Category Archives: Ethical issues

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.

 


Pastoral Q & A — Labour Unions

I’m starting a new feature here where I’m answering questions from members of my church about various issues.  Since many of these questions are of general interest, I figured I would share the answers here.

Today’s question is about a Christian perspective on labour unions.  How should we regard them?  Can a Christian be a member of a labour union?

I’ve tackled this question before from within the Canadian context (see here).  Having done some research, I’ve noticed that Australia has some significant differences.  My answer in this post is based on the Australian context.

Historically, many Reformed people have objected to union membership on several grounds.  One of the main grounds was the unconditional oath of allegiance that labour unions required.  It used to be that if you were a member of a union you were required to promise that you would put the union above everything else, including God and your biblical convictions.  Moreover, many workplaces were “closed shops,” which meant that if you worked there you were compelled to join the union and pay the associated dues.  This is no longer the case in Australia.  Union membership is voluntary, and no one can be compelled to anything.  For example, if you don’t join a particular union associated with a workplace, neither the union nor the employer can make your life difficult (at least not legally).  If the union starts an industrial action or strike, even if you are a union member, you cannot be forced to participate.  More details can be found here.  So the situation has changed on that front.

Nevertheless, the existence of labour unions is owing to an adversarial model of industrial relations.  It’s an unbiblical notion of necessary conflict between labour and management.  Depending on their leadership and policies, some labour unions might be more militant than others.  In other scenarios, workers in a given situation might be facing an exploitative employer and a labour union could justly and fairly promote their interests.  When faced with the question, a Christian needs to look at the history of a particular union’s dealings with management and any relevant legislation as well.  It’s also worth asking whether that union would stand behind you as a Christian if you got into trouble in the workplace because of your beliefs.  The answer to that question would give you a clear indication of whether you have a place in such an organization.

Finally, a Christian also has to research the particular causes that union supports.  Here in Australia, I can think of at least one union that is openly affiliated with the Labor Party and supports its policies (including on abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, etc.).  Since their historic foundational principles are based on socialist/Marxist ideology, unions do tend to lean to the left politically speaking.  Christians should therefore be aware of whether or not their union dues are going to be supporting causes that are ethically problematic.

So can a Christian be a member of a labour union?  It depends on the union.  In some instances, a Christian will conclude that it’s possible, in others that it’s impossible.  You need to do your research and find out who you’re dealing with.  At the end of the day we can be thankful that we live in a country where we’re never compelled to make a choice contrary to our conscience.


Honour the Emperor

Social media is both a blessing and a curse, and oftentimes I’m tempted to think it may be more of the latter.  One of those double-edged things about social media is that you get to see what people are really thinking.  It’s sort of like getting everybody drunk without the alcohol.  All their inhibitions are gone, they become impulsive, and start baring what’s really in their hearts.  That can be a blessing — when you see thoughts and words that clearly are fruit of the Holy Spirit.  It can also be a blessing for pastors and other church leaders as you get to understand the areas of growth that are still needed in the lives of those entrusted to our care.  But it can also be a curse when you get frustrated with seeing blatantly unbiblical behaviour amongst God’s people online.

Right now I’m thinking about especially about the way that Christians will sometimes speak about those set over them in positions of authority.  It’s one thing to disagree with the policies, principles or actions of our political leaders.  I disagree with a lot of those too.  But it is quite another thing to disrespect those leaders.  It’s another thing to mock them.  It’s another thing to call them names.  Sometimes it seems as if professing Christians regard politicians as not even being human beings created in the image of God.  It’s as if lawfully elected men and women suddenly lose their humanity and it’s open season on them.  Christians are free to attack them.

This is problematic on two levels.  The first level has to do with the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not kill.”  Reformed believers understand that this commandment is not just about the physical act of killing someone.  It also goes to our attitudes and the roots of murder.  In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, “I am not to dishonour, hate, injure, or kill my neighbour by thoughts, words or gestures, and much less by deeds, whether personally or through another” (QA 105).  Positively speaking, we are “to love our neighbour as ourselves, to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness toward him…” (QA 107).  Is the Prime Minister your neighbour?  How about the Minister of National Defence?  Even if you don’t appreciate their policies or their actions, at the bare minimum they are still human beings created in the image of God.  They are still our neighbours and therefore the Sixth Commandment applies.  Does mocking your neighbour honour him?  Does calling your neighbour names show “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy and friendliness toward him”?

The second level on which this is problematic is more specific.  The Fifth Commandment has to do with how we interact with authority.  It’s not just about honouring our father and mother, but also about honouring government.  We are to show “honour, love, and faithfulness” to all those in authority.  We’re also to be patient “with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.” (HC QA 104).  God calls us in the Fifth Commandment to honour and love our government officials, even if they are difficult to love.

This receives further attention in the New Testament.  The era in which the New Testament was written saw many people living under a tyrannical foreign ruler — the Roman Emperor.  The Roman Emperors were corrupt and wicked in many ways.  They were oppressive and they persecuted Christians.  If one were to compare today’s Prime Minister (in Canada or Australia) with, say, Nero, the PM would come off looking relatively alright.  Has your PM burned down the capital and then blamed it on the Christians?  Has he used Christians as living torches for a garden party?  No, I didn’t think so.  That places the statements about the emperor in the New Testament in context.  Statements like what we find in 1 Peter 2:17, “Honour everyone.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honour the emperor.”  Yes, that emperor.  Lest we miss the point, the Holy Spirit speaks along the same lines in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2.  Even if the Emperor is a wicked man with ungodly values, the Holy Spirit told believers to honour him and pray for him.  The Holy Spirit even went so far as to say that such a man is a “minister of God” (Rom. 13:6)!

I have the impression that many people underestimate the workload of our elected leaders.  Many of them work long hours in civic service.  Many of them put in these long hours out of a sense of commitment to their communities.  Even if they’re not Christians, they do want to make our communities better.  They want to serve.  Whatever their motives may be or how pure they are, we can be thankful that there are men and women willing to do this hard work.  Yes, we need more Christians to step up to the plate as well.  But, for all of us, the Scriptures are clear that those carrying the name of Christ are to respect those in this field.  The world mocks and dehumanizes politicians.  The world glories when they fall and say or do foolish things.  The world dishonours our leaders and treats them with contempt.  Do we see that Christians are called to be counter-cultural here?  Let’s find ways of disagreeing with our leaders, while at the same time loving them, respecting them, honouring them and their service, and praying for them.