Category Archives: Ecclesiology

Women in Office = False Church?

It could happen later this year that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decide at their synod to officially allow women in office.  I pray that it doesn’t, but the possibility is definitely there.  That raises questions relating to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Specifically, if a church federation were to adopt women in office does that automatically mean that they have become a false church?  That question needs to be answered carefully.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the idea of women in office in Reformed churches.  Back in the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America first discussed it, and then gradually adopted it.  That adoption was one of the biggest catalysts leading to the mass exodus from the CRC between 1992 and 1994 — over 17,000 members left just in those years.  A good number of those ended up forming what would later become known as the United Reformed Churches.

I remember some of the early talks between the CanRC and URCs in the Bulkley Valley in north-central British Columbia.  This would have been in the early 2000s.  Questions were asked of our URC brothers such as:  do you now view the CRC as a false church?  No URC person would say that.  It was as if some of the CanRC people felt that the ex-CRC people could only have been justified in leaving if they viewed the CRC as a false church.  At least some in the URC would say that the CRC was no longer a true church, but they would not say that having women in office (and the other theological aberrations) resulted in the CRC being a false church.

I think I can see why they said that.  Certainly I don’t believe that a Reformed federation which adopts women in office can be said, by virtue of only that, to have become a false church.  Let me explain.

Let’s agree that article 29 of the Belgic Confession gives a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture about the marks of the true and false church.  Let’s use that as our starting point.  What are the marks of a false church according to the Confession?

  • It assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.
  • It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.
  • It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases.
  • It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.
  • It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

So, while the true church has three marks, the false church has five.  Just as all three marks need to be in order for a church to be true, so it follows that all five marks need to be seen for a church to be false.  In the original context of the 1561 Belgic Confession, there was only one church that fit the bill:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Does a church that adopts women in office become a false church?  Certainly those first two marks are being exhibited, and perhaps the fourth too.  However, not necessarily the third (notice the focus on adding and subtracting in the BC) or the fifth (the persecution envisioned leads to martyrdom).  A church adopting women in office would have to go off the rails in all these other areas for it to be a false church.

But if it is not a false church that doesn’t mean we’re saying that it is true.  Let’s review the marks of a true church:

  • It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
  • It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
  • It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.

Does adopting women in office compromise any of these marks?

“The pure preaching of the gospel” could be understood to refer narrowly to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  However, sometimes the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the Word of God in general.  I believe the latter, broader way is found here in BC 29.  I say that because the French (or Gallican) Confession, upon which the Belgic is largely modelled, does not say “gospel” in its articles 27 and 28, but “the Word of God.”  Therefore, if a church is not proclaiming the Word of God purely about who can serve in the offices of the church, this mark has been compromised.

What about “the pure administration of the sacraments”?  Did Christ institute the Lord’s Supper and Baptism with the intent that women would administer them?  Does administering the sacraments to those who follow false teachings like women in office constitute a pure administration?  We have to conclude that this mark too is imperiled by women in office.

Church discipline is also essential for a church to be true.  When members hold to false teachings like women in office, they need to be admonished and warned that they are departing from the Scriptures.  When local congregations hold to women in office and begin implementing it, then there needs to be brotherly admonition on the ecclesiastical level — and action too, if no change takes place.  But if a Synod decides that black is white and women can be ordained, then all possibility for discipline on this point disappears.  So, yes, here as well we have to conclude that the church which adopts women in office has ceased being a true church.

All three marks of a true church are affected by women in office.  The church which adopts this position ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ.  This is why the Canadian (CanRC) and Australian (FRCA) churches will no longer be able to have ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands if they go in this direction.

That still leaves the question hanging:  if not a false church, and if not a true church, then what?  It’s often forgotten that there is a third category in article 29 of the Belgic Confession:  the sect.  The sect is a religious organization which is not entirely a true church, but not entirely a false church either.  In the days the Confession was written, this was the label applied to the Anabaptist groups in the Netherlands.  Guido de Brès wrote a volume of over 900 pages on the Anabaptists.  He never calls their groups “false churches.”  Instead, consistently, he calls them sects.  If you want a category for the church which adopts women in office, “sect” is what you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, I pray that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands rejects women in office once and for all.  I pray that the faithful members will gain the upper hand and steer the RCN back to God’s Word.  I pray that the churches which are already practicing this false teaching will either repent or be removed from the RCN.  I don’t want to see them become a sect.  I earnestly desire that we can continue to recognize them as a true church of Jesus Christ, our sister churches.  We must keep praying!


