Category Archives: Mission

Reformation Confessions and Evangelism

We’re continuing to celebrate what God did in the Reformation starting 500 years ago.  For today, I’m sharing the notes from a talk I did in Brazil back in August.

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Introduction

One of the most important contributions of the Reformation was its production of confessions and catechisms.  Only a few of them are still well-known today.  For example, Reformed churches continue to use the Heidelberg Catechism written in 1563.  They also continue to use the Belgic Confession written in 1561.  What many people do not know is that there were numerous confessions and catechisms produced during the time of the Reformation.  If we only look at the Netherlands, there were at least 18 Reformed confessions and catechism produced between 1530 and 1580.[1]  James Dennison has produced a four volume set of Reformed confessions from the 16th and 17th centuries.[2]  Volume One covers 1523 to 1552.  It contains 33 confessions and catechisms translated into English.  These come from all over Europe:  Switzerland, Germany, Spain, England, the Netherlands, Bohemia and more.  Moreover, this is not even close to a complete collection.  The number of Reformed confessions is simply amazing.

Why did the Reformation produce so many confessions?   After all, was not the Reformation all about Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone?  They said they believed in the Bible alone.  Yet they had all these manmade documents for their churches.  How could they fit those things together?  The answer is simple.  They believed that their confessions were just faithful summaries of biblical teaching.  Their confessions and catechisms never replaced the Bible or stood over the Bible.  They were guides to the important teachings of the Bible.

The Reformation churches saw that confessions and catechisms were helpful.  They were helpful as statements of faith.  When someone wanted to know what their church believed, they could turn to the confession of the church.  They were helpful as teaching tools.  When someone was going to be brought into the church, the confessions were a pedagogical tool for teaching the important doctrines of Christianity.  When young people were being discipled in the church, they would be taught with the help of confessions and catechisms.  They were also helpful as something to bind the church together in doctrinal unity.  These documents contained the faith that the church agreed upon together as the basis for fellowship.

In some instances, Reformation confessions were also regarded as evangelistic tracts.  This is certainly true for the Belgic Confession.[3]  It was addressed to a Roman Catholic world lost in darkness. It was an effort to win Roman Catholics with the gospel.  The Belgic Confession was originally written in French, not in Latin.  It was written in the language of regular people in order to win the regular people.  It was also originally written in the format of a tract.  It was printed in a small convenient format which would fit in your pocket.  It was meant to be printed cheaply and in great quantities so that it could be widely shared.  And it was.

In what follows, I want to look at some of these Reformation confessions and what they have to say about the evangelistic calling of the church.  I’m going to mention the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, of course.  I’m also going to be discussing some of the confessions and catechisms that are not as well known.  I should say that I will not be discussing the Westminster Confession or Catechisms.  These were written in the post-Reformation period in the 1600s.  Our focus is going to be on the Reformation in the 1500s, particularly on the non-Lutheran side of the Reformation.

William Farel’s Summary and Brief Declaration

One of the earliest Reformers was William Farel.  Farel is most remembered for the role he played in getting John Calvin to stay in Geneva in 1536.  Calvin was just passing through on his way somewhere else.  With fire in his eyes, Farel told him that if he would not stay in Geneva, Calvin would be cursed by God.  However, there is far more to Farel than this one incident in his life.  He became a Protestant in France already in 1520.  He was known as a powerful and passionate preacher of the gospel.  Farel also had a strong sense of the missionary calling of the church.  In 1529, he was preaching in the Swiss town of Aigle.  While there he drafted up one of the first Reformed confessions, his Summary and Brief Declaration.[4]   This confession was a personal effort and it doesn’t appear to have been ever officially adopted by any church.

In his introduction to the Summary, Farel speaks about his purpose in this confession.  He says that he was writing “for the well-being, profit, and salvation of each one.”  He expressed his desire “that the whole world give honor and glory to God alone.”  Finally, in the introduction he prayed that God would shine the light of his salvation in Jesus Christ “to such a degree that those from all parts of the world may come to worship our Father…”  This confession had a missionary purpose behind it.

Chapter 16 of Farel’s Summary is about the doctrine of the church.  The most important calling of the church is to preach the gospel.  The true church of Christ must preach the gospel not only to those of a high social status, but also to the simple.  Like Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:16, we will be cursed if don’t preach the gospel.  And if we don’t bring the good news to the lost and wayward, Farel uses Ezekiel 3 and 33 to remind us that we will be accountable for the loss of their souls.

