Catechism was under pressure.

But there were other issues related to the question of catechism teaching more generally.  Before the Synod of Dort, the Dutch Reformed churches did not have catechism classes as many Reformed churches have them today.  Often they would have a brief class in Christian doctrine for those who were about to profess their faith.  But to have a regular weekly class for the youth of the church taught by the minister – that was unheard of.

What they did have in some places was catechism preaching.  At the Synod of the Hague in 1586, the Dutch Reformed churches agreed that each Sunday afternoon the pastors should “briefly explain the summary of doctrine contained in the Catechism.”  This became part of the Reformed Church Order.  Now the problem was that, even after 1586, in some places this was poorly done.  In other places it was not done at all.  This was especially the case in many small country or village churches.  So there was a lack of consistency in the Dutch Reformed churches leading up to the Synod of Dort.  Whole congregations were missing out on regular doctrinal instruction, and that obviously included the youth of those congregations.  And obviously the future of the church is not very bright if the youth are not being discipled in the Christian faith.  As we come to the Synod of Dort in 1618, the question is there of how to improve the teaching of Christian doctrine in the Dutch Reformed churches.

The Synod Discussion

When it came to the Heidelberg Catechism and catechism training, the Synod of Dort discussed and decided upon several matters.  They made a decision about catechism preaching.  They reaffirmed what the Synod of the Hague decided in 1586.  The Synod dealt with all the objections of the Arminians to the Catechism.  The Catechism was examined and approved by all the delegates, including the foreign ones, as being in full agreement with the Bible.  But our focus is going to be on the discussion and decision about the best manner of teaching Christian doctrine.

The Synod divided that topic into two parts.  They looked at the best way of teaching the youth of the church and then the best way of teaching the adults.  We are only going to look at what the Synod said about the best way to teach the youth.

The discussion began in the morning session of November 28.  As you may know, we have Acts of the Synod, but the Acts do not always give much detail about the discussions.  However, in this situation we have an eyewitness account from an Englishman named John Hales. He observed the synod on behalf of the British ambassador to the Netherlands and reported back to him with letters.  These letters were later published.

John Hales reported about what he observed on the morning of November 28, 1618.  Johannes Bogerman, the chairman of the Synod, first gave a speech about the necessity and usefulness of catechizing.  Bogerman said that catechism was the basis and ground of religion.  It was the only way for the principles of Christianity to be passed down.  Bogerman spoke of how catechism was an ancient practice going back to the early church.  When catechism is neglected, he said, ignorance results among the members of the church.  Confusion also results when catechism is not practiced – people drift into Roman Catholicism, Anabaptism, and other errors.  Bogerman argued that the practice of Reformed catechism was needed now more than ever because of the growing aggressiveness of the Jesuits.  The Jesuits are diligent in teaching doctrine – to combat them, the Reformed churches must be even more diligent.

After the chairman’s speech, the delegates were asked to present their advice on the topic.  The Acts include copies of the advice given by the seven foreign delegations present.[1]  I am not going to go through all the details of these documents.  I just want to note one important element found in several of them.  That has to do with the role of parents.  For example, the delegates from Hesse wrote, “We reckon and judge that this work of teaching catechism to the youth belongs to the Ministers of the Word of God, the teachers in the school, and finally the parents.”  Parents who were careless about that work were to be admonished by the consistory to diligently and faithfully teach the catechism to their children and families.  Likewise, the delegates from Bremen advised the Synod that they recognized three kinds of catechism instruction:  scholastic (in the schools), ecclesiastical (in the church), and domestic (in the families).  Parents, especially fathers, bore responsibility for domestic catechesis.  The same was stressed by the two delegates from Geneva, Johannes Deodatus and Theodorus Trochinus.

All of those advices were presented and discussed on November 28, 1618.  The following day a sermon was preached by one of the British delegates (Joseph Hall).   Then in the morning session of November 30 the Synod came back to the question of how to teach catechism in the best way.  The chairman had been meeting with the executive officers of the synod and, taking all the advice into account, they worked together to produce a proposed decision.  The chairman presented this proposal and it was adopted.

The Synod Decision

The decision regarding the best way of teaching the youth had three parts.  There was to be a three-fold manner of catechizing the youth of the Dutch Reformed churches.

