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?