Tag Archives: Free Reformed Churches of Australia

Preview of FRCA Synod 2021

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

Website

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

Book of Praise

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

Training for the Ministry

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

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

Ecumenical Relations

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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


Submission for Tasmania Law Reform Institute

The Tasmania Law Reform Institute (TLRI) recently released an “Issues Paper” addressing “possible reforms to Tasmanian law to respond to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) conversion practices.” They requested public feedback via their website. My public submission to the TLRI is below. I urge other Bible-believing Christians in Tasmania to also make submissions. The development of this kind of legislation could have dire consequences for our churches, our families, and our Christian schools. The deadline is January 7, 2021.

****************************************

Public Submission for Tasmania Law Reform Institute

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conversion Practices

1.0   Introduction

I am Rev. Dr. Wes Bredenhof.  I have served as the pastor of the Launceston Free Reformed Church since September 2015.  Previous to that, I served two churches in Canada.  I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alberta (1996), a Master of Divinity degree from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (2000), and a Doctor of Theology degree from Reformation International Theological Seminary (2010).

I am called to be a preacher of the good news of Jesus Christ.  My calling is to show love to everyone I can by first explaining the serious trouble all of us are in.  I am like a medical doctor who explains the disease so the patient can understand the need for treatment and be persuaded to take it.  The serious trouble we all face is that we are all under God’s just judgment for our rebellion against him.  God is infinitely majestic and if you rebel against infinite majesty, the appropriate penalty is infinite too.  However, in his mercy and love, God has provided a way for this judgment to be averted.  God sent his Son Jesus Christ to live and die in the place of anyone who would turn from their rebellion and believe in him.  Jesus Christ lived a perfect life in the place of all who trust in him.  Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross to take the punishment of all who have faith in him.  Jesus rose from the dead, proving that God accepted the sacrifice he made.  There is now a way to eternal life and my calling is to show that way to everyone I can.  Because I love God and I love people, I preach Jesus Christ as the Saviour of rebels like me.  This is what is most important to me and to the church I serve.  I have prepared this submission because this is what is most important.         

Recently I was involved as an expert witness at a case before the State Administrative of Tribunal of Western Australia.  The case involves a couple from another Free Reformed Church (Baldivis, WA) who were denied the opportunity to be respite foster carers for children ages 0-5 because of their religious beliefs on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).  I prepared a report for this matter testifying to the religious beliefs of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This report is attached to this submission as Appendix 1.  I attach it in order to demonstrate that there are Bible-believing Christians in Tasmania who have the potential to be affected by any proposed legislation regarding SOGI conversion practices.  This report also demonstrates that our beliefs are historic Christian teachings based on what the Bible says.

I also respectfully provide this submission to alert you to the fact that Christian churches like ours will not change our practices.  Our ultimate commitment is to God and our ultimate authority is the Bible as God’s inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word.  Because we believe what the Bible says, we do respect those in authority over us.  The Bible teaches us to pray for those who rule over us (1 Timothy 2:1-2).  The Bible teaches us to submit to our government (Romans 13:1).  We do all this gladly.  However, if there is a conflict between what God teaches in the Bible and what the state legislates, we will always follow what the Bible teaches.  We cannot compromise on that.  Because we love God who first loved us through Jesus Christ, we will be steadfastly faithful to God and to the Bible.       

2.0   Background and Terms of Reference

I note that the inquiry was initiated by peak Tasmanian LGBTQA+ stakeholder bodies and representatives.  This appears to have slanted the inquiry in a particular direction, one that is only sympathetic to LGBTQA+ concerns.  The Terms of Reference bear this out.  It is assumed from the start that all SOGI conversion practices (as defined by the working definition) are to be viewed as harmful.  The rest of the Issues Paper is consistent with that assumption, making it almost a foregone conclusion that Tasmania must do something about SOGI conversion practices. 

