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The Unbiblical – and Common!! – Way to Handle Reports of Abuse in the Church

Sin is like fungus: it grows best in the dark. We need to keep exposing this wickedness to the light.

The Reformed Reader

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(This is a repost from October, 2014)

In their helpful book on abuse in the church, Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood give an outline of what typically (and sadly!) happens when a victim goes to her pastor or church leadership for help.  In other words, the following is an outline of how abuse is sometimes swept under the rug in Christian churches.  Why am I posting this?  Basically, I want Christians (especially elders and pastors) to be aware that abuse can and does hide in churches.  I also want to point out this helpful resource for those needing some guidance on the topic of abuse in the church.  I’ve edited a bit for the purpose of this blog:

1) Victim reports abuse to her pastor.
2) Pastor does not believe her claims or thinks they are exaggerated. After all, he ‘knows’ her husband to be one of the finest Christians…

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Can Prophets Be Mimes?

What if I told you Christians don’t have a personal responsibility to spread the gospel?  Amongst most Christians such a statement would be met with a raised eyebrow.  But in my little corner of the Reformed world, there are some who hold to this view.  They argue that God has only called ordained ministers and missionaries to evangelize.  Only a minuscule minority of Reformed Christians have ever held such a view.  Of course, the number of people holding to a position doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true.  It’s of far more significance to examine the faithful summary of Scripture we have in our Reformed confessions.  As we do that, such a view of evangelism becomes demonstrably not Reformed.  This view actually runs contrary to what we confess from the Bible.

I’m not going to exposit everything the Three Forms of Unity contain on this point – readers interested in a more fulsome explanation can see my 2015 book, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ.  I’m just going to focus on the Heidelberg Catechism and specifically Lord’s Day 12, QA 32.  As part of what it means to be a Christian, we hold that it involves as a prophet confessing the name of Christ.  This statement has three important features. 

First, Christian prophets confess the name of Christ, the one whose anointing they share.  Christian prophets are not here confessing the name of God as the Triune God, but specifically the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  This is important because we are specifically united to Christ – “I am a member of Christ by faith.”  Thus, when considering what our prophetic calling involves, we should first think of what it involved for Christ.  If we refer back to Answer 31, we find that he was anointed “to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”  Christ’s prophetic calling therefore involves revelation about redemption.  That revelation involved his actions, especially on the cross, but also in his healings and miracles.  Yet it was his words which provided the necessary context to interpret all of these actions.  His words revealed how he was working out our redemption.  His actions meant nothing without words.  If we are members of Christ by faith (united to him), doesn’t our prophetic calling reflect his?  Aren’t we called to use words to reveal redemption through what Christ has done?

Second, Christians confessing the name of Christ are prophets.  If we survey prophecy in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we soon discover that prophecy is unimaginable apart from words.  It would be unthinkable to have a mime as a prophet.  All the prophets in Scripture used words.  Yes, sometimes prophets also used symbolic actions.  However, just like with Christ’s prophetic calling, those actions only had their full meaning in connection with the verbal ministry of that prophet.  No prophet in Scripture was called to communicate merely by his actions.  Prophecy always involves words.      

Third, we need to think closely about that key word “confessing.”  In normal English usage, to confess something is to communicate something with words.  If I confess a crime to the police, I’m telling them with my words that I did it.  In the original German of the Catechism, the same holds for the word used there: bekenne.  Of even more significance here is the footnoted reference in our edition to Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.”  The Greek word for “acknowledge” there is also sometimes translated as “confess” (e.g. in the NKJV).  Homologeo is a word that involves verbal communication.  Sometimes this word can include actions, but it never excludes words.  Thus, to confess the name of Christ necessarily involves the use of our mouths.

When it comes to the original intent and meaning of the Heidelberg Catechism, we’re helped out by the fact that the main author, Zacharias Ursinus, produced a commentary.  On this particular phrase from Answer 32, Ursinus wrote the following:

The prophetical dignity which is in Christians, is an understanding, acknowledgement and confession of the true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.  Or, our prophetical office is:  1. Rightly to know God and his will.  2.  That everyone in his place and degree profess the same, correctly understood, faithfully, boldly, and constantly, that God may thereby be celebrated, and his truth revealed in its living force and power.  ‘Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).       

Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p.179.

Notice how Ursinus speaks of the “true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.”  You cannot communicate that with a wordless lifestyle.  Clearly the main author of the Catechism believed that being a Christian prophet involves speaking about salvation in Christ to others.

This has also been widely recognized in the Liberated Reformed tradition of which I’m a part.  I would simply refer to Professor Benne Holwerda’s 1942 sermon on Lord’s Day 12, published in volume 1 of De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn.  He first says that he’s not talking about mission or evangelism, by which he means mission or evangelism in an organized ecclesiastical way.  Then he says:    

But now I’m thinking about our regular conversations.  The best evangelism is not a tract or brochure, but daily conversations.  We believe in Christ.  But that means, says the second answer, that through faith we share in his anointing of the Holy One and now know all things [pertaining to salvation].  Therefore whoever speaks, let him speak like the words of God.  Not just if it is convenient, not just if you are doing it deliberately, but let every word you say be a word from God.          

De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn (vol. 1), p.175 (translation mine)

Holwerda was clear that the prophetic calling mentioned in Lord’s Day 12 couldn’t be isolated from words.  It involved “the best evangelism” – using our everyday conversations to speak about the Lord. 

There’s a sense in which we shouldn’t even have to be told of our calling to evangelize.  When you’re a Christian and you know lost people, you care for them, and it should be a natural thing that you think about their eternal destiny and want to tell them about Christ.  It should be the natural outgrowth of our love for people and our love for the Lord.  Yet Scripture still lays out this calling for us – and our confessions reflect it.  Why?  Because even as Christians we’re weak and sinful.  We can be inclined not to love our neighbour and not to think about the eternal destiny of the lost apart from Christ.  When we’re told that we don’t have a personal responsibility for evangelism, all that does is reinforce these sinful and weak remnants of our old nature.  Such an attitude proves right those who say Reformed believers are the “frozen chosen.”  Worst of all, this approach dishonours our Saviour because it gives the impression that the good news about him isn’t worth sharing.  Therefore, it’s not only un-Reformed, it’s un-Christian and ungodly.          


The Wacky Wombat

Creation Without Compromise

Common Wombat on Maria Island, Tasmania

Back when I was a missionary in British Columbia, we had a friend visit from Australia. I asked him, “Have you ever seen a bear in the wild?” He hadn’t. “Would you like to see one?” He certainly did, but expressed his doubts whether I could just conjure up a wild bear for him. We drove for about 15 minutes north and arrived at the fish-counting weir on the Babine River. And sure enough, as always at that time of year, there were grizzly bears about, fishing for spawning salmon. Our Aussie friend was duly impressed.

Now if you were to visit our part of Australia today, I’d ask you, “Have you ever seen a wombat in the wild?”  The wombat is as close as we get to a bear here in Tasmania.  We’d have to drive a little bit, but there are some…

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Letter to the Editor

I submitted the following letter to the Examiner (our local Launceston newspaper) in response to their February 22 article, “A Tasmanian survivor’s story on conversion practices.”

Dear editor,

In the February 22 article, “A Tasmanian survivor’s story on conversion practices,” our church was referenced as a body that admits to having “carried out SOGI conversion practices.”  To clarify, our church does not provide exorcisms, electroshock therapy, or aversion therapy. We only hold out the same hope God offers to all people:  forgiveness through Jesus Christ and grace to change.  Let me further clarify by quoting my submission to the Tasmania Law Reform Institute:  “…our church preaches and teaches what the Bible says, including what it says about sexual orientation and gender identity. We do this out of our ultimate commitment to God, our love for him, and out of love for the people around us. We counsel accordingly. We pray publicly and privately accordingly. According to the working definition the Issues Paper provides, we are involved in SOGI conversion practices. We make no apologies for that. Moreover, as stated above, this is non-negotiable for our church since we believe what the Bible says. For us to do otherwise would be unloving and disingenuous.”

