Tag Archives: Christian Reformed Church

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.


Women in Office = False Church?

It could happen later this year that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decide at their synod to officially allow women in office.  I pray that it doesn’t, but the possibility is definitely there.  That raises questions relating to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Specifically, if a church federation were to adopt women in office does that automatically mean that they have become a false church?  That question needs to be answered carefully.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the idea of women in office in Reformed churches.  Back in the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America first discussed it, and then gradually adopted it.  That adoption was one of the biggest catalysts leading to the mass exodus from the CRC between 1992 and 1994 — over 17,000 members left just in those years.  A good number of those ended up forming what would later become known as the United Reformed Churches.

I remember some of the early talks between the CanRC and URCs in the Bulkley Valley in north-central British Columbia.  This would have been in the early 2000s.  Questions were asked of our URC brothers such as:  do you now view the CRC as a false church?  No URC person would say that.  It was as if some of the CanRC people felt that the ex-CRC people could only have been justified in leaving if they viewed the CRC as a false church.  At least some in the URC would say that the CRC was no longer a true church, but they would not say that having women in office (and the other theological aberrations) resulted in the CRC being a false church.

I think I can see why they said that.  Certainly I don’t believe that a Reformed federation which adopts women in office can be said, by virtue of only that, to have become a false church.  Let me explain.

Let’s agree that article 29 of the Belgic Confession gives a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture about the marks of the true and false church.  Let’s use that as our starting point.  What are the marks of a false church according to the Confession?

  • It assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.
  • It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.
  • It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases.
  • It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.
  • It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

So, while the true church has three marks, the false church has five.  Just as all three marks need to be in order for a church to be true, so it follows that all five marks need to be seen for a church to be false.  In the original context of the 1561 Belgic Confession, there was only one church that fit the bill:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Does a church that adopts women in office become a false church?  Certainly those first two marks are being exhibited, and perhaps the fourth too.  However, not necessarily the third (notice the focus on adding and subtracting in the BC) or the fifth (the persecution envisioned leads to martyrdom).  A church adopting women in office would have to go off the rails in all these other areas for it to be a false church.

But if it is not a false church that doesn’t mean we’re saying that it is true.  Let’s review the marks of a true church:

  • It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
  • It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
  • It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.

Does adopting women in office compromise any of these marks?

“The pure preaching of the gospel” could be understood to refer narrowly to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  However, sometimes the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the Word of God in general.  I believe the latter, broader way is found here in BC 29.  I say that because the French (or Gallican) Confession, upon which the Belgic is largely modelled, does not say “gospel” in its articles 27 and 28, but “the Word of God.”  Therefore, if a church is not proclaiming the Word of God purely about who can serve in the offices of the church, this mark has been compromised.

What about “the pure administration of the sacraments”?  Did Christ institute the Lord’s Supper and Baptism with the intent that women would administer them?  Does administering the sacraments to those who follow false teachings like women in office constitute a pure administration?  We have to conclude that this mark too is imperiled by women in office.

Church discipline is also essential for a church to be true.  When members hold to false teachings like women in office, they need to be admonished and warned that they are departing from the Scriptures.  When local congregations hold to women in office and begin implementing it, then there needs to be brotherly admonition on the ecclesiastical level — and action too, if no change takes place.  But if a Synod decides that black is white and women can be ordained, then all possibility for discipline on this point disappears.  So, yes, here as well we have to conclude that the church which adopts women in office has ceased being a true church.

All three marks of a true church are affected by women in office.  The church which adopts this position ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ.  This is why the Canadian (CanRC) and Australian (FRCA) churches will no longer be able to have ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands if they go in this direction.

