Category Archives: Church polity

FRCA Synod 2021 (6)

Last night we did manage to make one significant decision which many people have been watching. It has to do with Synod 2018’s decision to declare three appeals inadmissible. Those three appeals had to do with Synod 2015’s decision to enter into a sister-church relationship with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand. Three churches appealed Synod Bunbury 2018’s decision in articles 76-78. One classis also wrote a letter informing Synod that they had grant the appeal of a couple against the decision of their consistory in relation to the same matter. This is the text of the decision with the grounds:

Decision

  1. To take note of the letter from Classis Central May 8 and 14 2020;
  2. To deny the appeals of FRC Mt. Nasura, FRC Darling Downs, and FRC Armadale;
  3. To acknowledge that varying interpretations of our Church Order regarding the individual right to appeal to synods exists in our churches.  Synod thus decides to ask the churches to bring a proposal to change the Church Order to the next synod in the church orderly way if they hold that an individual should have the right to appeal to synod directly regarding matters of the churches in common. 

Grounds

  1. A synod is not a permanent legal body, but rather a deliberative assembly which only exists when it is meeting.  Therefore, while precedent may have some value, it is not binding upon synods.  Synod 2018 was thus correct to state that “admissibility must be governed by reference to the Church Order, not historical precedent.”
  2. Our Church Order does not grant the right of appeal to every member of an FRCA congregation with respect to any and every synod decision, nor does it grant a right to request revision of such decisions.      
  3. Individuals are not members of the FRCA federation, but rather members of local FRCA congregations.  An individual’s right to appeal (Church Order article 31) exists first within that local context.
  4. Church Order article 31 not only grants a right of appeal to individuals who have “been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly,” it also describes the general process individuals are to follow, that is, appealing from minor assembly to major assembly.  For an individual the minor assembly is his consistory – this is where the individual must begin the appeal process.  Therefore, Synod Bunbury 2018 was correct to judge that “individuals who wish to interact with decisions of Synod should begin by addressing their consistories.  The local consistory, if they concur with the concerns may direct an appeal to synod.  If the local consistory does not take over the individual’s appeal, he can appeal the local consistory’s decision to classis and thus begin the appeal process in accordance with article 31 of the Church Order.”
  5. Contrary to FRC Mt Nasura’s statement, minor assemblies do at times deal with inter-church relationships, particularly as these matters proceed to discussion at synod via the church orderly way. 
  6. Contrary to FRC Armadale’s assertion, the procedure stated by Synod 2018 does not unjustifiably complicate or deny efforts of individuals to interact gainfully with synod decisions.  Rather it serves both individuals and the churches by allowing such interactions to be scrutinized by consistories and classes before being submitted to a synod.  This procedure can serve to highlight poorly formulated submissions so they can be rectified.   
  7. Historically, there have been varying interpretations regarding article 31, with Church Order commentators differing on whether an individual member has the right to appeal directly to a synod. While the position that was adopted by Synod 2018 is not the only approach to the question, its decision was helpful in providing some clarity to the churches about the process of appealing.  However, more clarity may be beneficial and that can only be provided by a well-considered proposal to change the Church Order.

This morning we’ve had more discussion on the ICRC and matters related to training for the ministry. I anticipate some more decisions in the afternoon and evening sessions, though perhaps not on those topics. One final note: I will be leaving for home tomorrow — I have a funeral on Friday and a wedding on Saturday. So it looks like I’m going to be missing some of the end parts of synod. It’s expected to be over tomorrow sometime.

All the draft Acts for last week are now available here.


Herman Bavinck on Women in the Church

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) stands with John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper as one of the greatest Reformed theologians.  He’s renowned for being biblical, confessional, and incisive.  It’s been especially the publication of his Reformed Dogmatics in English that’s brought him to prominence in our day.  Biographies by Ron Gleason and, more recently James Eglinton, have certainly helped as well.  However, most of Bavinck’s corpus remains in Dutch.  Eric Bristley’s Guide to the Writings of Herman Bavinck illustrates the vastness of this corpus, listing hundreds of his articles and books. 

I want to introduce to you one of these untranslated works, one that was controversial in its day, and still bears some relevance for today.  In 1918, Bavinck published his book De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij (Women in Contemporary Society).   It’s a comprehensive look at questions Dutch society was wrestling with in the early 20th century, particularly under the influence of first-wave feminism.  It deals with what Scripture teaches about women and how biblical teaching applies today, but also surveys church history – Bavinck’s typical approach.  In what follows, I’ll summarize what he says in his chapter about women in the church.  I’ll be simply reporting what he writes.  In other words, this is only descriptive and not analytical/critical.