In chapter 17 he develops this a little bit further when he writes about the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  These keys do not come from human beings, but from God.  Specifically, Farel says that the Holy Spirit helps us to understand the Bible, but also sends us out to preach the gospel.  Here Farel refers directly the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, and John 20.  Farel understood that the Great Commission to bring the gospel to the world is still a commission for the church today.

Chapter 35 is about the Power of Pastors and here too we see a missionary and evangelistic emphasis coming through.  Listen to what Farel writes:  “When the true pastors evangelize purely, ‘God speaks in them’ (Matt. 10:19-20) by such a great power that believers have eternal life, and unbelievers are confounded.  And never will the messenger of God be overcome.”  The greatest portion of chapter 35 is a prayer to God – quite unusual for a confession.  Farel prays about how the Word of God has been kept out of the hands of the people for so long.  He then says,

Must your holy gospel be so lowly revered so little that it is neither spoken, nor regarded, nor read?  Why have you commanded that it is to be preached throughout all the world to every creature” (Mark 16:15) so that every creature may hear it and know it, if it is not permissible for each one to read it?

Notice again how he refers to the Great Commission in Mark 16.  He believes it is God’s command for the church of all ages.  Let me give just one more quote from chapter 35.  Here again, Farel is praying:

Rise up, Lord, show that it is your pleasure that your Son be honoured, that the ordinances of his kingdom be publicized, known, and kept by everyone.  And that everyone know you through your Son “from the greatest to the smallest” (Jer. 31:34).  Make the trumpet of the holy gospel be heard to the ends and tip of the world.  Give strength to the true evangelizers, destroy all sowers of error, that all the earth may serve, call upon, honor and worship you.

Another form of this prayer is found at the very end of Farel’s Summary.  From this confession dated 1529, it is readily apparent that this Reformer had a heart for the lost and an eye for the calling of the church to bring the gospel to the lost, not only nearby, but also “to the ends and tip of the world.”

Calvin’s Catechism (1537)

Moving on to another Reformation confession, we look at something written by John Calvin.  Calvin is well-known for his book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes in March of 1536.  He arrived in Geneva later that year, in August of 1536.  The Institutes were then quite a bit smaller than the final edition published in 1559.  While the book was meant for theological training, it was not suitable for teaching children or the less educated.  Consequently, one of the first things that Calvin did in Geneva was to summarize the Institutes into the form of a catechism.  This was Calvin’s first catechism and it was published in French in 1537 and in Latin in 1538.[5]  This catechism would have been used for teaching in the Reformed church at Geneva.

The 1537/38 Catechism is not written with questions and answers, but with articles or paragraphs.  It’s still called a Catechism because it was used for teaching, and also because it contained the three essential parts of Christian teaching:  the Law of God, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Historically, having those three parts is what defines a catechism, not having questions and answers.

Like his friend William Farel, Calvin too had a missionary heart and it shows in this first catechism.  It’s especially evident when he deals with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  What was Christ teaching his people to pray for?  Calvin writes, “We pray…that God’s reign may come, that is to say, that the Lord may from day to day multiply the number of his faithful believers who celebrate his glory in all works…”  We are praying for the success of the gospel.  Calvin adds, “Similarly, we ask that from day to day he may through new growths spread his light and enlighten his truth, so that Satan and his lies and the darkness of his reign may be dissipated and abolished.” According to Calvin, the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer has to do with evangelism.

Calvin’s Catechism (1541) and the Large Emden Catechism

In 1541 Calvin wrote a new catechism for the church in Geneva.[6]  This time, however, he didn’t use paragraphs or articles.  Instead, he tried the question and answer format.  This catechism was large — it contained 373 questions and answers.  But again, as before, it covered the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Just as with the earlier Catechism, Calvin links the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer to evangelism and the growth of the church.  Christ was teaching us to pray that “day by day the Lord may increase the numbers of the faithful…”  Note how he speaks of an increase in numbers.  In the next question and answer he says something similar.  The question asks, “Is that not taking place today?”  The answer, “Yes, indeed – in part, but we pray that it may continually increase and advance…”

This understanding of the second petition was common amongst Reformation catechisms.  I can mention two other examples.  The Polish Reformer John à Lasco wrote the Large Emden Catechism in 1546.[7]   This catechism too speaks of asking God to “sanctify, increase, strengthen and preserve in the unity of the faith, the gathering of the faithful…”  The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 speaks in a similar way, “Preserve and increase your church.”  The word that was used in the original German for “increase” means multiply numerically.  There was a consensus amongst Reformed churches that the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer involves Christians praying for God to grow his church through evangelism and mission.  Just in passing you should note that this understanding is found in the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms later on too.

