Category Archives: Ethical issues

Are All Sins Equal?

At the moment, we are in the throes of a debate about marriage here in Australia.  I’ve been through that debate already once in Canada and I’ve observed it take place in the United States as well.  So this feels like my third time around.  Each time I’ve noticed that Christians sometimes soft pedal the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality by arguing that all sins are the same.  In other words, my extra-marital heterosexual lust is no less a sin than the gay person’s homosexual lust.  Sin is sin and it is all equally wicked.

In a sense this is true.  It’s true in the sense of every sin being equally deserving of God’s wrath.  What to us is a small trifling sin is in the eyes of God a tremendous offense.  This is directly related to the holy majesty of the one sinned against.  If you sin even slightly against infinitely holy majesty, you incur an infinite debt.  But this line of discussion can’t go very far since, in the nature of the case, we’re not just slight sinners — see Romans 3:10-18.

As true as it is that every sin equally deserves God’s wrath, it is equally true that Scripture teaches that some sins are worse than others in God’s sight.  This is immediately evident from the Old Testament law.  Some sins, like blasphemy, were punishable with death, whereas others received lighter penalties.  In Ezekiel 8:6, God points out to Ezekiel the great idolatrous abominations in Jerusalem.  Then he says, “But you will see still greater abominations.”  There are great abominations, and then there are greater abominations.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism captures the biblical teaching on this in QA 83:

Q.  Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

A.  Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The Westminster Larger Catechism in QA 151 expands on this and explains what the aggravations are.  They fall under four broad categories:  from the persons offending, from the parties offended, from the nature and quality of the offence, and from circumstances of time and place.  So, if you’re an older Christian who should know better or an office bearer, your sin carries more weight.  If your sin was against a weaker brother, your sin is worse.  If you broke several commandments in one go, that’s to be regarded as more heinous.  If your sin was committed publicly, that’s worse than if it was committed privately.

As a quick aside, you might be wondering whether this is touched on in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Well, it is, but just not directly.  Some sins being worse than others is implied in Lord’s Day 36 on the third commandment.  We confess that “no sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than the blaspheming of his name.  That is why he commanded it to be punished with death.”  So, blasphemy is worse than, say, adultery or false witness.  Some sins are worse than others.

There is no doubt that Scripture describes homosexual lusts and behaviour as abominable (Lev. 20:13).  The Bible uses strong language about these sins to impress upon us how God regards these things as completely contrary to his design for the human race.  While heterosexual extra- and non-marital lusts and behaviours are sinful, they retain something of what is natural in that they involve the opposite sex.  Homosexual lusts and behaviour are worse because they bring in the additional element of overturning what the Creator God designed to be natural.  This is what the Bible is saying in Romans 1:26-27 — it speaks of trading in natural relations for unnatural.

However, when we speak about sins in terms of their heinousness, we ought always to remember that there is, in Scripture, a sin that is even worse than a homosexual lifestyle.  As Greg Bahnsen once described it, “there is a sin worse than sodomy” in the Bible.  It’s found in Matthew 10.  Jesus sent out his apostles to preach and teach amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” — God’s covenant people.  While they did that, the possibility was there that they would meet with unbelief.  In such a case, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they left that town — signifying that these people are unclean.  Then Jesus adds in verse 15, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”  Sodom and Gomorrah were notorious for their sexual immorality and “unnatural desire” (Jude 7).  Christ was saying that there is something far worse than what Sodom and Gomorrah did:  to be a child of the covenant and to reject the Saviour.  To have God call you his own, for him to send you the Saviour with the glad tidings of the gospel, and for you to reject him — that is something God calls worse than homosexuality.  It’s a warning to people in the church today.

Realize this:  we all have sins great and small sinking us into the depths.  Yet, no matter what our sins are, there is a Saviour whose atoning work is sufficient to wipe it all out.  The saving work of Jesus is there for all who feel the weight of their sin and long for that burden to be lifted.  Even as we speak about some sins which are more heinous than others, let’s also always speak about the grace which is super-abounding in Jesus Christ.

 


A Missiological Reflection on the RCN and Women in Office

 

Over the last few years, I have written several times about my concerns regarding the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Occasionally, I’ve received feedback from members of the RCN, including office bearers.  Some of the reaction has been encouraging – in the sense that the correspondents shared my concerns.  Others have been negative and even sometimes hostile.

In one instance, a brother from the RCN wrote to express his surprise that I could be a doctor in theology and not endorse the direction of the RCN.  In his way of thinking, any intelligent and educated person would surely see that the RCN was going the right way.  In another instance, a brother wrote and suggested that I had neglected the issues.  Moreover, with my concerns I was relegating the churches I serve to irrelevance in this contemporary world.  If we want to be relevant missionary churches, he wrote, we have to be open to new insights and prepared to enter new paradigms.