That still leaves the question hanging:  if not a false church, and if not a true church, then what?  It’s often forgotten that there is a third category in article 29 of the Belgic Confession:  the sect.  The sect is a religious organization which is not entirely a true church, but not entirely a false church either.  In the days the Confession was written, this was the label applied to the Anabaptist groups in the Netherlands.  Guido de Brès wrote a volume of over 900 pages on the Anabaptists.  He never calls their groups “false churches.”  Instead, consistently, he calls them sects.  If you want a category for the church which adopts women in office, “sect” is what you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, I pray that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands rejects women in office once and for all.  I pray that the faithful members will gain the upper hand and steer the RCN back to God’s Word.  I pray that the churches which are already practicing this false teaching will either repent or be removed from the RCN.  I don’t want to see them become a sect.  I earnestly desire that we can continue to recognize them as a true church of Jesus Christ, our sister churches.  We must keep praying!


Book Review: The Quest for the Historical Adam

The Quest for the Historical Adam

The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins, William VanDoodewaard. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015. Hardcover, 400 pages, $37.85.

Once in a very rare while I come across a book which brings me to think, “If I had the means, I would get a copy of this into every single Canadian Reformed home.” This is one of those books. If I couldn’t get it into every single CanRC home, I would settle for getting it into the hands of every single minister, elder, and deacon. The Quest for the Historical Adam is not only relevant, but crucially important for these days in which a biblical view of origins is under pressure. This volume could do a world of good if it would only receive the careful attention it deserves.

The author, William VanDoodewaard, is a church history professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also a minister of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). For those unfamiliar with this church, the ARP is a long-time member of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Alongside his seminary teaching, Dr. VanDoodewaard is also an ARP church planter in Grand Rapids. Apart from his doctoral dissertation, this is his first published book.

The title of this volume plays off a much earlier book by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In that book, Schweitzer examined how historical conceptions of Jesus led to a variety of Jesuses. While his book had some value, unfortunately, Schweitzer did not honour the authority of Scripture, so his conclusions were necessarily flawed. However, VanDoodewaard has the highest view of Scripture as he traces out how people have variously conceived of Adam. The author points that contemporary debates over origins are often afflicted with what he calls “historical amnesia.” This volume seeks to recover our collective memory of how ages past have written about, preached about, and thought about our first parents and their origins.

The first chapter provides a general overview of what Scripture says about Adam. From this overview, the author reaches this conclusion, “…there is no inherent ground to posit anything aside from a special, temporally immediate creation of Adam and Eve as the first humans on the sixth day of creation” (18). The following five chapters trace out the post-biblical history of how Christians have looked at the early chapters of Genesis. If anything is clear from these chapters, it is that there has been a consensus view for millennia. The consensus is that the first chapters of Genesis must be taken seriously as a historical record. When it comes to human origins, the vast majority of Christian interpreters have understood Scripture to teach a special or immediate creation of Adam and Eve, a creation which allows for no prior biological ancestry of any sort. The Quest for the Historical Adam concludes with a chapter entitled, “What Difference Does It Make?” In this chapter, the author lays out ten areas of doctrine that are affected by how one views the origin of Adam. What are those ten areas?

  1. Scripture and hermeneutics
  2. Man and the ethics of human life
  3. Marriage and unity of race
  4. Human language
  5. God, the Creator
  6. The goodness of creation
  7. In Adam’s fall sinned we all?
  8. Christ as Creator and Redeemer
  9. Adam, Christ, and the Covenants
  10. Adam and accountability: the last things

Dr. VanDoodewaard convincingly makes the case that no one can soundly argue that one’s view of origins can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of one’s theology. Even taking an agnostic view or allowing for latitude in the matter will invariably have some impact.

The heart of the book is the historical overview. Let me mention five highlights that are worth sharing. There are many more highlights that I could mention, but I hope these five will whet your appetite and motivate you to buy the book.

Today we sometimes encounter the idea of pre-Adamites – human beings or human-like creatures (hominids) who lived before and beside Adam. One of the first to promote a form of this idea was a Frenchman named Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676). While he worked with the text of Genesis in his book Men Before Adam, he did so in a rather revisionist way. He argued that only the Jews were descended from Adam and Genesis 2 only described where the Jews came from. Everyone else came from other groups of human beings who had existed long before Adam. What motivated La Peyrère to develop this theory? He wanted to make Genesis more reasonable so that unbelievers would be more receptive to the Christian faith (143). Does this sound familiar?