It began with the home.  Parents had the responsibility to instruct their children in the basics of the Christian faith at an age-appropriate level.  They were to urge them to godliness.  Parents were to train their children in prayer.  The Synod declared that parents have the responsibility to take their children to church and then afterwards to review what they heard, especially in the catechism sermons.  Parents must read the Bible with their children and explain it to them.  Finally, the Synod decided that parents should also give their children Bible passages to memorize.  Now what if there were parents who failed to do these things?  The Synod decided that negligent parents were to be admonished by the ministers.  If they did not listen to the ministers, then the elders were to reprimand them, and if necessary, place them under church discipline.  Failing to teach your children was considered to be a sin for which you could be placed under church disciple.  That is how serious this was considered to be.

In the second place, catechism was the responsibility of the schools.  According to the Synod of Dort, the state was responsible for the establishment and maintenance of education in general.  The teachers in these schools had to be Reformed.  They had to subscribe to the Reformed confessions and be trained in teaching catechism.  Dort decided that the teachers should teach catechism to the students twice every week and require them to memorize it.  Additionally, the teachers were also required to take their students to the Sunday catechism preaching – presumably this requirement was for the students whose families were not members of the church.  There were to be three types of catechism tools for this work in the schools:  a basic simple catechism for the youngest students, a simplified version of the Heidelberg Catechism (known as the Compendium), and then the Heidelberg Catechism for the older students.  The ministers had the responsibility to make sure this was all taking place.  If there was any negligence the ministers would report this to the government.  The government must then replace any negligent school teachers.

Finally, said the Synod, catechism was also the responsibility of the church.  The youth of the church were to be taught by the pastors, but not in catechism classes as we know them today.  Instead, the ministers were to teach the youth, along with the rest of the congregation, through the regular catechism preaching.  For this reason, the Synod decided that ministers should preach their catechism sermons at the level of the youth.  This teaching should also be followed up with review.

There are two things I want to mention about this decision.

First, there is the role of the school.  In that old Dutch context, the school was an instrument of both the church and the state.  Moreover, church and state were connected in ways that are foreign to us today.  As history moved on that connection was broken.  Eventually, the catechism class taught at the school became the catechism class taught by the church.  So, the second and third ways of teaching catechism to the youth were eventually brought together.

Second, I want you to note that the Synod followed the advice of the delegates of Hesse and Bremen in dividing it into this three-fold manner.  But there is an important difference.  The difference is in the order.  The Synod of Dort put the role of parents first.  Moreover, the Synod said a lot more about the responsibility of parents than did any of the advices received.

Relevance for Today

The Synod of Dort was correct in emphasizing the role of parents in catechism.  This is a biblical emphasis.  We could think of Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  Parents, especially fathers, are called to keep their children in order and also to teach them God’s Word.  Sometimes you hear about other churches that have “youth pastors.”  Reformed churches also have youth pastors – they are called parents.  The parents are supposed to be the youth pastors in the church of Christ.

Moreover, parents in a Reformed church promise to do this.   When their children are baptized, Reformed parents promise that they will instruct their children in Christian doctrine.  They promise that they will do it.  They have the primary responsibility, not the minister.  The church supports the teaching of the parents, but the church does not replace the teaching of the parents.

Christian parents should teach their children Christian doctrine.  But how?  Let me give some practical suggestions.

First of all, to teach your children you must have a good basic understanding of Christian doctrine yourself.  You have to make use of the resources that are available to you.  If you are in a Reformed church where there is catechism preaching, make it your habit to be there every time so you can be strengthened in your understanding of biblical doctrine.  Then you also need to be reading the Bible for yourself every day.  You cannot teach others if you are not being taught yourself.  That happens through studying the Word of God for yourself.  I also want to recommend reading good Christian books that will teach you doctrine.  If you need a suggestion for a book like that, ask your pastor.  Many parents don’t teach because they don’t have the confidence or feel like they have the knowledge.  But if you are a Christian parent, you have the calling and responsibility to do that, so you must find ways to build your confidence and knowledge.

Next, Every Christian home should have a set time for family worship every day.  In many Reformed homes in Canada and Australia, this happens after the evening meal.  But it does not have to be after a meal.  There just needs to be a time every day when the family will be gathered for worshipping God together.  During this time, there should be prayer and singing.  There should be Bible reading.  But there should also be a short time of learning Christian doctrine with the help of a Catechism.

