Tag Archives: Canadian Reformed Churches

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.


CanRC Proposal to Approve Trinity Psalter Hymnal

For several years, the Canadian Reformed Churches were working with the United Reformed Churches to produce a joint song book.  Progress was slow, but steady.  However, eventually the URC abandoned the joint venture with the CanRC and later decided to work with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church instead.  The OPC and URC are now on the verge of releasing the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.  Apparently it’s supposed to be available around the beginning of May.

The CanRC have been watching these developments closely.  At Classis Pacific East of February 22, 2018, the Aldergrove church presented a proposal to adopt the psalms and hymns of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.  It was presented as a proposal for synod, with the hopes that classis would adopt it and forward it on via the next Regional Synod West.  According to the press release, Classis Pacific East did what Aldergrove asked.  So the proposal is going to the next Regional Synod West.

A similar proposal was floated in the east last year.  A Classis Central Ontario brought a proposal to Regional Synod East of November 8, 2017.  However, Regional Synod East was not convinced.  We’ll see what West will do later in the year.

These are developments for the Australian Free Reformed Churches to watch too.  As I mentioned earlier in the week, we have a Synod coming up with weighty decisions to make about our song book.  We’ll be debating whether to add the 19 new hymns from the 2014 CanRC Book of Praise.  Meanwhile, the CanRCs have moved on to debate whether to add dozens more.


RCN in ICRC: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

Debate about the future of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN) as members of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) has been continuing in Jordan, Ontario.  At their synod last month, the RCN fully adopted women’s ordination.  Anticipating this move, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church mandated their delegates to the ICRC to propose the suspension of the RCN.  Details of that proposal can be found here.

On Friday afternoon debate continued about the OPC proposal.  The delegates from several ICRC member churches vocally supported it.  Amongst them were the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, and the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa.  The OPC and others have been arguing that suspension of the RCN is necessary to preserve the integrity of the ICRC and its testimony to the world and other churches.  Such a move also sends a clear signal to the RCN and gives them the opportunity to reconsider and repent.  Above all, they argue, this course of action gives the most honour to the head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and the authority of his Word.  Tolerating the present situation is unacceptable.

During the two hour discussion, however, some delegates expressed opposition to the proposal to suspend the RCN.  The Christian Reformed Churches from the Netherlands (not related to the Christian Reformed Church in North America, but rather the sister churches of the Free Reformed Churches of North America) argued that more time was needed and suspension would be premature.  The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia also expressed discomfort with the OPC proposal, arguing not only that it was premature, but also that it was necessary to answer the RCN with carefully formulated biblical arguments.

Despite these reservations, there seems to be a consensus at the ICRC that the RCN is indeed out of step with the basis of the ICRC, namely the Scriptures as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards.  There’s therefore no question as to whether the RCN’s membership will be terminated in 2021 should they fail to reverse course on women’s ordination.  The present question is how to move forward at this meeting:  suspend or not.  The Christian Reformed Churches are reportedly preparing a counter-proposal to that of the OPC.

Debate continues on Monday with a vote expected later that day.


How the Mighty Have Fallen

I have been writing for about 25 years.  My first published article appeared in the January 1992 issue of a Canadian Reformed youth magazine called In Holy Array.  The article was entitled “Women in Office” and it discussed the opening of ecclesiastical offices to women in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.  In 1990, the CRC Synod decided to allow churches to admit women to the offices of minister, elder, and deacon.  This set in motion the large-scale departure from the CRC which eventually led to the formation of the United Reformed Churches.  My article expressed bewilderment that this could happen in a church with which, less than 50 years earlier, we had enjoyed Christian unity.

Now here we are 25 years later and I am again bewildered.  A church federation with whom we still officially have sister-church relations (though suspended) has officially decided to do what the CRC did in the early 1990s.  Over the last two days, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN) have decided at Synod Meppel to admit women to all the offices of the church.  Their sister-churches in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Korea, the US, and others all warned them not to but, regrettably, they did not heed these warnings.  Especially amongst the immigrant churches in Canada and Australia, these decisions bring an enormous amount of sadness.

I know there are still faithful believers in the RCN.  One such brother e-mailed me this morning to share his grief and consternation.  These brothers and sisters will need our prayers as they seek to discern God’s will for them in terms of church membership.  It would not be easy to leave the church of your youth, the church where you made profession of faith, the church where you were married, and where your children were baptized.  It wasn’t easy for the concerned CRC members in the early 1990s either.  Yet they didn’t choose the easy path; instead, they chose the faithful path.

As for ecumenical relations, next year there will be a Free Reformed synod here in Australia.  The Dutch churches were warned that, apart from repentance, our relationship with them would be severed at Synod 2018.  We will be forced to follow through on that warning.  The Canadian Reformed Churches have said something similar in regard to their next synod in 2019.