Book Review: A Well-Ordered Church

A WELL ORDERED CHURCH

A Well-Ordered Church: Laying a Solid Foundation for a Vibrant Church, William Boekestein and Daniel R. Hyde, Holywell, England: Evangelical Press, 2015.

There is always a need for books dealing with the doctrine of the church. Not only do those who’ve grown up in a Reformed church need new and timely treatments of this subject, but also those who are just coming on board to the Reformed faith. Both the newly-planted and the long-rooted need to have a solid biblical guide to what it means to be a church of Jesus Christ. This book fills that niche.

The authors are experienced pastors and writers. Rev. Daniel Hyde has been the pastor of Oceanside URC in California for several years. Rev. William Boekestein has been the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale, PA for some years, but has recently accepted a call to Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. Both authors have extensive background in working with people new to the Reformed faith. Both have written several well-received books.

The book looks at the church under four main headings. In Part 1, “Identity,” the authors explain who and what the church is, especially in relation to Jesus Christ. In Part 2, “Authority,” the notion of office is explained and applied. Do the office bearers in Christ’s church bear any authority at all and, if so, are there any limits to their authority? Part 3 discusses “Ecumenicity” and the connections between churches. The final part deals with “Activity.” Here Boekestein and Hyde deal with the various callings of the church: teaching, worshipping, witnessing, and discipline. Generally speaking, readers will find faithful Reformed thoughts throughout this volume. The authors respect and work with our Reformed confessional tradition, give due attention to church history and, most importantly of all, they want to tie everything to Scripture.

I can certainly recommend this book, but with two caveats or concerns. Chapter 5 has a discussion about the perennial issue of true and false church. The authors seem to argue that the Belgic Confession only knows those two categories. However, there is a third category in the Confession that’s often neglected: the sect. When Guido de Brès wrote his massive book on the Anabaptists, he consistently called them sects. He fully recognized the great diversity among the Anabaptists (he identified over a dozen groups), but he does not ever refer to any of them as being church, either true or false. Were he alive today, de Brès would likely refer to many of the groups around us with the same terminology: sects. Perhaps this language is offensive to modern sensibilities, but it is the language of our Confession.

In Chapter 9, the authors use the expression “God is the missionary” a couple of times. There’s a kernel of truth in that insofar as God is the one who seeks out that which is lost. However, it is an expression that has been liable to misunderstanding and abuse. All of God’s purposes in this world for anything and everything can become “mission.” When everything is mission, then nothing is mission. Therefore, I would suggest that it is better and more accurate to say that God is the author of mission. Mission originates with God and it is his plan and design for the church to go into the world with the gospel of salvation.

Notwithstanding those concerns, A Well-Ordered Church drives home two essential points: First, the church is not optional. Christians united to Christ must be united to Christ’s body. Those who love Christ must love his bride too. Second, because she is the body of Christ, Christ must be honoured as her head and Lord. He must be the one who, through his Word, directs and governs her in all his ways. These two points must never be forgotten and this book serves as a helpful reminder for this generation.


Reaching the Unchurched

New Horizons August-September 2014

The latest issue of the OPC’s New Horizons has an article entitled “Every Church a Mission Field.”  You can find it included in the August-September issue online here.  The article describes a conference held before the last OPC General Assembly back in June.  The entire article is worth reading, but there was one part that is especially worth sharing:

Dale Van Dyke, the pastor of Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan, presented an engaging summary of the book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them.  The author, Thom Rainer, interviewed 353 people who had recently become active in a church after years or even a lifetime outside the church.  Rainer also visited churches that he described as effectively evangelistic.  Here are some of the conclusions from his study:

  • Hiding the denominational name or identity, watering down difficult teachings, and lowering membership requirements do not appeal to new converts.
  • The biggest factors that attract new converts are the pastor and his preaching (90%) and sound, clear doctrine (88%).
  • Other lesser, though important, factors include friendliness, having been witnessed to, and personal relationships.
  • Worship style ranked dead last as a factor (11%).
  • The unchurched appreaciate high expectations for membership.  (Even a seemingly small thing like arriving early for worship communicates value.)
  • Church members should be able to list the core purposes of the church:  worship, teaching, prayer, evangelism, and service (consider Acts 2:42-47).
  • Pastors of effective evangelistic churches have a functioning theology of ‘lostness’ and communicate that through passionate preaching, pleading with the lost, and commitment to personal evangelism.