In my family, we usually use the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  This is a catechism from the Presbyterian churches, but it teaches Reformed doctrine just like the Heidelberg Catechism does.  We have a book based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Each question and answer has six days of teaching to go with it.  We have also used the Heidelberg Catechism with a similar book.  Sometimes we go through the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well.  But each day, we spend maybe five minutes of our family worship time learning Christian doctrine.  By doing this, when our children go to the church’s catechism classes, they have already learned many of the basics.

However you might choose to do it, the important thing is that you do it.  Parents, please listen to me:  if you love your children, teach them the Lord’s ways.  Nothing is more important for their well-being!

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me also say that this is very important for the future of the church and the progress of the gospel.  We will not have a strong church without strong families.  Strong families are the backbone of strong churches.  We will have spiritually strong families when parents, and especially fathers, take their responsibility seriously to provide spiritual leadership and teaching for their children.  When we have that, our churches will stand stronger.  Our gospel witness will shine brighter.  And God will be praised with greater fervour.

[1] An eighth foreign delegation (from Nassau-Wetteravia) would not arrive until December 17.


Book Review: Children at the Lord’s Table?

NOTEI originally wrote this review in 2009.  However, ten years later, I’ve been hearing more about paedocommunion again.  This book remains a valuable resource for combating this error.

Children at the Lord’s Table?  Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion, Cornelis P. Venema, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009.  Hardcover, 199 pages, $25.00 USD.

Paedocommunion is a word that we’re hearing more often these days, mostly because of its connection with many of the figures associated with the Federal Vision movement.  A few years back, one of those figures pointed out to me that no one has ever really written a book presenting a solid case against admitting children to the Lord’s Supper.  He may have been right then, but I don’t believe he’s right any longer.

Cornelis Venema is well-known as a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and a United Reformed minister.  In this book, he first outlines the arguments of Tim Gallant and others like him for the practice of paedocommunion.  These arguments are primarily from Scripture, but there are also historical considerations.

In the chapters following, Venema considers these arguments.  He examines the historical evidence and finds it to be inconclusive at best.  He also adds a chapter looking at “Paedocommunion and the Reformed Confessions.”  Several years ago, there was a case in the United Reformed Churches dealing with whether the Three Forms of Unity allow the teaching of paedocommunion.  The answer was negative.  Although Venema does not mention that particular case, he affirms the answer.  However, most important of all is the Scriptural evidence.  Venema examines the relationship between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper and points out that it is not as straightforward as many have made it out to be.  In fact, there is a stronger connection between the Lord’s Supper and the covenant renewal meal in Exodus 24.  Venema also gives an entire chapter to the crucial passage of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, concluding that the Biblical way to the Lord’s Table is through public profession of faith.

In the last chapter, the author also considers the relationship between covenant theology and paedocommunion, especially in view of the Federal Vision movement.  Given these current issues, this is a helpful discussion.  Equally helpful is the appendix dealing with covenant theology and baptism.  Venema correctly outlines the promise and obligations of the covenant.  Like Klaas Schilder, he distinguishes between two different aspects of the covenant of grace.  There’s also a good section on whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional – though  I do think that more explicit reference to union with Christ could have sharpened the argument here.

This is an excellent and timely book dealing with an important issue.  It would be worthwhile to have it on hand in family and church libraries for when questions arise about paedocommunion.  It’s also highly recommended for those who need to have a good understanding of this issue, i.e. pastors and elders.


The Book of Praise’s Uncertain Future

For several decades the Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter has been the exclusive song book of both the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  It’s something we’ve agreed upon in our Church Order.  Here in Australia, our last synod decided to move towards an Australian version of the Book of Praise.  It will have the extra 19 hymns in the 2014 CanRC Book of Praise, the FRCA Church Order, Australian spellings (like ‘baptise’), and a few other bits and pieces unique to the FRCA.  Overall, however, it will still be the familiar songbook.

In Canada, the Book of Praise is facing an uncertain future.  There were two recent proposals at regional synods which illustrate some changes afoot in the CanRC.  While only one of the proposals passed and will move on to the General Synod in Edmonton next year, the existence of these proposals demonstrates that there are questions in the CanRC about whether the hegemony of the Book of Praise is a sure thing going into the future.

Classis Central Ontario of September 6-7, 2018 adopted a proposal from the Fellowship CanRC in Burlington regarding a change to Church Order article 55.  The proposed reading was 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 consistory that faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, shall be sung in public worship.

This proposal was then forwarded to Regional Synod East of November 14, 2018.  The hope was that RSE would adopt it and then send it on to General Synod 2019.  However, RSE didn’t adopt the proposal.

