Category Archives: Pastoral Q & A

Pastoral Q & A: The Morning After Pill

Can a Christian woman use the “Morning After Pill” as emergency contraception?

Let’s first be clear what we’re talking about.  The “Morning After Pill” is often marketed under the name “Plan B,” though there are other drugs and brands.  This is not RU-486 (mifepristone), a drug that causes abortion typically later in pregnancy.  The MAP is regarded as a form of emergency contraception — it’s for when other ways of preventing a pregnancy have either failed or been neglected.  The question is whether this is something Christian women can take advantage of.  To answer that, let’s imagine two scenarios.

Scenario 1

A young unmarried woman has been having sex with her boyfriend.  On one occasion, they forget to use their normal method of contraception.  She’s concerned that she may get pregnant, so she goes to the pharmacy for “Plan B.”  She takes the tablets and does not become pregnant.

Scenario 2

A woman in her 30s (with four children already) believes it would be unwise for her to have any more children.  She and her husband normally use a barrier method of contraception.  On one occasion, they forget and she’s concerned that she may get pregnant.  So “Plan B” is the answer.  As in the first scenario, no pregnancy results.

In both situations, the MAP/Plan B seems to prevent an undesirable pregnancy.  In both situations, the woman claims to be a Christian.  In both situations, the woman first goes to the Health Direct website of the Australian government (or equivalent) and is relieved to read that the MAP does not cause an abortion.  Instead, it simply stops or delays ovulation and it may also prevent sperm from reaching the egg.  But “if the sperm has already fertilised the egg, it is too late and the pill won’t work.”  So, going with the official information, neither scenario has caused an abortion.  No life has been taken.  Therefore, there is apparently no ethical issue with the Sixth Commandment (“You shall not kill”).

We need to think about this more carefully.

The first thing we need to reflect on is the actual facts regarding the MAP/Plan B.  The Health Direct website (and others like it) does not tell the full story.  The truth of the matter is that there are studies which suggest that the MAP can have an abortive effect (even the Wikipedia article acknowledges this — with sources).  If an egg has been fertilized, the MAP can prevent that human life from continuing to live in the womb.  No one can categorically say with 100% certainty that the MAP never causes early abortions.

That should change the way we look at this.  In pro-life circles, we sometimes use the illustration of a building about to be demolished.  Before a demolition company levels a building, they have to make absolutely certain there are no people in the building.  If there’s a shred of doubt about whether somebody’s still inside, you don’t level the building.  Similarly, if there’s any doubt about whether the MAP can cause an abortion, we would not take want to take that risk.  We would never want to have blood on our hands, even by accident.

So, let’s go back to those two scenarios.

The first one is the most ethically problematic.  If the young woman in the first scenario claims to be a Christian, she is almost certainly self-deceived about her spiritual status.  You cannot be a true Christian and be actively engaged in any premarital sexual relations (Hebrews 13:4, etc.).  That would be living unrepentantly in sin — “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).  And if a woman in a scenario like that takes the MAP, she could be adding sin against the Sixth Commandment to her sin against the Seventh Commandment.  If she really wants to be a Christian, she must turn away from her life of sin, seek God’s forgiveness in Christ, and follow the Lord.  That will include accepting the consequences for her sexual sin, including, if it so happens, any pregnancy which might result from it.

The second scenario is somewhat more challenging.  I believe married Christian couples can have lawful reasons for using certain methods of contraception.  For example, a woman may struggle with severe postpartum depression which may leave her incapacitated for months after a birth.  She may feel suicidal or even homicidal.  In such cases, couples are wise to limit the size of their family using lawful means God has made available.  However, what if those means fail?  One thing we can say with certainty:  abortion of any sort or the possibility of an abortion is out of the question for Christian couples.  The MAP is not the answer in this scenario.  The couple has to prayerfully accept what God may bring.  If he brings them the conception of a child and they cannot see themselves clear to caring for another child, then adoption (to another Christian family) may be the best option.  But here again, using the MAP and possibly sinning against the Sixth Commandment must be ruled out.

Let me conclude with what I would say to someone who has taken the MAP.  I’ll be direct:  you may have caused an abortion.  Perhaps you did it ignorantly, working only with the information provided on official government websites and so on.  Perhaps what led you to take it was what the Bible describes as “sin with the uplifted hand,” deliberate and intentional living in sin (i.e. premarital sex).  But, whatever, the case may, if you did cause an abortion, this is not an unforgivable sin.  God’s grace in Jesus Christ is available for all who repent and believe.  God’s grace is big enough to cover this too.  However, let us respond to his grace with a hatred for all sin and a love for all life, even at its earliest stages.


Pastoral Q & A: Is It Necessary to Read the Liturgical Forms Exactly as Written?

When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language.  Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching.  Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church.  Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process.  Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms.  Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility.  With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms.  This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory.  We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English.  The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith.  In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism.  In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.

But what about with an instituted church?  Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order.  In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56).  But what does that mean exactly?  Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?

Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish.  Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation.  The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort.  The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms.  Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.”  About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.”  From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.

Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place?  It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another.  It was confusing and chaotic.  So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.

In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written.  Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will.  Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations.  For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer.  There I’m simply substituting the full name for pronoun “he (or she).”  That’s not a substantial change.