La Peyrère developed a small following in Europe. His ideas were widely discussed, but uniformly rejected by Reformed theologians. His ideas were also rejected by Roman Catholic figures such as Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Following what Scripture taught on this matter, Pascal held to a young earth of about 6000 years age and “was also explicitly critical of pre-Adamite thought” (122).

Another valuable contribution of VanDoodewaard is his critique of historian Ronald Numbers. Numbers wrote an influential 1992 book entitled The Creationists in which he argued that a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis only exists in our modern day because of the influence of American creation scientists, and particularly through the writing of a Seventh Day Adventist, George McCready Price. “However,” writes VanDoodewaard, “more thorough scholarship reveals significant evidence of a strong stream of both nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources that remained firmly in the millennia old tradition of a literal hermeneutic” (157). What Numbers and others have failed to see is that, entirely apart from twentieth-century creation science, theologians and clergymen have for centuries maintained a literal reading of Genesis, reaching their conclusions based on the text alone. Our author gives several good examples with Dutch-American Reformed theologians like Geerhardus Vos, William Heyns, Foppe Ten Hoor, and Louis Berkhof.

An important part of the work of a historian is discerning patterns. The Quest for the Historical Adam reveals an important pattern in thinking about origins. It starts with sources outside of Scripture and Christian theology pressuring an alternative explanation – these sources could be philosophical, scientific, literary, or archaeological. Under that pressure, interpreters begin to make allowances for alternative explanations. Other generations eventually arise which take things a step further and assert these alternative explanations more stridently, also following through on their logical consequences. This pattern is evident throughout the book.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. VanDoodewaard is an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister. It is not surprising then to find his church and its struggles with this question mentioned. He notes that the ARP adopted a synodical teaching statement in 2012 that affirmed the clear biblical teaching on origins. He contrasts that with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He notes that efforts were made to have the PCA clearly rule out aberrant teachings on origins. A 2012 effort to have the PCA General Assembly issue a teaching statement on this matter floundered. Why? There was a convergence of two broad camps. VanDoodewaard writes:

Some argued that the confessional standards of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms provided sufficient clarity on the topic – positing that if there were concerns, they ought to be pursued through the means of church discipline. Other delegates held that belief in evolutionary biological processes in human origins, as circumscribed by Collins, Keller, or others, was harmonious with Scripture and represented a legitimate latitude of ecclesiastical theology (248).

These two lines of argument paralyzed the PCA and prevented it from taking a stand. The result is that various forms of theistic evolution continue to have a comfortable home in the PCA and very little, if anything, can be done about it. Will we in the Canadian Reformed Churches learn from this history while the opportunity is still there?

Obviously, I have a great deal of appreciation for this book. However, there are a couple of oversights that I noticed. Chapter 3 deals with “Adam in the Reformation and Post-Reformation Eras.” While the author does spend some time with the Westminster Standards (especially the issue of “in the space of six days”), he disregards the Three Forms of Unity or other Reformed confessions. This is important in our day when we hear it asserted by some that theistic evolution falls within the bounds of our confessions. Nevertheless, VanDoodewaard’s research certainly does support the position that in the era in which these confessions were originally written, it would have been unthinkable for forms of theistic evolution to be tolerated in Reformed churches. Chapter 6 deals with the 1950s to the present. The author has some discussion about developments in the Christian Reformed Church, but there could have been more said. For instance, it would be helpful for readers to see how the tolerance of theistic evolution in the CRC grew out of a weakened view of biblical authority starting in the 1950s, especially under the influence of the Free University of Amsterdam.