3.0   Inquiry Process

The Issues Paper was prepared by research staff guided by an independent Expert Advisory Group.  I note that this includes “a member of a community of faith” (p.xiii).  In the Acknowledgements (p.xiv), the Expert Advisory Group is thanked by name.  Rev. Jeff Savage, Uniting Church pastor in Hobart, is mentioned.  Was such a choice intentionally aligned with the bias mentioned above in 2.0?  What if the TLRI had selected a Presbyterian pastor instead?  Ideally, the Expert Advisory Group should have included several members from a range of communities of faith, including Bible-believing Christians and even non-Christians.  For example, Hobart has a growing Islamic community – it might be helpful to hear their perspective.        

Whatever the case may be, I gladly raise my hand to be involved in any future work in this area.  If the TLRI would care to understand the concerns of Bible-believing Christians and how they may be affected by prospective legislation, I would certainly be willing to have such a conversation.  The TLRI should act in good faith and genuinely aim to be as inclusive as possible.  That would mean not excluding sincere Bible-believing Christians.                    

4.0   List of Questions

I have read the entire Issues Paper as background to the questions asked for this consultation.  Some of the questions assume from the outset that all SOGI conversion practices (as defined by the working definition) are harmful.  These questions (by design?) exclude Bible-believing Christians and are, therefore, impossible for me to answer.  I will only answer four of the questions.

4.1   Question 1

After considering the background and working definition (see [1.3.23] on page 13), in your opinion, what are and are not ‘sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices’?

In my view, the definition of SOGI conversion practices, for the purpose of this consultation, should be narrowly limited to extreme acts that would normally be described as torture – such as non-consensual electroshock or aversion therapy.  However, it should then be proven that such practices take place in Tasmania – the Issues Paper acknowledges in 2.3.1 that there is no data on this question.   

Additionally, I would ask the TLRI to give consideration to reviewing 1.2.8 of the Issues Paper.  In particular, the Paper speaks of “false claims” and “false publications.”  Does preaching from a Bible passage addressing SOGI constitute a “false claim”?  Does asking a parishioner to read a Bible passage addressing SOGI involve a “false publication”?  The TLRI ought to recognize that the Bible does speak about these things, for example, in Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.  Will a consequence of SOGI conversion practice legislation be that the Bible is considered to be a “false publication” which ought somehow to be proscribed?  That seems to be the direction of the Issues Paper. 

Moreover, the presupposition behind 1.2.8 needs to be justified.  The presupposition is that there are false claims and there are true claims.  The language of the Issues Paper is not even provisional about such claims, but rather appears to be grounded on absolute certainty.  However, by what objective standard are we to determine which claims are true and which are false?  The Issues Paper seems to presuppose further that science is the objective standard by which truth is determined and distinguished from falsehood.  Science appears to be the ultimate authority for the Issues Paper.  In Christian terms, we would say that science is “the Bible” here.  However, what do you do when your “Bible” contradicts itself or needs to be constantly updated?  How would you be able to have absolute certainty about what is true or false with such a “Bible”?  In the nature of the case, there is scientific research calling into question some of the claims in the Issues Paper.  In 2016, the journal The New Atlantis published an extensive review of social scientific research regarding SOGI issues.[1]  There is no unanimous scientific consensus on these issues.  So how can the Issues Paper so boldly insist that some claims are false while implying that others are true?  Such absolute claims require a transcendent objective standard.

Finally, in this section of the Issues Paper, there is no discussion about the inherent nature of sexual orientation and gender identity.   For example, are these concepts rooted in biology, are they social constructs, or something else altogether?  More to the point, are they inherently fixed or can they change?  If they can change, what factors might be involved?  Are allowances made for changes in any direction?                  

4.2   Question 3

Have you been involved in or offered, or are you aware of, any forms of SOGI conversion practices in Tasmania?  If so, what were the effects on you, or the person exposed to them?