The First and Second Helvetic Confessions

The First Helvetic Confession was published in Basel, Switzerland in 1536.  There were several authors, but the most well-known of them was Heinrich Bullinger.  The First Helvetic Confession was written to unite Reformed believers in Switzerland, but it was also hoped that this document could be instrumental in bringing unity with the Lutherans in Germany.

The First Helvetic Confession was therefore sent to Martin Luther for his review.  It was hoped that he would approve of it and that would lay the foundation for closer relations with the Lutherans.  Along with the Confession came a declaration or introduction written for the Lutherans by Heinrich Bullinger.[8]  That introduction speaks of the evangelistic calling of the church.  Bullinger wrote the following:

Although the Lord has expressly said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), yet it was his will that the gospel of the kingdom should be preached to all nations and that bishops should discharge this duty of the ministry, with great care and diligence, and with special watchfulness, and be instant in season and out of season, and by all means, that they might gain as many as possible unto Christ.  For therefore, when he was ready to depart hence into heaven in his body, he said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). [9]

I really do not understand how any serious scholar can say that the Reformation churches didn’t believe in the abiding relevance of the Great Commission.  We see it here again.  Bullinger and the church at Basel believed that the gospel was to be preached to all nations by the church today.  And it’s also noteworthy that Luther did review this confession and did approve of it – he had some reluctance but only about some of the wording in the articles regarding the Lord’s Supper.[10]

Since there was a First Helvetic Confession, there must also be a Second.  And perhaps you’re wondering what that says about evangelism.  The Second Helvetic Confession was written by Heinrich Bullinger and appeared in 1566.[11]  The first chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession is the most well-known part of this document.  It’s about preaching.  Bullinger famously said that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”  What he meant was that when the Scriptures are faithfully proclaimed, God is speaking to us through such preaching.  Bullinger goes on in that first chapter to point out what Scripture says about inward illumination.  The Holy Spirit has to bring light to a dark heart before there will be faith.  But, he says, that does not eliminate the need for preaching.  Bullinger writes, “For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the same one, by way of commandment, said unto his disciples, ‘Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15).”  So the gospel needs to be preached, and not only in the church, but “to the whole creation.”  Again we ought to note the abiding relevance of the Great Commission for the Church.

Many Reformation confessions spoke about the marks of a true church.  Three marks are often mentioned:  faithful preaching of the gospel, the faithful administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline.  One of the confessions that mentions these three marks is the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560.[12]  Six men with the first name John were responsible for writing it, the most famous of these Johns was John Knox.  The Scottish Confession of Faith says in article 18 that the first mark of a faithful church is “the true preaching of the Word of God.”  Now you might be tempted to think that this is referring only to preaching done within the church, and not missionary or evangelistic preaching.  However, there is a proof-text for this statement in the original Scottish Confession.  The proof text is Matthew 28:19-20 – the Great Commission.

The Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism

We find something similar with the Belgic Confession of 1561.  This was written by Guido de Brès as the official confession of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Article 29 deals with the marks of the true and false church.  Just like with the Scottish Confession, the first mark of a true church is that she practices the pure preaching of the gospel.  In the first editions of the Belgic Confession, one of the proof-texts for that teaching was again, Matthew 28:18-20.  The Reformed Churches were not just thinking of preaching within an instituted church in a worship service.  They were also thinking of Christ’s continuing call for the church to preach the gospel to the nations.

That brings us back to the Heidelberg Catechism to finish off.  I’ve already mentioned it a couple of times.  The Heidelberg Catechism is the most well-known of all the Reformation catechisms – and for good reason.  It was commissioned by a godly prince named Elector Frederick of the Palatinate.  It was first published in 1563.  It was mainly written by Zacharias Ursinus, a professor of theology in Heidelberg.  He was assisted by Caspar Olevianus, a pastor in Heidelberg and others as well.  The Heidelberg Catechism is loved all over the world for its warm and personal presentation of the faith of the Bible.  It also deserves to be known for the way it speaks of our calling towards those who are lost.  I’ve already mentioned what it says about the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer – we pray for the increase of Christ’s church.  But there are other places where the Catechism speaks about evangelism, about our calling to be God’s instruments in increasing his church.

