Tag Archives: International Conference of Reformed Churches

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!           


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?

 


Update on Synod Bunbury — Week 2

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Rev. H. Alkema and Rev. A. Souman, the vice-chairman and chairman of Synod 2018.

Synod 2018 of the FRCA is now done and dusted.  We finished up this memorable assembly on Tuesday evening.  Later I may share some personal reflections on my first synod experience.  For now, let me summarize some the most important decisions made on Monday and Tuesday.  For more details, you can refer to the Acts here.  And the official press release can be found here.

  • Relations with De Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (DGK) and Gereformeerde Kerken Nederland (GKN), two church federations made up of varying degrees of ex-RCN members, were discussed.  Synod decided to monitor and maintain contact with both.  It was also decided to monitor the DGK’s relationship with the Liberated Reformed Church of Abbotsford, a group that had broken away from the CanRC.
  • Three personal appeals were submitted concerning the Reformed Churches of New Zealand — all three were declared inadmissible.
  • The proposals regarding an FRCA seminary were discussed at length.  Synod decided not to establish such a seminary at this time, but to pursue it in the medium-long term (6-12 years out).  The dream is still alive.
  • Two churches submitted proposals regarding sending observers to the next ICRC regional and general meetings — both proposals were declared inadmissible.
  • The Orthodox Presbyterian Church sent a representative to synod in the person of Rev. Jack Sawyer.  A church had submitted a proposal to establish official contact with the OPC and this met with approval.
  • To implement the earlier decision regarding the Australian Book of Praise, synod decided to establish a Standing Committee for the Australian Book of Praise (with the rather elegant acronym SCABP).
  • For some years, the FRCA has been supporting theological education in Indonesia via synodically appointed deputies.  This will continue for the next three years, but these deputies have been mandated to transition this matter over to a local church.
  • Several changes to our psalms, confessions and Church Order were proposed and discussed.  Of these changes, the only one adopted was a change to article 36 of the Church Order.  It now says that the minister shall chair consistory meetings “as a rule.”  This means that, by way of exception, elders may also chair these meetings.
  • Synod decided that all acts of all FRCA synods will be published online in searchable .pdf format.
  • Finally, synod decided to send a letter to Synod 2020 of the RCN communicating our decision to terminate the relationship with them.  This letter will be delivered by two deputies in person to underline the seriousness of the matter.

RCN @ ICRC: In or Out?

At their synod last month, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decided to admit women to all the offices of the church, effective immediately.  The RCN (also known by their Dutch name Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland –Vrijgemaakt or GKV) were instrumental in the founding of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) in the early 1980s.  Up till now, the ICRC has never had a situation where a member church has departed from biblical orthodoxy in such an explicit fashion.  However, there are churches within the ICRC who have had similar experiences with another church in a similar ecumenical organization.

In the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) went in the direction of women in office.  The CRC had been a founding church of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).  After the CRC adopted women in office, NAPARC decided in 1997 to suspend their membership.  Leading this initiative to suspend the CRC from NAPARC were especially the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church in the United States.

The recent developments in the Netherlands with the RCN have not escaped the attention of the OPC or RCUS.  Along with other sister churches, they have been actively warning the Dutch not to go in this direction.  They have insisted that there will be consequences if they do.

The ICRC is having its quadrennial meeting at this moment in Jordan, Ontario.  The RCN is discovering that the OPC is keeping its word.

The RCN has sent a delegation which includes the president of Synod Meppel, Dr. M.H. Oosterhuis.  On the first full day at the ICRC, Dr. Oosterhuis attempted to explain and defend the decision regarding women in office.  In the next day, the OPC is reportedly going to be making a proposal to the body that the RCN be suspended from the ICRC.  There is some question over whether this proposal will be permitted, since it is late.  It requires a 2/3 approval of the delegates to be considered.  If the proposal is allowed, then on Monday July 17 there will be a secret ballot where each delegation (church) is allowed one vote.  If the proposal passes, the RCN is suspended.  They will be allowed to attend, but not vote on any subsequent matters.  Additionally, they will be admonished to repent.  If there is no repentance, their membership in the ICRC would be terminated at the next meeting in 2021.

It’s difficult to predict how things will go in the next few days.  There are over 30 churches in the ICRC and it’s not clear how familiar each would all be with the developments — or, more importantly, how seriously they would view the decisions of the RCN.  But, as I’ve said before, unless there’s repentance, the writing is on the wall.  It’s just a matter of time.  The OPC and others have seen this movie before.  They know how it ends.


RCN Report: Open All Offices to Women

wrong-way

This past Tuesday, the deputies appointed to study women in office in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (RCN) released their final report to the 2017 Synod.  If you can read Dutch, the 75 page report is here.  The news is not encouraging.  The deputies are recommending that the 2017 Synod decide to open all the offices of the church to women.

Some 11 pages of the report is taken up with considering advice from sister-churches.  The report notes the objections/warnings of the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia, but does not mention the Reformed Church in the United States (see here), perhaps because the RCUS Synod letter did not arrive in time to be considered.   The report notes that two foreign sister churches currently admit women to church offices:  the Reformed Church in Japan (all offices) and the Reformed Churches of South Africa (GKSA — these churches only admit women to the office of deacon and on the understanding that this office is not one of authority).  This is in addition to a sister church federation in the Netherlands:  Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken.  That section concludes by noting that, from the survey of sister churches, there is “room for diversity in how women in office is handled, appropriate to the time and culture in a particular region.”  The deputies also recognize that moving in the direction of women in office is going to have consequences in some of their ecumenical relationships.  They do not mention that this direction will also likely impact the membership of the RCN in the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC).  Several member churches of the ICRC were involved with removing the Christian Reformed Church of North America from the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council over the issue of women in office.  I suspect that they will not look the other way when it comes to the RCN and membership in the ICRC.

While we pray otherwise, the recommendations of this report will quite likely be adopted.  As has been mentioned here previously, the horses are already well out of the gate in the RCN on this issue.  Local churches are already opening the offices to women, regardless of this report and whatever the synod decides.  A synod decision will just be essentially rubber-stamping what’s already going on and giving it official status.  Should a synod decide otherwise, would one really think that these local churches would revert back to the way it was before?  It seems a sad, foregone conclusion that even if permitting women in office is not the official position in the RCN, it will be tolerated.