Let me make two concluding points.

First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.  In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so.  When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem.  If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances.  Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes.  Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process.  The forms are not ours to change.

Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19).  I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written.  But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order.  In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis.  If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion.  At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon.  This is part of what it means to live together in a federation.  We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.


Pastoral Q & A: Why Still Read the Ten Commandments?

In Reformed churches it’s normal to hear the Ten Commandments read during the morning worship service.  This is a historic practice going back to the Reformation.  Yet, sadly, there are churches claiming to be Reformed that have dropped this practice.  There are individuals in Reformed churches which still do it who question why it continues to be done in their churches.  They look at it as unnecessary, repetitive, or creating an unhealthy sense of guilt and maybe even shame.  Some also object to it because, they say, it adds a legalistic flavour to our worship.  So why still read the Ten Commandments?

Let’s start from the way the Scriptures teach Christians to regard the law of God.  Think of Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law!  It is my meditation all the day.”  That is not just a statement of how that one Psalmist felt — rather, it’s a vision for how all believers should regard God’s law.  It’s a vision that was perfectly fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, and to be fulfilled in all the disciples united to him in true faith.  Similar sentiments are expressed elsewhere in Psalm 119:  “I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law.  Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.  Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.”  Psalm 119 teaches believers to have a positive attitude towards God’s law — to love it and, as part of God’s Word, to treat it with respect.  So, from that perspective, what problem could a Christian have with hearing God’s Law read to him or her on a weekly basis?  If we were meditating on it regularly throughout the week because we love it so much, why would we object to hearing it in the holy presence of our God on Sunday morning?

We could approach this also from the angle of the function of the law in our worship.  While it does remind us of the way of thankful living, its primary purpose is to remind us of our need for God’s grace at the beginning of our worship.  Its primary purpose is to create a sense of humility in sinful people appearing before a holy God.  It prepares us to confess our sins to our Father and seek forgiveness from him through Jesus Christ.  In this regard, we ought to look at the law as our friend.  It is there in our worship to help in the renewal of our relationship with our Father through his Son.  It helps us to identify our sins and weaknesses, so that we would always be humble before our God.  Here you can think of what the Holy Spirit says in Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”  That passage originally refers to human friends, but the principle still applies here.  The best of friends will sometimes hurt you for your good.  Similarly, the law is our friend as it exposes our sin and misery and drives us to Christ.  How can we be negative towards something God gives us for our good?

I want to leave you with two important points to conclude.

First, we ought always to remember that our public worship service is a meeting with the thrice-holy God.  This is the God who left Isaiah awe-struck with fear in Isaiah 6.  Sometimes I fear that many Reformed people don’t see that God is present in our worship in a way that he isn’t present elsewhere.  If we could perceive the full reality of what that means, would we be glib and casual about coming into God’s presence?  Would we not welcome a reminder from him to be appropriately humble?

Second, we ought always to remember how prone we are to minimize, rationalize, deny, and forget our sinfulness.  Every Christian is a sinner who still, to varying degrees, has the remnants of a sinful nature.  We would rather be told “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14).  We would rather have prophets prophesying smooth things (Isa.30:10).  We would rather not have the bad news which makes the good news so great, and in so doing, we begin to lose sight of the grandeur of the gospel and the Saviour it proclaims.  The law of God is like a mirror giving us our weekly reality check as we begin our worship.  It gives that ever-needful reminder that, even as Christians, we are in constant need of God’s mercy in the Redeemer.  How could that not be a good and helpful thing?


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: Christ’s Intercession

On Ascension Day, I preached on Romans 8:34.  Afterwards, one of my parishioners asked the following question:

Why do we see the intercession of Christ as an ongoing process and not a completed act like his atonement on the cross?

To answer this we need to go back to the Scriptures and pay attention to the exact wording of two key passages that speak of Christ’s intercession.  In Romans 8:34 it says that Christ is interceding for us.  Grammatically speaking, the verb there is in the present tense.  It is describing something that is happening right now and happening continuously.  Similarly, in Hebrews 7:25 it says that Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for believers.  There you not only have the present tense (“lives”), but also an adverb to emphasize that it’s ongoing (“always”).  There is no escaping the teaching of Scripture that Christ’s intercession is a present and ongoing reality.  If the Holy Spirit had meant to say that Christ interceded but once (just as he was sacrificed and made atonement once), certainly there is a grammatical option in Greek to express that (the perfect tense or, less likely, the aorist).

So given that information, our question has to be different: why do the Scriptures teach that Christ’s intercession is present and continuous? Why does he carry on that ministry? I believe the answer to that is that he wants to constantly assure us of his love and interest in our lives. He completed his work on the cross and was raised for us — that’s in the past. But now he wants us to be confident that every minute he is carrying us on his heart. I say that on the basis of passages like John 17 (Christ’s high priestly prayer) and Hebrews 4:14-16.  In John 17, Jesus allowed his disciples to listen in to his prayer — why?  Partly to encourage them with the knowledge that he was praying for them (John 17:9).  In Hebrews 4:14-16, we read of Christ’s position as our high priest.  His sympathetic mediation is the reason why we can confidently go to throne of grace.  His continuous intercession is revealed to us so that we would be constantly encouraged by his love and continue to depend on him in faith each day.