I have heard these sorts of things before while serving as a pastor in Canada.  The same types of arguments have been used to promote the acceptance of theistic evolution.  We were told that intelligent and educated people are not going to be able to accept at face value what the Bible teaches about creation – for example, that the universe was created in six ordinary days, and that man was created as a special creation of God from the dust of the earth on day six.  I have always said that if intelligent and educated people will not accept that, then they need to repent of their unbelief.  We were told that being an outward looking, missionary church means that we need to accommodate what “science” tells us about origins.  No one will take us seriously if we just maintain what the Bible says.  We will become irrelevant if we are creationists.  To that, I have always said that our calling is not to be relevant, but to be faithful to the Word of God.  The world does not set our agenda.

That was about creation.  But what about women in office?  In what follows, let me reflect a little bit on Synod Meppel’s decision from a missionary perspective.  What difference does it make for the missionary calling of the church to have women in office or not?

Our Saviour sent out his church into this world with the Great Commission.  He sent the church to preach the gospel to all humanity.  Moreover, he also instructed us to teach new disciples about everything that he has commanded in his Word.  Mission includes not only preaching the gospel, but also discipling new converts in following God’s will.  That includes his will for the roles of men and women in the church.  When it comes to mission, there is no way to avoid these issues.  A Reformed approach to mission begins with the preaching of the gospel, but it certainly doesn’t end there.  If Christ teaches us in his Word that only men are to serve in the offices of the church, then Reformed missionaries must teach what Christ teaches in his Word.

However, the gospel itself is threatened by the direction that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands has taken.  This is because the authority of Scripture itself is under attack.  Everyone must understand this:  we are not dealing with questions of exegesis.  Instead, we are confronted with questions at the most basic level of hermeneutics.  Is the Bible the inspired Word of God?  Is the Bible infallible and inerrant revelation from the Holy Spirit?   Did the Holy Spirit say that only men are to serve in the offices of the church?  We are back to the most basic question confronting Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:  “Did God really say?”  Then the question was about fruit, now it’s about the place of women in the church:  “Did God really say that only men can serve as office bearers?”

When a high view of the authority of Scripture is lost, then everything is up for grabs, including the gospel itself.  Once you begin questioning whether the Spirit really said some things in Scripture, there is nothing preventing you anymore from questioning whether the Spirit said everything.  Of all the offensive teachings in the Bible, nothing is more offensive to unregenerated human nature than the cross and the penal substitutionary atonement offered there.  It is only a matter of time before the biblical gospel of Christ crucified is questioned, compromised and, eventually, even completely lost.

The historic Reformed view of Scripture is that nothing and no one stands above Scripture.  With their decision at Synod Meppel, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have betrayed that view.  And since Christian mission and commitment to the Great Commission depends on a high view of Scripture, the time will come when this new view of the Bible will gut the missionary endeavours of the RCN.

We’re told that we need to change our view on such matters as women in office in order to stay relevant to the culture.  But I ask:  since when has it been our priority to be relevant to an unregenerate and lost culture?  The true church has always been odd and out of place in this world.  Augustine rightly contrasted the City of God (the church) with the City of Man (the world).  These are two different worlds at odds with one another.  While we want to reach that other world, we must do so on God’s terms, not on the terms of unregenerate culture.  When it comes to mission and evangelism, faithfulness is to be our greatest concern, not relevance.

A colleague who serves as a missionary in Brazil has been reading a book by Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth.  On Facebook he posted this excerpt from the book:

It is a common assumption that, in order to survive, churches must accommodate to the age.  But in fact, the opposite is true: in every historical period, the religious groups that grow most rapidly are those that set believers at odds with the surrounding culture.  As a general principle, the higher a group’s tension with mainstream society, the higher its growth rate.

My colleague noted that the RCN’s compromise on women in office is inevitably going to relegate them to decline and insignificance.   History demonstrates that this is correct.  In church after church, chasing after relevance by accommodating Scripture to the culture has led to vapid, weak, and puerile churches.  These are churches that do next to nothing for the advance of the gospel anymore.  In North America and elsewhere, churches that have gone down this path end up meeting on Sundays with a few old ladies – and no mission work at all.  Women in office will eventually spell the end of mission.

It is counter-intuitive to think it.  Fallen human nature thinks that relevance must be the way to missionary success.  But mission is the way of the cross, and the cross turns human thinking upside down.  The cross is foolishness – no one would think that God would save through something so offensive, and yet he does.  Some missiologists might think that God will give us success through pandering to the world and its feminist ideology.  But the Scriptures teach us to expect God’s blessing when we are faithful to the Word, despite the fact that it grossly offends the world.