In Lord’s Day 12, the Heidelberg Catechism speaks about the three-fold office of Christ.  Other Reformed catechisms do that as well, including the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms.  It’s common to confess that Christ is prophet, priest, and king.  However, it is rare to confess that Christians share in Christ’s three-fold anointing and office.  In fact, I have not been able to find any other Reformed Catechism which says that besides the Heidelberg Catechism.[13]  The Heidelberg Catechism asks in QA 32, “Why are you called a Christian?”  Answer:  “Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing…”  Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be a prophet, priest, and king, and so have Christians.  We have the same Holy Spirit living in us giving us the same calling as our head Jesus Christ.  As part of that, I may “as prophet confess his name…”  This is a calling to speak to everyone we can about the Saviour.  A prophet must speak.  A silent prophet is unimaginable — a silent prophet is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  If we truly are Christians, then we are prophets.  Then we truly need to witness to Jesus Christ to whomever we can with the words from our mouths.

The Heidelberg Catechism also speaks about our lives having an evangelistic purpose.  The Catechism divides up into three parts:  our sin and misery, our deliverance, and our thankfulness.  Lord’s Day 32 begins the third part of the Catechism on gratitude.  The question is:  since we are saved by grace, we must we still do good works?  There are four reasons given.  One is for us to show our thankfulness to God.  Another is so that he may be praised.  The third reason has to do with our assurance.  And the fourth reason has to do with our neighbours:  “that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ.”  Living in obedience to God sets us up for evangelistic opportunities.  Unbelievers watch and see that we are different from others.  That can make them curious.  That can make them ask us questions.  Questions like, “Why are you different?”  Then we can tell them about the Saviour who has redeemed us and who is working in our lives with his Spirit to make us different.

Conclusion

The Reformation produced this vast quantity of confessions.  In each instance, the Reformed people behind these documents were seeking to be faithful to the Word of God.  I haven’t told you about all the proof-texts and Scriptural support for everything you’ve heard.  A lot of it is obviously biblical — at least I hope it is.  Certainly we can all agree that the missionary calling of the church is biblical.  The Bible calls us to evangelize.  Since this is such a strong message in the Bible, we should not be surprised to find it being expressed in various Reformed confessions and catechisms.  Now I should add that you will not necessarily find it in all Reformation confessions and catechisms.  But definitely in the best ones, and especially in ones that have stood the test of time – ones like the Heidelberg Catechism.  In conclusion, one of the most important ways to understand the Reformation is as a missionary event.  Because it was a missionary event, many of its creeds and confessions also speak of the evangelistic calling of the church of Christ.

[1] See Williem Heijting, De catechismi en confessies in de Nederlandse reformatie tot 1585 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989).

[2] James T. Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008-2014).

[3] See my For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession (Fellsmere: Reformation Media and Press, 2011) and To Win Our Neighbors for Christ: The Missiology of the Three Forms of Unity (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015).

[4] In what follows, I’m using the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison’s Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 53-111.

[5] In what follows, I’m quoting from the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison’s Reformed Confessions, 354-392.

[6] I’m using the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison, 468-519.

[7] Dennison, vol. 1, 590-642.

[8] Luther and Calvinism, eds. Herman J. Selderhuis, J. Marius J. Lange van Ravenswaay, 195.

[9] Peter Hall (ed.), The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992 reprint), 255.

[10] “The Myth of the Swiss Lutherans,” Amy Nelson Burnett, Zwingliana 22 (2005), 48-49.

[11] See Arthur C. Cochrane (ed.), Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 224-301.

[12] Cochrane, Reformed Confessions, 163-184.

[13] Craig’s Catechism (1581) speaks of Christians sharing in Christ’s office as a priest, but not as prophet and king.  The Large Emden Catechism asks (QA 135):  “Are there no priests any more?”  Basically, the LEC’s answer is no.