And then there’s the ICRC, the International Conference of Reformed Churches.  The RCN have badly miscalculated if they thought that these decisions would have no bearing on their membership in the ICRC.  Next month, July 13-19, the next meeting of the ICRC is scheduled to take place in Jordan, Ontario.  Again, one cannot but help think of what happened with the Christian Reformed Church in the 1990s.  The CRCNA was one of the founding members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), just like the RCN is one of the founding members of the ICRC.  In 1997, NAPARC voted to suspend the membership of the CRC over their decision regarding women in office.  Amongst the churches leading that initiative were two current sister-churches of the RCN — the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church in the United States.  The OPC and RCUS are still in NAPARC — and also in the ICRC.  Have the OPC and RCUS softened their stand on this issue since the 1990s?  The writing is on the wall for RCN membership in the ICRC.  The only question is one of time.

After the fall of the mighty CRCNA, many post-mortem analyses have been essayed.  Most of them, including mine, lay the blame at the foot of developments regarding the authority of Scripture tracing back to the 1960s.  Over the coming days, similar analyses will be written about the RCN.  It’s a familiar story and it illustrates man’s wickedness in departing from God’s Word.  It’s not “Reformation” when you scorn the Scriptures and have women office bearers — it’s deformation.  I’ve seen the story already play out twice in my short lifetime.  I pray I won’t see it a third time.  I pray that we will have learned something from the sad fall of these two federations of churches that were once faithful and mighty in the LORD.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

1 Corinthians 10:12


A Supervised Lord’s Supper?

Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have practiced elder supervision over admission to the Lord’s Supper.  This historic practice has unfortunately been discarded in many churches.  In other churches, even in the Canadian Reformed Churches, the practice is under pressure.  When it seems like you’re the only ones doing this, it becomes difficult to maintain.  After all, are we the only ones who see it rightly?

I’ve noted before how at least one historian attributed the loss of this practice in Presbyterianism to laxity in discipline.  There may be other factors at work as well.  Whatever the reasons may be for why an open table (with a verbal warning at best) is now the norm, those of us who still follow the historic practice need to review our reasons for doing so.  If we’re going to maintain it, we ought to be confident that we’re doing this for sound biblical reasons and not simply out of tradition.

At the church I currently serve, we try to be sensitive to our guests.  If we know someone will be attending on a Lord’s Supper Sunday, we try to speak with them ahead of time and tell them about our policy.  On the liturgy sheet that Lord’s Day we also include our policy and an explanation of it.  This policy is borrowed from the last church I served, which in turn, borrowed it from another Canadian Reformed Church.  This is how it reads:

To Our Visitors and Guests:  Our Supervised Lord’s Supper Celebration Policy

Welcome!  We’re glad that you’re with us this Lord’s Day!  You will notice that today we are celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  We want to briefly explain to you our policy regarding who may partake of this sacrament at the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.

We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a celebration for and by the local congregation as body of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our official policy is that normally only those guests are admitted who are members of a Free Reformed church or a sister church and have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life.  As a rule, the status of these guests is articulated in an “attestation” [testimony] issued by the elders of the church in which this guest is a member.  Such a written attestation assists the elders of the church in their supervision over the table of our Lord.  It is the responsibility of the local elders to keep the celebration of the Lord’s Supper holy.  They are called to be sure these guests are true believers who are faithful in their adherence to the Reformed faith and walking a godly life.  The elders are the shepherds of God’s flock and they have a responsibility to protect the flock from the judgment that would fall on the whole congregation if the table would be profaned (see 1 Pet. 5:2 and 1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Please understand that with this policy, we make no judgment on your personal faith or relationship with Christ.  We understand that it is somewhat unusual in the broader Christian context, yet we believe that it is biblical and what is biblical is best for our congregation.  Moreover, we may be assured that by hearing the Word and watching the celebration of this sacrament, you will still be edified through the working of the Holy Spirit.  Our Lord Jesus gave the sacraments as visible signs and seals for the strengthening of our faith as we focus our faith on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation.  May its observance direct you to seek your life outside of yourself in Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins and everlasting life.  May the Lord bless your attendance at our service!

If you have any questions about this policy, please speak to one of our elders or our pastor.

Most guests will read this policy, understand it, and respect our practice.  I have only had one or two occasions where a visitor was offended or upset by our way of supervising the Lord’s Supper.

Let me also recommend an article by Rev. George van Popta on this topic.  He explains the history and rationale more completely.  He also goes into the way the Christian Reformed Church in North America changed course on this matter in 1975.  You can find his helpful article here:  Admission of Guests to the Lord’s Table.