As evidenced in Appendix 1, our church preaches and teaches what the Bible says, including what it says about sexual orientation and gender identity.  We do this out of our ultimate commitment to God, our love for him, and out of love for the people around us.  We counsel accordingly.  We pray publicly and privately accordingly.  According to the working definition the Issues Paper provides, we are involved in SOGI conversion practices.  We make no apologies for that.  Moreover, as stated above, this is non-negotiable for our church since we believe what the Bible says.  For us to do otherwise would be unloving and disingenuous. 

4.3   Question 4

Do you think that Tasmanian law should be changed to address SOGI conversion practices?  If so, should this be through comprehensive reform, amendment or both (a hybrid)?

No, not if it will prevent people who want to seek Christian, Bible-based help with their sexual orientation and gender identity from getting the help they desire.  Human dignity is most honoured when individuals are allowed choice as to the assistance they want.    

Also, Tasmanian law should not be changed if it will conflict with the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of people like me and the members of my church.

4.4   Question 9

Are there any other matters that you consider relevant to this Inquiry and would like to raise?

The federal government has indicated its intention to introduce a Religious Discrimination Bill.  Surely it would be reasonable for Tasmania to wait and see what this bill entails and how it may impact SOGI conversion practice legislation. 

Also, I believe it would be reasonable for the TLRI to engage in more comprehensive community consultation before moving forward.  TLRI especially needs to understand the concerns of Tasmanian Christians around religious freedom.  I am confident many pastors and churches would be willing to discuss this with the TLRI.  Such a reasonable step could go a long way towards preventing unnecessary legal conflicts in the future.

There may also be far-reaching unintended consequences for such legislation, especially as regards parents and Christian schools: 

Appendix 1 was submitted as an expert witness report in a case involving a Christian couple who wished to be foster parents.  Their religious beliefs as they relate to SOGI resulted in Wanslea Family Services determining they were not fit even to be respite foster carers for children ages 0-5.  The WA State Government intervened in the hearing and supported Wanslea’s position.  The couple involved have their own natural children.  Would not consistency demand that Wanslea and the WA State Government hold that this couple are not fit to have any children in their care?  I would urge the TLRI to give careful consideration to the consequences of any proposed SOGI conversion legislation – will this require the government to remove children from the homes of Christian parents who hold to what the Bible teaches about SOGI?  Will this result in a new “stolen generation”?

While it is not operated or governed by our church, members of our church community operate a Christian school in Launceston.  This Christian school is also unreservedly committed to what the Bible teaches about SOGI.  The children who attend this school are taught accordingly, because their parents want their children to be taught in a way which corresponds with their Christian faith.  In fact, the parents have all made public vows to this effect – this is taken very seriously in our community.  There are several similar Christian schools throughout Tasmania.  The TLRI ought to give careful consideration to the consequences of any proposed SOGI conversion legislation as they relate to Christian education.  Will it continue to be lawful for Christian parents to have their children educated in a context where the teachings of the Bible about everything are communicated and honoured?  Or is this legislation going to have the consequence, intended or otherwise, of destroying Christian education which follows the teachings of the Bible?

Finally, I would urge the TLRI to give due consideration to the recent Bell v. Tavistock case, decided by the High Court in the United Kingdom.  This case illustrates the harm that may occur when children and young people are pushed towards gender transitioning.  Furthermore, it opens up the question of whether a government adopting SOGI conversion legislation might be held liable under similar circumstances.            

5.0 Conclusion

Thank you for this opportunity to contribute to discussions around this potential legislation. 

Let me conclude by reassuring you that my concern and that of my church community is not to oppress or injure anyone.  We are not motivated by hatred or animus – quite the opposite.  Rather, we sincerely believe that following what the Bible teaches leads to human flourishing.  This is a genuinely held religious belief.  There are many examples of individuals who identified as gay or lesbian, but, when they became Christians, they found a different identity which gave them joy and peace.  They identified with Jesus Christ.  They became disciples of Jesus, committed to following him as Lord in every area of their lives.  You can research some of their stories for yourself:  Sam Allberry, Jackie Hill Perry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Becket Cook.  They did not become Christians because of some extreme form of SOGI conversion practice (like electroshock therapy).  It happened just because someone talked about the Bible with them and prayed with them – and the Holy Spirit worked through that to change their lives.  That is simply what we aim to do in our church.  In other words, we strive to carry on in the historic Christian tradition as Reformed Christians have done for centuries.