With all my heart, I deeply lament the decision of Synod Meppel.  It grieves me enormously when I see churches that were once faithful taking this unfaithful path.  One of the saddest things is what it is going to do to the missionary witness of the RCN.  This is going to be a tremendous set-back when it comes to the advance of the gospel.  Satan laughs as God’s Word is twisted in the name of mission and being relevant to the culture.  And while I grieve, I am sure that our Lord Jesus Christ is grieving even more.  The church entrusted to take his Word to the world has betrayed it.  That’s a tragedy of the highest order.


The GKV’s Major Leap off the Cliff

Last week, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decided to open all the offices of the church (minister, elder, deacon) to women. Here’s a reflection from someone who’s seen the downward spiral of the RCN from the inside.

tulipinstitute

20170619 - Leap of Faith_Flickr Photo by Sabrina c via Flickr (CC)

When asked by a friend for a response to the decision by the Dutch GKV (Reformed Churches (Liberated)) to ordain women in all offices, I felt emotionally numb. As an adult convert to Christianity, the GKV was the church I was catechized and baptized in and where I discovered the richness of Reformed doctrine. Sure, in places that beauty was encrusted with the barnacles of cultural traditions that had arisen out of the peculiar history of the denomination and the cultural and intramural fights that had taken place over the preceding fifty years but the gospel was there.

Since moving to the United States in 2002, however, I have witnessed from a distance the rapid march towards a new hermeneutic and ecclesiology heavily infused with postmodern views of culture. It is hard to diagnose where things started to go wrong, and in any…

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How the Mighty Have Fallen

I have been writing for about 25 years.  My first published article appeared in the January 1992 issue of a Canadian Reformed youth magazine called In Holy Array.  The article was entitled “Women in Office” and it discussed the opening of ecclesiastical offices to women in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.  In 1990, the CRC Synod decided to allow churches to admit women to the offices of minister, elder, and deacon.  This set in motion the large-scale departure from the CRC which eventually led to the formation of the United Reformed Churches.  My article expressed bewilderment that this could happen in a church with which, less than 50 years earlier, we had enjoyed Christian unity.

Now here we are 25 years later and I am again bewildered.  A church federation with whom we still officially have sister-church relations (though suspended) has officially decided to do what the CRC did in the early 1990s.  Over the last two days, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN) have decided at Synod Meppel to admit women to all the offices of the church.  Their sister-churches in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Korea, the US, and others all warned them not to but, regrettably, they did not heed these warnings.  Especially amongst the immigrant churches in Canada and Australia, these decisions bring an enormous amount of sadness.

I know there are still faithful believers in the RCN.  One such brother e-mailed me this morning to share his grief and consternation.  These brothers and sisters will need our prayers as they seek to discern God’s will for them in terms of church membership.  It would not be easy to leave the church of your youth, the church where you made profession of faith, the church where you were married, and where your children were baptized.  It wasn’t easy for the concerned CRC members in the early 1990s either.  Yet they didn’t choose the easy path; instead, they chose the faithful path.

As for ecumenical relations, next year there will be a Free Reformed synod here in Australia.  The Dutch churches were warned that, apart from repentance, our relationship with them would be severed at Synod 2018.  We will be forced to follow through on that warning.  The Canadian Reformed Churches have said something similar in regard to their next synod in 2019.

And then there’s the ICRC, the International Conference of Reformed Churches.  The RCN have badly miscalculated if they thought that these decisions would have no bearing on their membership in the ICRC.  Next month, July 13-19, the next meeting of the ICRC is scheduled to take place in Jordan, Ontario.  Again, one cannot but help think of what happened with the Christian Reformed Church in the 1990s.  The CRCNA was one of the founding members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), just like the RCN is one of the founding members of the ICRC.  In 1997, NAPARC voted to suspend the membership of the CRC over their decision regarding women in office.  Amongst the churches leading that initiative were two current sister-churches of the RCN — the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church in the United States.  The OPC and RCUS are still in NAPARC — and also in the ICRC.  Have the OPC and RCUS softened their stand on this issue since the 1990s?  The writing is on the wall for RCN membership in the ICRC.  The only question is one of time.

After the fall of the mighty CRCNA, many post-mortem analyses have been essayed.  Most of them, including mine, lay the blame at the foot of developments regarding the authority of Scripture tracing back to the 1960s.  Over the coming days, similar analyses will be written about the RCN.  It’s a familiar story and it illustrates man’s wickedness in departing from God’s Word.  It’s not “Reformation” when you scorn the Scriptures and have women office bearers — it’s deformation.  I’ve seen the story already play out twice in my short lifetime.  I pray I won’t see it a third time.  I pray that we will have learned something from the sad fall of these two federations of churches that were once faithful and mighty in the LORD.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

1 Corinthians 10:12


Pastoral Q & A: Vaccinations

A parishioner wrote and asked:  What is the Christian position on vaccinations?  Should we get our children vaccinated?

