Category Archives: Church polity

Pastoral Q & A: Is It Necessary to Read the Liturgical Forms Exactly as Written?

When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language.  Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching.  Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church.  Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process.  Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms.  Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility.  With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms.  This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory.  We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English.  The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith.  In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism.  In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.

But what about with an instituted church?  Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order.  In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56).  But what does that mean exactly?  Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?

Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish.  Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation.  The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort.  The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms.  Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.”  About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.”  From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.

Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place?  It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another.  It was confusing and chaotic.  So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.

In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written.  Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will.  Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations.  For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer.  There I’m simply substituting the full name for pronoun “he (or she).”  That’s not a substantial change.

Let me make two concluding points.

First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.  In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so.  When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem.  If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances.  Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes.  Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process.  The forms are not ours to change.

Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19).  I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written.  But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order.  In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis.  If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion.  At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon.  This is part of what it means to live together in a federation.  We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.


Upcoming at FRCA Synod 2018

In a little more than a month, the Free Reformed Churches of Australia will be having their synod.  While convened by the church at Bunbury, the proceedings are to be hosted by the Southern River FRC in the Perth Metro area of WA.  I’ve posted before on some of the more noteworthy items on the agenda — click here.  Since then, the provisional agenda for this synod has continued to grow.  In this post, I’ll mention a few more points of interest.

In the Free Reformed Churches, delegation to synod comes via the classis (as opposed to regional synod in the CanRC).  These are the primary delegates for Synod 2018 from each classis:

Classis North

Ministers:  Rev. R. Bredenhof, Rev. W. Bredenhof, Rev. A. Souman

Elders:  Elder W. Spyker, Elder H. Hamelink, Elder T. Reitsema

Classis Central

Ministers:  Rev. D. Anderson, Rev. A. Hagg, Rev. C. Vermeulen

Elders:  Elder E. Heerema, Elder H. Terpstra, Elder J. Torenvliet

Classis South West

Ministers:  Rev. H. Alkema, Rev. R. Pot, Rev. S. t’Hart

Elders:  Elder S. Bolhuis, Elder H. Olde, Elder W. Vanderven

Every synod also includes fraternal delegates.  This year’s list has a few standouts.  As mentioned previously, the Southern FRC has put forward a proposal to investigate ecumenical relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  The OPC is slated to have a presence at our synod in the person of Rev. Jack Sawyer.

Also, I noted before that there’s a recommendation from our deputies to terminate our relationship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  The Dutch have decided to send not only Rev. Johan Plug (on behalf of their Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad), but also Rev. Dr. Melle Oosterhuis, the chairman of their last synod.  These men have been mandated by Synod Meppel to provide an explanation to our synod regarding the decision to open all the offices of the church to women.  Will they avert what appears inevitable?

While not officially delegated, I’m told there will also be observers from Reformed churches in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Most synods also feature appeals.  There are three of a public nature, all pertaining to the FRCA’s relationship with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.  Three individual brothers believe this relationship is illegitimate and ought to be voided by Synod 2018.  In response, one church has submitted a letter arguing that these types of appeals should be declared inadmissible, since article 31 of our FRCA Church Order only gives individual members the right to appeal decisions of minor assemblies whereby they have been personally wronged.  It will definitely be a discussion to watch.

After receiving the deputies’ reports, local consistories typically discuss these reports and then sometimes submit letters interacting with them.  To date, two churches have submitted a number of letters, but one can expect more in the next week or two.  Let me mention just a couple of the submissions thus far.  Kelmscott submitted a letter asking Synod to remind the deputies to keep their reports succinct and clear, since there is only a short time for churches to consider them.  In addition, they suggest that deputies submit annual reports if there will be more information to share than might be reasonable in a tri-annual report.  Launceston sent a letter asking synod to appoint an official website committee which would include a mandate to refresh the look of the FRCA website and enhance its functionality with federational news and press releases.

Synod 2018 is scheduled to begin on June 18 with a prayer service.  Updates or press releases should be published on the federational website (click here) — there’s also an option of signing up to a synod update e-mail list.