If you so desire, I would welcome the opportunity to add to this submission in person or in writing.    

Submitted respectfully this 17th day of December, 2020

Rev. Dr. Wes Bredenhof

Free Reformed Church of Launceston


[1] https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/introduction-sexuality-and-gender


The Liberation of 1944

This year we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of 1944.  If you have no idea what that is, you’re in good company.  I remember hearing about it for the first time in my Christian school and my thoughts went right away to the Canadian soldiers liberating the Netherlands during the Second World War.  It’s at the same time, but this is a totally different event, something from church history.

The story begins in the early 1800s.  The Reformed Church in the Netherlands was in a bad way.  Scripture-denying theological liberalism was in the ascendancy.  God brought about a Reformation known as the Secession of 1834.  Later, in 1886, under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper and others, another Reformation happened.  This was called the Doleantie, literally, “the Grieving.”  In 1892, the Secession and Doleantie churches were united together in one federation.  This happened through the herculean efforts of influential figures like Herman Bavinck (from the Secession churches) and Abraham Kuyper (from the Doleantie churches).

United, but…   

By 1921 both Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper were gone.  The Union of 1892 was something that lay almost 30 years in the past.  In those thirty years, there had been tensions.  It took time for Secession and Doleantie churches to learn to live with one another.  That took place on a local level.  Many Dutch towns and villages had both a Secession church and a Doleantie church.  Now they were both in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  The old Secession church was known as the ‘A’ church, and the Doleantie church would be known as the ‘B’ church.  In some places eventually they merged into one congregation, but in other places they continued their separate existence.

Yet deeper problems existed.  The question of Abraham Kuyper’s theology continued.  He had some peculiar beliefs, especially about baptism.  He believed in presumptive regeneration.  Kuyper argued that we baptize on the presumption that the child being baptized is born again or regenerate.  If it turns out later that the child is not regenerate, then it wasn’t a real baptism.  There were other doctrinal concerns as well, but it’s especially the doctrine of baptism and the covenant that becomes a matter of controversy later on.

In 1905, a Synod was held in Utrecht.  This synod was asked to deal with the theology of Kuyper.  It did this by means of what has come to be known as the Conclusions of Utrecht.  It’s also sometimes called “the Pacification Formula” because it was meant to pacify the churches.  It was meant to lay all the concerns to rest about what could and could not be taught in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  On the point of baptism, they came up with a compromise statement.  It mildly rejected some of Kuyper’s formulations, while allowing for others.  So Utrecht said that children “must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or doctrine.”[1]  However, Utrecht also said that it is “less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and promise of God.”[2]

Three Streams in the RCN

So Kuyper and his followers were gently chastened by this synod.  Nevertheless, this chastening had little lasting effect.  Kuyper’s followers became increasingly insistent about his formulations as time went on.  They formed one stream in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands as we get into the 1920s and 1930s.

There was another stream, however.  This stream originated with an organization known as the Dutch Christian Student Union.  This was a broad organization that involved people from all kinds of different backgrounds.  It started off with the Apostles’ Creed as its doctrinal basis, but this was soon abandoned.  A statement of purpose was developed which mentioned the Trinity and this also was deemed too restrictive.  Soon this organization settled on this purpose:  “to introduce and build up the Christian life and worldview, which is grounded in the Bible and which, linking up with the historical development of Christianity, takes account of the needs and demands of the present time.”[3]  Seminary students from both the Free University and the seminary in Kampen were involved with this organization; some were even leaders.  Even ministers and seminary professors were involved.  This was an organization that included the same kind of liberal thinking that had earlier led to the Secession and the Doleantie.  It seemed that some people had forgotten their church history or just didn’t care.  In 1920 in Leeuwarden, at the synod of the Reformed Churches, a warning was issued against membership in the Dutch Christian Student Union.  However, it was just a warning.  It didn’t really have any teeth.  It didn’t stop further developments.

