Avoiding Disaster Through Discipline

Have you noticed that in the last few years you seldom hear about airliners crashing?  Yes, it happens every now and then, but it used to be that there would be a couple of big ones every year.  Overall, it was still quite safe, but the big accidents made a big impression with heaps of people.  But today accidents are increasingly rare, especially considering the even bigger numbers of commercial aircraft that are flying.  Why is this?

One reason is something called Cockpit (or Crew) Resource Management or CRM.  Cockpit Resource Management is something airlines use to eliminate human error and improve safety.  There are strict guidelines about what goes on in a cockpit.  So, for instance, there are certain critical times where the conversation can only be about what is going on with the flight.  There is accountability between crew members.  There are extensive checklists that need to be strictly followed.  Cockpit Resource Management is a key reason why travelling by airline today is absolutely the safest way to travel.  In fact, the medical community is adopting much of the same philosophy and the same procedures for operating rooms.  It’s expected this will save lives in hospitals too.

I think we can all agree:  in aviation and in medicine, if you just let people do their own thing, the results can be disastrous.  Even the world recognizes the value of strict discipline in certain contexts, like in the cockpit or the operating room.  Even the world sees the necessity of discipline to save lives.  Likewise the church needs to see the necessity of discipline for eternal salvation.  Letting people go their own way and do their own thing might avoid confrontation and might be the comfortable thing to do, but it is not a loving thing to do.

No, a loving church will always practice discipline in conformity with the Word of God.  After all, this is what our loving Saviour taught us to do in Matthew 18:15-20.  If we love him – and if we love one another – we’ll want to follow his wise way.


Stockholm Sin-drome

Oftentimes we don’t see sin the way we should:  as a major problem.  Instead, we have a love affair with sin.  We’re bewitched and entranced by it.

On August 23, 1973 a man walked into a bank in Stockholm, Sweden.  Jan-Erik Olsson was a convicted armed robber and that day he was intent on doing it again.  Things didn’t go the way he planned and he ended up taking four hostages.  A stand-off with police lasted for five days.  It finally ended when police launched a gas attack into the vault where Olsson was holed up with his hostages.  What was remarkable was that afterwards the hostages seemed to sympathize with Olsson.  They were critical of the police and felt bad for the hostage taker.  Psychologists took an interest in this case and it led to observations of similar behaviour in other kidnapping and hostage situations.  People who are kidnapped or held hostage sometimes get emotionally attached to the kidnapper or hostage taker.  This became known as Stockholm Syndrome.  It’s exactly what sin does to all of us.  It enslaves us, it threatens to kill us, and then we become attached to it.  We may defend it, rationalize it, and even love it.  If we could see things rationally, we would see that what enslaves us will later kill us.  If we could see things the way they really are, we would see that we need deliverance.

Moreover, the world tells us lies that help keep us from seeing things the way they really are.  The world tells us that our captor is loving and kind, looking out for our best interests.  The world tells us that our captivity is not a problem, in fact, there is no captivity.  Slavery is freedom.  How can you have a depraved nature when there is no such thing as good and evil?  Or, if someone is inconsistent and does maintain the reality of good and evil, they’ll tell you that we’re all basically good.  “We all have good hearts,” they’ll say.

It should be clear that the Bible calls this what it is:  falsehood.  It’s all lies and snake-think.  It’s what the devil wants you to think so that he and his minions can keep you from finding hope and salvation in Jesus Christ.  If you don’t have a sinful nature, if you’re not enslaved by sin, you don’t need deliverance.  If you don’t need deliverance, you don’t need Jesus Christ.  Those are lies.  The truth is we all have a sinful nature, in the raw we are all enslaved by sin, and therefore we all need deliverance.  1 John 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  We have sin, we need rescue.  Because we all need rescue, we all need Jesus Christ.  This is the truth the Bible lays before us.

(The above is an excerpt from a recent sermon with Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism as the lesson – you can find the video here)


Position Statements on Reformed Churches and Sexual Abuse

I wish I knew less about sexual abuse.  In my personal and pastoral life, I have learned far too much about the horrific reality of what some human beings will do to others for the sake of their own pleasure.  However, the knowledge God has providentially placed in my life has motivated me to advocate for the abused.  I have developed the following position statements with the purpose of creating awareness and provoking discussion in our Reformed communities.   Please note:  I do not claim that these statements are exhaustive, nor that they are necessarily the best and final way to frame the issues at hand.  If others wish to improve upon them, they are certainly welcome to do so.