The Quest for the Historical Adam is a unique contribution to a vitally important topic. It might be a bit technical at times for some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded. As intimated in my introduction, this is especially an important book for office bearers. As those who have promised to “oppose, refute, and help prevent” errors conflicting with God’s Word, we need to educate ourselves about those errors and the patterns that lead to them being accepted. This is all the more case when an error is right before us, threatening to undo us. I heartily commend Dr. VanDoodewaard for writing this valuable book and Reformation Heritage Books for publishing it. May the day hasten when historians look back and say that the publication of this book was a turning point for the maintenance of orthodoxy on origins!


This review was originally published in Reformed Perspective magazine and reappears here with their gracious permission.


When You Don’t Follow Through…

windmill

There once was a Reformed church federation in the Netherlands.  This federation had a long and storied history.  Its roots were not only in the Great Reformation, but also in the Secession of 1834, the Doleantie of 1886, and the Union of 1892.  After the Second World War, numerous people from these churches immigrated to North America.  The ties remained strong.  However, eventually things began going amiss in these Dutch churches.  Voices were heard stating all kinds of unorthodox views.  But nothing was really done to stop it.  The momentum just continued to build.  Across the Atlantic, many watched this with great concern.  Many reports were written about what was happening in the Netherlands.  Synods discussed the developments.  At least one letter of admonition was sent.  However, nothing changed.

It may sound like a familiar story (especially to Canadian Reformed readers), but it is the story of the relationship between the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (Synodical) and the Christian Reformed Church.  There were many CRC people concerned about the direction of the GKN in the 1960s.  Men like Harry Kuitert were espousing ideas that were clearly unbiblical and out of line with the Reformed confessions.  In 1970, the CRC Synod even sent “a letter of admonition” to the GKN.  You can read it here, together with some of the background.   But nothing changed, at least not in terms of the relationship between the GKN and the CRC.  There were changes:  the GKN became progressively more liberal — and the CRC was not all that far behind.  Yet the two remained in ecclesiastical fellowship.  The CRC never got up the nerve to finally sever the relationship.  The GKN no longer exists today — it was absorbed into a merger and is now part of the Protestantse Kerk, and the CRC also has a relationship with this body.  The fact that the CRC continued to fellowship with the GKN says more about the direction of the CRC than it does about the GKN.

Today we are at a turning point with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated).  Both the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) have sent letters of admonition to our Dutch sister churches.  Nothing has changed, at least not for the better.  One of our Dutch sister churches has even called for names to be submitted for vacancies amongst the office bearers — and they’re open to both genders.  On June 22, the Synod of the FRCA begins.  They will have to decide whether to plod along with the Dutch a little while longer (in a “suspended” relationship) or to sever the relationship completely.  Next year, at Synod Dunnville, the Canadian Reformed Churches will have to discuss and decide on a plan of action too.  It is time to be realistic — the momentum is too great to turn this ship around.  Consider what the General Secretary of Synod Ede (RCN) wrote to the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This is from an official letter:

Many of your concerns go back to subjects which in previous synods have been settled and have had the attention in the discussions between our deputies BBK and your synods and deputies.

Therefore we regret that in your correspondence and also in the contribution of your deputy in our synod concerns are based on hear say and information of individual office bearers, instead of based on what we as churches are responsible for. Nevertheless, the synod once again has paid attention to your concerns. But now, dear brothers, we as Reformed Churches in the Netherlands insist upon our sister churches in Australia to put an end to the discussion of these matters in which constantly the same historical data are repeated to show evidence for your many times impudent judgments of your sister churches in the Netherlands.

You have loudly called a wake-up call to us and we accept that for the sake of our sister church relation. But please do not continue to call. Let us keep in mind each other’s own responsibility, we as churches in the Netherlands and you as churches in Australia.

In other words, enough with the admonitions, we don’t want to hear them anymore.  That leaves those of us who are concerned with a choice:  we change (drop our concerns, tolerate/accept their direction) or we say a sad farewell.  “Going the extra mile” might be a viable option if our Dutch brothers and sisters were willing to listen and take us seriously, but they’re not and they have officially stated so.  Regrettably, that really leaves the faithful with no choice.  Let’s not see the history of the GKN/CRC repeat itself.