“Women in the Church” is the title of chapter 10 of De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij, the second-last chapter of the book.  It begins with the pre-Reformation church, noting the role of nuns in Christian philanthropy.  During the Reformation, some efforts were made to reorient this kind of diaconal service among women, but these efforts were hardly successful.  In some areas, efforts were made to have deaconesses, but the Synod of Middelburg in 1581 decided that it was not advisable to reintroduce the office of deaconess in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.  In exceptional circumstances such as a time of plague, however, the work of deacons could be done by their wives or other women.  According to Bavinck, this happened in places like Middelburg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Emden.

Bavinck then turns his attention to a historical overview of women as pastors/preachers.  He notes that the Salvation Army was among the first to give a prominent role to women as church leaders.  This was owing especially to Catherine Booth, who co-founded the Salvation Army with her husband William.  Catherine Booth argued for the right for women to be preachers alongside men.  Others who pioneered women’s ordination were the Quakers, Congregationalists, Universalists, Unitarians, Methodists and, in the Netherlands the Mennonites and the Remonstrants.

Bavinck evaluates all these developments as being unbiblical.  He notes that Christ entrusted the ministry of the word to men, first to the apostles, and then to pastors and teachers.  The apostolic church never had any official ministry of the word and sacrament by women, nor any government of the church by women.  The apostle Paul said that women are to be silent in the congregation because to do otherwise would violate the natural order grounded in creation.             

Bavinck has a more positive evaluation of women serving in a general diaconal role.  In fact he says, the church “cannot do without women in this work.”  This includes things like Sunday school, care for the poor and the sick, care for the elderly, the support of pregnant women, and more.  He doesn’t think these activities need to be directly under the oversight of the church as an institution, but the church does have the calling to promote this kind of work where women use their gifts.

That leads into a discussion of the active role that women can play in missions.  He notes some figures for women serving on the mission field.  According to his figures, 160 women from America were serving as missionary doctors, and 2458 as “sisters in the mission” (zendingszusters).  Canada had 23 and 220, while Australia and New Zealand 2 and 94.  He also draws attention to the role that “missionary women’s associations” play on the home front, promoting and supporting the work of missions around the world.  Bavinck presents all of this in a positive light. 

Finally Bavinck comes to the controversial topic of women voting for office bearers in the church.  He begins this discussion with an overview of where things stand:  he notes that there are many churches in America, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland where women vote.  He points out that it was discussed and defended in the Netherlands as early as 1898 by Abraham Kuyper, as well as by pastors A.D.C Kok and C. Lindeboom.

Bavinck notes that the issue did not seem to be a pressing one in the Netherlands of his day.  Unlike in other countries, men were actively involved in Dutch church life and there didn’t seem to be any desire to have women voting for office bearers.  He writes that, with such indifference, it would be foolish to press the issue.

However, he notes that if we discuss it in principle, “there is little ground to condemn it.”  Bavinck argues that women are equal members of the church with men.  They have just as much an interest in having good office bearers as the men do.  Because of their nature as women, they tend to actually have quite a great deal of interest in religious matters.  Moreover, there are large numbers of widows, women married to “religiously indifferent men,” or women married to men who belong to another church.  Without being able to vote, such women are all stripped of the opportunity to have an influence on church life. 

Bavinck strengthens his argument by noting that while women under the authority of their husbands in the home, as church members they receive the same benefits and should receive the same rights.  He notes that young male communicant members who still live with their parents are subordinate to those parents, but yet they have the right to vote.  This is unfair.  Bavinck says the injustice becomes worse because women are allowed to raise objections to the election of an office bearer – yet they cannot vote.  Then he notes that the vote in the church is not an exercise of power.  The congregation only points out its preferences for office bearers; the consistory is responsible to call and appoint.

He maintains that there is only one objection with any weight:  if women can vote in the church, it will not be long before the church will be forced to have women standing as candidates.  In other words, women’s voting will lead to women’s ordination. 

But Bavinck notes that this is an argument from fear.  It is an argument that often persuades fearful minds concerned about novelties in the church.  However, he points out, if the Scriptures are so strong that women may not serve as office bearers, then we have nothing to fear.  The clarity of the Bible should prevent any such development.

He then points out that it’s not unusual for people to be able to vote and not be able to stand as a candidate.  One does not follow from the other.  The requirements for eligibility to vote are often different from the eligibility requirements to stand as a candidate.  In the Dutch situation of his time, a public servant, clergyman or teacher was not allowed to be a candidate in a city council election.  Writes Bavinck, “Thus eligibility to any office in Scripture is bound by certain requirements, 1 Timothy 3; but no such limits are placed on the power to vote.”