On the other side of the continent, Classis Pacific East of February 22, 2018 adopted a proposal from the Aldergrove church dealing with the Trinity Psalter Hymnal recently published by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches.  This proposal stated that the psalms and hymns of the TPH also be approved for worship in the CanRC.  The proposal went to the Regional Synod West of November 5, 2018.  This was RSW’s decision, as reported in the press release:

RSW decided to forward the various submissions about the Trinity Psalter Hymnal to General Synod
with the recommendation that, in addition to the adopted Book of Praise, General Synod Edmonton 2019
approve the Psalms and Hymns of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) for use in public worship as per Church Order Article 55. Along with this recommendation it added the following remarks:
6.1 Those letters which were submitted as appeals were received as letters of the churches interacting
with the overtures.
6.2 The overtures demonstrate a commonality in speaking about the Trinity Psalter-Hymnal (TPH) and
its merits in addition to the Book of Praise (BoP).
6.3 The purpose is not to replace the BoP but to enhance the unity in worship between us as sister
churches in North America by allowing the churches to also sing from the TPH.
6.4 The language of the overtures and the other materials received by RSW demonstrates that this is a
topic that lives in our churches. In addition, the material shows that some of the arguments either
supporting or opposing these overtures are subjective.
6.5 There is great value in maintaining the principle of a federative approach to corporate worship.
While not wanting to make exceptions the rule, RSW acknowledges the uniqueness of certain
congregations in their circumstances (e.g. mission churches).
6.6 The SCBP’s (Standing Committee for the Publication of the Book of Praise) evaluation process of
suggestions for new hymns from the churches is perceived as not sufficiently responsive to what the
churches through decisions of general synods have requested. It is debatable whether the SCBP is the
appropriate forum to evaluate the TPH.
6.7 In order to have the churches appreciate the quality of the TPH, the churches should have ample
opportunity to interact meaningfully with its contents, as has happened in the past with the introduction of the Augment.

So this matter will be going to the General Synod in Edmonton next year.  They will have to decide whether the Book of Praise will continue to be the exclusive song book of the CanRC.

What are my thoughts on this?  I haven’t actually seen the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, so I’m in no position to judge its contents or quality.  I do, however, place a lot of stock in trusting my brothers and sisters in the OPC and URCNA.  They’re not theological slouches.  So, that’s one thing.

Another thing is whether the exclusive use of the Book of Praise is necessary or helpful.  Is it required of us by God or is what’s agreed upon in our Church Orders a matter of convention that may or may not be helpful?  Obviously the latter.  It’s not the “law of the Medes and Persians which can never be changed.”  Circumstances can change, church sub-cultures can change (in matters indifferent), and therefore so can what we might agree on as our collection of songs for public worship.

Moreover, there’s also the question of adding more hymns.  I once held to exclusive psalmody.  When I became convinced that biblically based and biblically sound hymns fit within biblically regulated worship, then I also became convinced we should sing the best hymns.  If we’re going to sing hymns at all, then we should have the best collection of hymns in our songbook.  The 1984 Book of Praise had 65 (actually 66) hymns, but there were gaps in the selections, and other issues.  The 2014 Book of Praise has 85 hymns and there is improvement in expanding some of the sections (notably, with the resurrection of Christ).  But there is still the question of whether this is the best we can do in terms of our hymnody.  After all, shouldn’t we offer to God our best in worship?  Therefore, in principle, I’m open to the idea of adding more, carefully vetted, hymns to what we sing in public worship.

Finally, a word about the Genevan psalm melodies.  I love them, at least most of them.  I grew up with them and still sing them daily.  But I’m not stuck on them as the be-all-and-end-all of psalm singing.  Some of them are challenging to sing, especially for new comers to our churches.  Still, most people get used to them and even start to enjoy them.  The Genevan psalm melodies are used in Reformed churches around the world, in many different cultures (which is rather amazing!)  However, we need to keep all this in perspective.  The psalms themselves are far more important and precious than the tunes to which they’re sung.  If there’s a way for certain psalms to be sung and appropriated by God’s people more effectively by using a different tune than the Genevan, then we ought to be open to that.

I’m sure the Book of Praise will continue to be used in the CanRC for the foreseeable future.  Yet the inescapable reality is that the days of its sole primacy are numbered.  If the change doesn’t happen at General Synod 2019, it will surely happen further down the track.