Let me first say a few words about definitions.  In general, abuse is inappropriate conduct towards another person.  It can be a single event or a pattern of behaviour.  In particular, sexual abuse is “the sexual exploitation of a person or any sexual intimacy forced on a person (either physical or non-physical).  Child sexual abuse can include taking advantage of a child who is not capable of understanding sexual acts or resisting coercion such as threats or offers of gifts. Sexual abuse includes harassment by means of verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, brought on by an individual and aimed at a particular person or group of people with the aim of obtaining sexual favours.”  These definitions come from the Child Abuse Policy of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.

When I write below about “Reformed churches,” I am referring to the churches with which I am most familiar:  the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This is not to say that other Reformed churches are not affected, nor is it to say that all individual CanRC and FRC congregations are affected equally.  I am simply commenting from the perspective of someone acquainted with these church federations.

POSITION STATEMENTS

  1. Reformed churches must unequivocally and publically condemn all forms of abuse

While we should always welcome truly repentant sinners, our churches must never give the impression of being a safe harbour for abusers.  Instead, we should reflect the compassionate heart of our God for those who are downtrodden and afflicted (Psalm 34:18).  Further, we should aim to create a safe and healing environment in our churches for those who have experienced abuse.  Finally, we ought to be churches where justice and righteousness are upheld, where victims are not further victimized and perpetrators are properly held accountable for their sins.  All this starts with clearly condemning abuse, when appropriate, in our sermons, articles, etc.

  1. Sexual abuse has occurred in our churches

While I am unaware of any official statistical data, certainly anecdotal evidence indicates many instances of sexual abuse.  Whether these instances are out of proportion to the broader population is unknown (yet certainly worthy of a responsible scientific study).  However, with sadness we ought to humbly admit that it has happened in the past.  One might hope that it would no longer be happening, but because churches are made up not only of sinful human beings, but also a mixture of believers and unbelievers (Belgic Confession art. 29), realistically we should expect continuing occurrences.  Nevertheless, we ought to do everything we can to eradicate this great evil from the church of Christ.

  1. There is often a link between sexual abuse and unhealthy spirituality

Abuse victims often struggle in their relationship with God.  Because they have had horrible evil inflicted upon them (often when quite young), they may question God’s goodness, love, and providence.  If they were abused by a father or other authority figure, they may have difficulty relating to God as a loving Father.  They may also have difficulty understanding and appropriating biblical teaching about sexuality, family, and marriage authority structures.  The spiritual consequences of abuse can be far-reaching and add to the guilt carried by abusers.

  1. There is often a link between sexual abuse and mental health issues

Sexual abuse is a form of trauma.  It is an atrocity that may overwhelm the one who has experienced it.  Any type of trauma can have mental health implications.  Depression, anxiety, self-harm, multiple personality disorders, addictions, and other effects can result from sexual abuse, particularly if it is not addressed. These mental health issues can then also present challenges to a sexual abuse survivor’s spiritual health.

  1. There is a link between pornography and sexual abuse towards children and spouses

In general, pornography objectifies others as a means to sexual gratification.  In itself this predisposes an individual who uses pornography towards abuse.  This effect is exacerbated by the way pornography use often sinks to increasingly depraved levels.  The wide-spread availability of violent and abusive pornography is proven to increase the prevalence of sexual abuse.  Consequently, Reformed churches must be vocal about the dangers of pornography, as well as supplying resources for members to escape slavery to this sin.

  1. When preaching and teaching the Fifth Commandment, Reformed churches must also address the abuse of authority

Anecdotal evidence relates that abusers will sometimes invoke the Fifth Commandment (“Honour your father and your mother”) in order to justify and continue their abuse.  Reformed churches regularly preach on the Fifth Commandment (with Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism) and should take the opportunity to emphasize that this law does not condone abusive behaviour.  We should make it clear that all abuse is contrary to God’s will and abusers who appeal to God’s law to justify themselves are doubly condemned.