Finally, Bavinck comes to a brief discussion of Scripture.  In Acts 1:15, in the meeting of the 120 people to replace Judas as apostle, women were certainly there (Acts 1:14).  True, Peter addresses the gathering as “Men and Brothers.”  That was common practice and it still was in the church of Bavinck’s day.  Even though they were present the sisters were never mentioned.  It’s therefore uncertain as to whether or not the women present participated in the process.  Other passages like Acts 13:3 and Acts 14:23 likewise do not shed any light.  Bavinck concludes that while Scripture limits the offices of the church to men, there is no definite and clear statement about who may vote.

Indeed, it seems to Bavinck, in the ancient church women were not excluded from choosing bishops or making contributions to other ecclesiastical matters.  He points out that, in his day, in Germany there were Roman Catholic congregations where independent women had long been allowed to vote on the choice of a pastor.  Similar situations occur in the Netherlands, he says, proving that women have not always been excluded from the voting process in the congregation just because they are women. 

In his biography, Ron Gleason describes the reception of this book (pp.415-416).  It was especially the matter of women voting in the church that led to some negative evaluations by men such as Dammes Fabius and Seakle Greijdanus.  Gleason relates that Abraham Kuyper wrote his last letter to Bavinck about this book and indicated that the two of them had significant differences on the subject.  However, a footnote surmises that these differences may have been about women’s suffrage in civil society.  Given how Bavinck asserts that Kuyper defended women’s voting in the church, Gleason may be correct.

(Note: I haven’t yet read James Eglinton’s biography and what he may have to offer on this – it’s on my list of must-reads for 2021.)            


Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons

I’m just dropping a quick note here about this new book for office bearers published by Reformed Fellowship.  If you’re an elder or deacon, veteran or rookie, I think you’ll find something helpful in this volume.  It’s got twenty chapters with the following titles:

  1. Training Church Officers
  2. Practicing the Mission of the Church: Apostolicity in Action
  3. Positive Leadership: Leading Like Jesus (Not Rehoboam)
  4. Continuing in Prayer
  5. Elders and Deacons as Hospitality Leaders
  6. Ministering to the Sick and Dying
  7. The Office Bearer and Household Management
  8. Classical Christian Catechesis
  9. Managing the Offerings of God’s People
  10. Getting Acquainted with the Congregation’s Needs
  11. Avoiding Burnout
  12. Tending the Shepherd (1): Honorable Provision
  13. Tending the Shepherd (2): Sabbaths and Sabbaticals
  14. How to Evaluate Your Pastor
  15. How to Be a Clerk
  16. Navigating the Broader Assemblies: Serving at Classis and Synod
  17. How to Serve on a Pastoral Search Committee
  18. What Every Elder Needs to Know about Congregational Singing
  19. Encouraging Lay Witnessing
  20. Promoting the Work of Missions

As you can see, most of the chapters are practically oriented.  The book includes study questions for each chapter.  Most of the authors are United Reformed ministers, though there are also CanRC and OPC contributors.  Some of the content is specifically oriented to a United Reformed context.  However, much of that can be easily adapted to other contexts, or otherwise safely disregarded.

For the last 10+ years, over two churches, I’ve gone through John Sittema’s With a Shepherd’s Heart.  That’s still a great book for office bearer training, but recently I recommended that we give Faithful and Fruitful a try.  We look forward to reading and discussing it together at our 2020 consistory meetings.


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?

 


The History and Character of Our Reformed Church Order

At the back of our Book of Praise, after the confessions and liturgical forms, you’ll find a document called the Church Order.  It’s something which lays out the government or polity of the church.  In the Book of Praise one finds the Canadian Reformed Church Order, but the Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia is not much different.  Both are based on the same principles.  Both have the same heritage tracing back to what is known as the Church Order of Dort.  In this article, I want to briefly trace out that history and also mention some of the important characteristics of our Church Order.

The History of the Church Order

The Reformation arrived in the Netherlands in the 1520s.  For the first several decades, the Reformed churches in that region lived under the frequent spectre of persecution.  This made it difficult to enjoy life in a federation or bond with other churches.  Yet efforts were made.  It was seen as desirable and useful to have some kind of organized ecclesiastical government following the principle of 1 Corinthians 14:40 that all things “should be done decently and in good order.”

It used to be said that the first meeting where we find some serious discussion of Reformed church government is the Convent of Wesel in 1568.  This is mentioned in the Introduction to the Canadian Reformed Church Order in the Book of Praise as well.  However, recent research by Jesse Spohnholz (The “Convent” of Wesel: The Event that Never Was and the Invention of Tradition) and others demonstrates that there was no such meeting.  Instead, the articles associated with Wesel were likely composed by Petrus Dathenus.

