Tag Archives: Canadian Reformed Churches

The Book of Praise’s Uncertain Future

For several decades the Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter has been the exclusive song book of both the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  It’s something we’ve agreed upon in our Church Order.  Here in Australia, our last synod decided to move towards an Australian version of the Book of Praise.  It will have the extra 19 hymns in the 2014 CanRC Book of Praise, the FRCA Church Order, Australian spellings (like ‘baptise’), and a few other bits and pieces unique to the FRCA.  Overall, however, it will still be the familiar songbook.

In Canada, the Book of Praise is facing an uncertain future.  There were two recent proposals at regional synods which illustrate some changes afoot in the CanRC.  While only one of the proposals passed and will move on to the General Synod in Edmonton next year, the existence of these proposals demonstrates that there are questions in the CanRC about whether the hegemony of the Book of Praise is a sure thing going into the future.

Classis Central Ontario of September 6-7, 2018 adopted a proposal from the Fellowship CanRC in Burlington regarding a change to Church Order article 55.  The proposed reading was as follows:

The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in public worship. The metrical Psalms and hymns adopted by General Synod, as well as songs approved by consistory that faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, shall be sung in public worship.

This proposal was then forwarded to Regional Synod East of November 14, 2018.  The hope was that RSE would adopt it and then send it on to General Synod 2019.  However, RSE didn’t adopt the proposal.

On the other side of the continent, Classis Pacific East of February 22, 2018 adopted a proposal from the Aldergrove church dealing with the Trinity Psalter Hymnal recently published by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches.  This proposal stated that the psalms and hymns of the TPH also be approved for worship in the CanRC.  The proposal went to the Regional Synod West of November 5, 2018.  This was RSW’s decision, as reported in the press release:

RSW decided to forward the various submissions about the Trinity Psalter Hymnal to General Synod
with the recommendation that, in addition to the adopted Book of Praise, General Synod Edmonton 2019
approve the Psalms and Hymns of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) for use in public worship as per Church Order Article 55. Along with this recommendation it added the following remarks:
6.1 Those letters which were submitted as appeals were received as letters of the churches interacting
with the overtures.
6.2 The overtures demonstrate a commonality in speaking about the Trinity Psalter-Hymnal (TPH) and
its merits in addition to the Book of Praise (BoP).
6.3 The purpose is not to replace the BoP but to enhance the unity in worship between us as sister
churches in North America by allowing the churches to also sing from the TPH.
6.4 The language of the overtures and the other materials received by RSW demonstrates that this is a
topic that lives in our churches. In addition, the material shows that some of the arguments either
supporting or opposing these overtures are subjective.
6.5 There is great value in maintaining the principle of a federative approach to corporate worship.
While not wanting to make exceptions the rule, RSW acknowledges the uniqueness of certain
congregations in their circumstances (e.g. mission churches).
6.6 The SCBP’s (Standing Committee for the Publication of the Book of Praise) evaluation process of
suggestions for new hymns from the churches is perceived as not sufficiently responsive to what the
churches through decisions of general synods have requested. It is debatable whether the SCBP is the
appropriate forum to evaluate the TPH.
6.7 In order to have the churches appreciate the quality of the TPH, the churches should have ample
opportunity to interact meaningfully with its contents, as has happened in the past with the introduction of the Augment.

So this matter will be going to the General Synod in Edmonton next year.  They will have to decide whether the Book of Praise will continue to be the exclusive song book of the CanRC.

What are my thoughts on this?  I haven’t actually seen the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, so I’m in no position to judge its contents or quality.  I do, however, place a lot of stock in trusting my brothers and sisters in the OPC and URCNA.  They’re not theological slouches.  So, that’s one thing.

Another thing is whether the exclusive use of the Book of Praise is necessary or helpful.  Is it required of us by God or is what’s agreed upon in our Church Orders a matter of convention that may or may not be helpful?  Obviously the latter.  It’s not the “law of the Medes and Persians which can never be changed.”  Circumstances can change, church sub-cultures can change (in matters indifferent), and therefore so can what we might agree on as our collection of songs for public worship.

Moreover, there’s also the question of adding more hymns.  I once held to exclusive psalmody.  When I became convinced that biblically based and biblically sound hymns fit within biblically regulated worship, then I also became convinced we should sing the best hymns.  If we’re going to sing hymns at all, then we should have the best collection of hymns in our songbook.  The 1984 Book of Praise had 65 (actually 66) hymns, but there were gaps in the selections, and other issues.  The 2014 Book of Praise has 85 hymns and there is improvement in expanding some of the sections (notably, with the resurrection of Christ).  But there is still the question of whether this is the best we can do in terms of our hymnody.  After all, shouldn’t we offer to God our best in worship?  Therefore, in principle, I’m open to the idea of adding more, carefully vetted, hymns to what we sing in public worship.

Finally, a word about the Genevan psalm melodies.  I love them, at least most of them.  I grew up with them and still sing them daily.  But I’m not stuck on them as the be-all-and-end-all of psalm singing.  Some of them are challenging to sing, especially for new comers to our churches.  Still, most people get used to them and even start to enjoy them.  The Genevan psalm melodies are used in Reformed churches around the world, in many different cultures (which is rather amazing!)  However, we need to keep all this in perspective.  The psalms themselves are far more important and precious than the tunes to which they’re sung.  If there’s a way for certain psalms to be sung and appropriated by God’s people more effectively by using a different tune than the Genevan, then we ought to be open to that.

I’m sure the Book of Praise will continue to be used in the CanRC for the foreseeable future.  Yet the inescapable reality is that the days of its sole primacy are numbered.  If the change doesn’t happen at General Synod 2019, it will surely happen further down the track.


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.


Update on Synod Bunbury — Week 1

Executive of Synod Bunbury 2018.

The first week of FRCA Synod 2018 is now over.  The assembly will continue meeting on Monday and will probably go until at least Tuesday evening, if not Wednesday.  Besides the headline decision of terminating the relationship with the RCN, a few other noteworthy decisions were made.  At this time I will simply draw them to your attention and add no comment of my own.  You can find the approved and published acts online here for more details.

  • In one of its first decisions, Synod decided to make the Acts more readable by having a summary of all material relating to decisions made.
  • There will be a new deputyship (committee) for the official FRCA website.  They are mandated to produce a revamped FRCA website which will include news items from the churches.
  • Synod decided to proceed with investigating ecumenical relations with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Southern Presbyterian Church.
  • The Deputies for Canadian Reformed Churches have received a mandate which will include monitoring “developments within the CanRC in relation to Blessings Christian Church in line with the questions expressed in the deputies report.”  For more information, that deputies report can be found online here.
  • Synod decided to proceed with an Australian Book of Praise, based on the 2014 CanRC Book of Praise (with adopted FRCA changes to creeds, confessions, and liturgical forms), using the ESV, and including the 19 extra hymns.
  • With regard to the URCNA, it was decided:  “To continue to liaise with the URCNA and to recommend to Synod 2021 whether to proceed in establishing a sister church relationship.”

Decisions still need to be made on a variety of other important items including:  ICRC (whether or not we send observers), appeals regarding the decision to establish a sister-church relationship with the RCNZ, and the question or whether the FRCA will move towards their own seminary.  Stay tuned…


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.