Pastor Van Dyke finished his presentation with a challenge that could be summarized like this:  Major on the majors (concerning what the Bible teaches).  Be biblical, have conviction, and be joyful.  Give priority and passion to outreach.  Develop effective small-group ministry and Sunday school that encourages teaching, growth, and fellowship.  Pursue unchurched family members and colleagues.  Uphold high expectations for members.  Never forget the power of God!

Rainer’s book certainly sounds worthwhile.  His conclusions go against the grain of what many people apparently think should be the shape of an outward-looking church.  To me this confirms that Reformed churches do not have to hide their identity or adapt their worship in order to be missional.

 


David Craig: Reformed Churches are Catholic

Life and Thought of David Craig

David Craig (1937-2001) was an instrumental figure in the early days of L’église réformée du Québec (Reformed Church of Quebec).  While I had some contact with him as a seminary student, I regrettably never had the opportunity to meet him in person.  Over my summer vacation, I read the recent biography by Jason Zuidema and came to appreciate the measure of the man and what the Lord did through him in Quebec and elsewhere.  It’s definitely worth a read.  Let me share one paragraph in particular that resonated with me:

David was particularly concerned about imparting to his young church members the idea that the ‘Reformed’ Church was not an aberration, but a faithful continuation of God’s Church.  It was a faithful form of a real catholic church in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church predominant in Quebec.  David did not want his church to be simply called the Église Réformée,  but the “Église Catholique Réformée” to emphasize this continuity with the good tradition of Catholicism before the Reformation.  In a certain sense, one could argue that David thought the Roman Catholic Church appropriated and perverted the word ‘Catholic’ to refer only to itself.  Many of David’s colleagues appreciated this concern, but found the word ‘Catholic’ too loaded to use in official signs and documents.  In any case, David’s concern was to highlight that a Reformed church was not simply a foreign imposition, but in the good tradition of Quebec.  He always wanted the French speakers to make the Reformed church their own.  (84).

I entirely share those sentiments and have often expressed them.  It reminds me of a Canadian Reformed minister who, when his church built a new building, proposed that they adopt a new name, “The Catholic Church of Town X.”  He didn’t find too many supporters.  On a more serious note, this is also a good reminder to abandon the practice of referring to the Catholic Church or Catholics, when what we mean is “the Roman Catholic Church” or “Roman Catholics.”  They have no right to the name and we should stop ceding it to them.


Ecclesiology of the New Calvinism

Creature-of-the-Word

I recently finished reading a book entitled Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church.  Authored by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger, this book could be considered a popular introduction to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church).  The authors are associated with New Calvinism (a.k.a. Young, Restless, and Reformed) and even might want to describe themselves as being ‘Reformed.’

There are many good things to say about this book.  Chief among them would be the way in which the authors argue that biblical churches need to be focussed on the Saviour in every aspect of their existence.  The authors have a high view of Scripture and that leads them to see rightly many aspects of the doctrine of the church.  For example, they argue for the centrality of preaching and the necessity of biblical church discipline.  As I was reading Creature of the Word, there were several times where I had to stop and share with my Facebook friends some of its excellent insights.

And yet this book also highlighted for me some significant differences between confessionally Reformed churches and the New Calvinism.  While there are many things we can appreciate about this movement, there are also points of departure.  They call themselves Calvinists, and in terms of the doctrine of salvation they are.  However, I’m quite confident that Calvin would not want his name associated with this book.  Let me highlight the main problems under three headings.

The Beginning of the Church

In the first chapter of the book, the authors make a distinction between Israel and the church.  They write, “In Acts 2, the Word of God formed a people yet again” (14).  Shortly thereafter, they write, “God spoke to Abraham and created Israel; and in the same way, God created the Church through the proclaimed gospel of the revealed Word, Jesus Christ” (15).  In case there should be any doubt, consider this question they ask, “What makes the Church able to succeed where the Israelites so often failed?” (16).  It is quite evident that the authors take an approach where Israel and the church are considered as separate entities.  With this view, the Church only comes into existence in the New Testament era.  This is a common view, influenced by dispensationalism, but it is not the Reformed view of the church.