Rev. Dr. Wes Bredenhof

Free Reformed Church of Launceston


Preview of FRCA Synod 2021

It’s another exciting synod year for the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This year’s synod is scheduled to be held starting on June 14 in Albany, Western Australia.  The reports for this synod are now publicly available here and I imagine other material will soon follow.  Let’s review some of the noteworthy items on the agenda for Synod Albany 2021 so far.  Since I’m delegated to this synod, I’m not going to be offering my views or opinions — what follows are just the facts, presented as objectively as possible.

Website

Synod 2018 mandated the Website Committee to design a new website for the FRCA.  This has been done and it just remains for Synod 2021 to give the green light.  In the meantime, you can find a preview of the new website at this link. 

Book of Praise

Our last synod also mandated the development of an Australian Book of Praise and, to that end, a Standing Committee for the Australian Book of Praise was appointed.  The Aussie church book is apparently at Premier Printing in Canada, but should be available by the time of Synod 2021.  It will officially be called Australian Book of Praise:  Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

Training for the Ministry

This is a significant report because these deputies were asked to develop a strategic long-term plan for an accredited Australian seminary.  The plan proposes to explore the possibility of an Australian affiliate of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. There are many unanswered questions about this route, but the deputies are asking for a new mandate which will see them finding the answers. 

The report also proposes that deputies be mandated to develop guidelines for a vicariate system in the FRCA.  This would see seminary graduates who originated in the FRCA being given the opportunity to have a one-year internship/vicariate in a local FRC congregation with an experienced pastor.  The proposed model is based on the practice of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.

Ecumenical Relations

As happens at every synod, a lot of time is going to be spent on relationships with other churches.  Especially noteworthy at this synod will be a proposal from Classis North (originating from Launceston) to send observers to the next International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC).  The FRCA was part of the founding of the ICRC.  We left the ICRC in 1996, but this proposal suggests the time may be right to re-examine our involvement through a small step.

Within Australia, we have our Committee for Contact with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Southern Presbyterian Church.  This committee is recommending that the FRCA continue discussions with the EPC and SPC with a view to eventually establishing sister church relations.  While the marks of a true church are in evidence with both the EPC and SPC, there do remain outstanding issues to discuss with them.  The committee is also asking the synod to clarify the status of a “Declaration” that was made by Synod 1986 with regard to “true church.”  Was that a general doctrinal declaration and therefore a form of extra-confessional binding?  Or was it simply a limited declaration meant to serve the narrow purposes of a discussion at Synod 1986 about the Presbyterian Church in Eastern Australia?  The answer has implications for moving forward with the EPC and SPC.                   

Outside Australia our closest sister churches are the Canadian Reformed (CanRC).  Among other things, our deputies were mandated to monitor developments in relation to Blessings Christian Church in Hamilton, Ontario.  In their report, the deputies noted that there were many efforts in the past three years to openly discuss and debate these developments within the CanRC.  They write that we need to respect the process of dealing with these things through the Canadian ecclesiastical assemblies.  Going forward, the deputies recommend that referring to a single church is not necessary or appropriate, because these developments are “part of a larger dynamic within the CanRC” (p.53). 

Geographically the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) are some of our closest sister churches, especially if you’re in Tasmania.  Our deputies were mandated by the last synod to keep urging the RCNZ to be vigilant with regard to the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia.  In their 2021 report, the deputies maintain that there is no need to continue doing this, seeing how as the RCNZ already do this on their own.  If we continue to make that a point of discussion it communicates mistrust, according to the deputies’ report.

Finally, there are two North American churches with whom we’ve been exploring a relationship.  Our deputies recommend that contact be continued with the United Reformed Churches and that a recommendation be made to Synod 2024 about a sister church relationship.  With regard to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the deputies recommend not pursuing a sister church relationship at this time, not because of any issue with the OPC as such, but because of the practical difficulties involved.  They also invite recommendations from the churches about the merits of pursuing ecclesiastical contacts with the OPC outside the context of a sister church relationship.

Conclusion

There’ll be other items on the agenda.  In the weeks to come, FRCA consistories will be reviewing all these reports and the other proposals that have been submitted.  Undoubtedly, in due time, there will be letters from some of the churches interacting with some of this material.  This is good and fitting.  It shows that the churches care about what happens at our broadest assembly and they care about the direction of our federation.  I look forward to June!