One of the developments out of this stream was the Geelkerken case.  In a catechism sermon Rev. J. G. Geelkerken stated that it’s possible that there was no literal snake speaking in the Garden of Eden.  The case ended up at the Synod of Assen in 1926.  The Synod decided against Geelkerken; his views could not be tolerated in the Reformed Churches.  However, they went further:  they suspended and deposed him.  His views were wrong and unbiblical.  But this synod did something that contravened the agreed-upon church order.  Only a local church can suspend and depose ministers and other office bearers.  Still, Synod Assen went ahead and usurped the rights of the local church.  This set a bad precedent for years to come.

As we come into the 1930s, a third stream was developing in the Reformed churches.  These were mostly younger ministers who rejected the Dutch Christian Student Union, but also found that some of Kuyper’s views didn’t stand up to biblical and confessional scrutiny.  Among these ministers was Klaas Schilder.  Schilder began critiquing some of Kuyper’s views and this caused controversy.  Kuyper’s devotees accused this Reformational stream of deviating from the Reformed faith.

The Unravelling

That brings us to a series of key Synods at which weighty decisions were made.

The first one is Synod Amsterdam 1936.  This synod received a communication from a classis about the doctrinal disputes regarding Kuyper’s views.  It wasn’t clear what the classis was asking or proposing.  The synod decided to appoint a study committee made up of people from both sides.  However, after the synod was over and the committee got to work, it quickly became evident that there were deep problems.  One of the people in the committee (Prof. Valentine Hepp) started throwing around accusations with no proof.  This behaviour drove out three of the eight other committee members, the three who were on the side of those concerned about Kuyper’s theology.  The result, of course, would be an imbalanced report to the next synod.  However, those concerned members also wrote their own report.

The next synod was Sneek 1939.  It is usually referred to as Sneek/Utrecht and this synod actually ended up lasting until 1942.  This was the synod that would deal with the doctrinal differences.  The political situation comes into play here.  It was tense.  When the synod opened, it was the eve of the Second World War.  In 1940, the synod was still on and the Germans invaded the Netherlands.  It was a time of national crisis.  Proposals were made to the synod to postpone dealing with the doctrinal disputes until there was more stability in national life in the Netherlands.  Despite such pleas, the synod plowed forward.  The majority report from the study committee was received – it made accusations that some ministers and professors, including Klaas Schilder, were deviating from Scripture and the Confessions.  The synod continued through 1940 and 1941, periodically meeting.  At the end of 1941, a decision was made to move the synod to Utrecht and reconvene there in May of 1942.  The following month a decision was made regarding the doctrinal differences.  The Kuyperian stream had scored a victory.  The views of Schilder and others were declared out of bounds.

The next synod was the following year.  Notice how synods here follow one upon the other.  The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands had become top heavy with synodical hierarchy.  Synod Utrecht 1943 received proposals and submissions requesting a reconsideration of the decision of the previous year.  However, these were all rejected.  This synod also maintained the position of the previous one:  Schilder and others would have to fall in line or face the consequences.  Synod Utrecht 1943 continued into 1944.  When it became evident that Schilder would not surrender and fall in line, the Synod first suspended him and then later deposed him.  They did the same with many other office bearers.  According to the Reformed Church Order, this was an illegal action.  Only local consistories could suspend and depose office bearers.  A synod again usurped this authority.  It was another classic example of ecclesiastical hierarchy.