The Reformation and the Apocrypha

Did you know that the first editions of the Belgic Confession included two proof-texts from the apocrypha?  Did you know that our contemporary editions continue to include one small quote from the apocrypha?  Elsewhere in his writings, Guido de Brès referred more often to these non-canonical writings.  Moreover, de Brès was not exceptional in doing this.  Other Reformers did likewise, and so did other Reformed confessions.  In this paper, I outline de Brès’ use of the apocrypha, put it in the historical context of the Reformation, and attempt to explain it.


Book Review: How to Plant a Reformed Church

How to Plant a Reformed Church, The Missions Committee of the United Reformed Churches of North America, 2015.  Paperback, 104 pages.

As the title suggests, this is a practical guide for Reformed church planting.  It comes from the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA).  Many of my readers are familiar with the URCNA.  For those who are not, this federation of churches emerged out of the 1990s-era Christian Reformed Church.  As the CRC drifted away from Scripture on issues like women in office, faithful Reformed believers headed for the exits.  As a new confessionally Reformed federation came into existence, there was also an eagerness amongst many of these believers to be outward looking.  Church planting and missions was in the DNA of the URCNA from the start.  Especially in the United States, some of their instituted churches date back to church plants begun in the 2000s.

Fast forward to the 2010s and discussions were taking place about how to collate lessons learned from these early endeavours.  Could the URCNA Missions Committee put together a resource that would help churches better do the work of church planting?  The Orthodox Presbyterian Church had developed their own guide:  Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (you can find it here).  When I was a missionary, I found that manual incredibly helpful, even though I’m not a Presbyterian.  Many lessons learned in the OPC are transferable to other contexts, even to the type of cross-cultural work I was doing.  Some URCNA church planters discovered the same, but also saw the need to develop a resource that would be more explicitly aligned with URCNA beliefs (the Three Forms of Unity) and church government.  That led to this little book.

There are many helpful insights in How to Plant a Reformed Church.  How do you decide when it’s time to plant a church?  Where should you plant a church?  How should it be overseen?  How do you promote the church plant in the community it’s placed?  When do you know that it’s time to institute the church?  What’s the role of the classis?  All these are questions addressed here.  There are also five appendices with teaching materials for church plants.  They cover topics like:  “What is Church Membership and Why Is It Necessary?” and “What is Reformed Worship?”  As a pastor in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, I think much of this could be transferable to our context here, and equally to the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I’m sure that others in different contexts could also make use of the wisdom in this book.

Besides the practical bent, I also appreciate the emphasis on developing a confessional ethos in church planting.  The title says How to Plant a Reformed Church, and ‘Reformed’ there means unabashedly confessional.  This approach has nothing to do with the bait-and-switch model — i.e. attracting people by pretending to be something other than Reformed.  Like the OPC manual, this book emphasizes beginning with the end in mind.  If we want a truly Reformed church, then the approach needs to be confessionally Reformed from the get go.  The book explains how.

If it’s not obvious, I have high praise for this resource.  I hope it not only gets read, but that it stimulates Reformed churches, URCNA and otherwise, to continue giving attention to the spread of the gospel.  After all, that’s a principal reason behind the existence of the church.  We’re here to proclaim Christ crucified and be God’s instruments to see more people worship him in churches everywhere.

A free electronic copy of How to Plant a Reformed Church is available here.


The Streets of Brazil

My wife and I are on the tail end of a two-week stay in Brazil — my fourth time and her first.  The occasion was the invitation for me to speak at a couple of conferences on the topic of evangelism.  We’ve flown a lot of miles over this vast land, but have also driven a fair bit.  Driving on Brazilian roads is full of surprises.  Let me describe some of what we saw.  To clarify, I was never the one driving.  In most of the following, Rev. Ken Wieske was our chauffeur, a missionary with 17 years of driving experience on the streets of Brazil.

We started our Brazilian adventure in the capital city, Brasília.  The capital was designed from scratch and founded in 1960.  It’s comparable to Canberra in Australia — another planned capital.  This is the neatest and safest Brazilian city I’ve visited.  Perhaps Brazil wants to make a good impression on the foreign diplomats who reside there.  Traffic in this city is fairly tame, at least from what we witnessed.  However, we did spot a motorcyclist laying on the road, having just been hit by a van.  He appeared lifeless — was he merely unconscious or dead?  We couldn’t stop and didn’t find out.