The Reformed view can be found in this line from article 27 of the Belgic Confession:  “This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal king who cannot be without subjects.”  This is a fine piece of logical argument and it likely came into the Belgic Confession via the influence of John Calvin.  He mentions the same argument in one of his sermons on the ascension of Christ.  The argument is simple and biblical:

Premise one:  Christ is an eternal king

Premise two:  By definition, a king needs to have subjects

Conclusion:  Christ the king has always had subjects.  Those subjects are those whom he has gathered into his church.

This view is not only found in Calvin and the Belgic Confession.  It’s also in the Heidelberg Catechism.  In answer 54, Reformed believers confess that “the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends and preserves for himself, by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life.”  The church begins in Genesis, not in Acts.  This has always been the position of Reformed churches.  The position of Chandler et al. actually has more in common with Anabaptism than historic Calvinism.

The Membership of the Church

The vast majority of the New Calvinists are Baptists.  Even though they don’t use the word ‘Baptist’ in the name of their church, these New Calvinists adopt a Baptist perspective when it comes to the membership of the church.  Creature of the Word reflects that same perspective.  The membership of the church is made up of baptized believers only.  The children of believers are not included.  Now interestingly, Creature of the Word does have a chapter on ministry to children and there are many good things written there.  The authors emphasize how “moral training” should not be the goal or modus operandi of church ministry to children.  Instead, the focus needs to be on the gospel.  That’s an excellent emphasis.  However, it could be sharpened dramatically if the children are regarded as covenant children, members of the church.  Then the children can be addressed on the basis of their already existing covenant relationship to God and urged to the way of life within that relationship.

Certainly, it has always been the position of confessionally Reformed churches that all the children of believers are real members of the church.  In answer 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess, “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation.”  Calvin wrote in the Institutes (4.16.5), “But if the covenant still remains firm and steadfast, it applies no less today to the children of Christians than under the Old Testament it pertained to the infants of the Jews.”  Though the New Calvinists might want to take the name of Calvin, Calvin himself would strongly disavow any effort to exclude children from the membership of the church.

The Worship of the Church

Creature of the Word has an entire chapter about worship.  Again, many good and true things are said in this chapter.  Things like this:

A church worshipping as a Creature of the Word doesn’t show up to perform or be entertained; she comes desperate and needy, thirsty for grace, receiving from the Lord and the body of Christ, and then gratefully receiving what she needs as she offers her praise – the only proper response to the God who saves us. (42)

However, there is also something deeply ironic here.  While the book is entitled Creature of the Word,  there is nothing in this chapter about how or whether the Word directs our worship.  Early in chapter two, the authors discuss the first commandment and the fact that we are commanded to worship God, but they entirely miss the second commandment, the one about how we are to worship God.  This is more typical of broader American evangelicalism than it is of Calvinism, of the confessionally Reformed faith.

Listen to what the Heidelberg Catechism says about how we are to worship in answer 96:  “We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  The Creature of the Word must abide by the Word alone in her worship!  We call this the regulative principle of worship and it is a mainstay of Reformed liturgical teaching.  It is sometimes mistakenly rooted in the teachings of John Knox and the Puritans.  The reality is that Knox (from whom it passed to the Puritans) learned it in Geneva from Calvin.  In article 17 of his Confession in Name of the Reformed Churches of France, Calvin wrote:  “…if we would render a well regulated and acceptable sacrifice, we hold that it is not for us to invent what to us seems good, or to follow what may have been devised in the brains of other men, but to confine ourselves simply to the purity of Scripture.”  This is foundational for a Reformed approach to worship.

Conclusion

I liked many things about this book.  It’s a fresh, helpful, and often biblical approach to the doctrine of the church.  There are many things that a confessionally Reformed reader can appreciate and I wish I could recommend it wholesale.  However, no one should think that this is fully representative of the biblical Reformed faith as handed down by the Reformation.  There are some commonalities, but there are also significant differences and departures.  While we can learn from some of the good emphases in Creature of the Word, we can also urge the authors to more carefully study the heritage of the Reformation and search the Scriptures with a Berean attitude to see whether Calvin and the Reformed confessions have perhaps been too easily dismissed on some of the important points mentioned above.