  1. Reformed churches ought to develop abuse policies to address past abuse and prevent future abuse

When things are put in writing, it indicates that we take them seriously.  A matter as weighty as sexual abuse ought not to be dealt with haphazardly.  While not every circumstance can be envisioned ahead of time, some general guidelines for church leaders and members can go a long way to dealing effectively with recent abuse in the church.  Moreover, policies to prevent future abuse ought also to be in place as a matter of due diligence in protecting the sheep and lambs of God’s flock.

  1. Any local church which facilitates abuse by covering it up or refusing to report it puts into question its status as a true church of Jesus Christ

One of the marks of a true church is the faithful exercise of church discipline.  If a local church allows abuse to continue by covering it up rather than dealing with it as the gross sin that it is, that church is dramatically falling short on this mark.  If the office bearers of a church refuse to report abuse to the proper authorities, they likewise show a significant failure to deal with sin appropriately.  A true church will take serious sins seriously and deal with them accordingly, both through the keys of the kingdom of heaven and by cooperation with the civil authorities where appropriate.

  1. There is hope for survivors and perpetrators in the gospel of Jesus Christ

For those who have experienced abuse, the wounds can heal.  They can heal as the balm of the gospel is applied and we learn to understand better the unfathomable grace of God towards us and others.  Perpetrators of past abuse can also find help and healing at the cross.  If they truly repent from their sins, if they are humble and honest, if they look to Jesus Christ alone as their righteousness, they can receive forgiveness from a gracious God and meaningful change in their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.  However, that in no way diminishes the personal, criminal, or ecclesiastical consequences of this sin.


CanRC Committee Recommends Termination of Relationship with RCN

The Canadian Reformed Churches have an attractive new website — you can find it here.  The new website is publishing the reports going to Synod Edmonton Immanuel in 2019.  Amongst them you can find this report from the Subcommittee for Relations with Churches in the Netherlands.  As expected, the CanRC committee is recommending the termination of ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Among the grounds are the following:

a.  The decision by Synod Meppel 2017 to admit females to ecclesiastical office is contrary to Scripture as shown in Appendix H of our report.

b.  It is highly unlikely that this decision will be reversed on appeal to the next general synod since Synod Meppel decided that the churches could ordain female office bearers immediately, and since the NGK with whom the GKv are in the process of uniting have been allowing female ordination for some time already.

c.  By the decision to permit female ordination the GKv has ignored the numerous warnings about unbiblical hermeneutics directed to their synods by the SRN as well as delegates of other sister churches since Synod Zwolle 2008. The GKv has also brushed aside the serious admonitions directed to Synod Ede by Synod Carman 2013 concerning the place of those unbiblical hermeneutics at the TUK as well as in the report Deputies M/F.

d.  The decision of Synod Meppel to work towards full unity with the NGK shows that the GKv have moved in the direction of those churches which have also opened the offices to females and which allow same-sex couples to remain members in good standing.

[…]

g.  A decision to discontinue the relationship with the GKv would be an encouragement to faithful members within the GKv to take action, and it would be a final call to the GKv as a whole to take stock of the direction of those churches which once stood with us on the same basis of Scripture and Reformed Confessions.

It seems inevitable that CanRC Synod 2019 will take the same step that FRCA Synod 2018 took and, sadly, end their long-standing relationship with the “mother church” in the Netherlands.


Trans-Tasman Ecumenical Exchange

It was back in 2013 and I was at a conference at Mid-America Reformed Seminary near Chicago.  Amongst the new faces I encountered was a pastor from the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ), Rev. David Waldron.  One of the reasons I remember him is that he was an Englishman serving in a Kiwi church — which I found rather curious.  Fast forward a couple of years and, curiously enough, I was a Canadian serving an Aussie church.  This Aussie church was now in a sister-church relationship with the RCNZ.  A couple of my colleagues from Western Australia had organized exchanges with colleagues from New Zealand to fortify this relationship — which I thought was a great idea, and so did my elders in the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.  But who could I approach in New Zealand?  Who did I know “across the ditch”?  I wrote to David and put the idea to him — and he and his elders in Christchurch agreed that it would be worthwhile too.  While it took a little while to organize, eventually in the end of September and beginning of October, we managed to make it happen.  What a blessing it was for everyone involved!