Now that’s a dangerous question!  Emotions run high on both sides of the debate.  The pro-vaccination crowd accuses the anti-vaccination crowd of being reckless with the health of our children.  The anti-vaxxers respond by accusing the pro-vaxxers of wanting to poison their children.  Things get all the more intense when we bring Christian arguments about God’s providence or abortion into the debate.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Bible gave a clear answer to this question?  As it stands, there are no Bible passages that give us explicit instructions about whether to vaccinate our children.  There are biblical principles that we need to consider and apply, but we must recognize that we’re in an area where Christians do and can disagree.  Our church does not hold to a position on vaccinations.  Our confessions don’t stake a position on this.  There is no single “Reformed” position, rather a diversity of views exist among Reformed people.  We therefore have to be careful with the way we debate this issue.  We can still be brothers and sisters in Christ and disagree on this question.

In my view, there are at least three biblical principles that we need to consider and apply.

First and foremost, we are not to recklessly endanger lives, whether our own or those of others.  This is derived from the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not kill” (HC QA 105).  Vaccinations are proven to prevent diseases, many of which can be life-threatening.  However, it should also be recognized that there may be individuals who might experience life-threatening side-effects or reactions to vaccinations.  By way of exception, therefore, it can be granted that some individual children ought not to be vaccinated.

Second, children are entrusted by God to the parents (Psalm 127:3).  The parents have the ultimate responsibility to care for their children and make decisions relating to their health and welfare.  Parents also have the calling to be responsible in caring for their children.  Moreover, they are accountable to God for the decisions they make.  If your child dies from a disease you could have prevented by having your child vaccinated, that’s on your conscience.  You have to be prepared to accept that risk if you choose not to vaccinate your children.

Third, since the government is mandated by God to uphold justice (Romans 13:1-4), vaccinations are also a matter of public health policy.  Justice includes preventing unnecessary deaths due to bad public health practices.  At the very least, civil governments have the responsibility to educate the public on the value of vaccinations.  Going beyond that, one is faced with an inevitable conflict between the rights of parents and the responsibility of the government to protect the public from harm.  At the moment, I don’t know exactly how to resolve that.  Perhaps it would be resolved by recognizing parents have the freedom to choose, but still holding them criminally responsible for any public health consequences from their choice.

And what about God’s providence?  Yes, we believe that he is sovereignly in control over all things.  Nothing happens to us by chance.  But we can never use that truth to evade the truth of our human responsibility.  I don’t get in the car and say, “I don’t need to wear a seatbelt because God is sovereign.  If he wants me to die in a crash, then it’s my time.”  We all realize that’s foolish talk with seatbelts — it’s equally foolish with vaccinations.  If there’s a means to preserve the life of you or your child, you’re required to use it.

Finally, objections are sometimes raised about the contents of vaccines.  One objection says that vaccines contain toxic/poisonous chemicals.  Since our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, we ought not to inject these substances into them.  However, my understanding is that the levels of these chemicals found in vaccines is so small as to have no negative effect on your overall health.  I’m not a medical doctor, but the Australian Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association, and others all stand behind the safety of vaccines, and I’ll take their word for it.  Think about it:  if doctors and medical researchers are aware of the content of these vaccines, and they really knew it was harmful and hid it from us, would they allow their own children to be vaccinated?  There’s no proof that doctors are secretly leading the way in keeping their children unvaccinated — in fact, the opposite is the case with the vast majority (as illustrated from this research with doctors in Switzerland).

The other objection is far more weighty and has to do with the use of aborted human babies in developing vaccines.  This is a reality which we need to acknowledge and come to terms with.  While the number of babies that were used to develop certain cell lines for vaccines was small, they each represent a human life unjustly killed.  Even if they weren’t expressly killed for medical research, murder made it possible.  That said, there are several medical advances commonly used today which have their origins in highly unethical circumstances.  One of the most well-known is a treatment for hypothermia discovered by researchers in Nazi Germany.  Are we forbidden from using that life-saving treatment because a number of people were murdered by the Nazis in the process of developing it?  No, we recognize that Scripture teaches that God can and does bring good out of horrible evil (think of the cross!).  We are not approving of the evil when we make use of the good that has come from it.  Yes, by all means, if there are alternatives not developed from human fetal cell lines, we would rather use those.  Furthermore, we would certainly want to encourage medical/pharmaceutical companies to be ethical.  However, this argument need not be an obstacle for Christian parents when it comes to vaccinations.

As you might have gathered, all our children have been vaccinated for the usual assortment of preventable illnesses.  My wife and I believe that was the responsible thing to do — and certainly no ill effects have resulted from that choice.  I respect the right of other Christian parents to reach a different conclusion, so long as they’re being thoughtful and responsible in the way they reason and act.  In the spirit of Romans 14:1-12, we ought to all give one another the same Christian courtesy.