As safe as Brasília is, there are areas in the metropolitan region that can be sketchy.  On our way to and from a speaking engagement at the Reformed church there, we travelled through one such area.  Like in other large Brazilian cities, at night you do not stop for red lights.  If you stop for a red light after dark, you’re inviting trouble — perhaps a car-jacking, maybe a simple robbery at gunpoint, or worse.

Our next stop was the city of Belém, way up north near the mouth of the Amazon River.  Apart from some congestion, we didn’t witness anything out of the ordinary in this city.  One thing that was extra-ordinary was the change in the weather from the first time that I visited in 2012.  In 2012, I spoke at the Reformed Conference hosted by the Central Presbyterian Church of Pará.  Then, five years ago, you could depend on the tropical rains to arrive every day at about the same time:  4:00 PM.  People would even make social arrangements before or after “the rain.”  Today I’m told that doesn’t happen anymore.  When (or if) the rain comes, it comes after dark.  I’m told that this is the result of deforestation in the Amazon rain forest.

After enjoying the wonderful hospitality of the brethren in Belém, it was down south to Recife.  We flew to the northeast of Brazil, and then drove down the coast.  Along the way south to the beach town of Maragogi, we passed through a police checkpoint where drivers are often stopped for bribes.  This time they had already nabbed some poor schmuck on a motorbike and so we got past.  Maragogi was the location of the 26th annual Puritan Project Conference.  As in Belém, I spoke here on the topic of evangelism, along with a bunch of other speakers.  It was a super time of fellowship with old and new friends and also a great opportunity to foster the growth of the Reformed faith in this country — people had come to this event from almost every state in Brazil.  There were even some attendees who’d flown in from Portugal.

The drive home on Friday was, let’s say, interesting.  The distance from Maragogi to Recife is approximately 133 km.  Normally, it should take about 2.5 hours.  We left Maragogi around 3:00, but didn’t arrive at our accommodations until past 10.  The first three-quarters of the drive was smooth enough.  But then about 40 km out of Recife we hit a massive traffic jam.  It had been raining for about two days and some of the streets in Recife were flooded.  This backed up traffic to about 40 km out of the city.  We were trapped in the world’s largest parking lot.  Escape options were few and questionable.  Google Maps suggested alternative routes, but Google never tells you what those alternative roads are really like:  are they dirt roads littered with flooded pot-holes or do they take you through a favela?  We stayed on the main route.

As we were moving slowly along, guys were on foot wandering amongst the cars, trucks, and buses, selling water and popcorn.  We were behind a bus when we suddenly heard what sounded like a gunshot.  I know what a gun sounds like and that was very similar.  When it happened, the bus seemed suddenly to drive erratically.  However, as it turned out, it wasn’t a gunshot, just somebody’s car back-firing and the bus just happened to be jockeying for a faster lane.  Some time afterwards (was it an hour?  Two?  Time stood still), a fellow on a motorbike was weaving his way through the vehicles and bounced between the one Rose was travelling in and their neighbour.  He just kept going.

On our last Saturday, we attended a 40th wedding anniversary celebration for some Brazilian friends, Manoel and Telma Canuto.  This was in Boa Viagem, a Recife neighbourhood.  On our way there, we saw a bus stopped by the side of the road with several police cars parked around it.  Three guys were up against the wall with their hands interlocked over their heads.  In 2017 so far, there have been over two thousand (2000!) hold ups on Recife city buses.  In the past week, there was a 24 hour period when there were 13 such incidents.  It’s not unusual for shots to be fired in these incidents and for people to be injured or die.  Life is cheap here.  In this instance, the evildoers were somehow stopped and apprehended.

The streets of Australia and Canada are incomparably safer — and for that we ought always to be thankful.  However, streets all over the world have one thing in common.   Wherever you go in the world, you see countless people on the streets and they’re all traveling somewhere.  They’re also going somewhere in the spiritual sense.  All are either on a broad road leading to destruction or on a narrow road leading to life.  One road is congested and full of traffic, the other is comparatively less-traveled.  Whether in Australia, Canada, Brazil (or wherever), we’re living on a mission field.  Our calling is to be God’s instrument to direct traffic off the broad road and onto the narrow road.  I’m glad that work continues to be done in Brazil and seeing it done here makes me even more intent on seeing it done where God has placed me too.

 


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.