Category Archives: Church polity

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.


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 the 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.