The exchange took place in two phases.  The church leadership on both sides agreed that it would be most beneficial if these two phases overlapped.  That would allow David to spend a few days with me in my home environment in Tasmania, and vice-versa in New Zealand.  We would each spend approximately ten days in each others’ church community, of which about 5-6 days would be spent together.

It began with David’s arrival in Launceston on the evening of September 27.  During his time in Tasmania, he gave a presentation for the Free Reformed church community introducing the RCNZ.  He spoke at a men’s breakfast on the topic of pornography.  He addressed our young people on a Sunday evening, speaking about his varied life experiences and journey to the Christian faith.  Of course, he also led four worship services at FRC Launceston over two Sundays.  His powerful speaking and preaching were much appreciated by one and all.  Additionally, since David is an enthusiastic outdoorsman, we treated him to several day hikes and even an overnight trip to Tasmania’s majestic Frenchman’s Cap.

For my part of the exchange, I made the jaunt across the Tasman Sea on October 3.  It’s a flight of just over three hours (depending on the winds) — in terms of distance, it’s not much different from a trip to Perth, WA.  I really enjoyed the hospitality of my Kiwi brothers and sisters in Christchurch.  I was also able to do some day hikes in the vicinity and spent some time with Rev. Dirk Van Garderen doing some trout fishing (but not catching!).  In terms of ministry, I led four worship services at the Reformed Church of Christchurch.  I gave the RCNZ community in Christchurch an introduction to the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  I was also invited to be the speaker at the church’s family camp in Waipara, just to the north of Christchurch.  I spoke on the topic of being an outward looking church, as well as leading two devotions.

Christchurch is a beautiful city, but sadly it still bears the scars of the earthquakes that rocked the region in 2011.  Numerous abandoned commercial buildings and homes remain standing, still awaiting demolition.  In parts of the city, entire neighbourhoods stand devoid of homes which have already been demolished — only the streetlights and streets remain.  Nevertheless, the city is rebuilding.  New homes dot many streets.  For their part, the Reformed Church built a beautiful and functional new building on Cornwall Street.  And the city continues to maintain a spectacular system of English-style parks, the most stunning of which is Hagley Park near the city centre.  To the south of the city are the Port Hills, the remnant of an ancient volcano.  On a good day, to the west one can also spy the nearby Southern Alps in all their vertiginous splendour.

Like FRC Launceston, the Reformed Church of Christchurch was instituted in 1953.  Both churches were originally founded by Dutch immigrants.  Both hold to the Three Forms of Unity, but the RCNZ also maintain the Westminster Confession.  The Christchurch congregation is growing in terms of diversity, increasingly reflecting the ethnic makeup of the surrounding community.  While there I met a brother who’s a pastor originally from Egypt, and a couple from China who, with their young daughter, were just about to be baptized and received into membership.  While there are some small differences in practice (i.e. our singing is accompanied by a pipe organ, theirs by piano plus one other instrument), I was struck by how much I felt at home with these brothers and sisters.  Our true unity in Jesus Christ was beautiful to see and experience.  I was greatly encouraged by our mutual love for the gospel and a desire to share that good news with others.

There are a number of benefits flowing from these sorts of exchanges.  One is definitely learning to understand better one anothers’ unique backgrounds and history.  That helps us to be more charitable in our assessments of one another.  Another benefit is growing awareness of one another on both sides.  A brother or sister pondering a move to NZ would be encouraged by the knowledge that they will easily find a faithful church home amongst the RCNZ congregations — and I trust that the reverse would be true for someone pondering a move west across the Tasman.  Then there’s also the sharing of ideas back and forth.  For example, I was intrigued by the church camp idea.  Is that something we could/should implement in our church?  Finally, there’s the valuable aspect of building friendships.  Through such an exchange, believers on both sides forge new bonds.  The RCNZ and FRCA come to life for all involved, not just as initials or names of distant churches, but as bodies of believers made up of people we know, respect, and love.

As mentioned at the beginning, we didn’t pioneer this idea.  It’s been done before.  Nevertheless, for those churches which haven’t yet done it, whether in New Zealand and Australia, let me highly recommend it.  It’s a fantastic way to “put meat on the bones” of our sister church relationship.