Synods in 1571 and 1574 relied upon the church polity of the French Reformed churches to draft articles of church order for the Dutch churches.  The Synod of Dort in 1578 (not to be confused with the other Synod of Dort in 1618-19) took things further, as did later synods in 1581 and 1586.

Our Church Order is sometimes called the Church Order of Dort and this is because its ultimate (Dutch) form was achieved at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19.  We often remember that Synod for the Canons of Dort, developed to address the errors of the Arminians.  But this Synod also finalized a form of church government which would endure for ages to come.  After Dort, this Church Order would be the standard polity for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands almost without interruption until our day.  It should be noted that unfortunately the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKV) recently abandoned the Church Order of Dort in 2014.  Other Reformed churches in the Netherlands, however, still maintain it.

When post-war Dutch immigrants first came to Canada and Australia and established the Canadian and Free Reformed Churches, they brought with them the venerable Church Order of Dort.  At first, the Church Order of Dort was adopted verbatim in Dutch.  Few immigrants were fluent in English and, new to their adopted home, they were unaware of whether or how it would have to be adapted.  However, in due time, it became clear that the Dutch Church Order wasn’t completely applicable to either North America or Australia.  Changes would have to be made and they were.  Eventually the Canadian and Free Reformed Churches also revised their church orders and translated them into English.  Over time more changes have been made, some merely linguistic and others more substantial.  Nonetheless, in general outline and in the principles applied, the Canadian and Australian church orders continue to share the pedigree of Dort.

Character of the Church Order

It’s not my purpose here to outline all the principles and points found in our church order.  Instead, I merely want to identify three important characteristics of this document.  When trying to understand or apply our church order, these three points must be remembered.

First of all, the Church Order is based on the teachings of Scripture and the summary thereof in our Reformed confessions.  Generally speaking, it is the practical application of biblical teachings.  However, that doesn’t mean everything in the Church Order can be backed up with a proof-text.  Like other parts of church life, there are some things fixed in the Church Order by way of convention.  The churches believe it’s helpful to have a stipulation on how to do a certain thing and so they use the biblically-informed wisdom that comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit.  As an example from the FRCA Church Order, there’s article 56:  “The Lord’s Supper shall be celebrated at least once every three months.”  There is no biblical proof-text to support that minimum frequency.  It’s something our churches have agreed upon as being wise and helpful.  Since the sacrament is intended for our spiritual nourishment, it’s good to have a certain minimum frequency agreed upon.  Other examples could be cited.

Next, it’s important to recognize that the Church Order is not a legal text with rigid commands.  Particularly when the Church Order speaks of matters beyond the clear teaching of Scripture, we treat the Church Order as a voluntary agreement between churches.  It’s an agreement between churches who have decided to federate together on these terms.  This is why we don’t speak about the Church Order commanding us to do x or y.  Instead, we speak about having agreed in our Church Order to do x or y.  Under exceptional circumstances, in consultation and full transparency with the other churches, it can happen that certain articles (or parts of articles) are suspended in their application.  Moreover, the Church Order is not the “law of the Medes and Persians” which can never be changed.  It has been modified and edited in the past, and it certainly can in the future as well.

Finally, our church order is what’s called a “high-context” document.  Cultural anthropologists distinguish between high-context and low-context cultures.  In a low-context culture, there’s little guess-work.  Everything is direct and said explicitly.  However, in a high-context culture, much is assumed or implied.  For a sound interpretation of what’s going on, you need an intimate awareness with the context.  Our church order is a high-context document.  If you’ve grown up in our church sub-culture and have been paying attention, you’ll automatically (or even unconsciously) get many of its background assumptions.  You’ll understand much of what’s implied because our culture is like the air you breathe:  you don’t even think about it.  However, if a newly Reformed pastor from some other culture tries to adopt and work with our church order in his church or churches, there will inevitably be missteps.  Applying and working with our church order is not cut and dried.  There needs to be careful training and mentoring to fill in the gaps and avoid misunderstandings.

Every Reformed office bearer needs to be familiar with our Church Order.  It’s not just for pastors and perhaps obsessive-compulsive elders.  All who serve in the church’s government ought to be aware of the way in which we’ve agreed to organize the church’s government.  No, we don’t subscribe the Church Order as we do the Confessions.  It’s not a confession of faith or a creed.  Yet it’s our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the way in which we both as a local church and as a federation of churches have agreed to do everything “decently and in good order.”  This mitigates the possibility of corruption setting in.  For this reason, it’s equally important for regular church members to also familiarize themselves with what’s been agreed upon for the government of the church.  If something is being done “out of order” then everyone has a responsibility to point it out.