On August 11, 1944 a meeting was held at the Lutheran Church in The Hague.  It was supposed to be a meeting for all those concerned about the developments with regard to Schilder and others.  Hundreds of people showed up, despite the ongoing war (the Allies had only liberated the southern part of the Netherlands) and the challenges with regard to transportation.  At the meeting, after some speeches, Schilder read an “Act of Liberation or Return.”  This document was modelled partly on the Act of Secession from 1834.  With this Act in hand, people returned to their local churches and the Liberation (Vrijmaking) was underway.  Many people freed themselves from the synodical hierarchy.  Those who were liberated claimed to be the true continuation of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  They called themselves Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) or Reformed Churches maintaining article 31.  Article 31 refers to an article of our Church Order which states that decisions made by synods and classes shall be considered settled and binding unless they are proven to be in conflict with Scripture or the Church Order.  The Liberated believed that the doctrinal decisions of 1942 were in conflict with Scripture and the suspensions and depositions in 1944 were in conflict with the Church Order.

Reflections

The Liberation is a fairly recent part of our church history.  Shortly after the Liberation, post-War emigration brought many Liberated church members to both Canada and Australia.  They were the ones who started the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  It’s a significant part of our heritage.

It’s sometimes said that the “past is the parent of the present.”  For example, if you want to know why our churches are so particular about our Church Order and its principles, you have to understand the Liberation of 1944.  If you want to know why the first Dutch immigrants to Canada and Australia didn’t join with other Reformed believers, it’s related to the Liberation.  If you want to know why there’s often antipathy towards Abraham Kuyper in the CanRC and FRCA, again it’s 1944.  Whether we’re aware of it or not, this event has profoundly shaped the character and culture of our churches.

My Opa Vanderland was a local leader in the Liberation in his church in Marum.  For him, as for many others, this event was deeply personal and any discussion of it would be emotionally charged.  He was scarred by the Liberation, as well as by the Nazi occupation happening at exactly the same time.  Then he immigrated to Canada.  That too was a life-changing experience with hardships we can hardly comprehend.  It’s easy to take a triumphalistic view of the Liberation.  It’s easy to view it simplistically as an act of God to liberate his people from ecclesiastical wickedness.  Yet, as time goes on, we need to also see the extensive personal pain and trouble involved.  We can start to see how an intense ecclesiastical conflict like this, however necessary, can shape individuals and churches, and not always in good ways.  We always have to remember our constant need for God’s grace, for the gospel, for our Saviour Jesus.  After all, a “Liberated” church is still far from a perfect church, both in the past and the present.

[1] Van Oene, Patrimony Profile, 230.

[2] Van Oene, Patrimony Profile, 230.

[3] Van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle, 33.


Don’t Antagonize, Instead Pursue Peace

Back in 1982, the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) were one of the founding members of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC).  This organization has proved to be an instrument for fellowship amongst like-minded Reformed and Presbyterian churches for nearly 40 years.  However, in the FRCA it proved to be a massive bone of contention – the reasons for this really don’t matter in what I’m about to write.  The key fact is that membership in the ICRC threatened to pull the FRCA apart in the 1990s.  So, in 1996, an FRCA Synod decided to terminate membership in the ICRC.  This was done for the sake of harmony and unity in the federation.  The cost/benefit analysis indicated it wasn’t worth it to break apart the federation for the sake of continuing in the ICRC.

Although I lament the attitudes and perspectives which necessitated it, I can see the wisdom in the 1996 decision.  No one wants to be responsible for unnecessarily causing disharmony in the bond of churches.  Because we love them, we aim to be patient with our brothers and sisters who differ with us.  To preserve the peace, we may even have to make accommodations for them.  This is part of what it means to live in a federation of churches.