Missional and Reformed — Five Negative Theses

One of my passions is mission and evangelism.  I suppose this makes sense since I started my ministry as a missionary in 2000.  In every church I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve emphasized how important it is for believers to be outward looking.  I’ve repeatedly shown how God’s Word teaches us to be people who have a heart for the lost around us.  At the same time, I’ve always been convinced that none of this is contrary to our Reformed identity — quite the opposite!  In fact, the burden of my doctoral dissertation (For the Cause of the Son of God) was to demonstrate that, far from discouraging an outward looking perspective, the Belgic Confession fosters it.  Being missional is integral to being Reformed.

In years gone by, there were those who saw a tension between Reformed identity and being outward looking churches.  Sadly, today that phenomenon still exists.   To address it, I want to put out a number of theses about being missional and Reformed.  I’ll divide them into negative and positive theses.  In this post, I’ll lay out the negative theses and in a following post, I’ll do the other ones.  I offer the thesis and then a little explanation/commentary (asking you to realize that far more could be said).

1.  To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed confessions

Our Reformed identity is grounded in what we confess from God’s Word in the Three Forms of Unity.  These confessions foster an outward looking, missional perspective.  In For the Cause of the Son of God, I pointed out how the Belgic Confession was originally written as “the church’s witness to the world” (to use the brilliant title of P.Y. DeJong’s commentary on the Confession).  In a follow-up book, To Win Our Neighbours for Christ, I argued that also the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort foster a missionary-mindedness in our churches.  Our confessional heritage is decidedly NOT a liability when it comes to being outward looking.

2.  To be missional, there is no need to give up Reformed worship

Being Reformed means worshipping in a Reformed fashion.  By that, I mean that we do not worship God “in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word” (HC QA 96).  It’s what we call the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).  Because it is grounded in Scripture, the RPW ought to be non-negotiable for Reformed churches.  A Reformed worship service ought always to have the same basic elements — the reading and preaching of Scripture, prayer, singing, offerings, and sacraments.  The circumstantial aspects of worship are negotiable and can differ from church to church.  A missional Reformed church can and should maintain Reformed worship, but it will often be necessary to provide instruction to visitors and new believers concerning that Reformed worship.  Such instruction, offered inside and outside the worship context, will also benefit those who have been longtime members.

3.  To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed name

It should be obvious that your name is part of your identity.  In his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom Rainer insists that it is a myth that “the unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name” (p.38).  In research for this book, Rainer discovered that over 80% of the formerly unchurched people he surveyed said that “the church name had little or no influence upon their joining a particular church” (p.39).  Further, Rainer points out that of those who said that the church name did have an influence, nearly two-thirds said that it was a positive influence.  There is no reason to believe things would be different with Reformed churches.  Giving up your Reformed name serves no missional purpose — so why do it?  Moreover, why not be upfront and honest about what kind of church you are?

4.  To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed local church community

Sometimes Reformed believers resist efforts to become more outward looking by arguing that our priority has to be the local communion of saints.  First we need to work on a stronger bond between brothers and sisters in our church family, and then once we have that, then maybe we can start thinking about (and maybe even doing!) evangelism.  This is a false dilemma.  The church exists ultimately for the glory of God, but it exists for his glory through human beings.  The church exists for God’s glory through human beings loving one another both inside and outside the church.  Scripture does not prioritize one over the other and neither should we.  We are to love our brothers and sisters in our church family, but also love all those whom God places on our path — and show that love by sharing the gospel with them when God gives the opportunity.

5. To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed connections

Here we’re thinking of the broader Reformed church community, i.e. on the federational level.  Here we’re thinking of connections through things like Reformed church polity.   Reformed churches differ from one another, even in the same federation.  They each have a different history and sometimes even a different church culture.  Different is not bad, so long as these differences are within the bounds of what we confess and what we have agreed upon in our church order.  Churches that are less missionally-minded need contact with more missionally-minded churches in minor assemblies and other such contexts.  All churches, however much missionally-minded, benefit from the accountability and encouragement that comes from living together in a federation.

**********


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.


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.