The Bible and Fraternal Peace

Indeed, the Bible teaches us to “strive for peace with everyone…” (Heb. 12:14).  In Romans 14:19, the Holy Spirit says, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”  Likewise, in 2 Cor. 13:11, he says, “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace…”  The apostles learned this as disciples of our Lord Jesus.  In Mark 9:50 he taught, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  This teaching is impressed not only upon all disciples of Christ, but also specifically upon church leaders.  Titus was exhorted, “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9).  The pursuit of peace in the church is certainly a frequent topic in the New Testament.  It makes sense, since there are so many ways through which Satan and our own sinful hearts can break apart fraternal bonds.  There are many ways we can antagonize one another and drive a wedge in our fellowship.  When that happens, our gospel witness is impacted too.  We lose credibility as gospel witnesses when we can’t live at peace with one another.

That can happen within local congregations, but I want to focus on the way in which that can happen within church federations too.  Within a church federation, the decisions of a local congregation can antagonize the other churches and disrupt the peace.  Let me give a couple of generic examples.

Two Ways to Antagonize

I recently posted this article about the History and Character of Our Reformed Church Order.  I pointed out that the Church Order is our agreement for life together as churches in a federation.  We expect that the other churches in the federation will abide by what has been agreed upon.  A local church can make a decision or implement a practice which might be perceived as violating that agreement — we’ll leave aside the question of whether or not it is actually violating the agreement.  Such a situation can easily antagonize the other churches, particularly if no public clarification or explanation is provided.

There is another way that can antagonize and polarize.  In the aforementioned article, I also pointed out that there are unspoken assumptions and expectations in our Reformed church polity.  There are widespread consensual interpretations and applications of our Church Order.  These cannot be casually disregarded by a local church without causing dismay and concern to others.  You may technically still be following the letter of what’s agreed upon in the Church Order, but congratulations, you succeeded in jeopardizing the peace in your church federation.  What have you gained?

So, what is the way forward?  Just follow what Scripture says about the pursuit of peace.  If a church believes changes need to be made in local practice, we have to think about the consequences for our closest brethren elsewhere, for our federation.  We cannot afford to be independentistic.  Changes that fall under the two headings above need to be approached with extreme caution.  At the bare minimum, advice should be sought at a classis.  However, it could happen that a classical region contains a good number of like-minded people.  Then it would also be wise to seek advice from a wider pool of churches at another broader assembly.

There is one more angle to this.  I have often thought about the process of change, particularly changing a church culture, both locally and federatively.  There are different ways it can be approached.  It’s a question of leadership and persuasion.

Bad and Good Leadership

Bad leadership rams changes through and runs over all opposition in the process.  A good example of this is Mark Driscoll’s book, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons From an Emerging Missional Church.  He tells readers to ask whether they “have the guts to shoot their dogs.”  Dogs include “loser leaders” and “pathetic people.”  He writes, “…it is vital to name with brutal candor the people, programs, structures, and ministry philosophies that are dogs needing to be shot.  Be sure to make it count and shoot them only once so that they don’t come back and bite you” (34-35).  Elsewhere in the book he writes about how the church is a body and one of the most important parts is the colon:  “Like the human body, any church body without a colon is destined for sickness that leads to death” (131).  This is in the context of a discussion of getting rid of problem people in the missional church – “shooting the dogs” is the same thing as getting rid of waste from the body.  This is wicked, bad leadership – and one wonders whether it contributed to Mark Driscoll’s undoing at Mars Hill in Seattle.

Good leadership seeks to lead through timely, patient persuasion.  It’s not only leadership in the local church, but also leadership in the federation.  If we want to see cultural changes on a large scale, then we need to persuade our brothers and sisters of the need for such changes.  Try and dialogue.  Put the books out there, write the blog posts, send the articles into the church magazine, use social media – there’s no shortage of options.

You may have read this article, read between the lines, and imagined I had a particular situation or two in mind.  I did.  However, I especially wrote this for myself and my own local church.  Without going into details, we’re contemplating some changes falling under the second category of ways that might antagonize.  I’m sensitive to the possibility we could do that and I just don’t want to go there.  Instead, I want to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).  Let’s do that together, shall we?

 


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.