Tag Archives: labour unions

A Herald of Freedom in Christ

Man of the First Hour: A Son’s Story: Jules Taco Van Popta, George van Popta.  Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2021.  Paperback, 226 pages. 

At a certain point in this biography, the author describes going to the Netherlands with his mother Helen.  His father, Rev. J.T. Van Popta, had died two years earlier.  While visiting his old church in Mussel, they heard congregation members still speak reverentially of “onze dominee” (our minister).  My grandparents on both sides had Rev. J.T. Van Popta as their pastor in Edmonton.  Long after he was gone, they continued to speak highly of him.  My Opa Bredenhof described him as a “good, peaceful man.”  When he became my paternal grandparents’ pastor again some years later when he accepted the call to Cloverdale, they were extremely thankful.  Rev. J.T. Van Popta became a legendary figure, even for us grandchildren who’d never met him.

So, when I heard about this biography written by his son George, I was all over it like white on bread.  The book certainly doesn’t disappoint.  It’s a well-told story of one of the pioneer Canadian Reformed pastors – in fact, the very first Canadian Reformed pastor.  We hear of his family background in the Netherlands, the trials of immigrating to Canada, and the enormous challenges in being a “man of the first hour.”  There’s joy and laughter, but the tears aren’t left out either.  In particular, the author relates his father’s struggle with depression and burnout, as well as the toll his sudden passing took on Helen and her children.

Let me share a few details I found particularly interesting.  Though he wasn’t yet a pastor, Jules Van Popta experienced the Liberation of 1944.  This was an ecclesiastical event which tore apart the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  It happened because of autocratic (and unlawful) synod decisions.  During and afterwards, Van Popta showed a keen understanding of the main issue resulting in the Liberation:

A theological opinion had developed that the children of believers are to be baptized on the basis of the presumption that they have been born again. The issue was not whether or not someone could hold that opinion; rather, it was that the opinion was made binding upon all. The ministers were required to teach this upon the threat of deposition from office. That, said my father and many others, was not allowed. The synod erred in binding a theological opinion on the pulpits of all the churches. (p.130) 

Ultimately this was about the freedom which Christ has won for us – a synod had illegitimately seized that freedom.

Living in the freedom won for us by Christ was a theme throughout the life of Jules Van Popta.  It comes out also in how he approached the issue of labour unions.  This became controversial in the early years of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  To find out Van Popta’s view, you’ll have to buy the book – I won’t spoil it.  Appendix 3 contains a lengthy article he wrote on the subject.  Looking back at Van Popta’s legacy, the author points out that his father’s “position on union membership left a stamp on the Canadian Reformed Churches” (p.131).

For those interested in apologetics, it’s noteworthy that Jules Van Popta corresponded with Cornelius Van Til, and even met with him on one occasion.  Van Popta loved to study philosophy – and so it’s no wonder he would take an interest in Van Til.  There seem to be echoes of Van Til in what Jules Van Popta writes in Appendix 7, “Either Faith or Science?”, especially when he says that in the Bible “Divine authority demands that every thought must surrender in obedience to Christ” (p.187). 

If you’re like me and appreciate church history biographies, Man of the First Hour is a must-read.  If you’re interested in the Dutch immigration experience in the post-Second World War period, you’ll enjoy it too.  But more than enjoyment, you’ll be edified by both the life and the writings (in the appendices) of Jules Taco Van Popta.  He lived for Christ and his witness calls us to do the same.    

Man of the First Hour can be ordered from the Publisher at this link.                 


Pastoral Q & A — Labour Unions

I’m starting a new feature here where I’m answering questions from members of my church about various issues.  Since many of these questions are of general interest, I figured I would share the answers here.

Today’s question is about a Christian perspective on labour unions.  How should we regard them?  Can a Christian be a member of a labour union?

I’ve tackled this question before from within the Canadian context (see here).  Having done some research, I’ve noticed that Australia has some significant differences.  My answer in this post is based on the Australian context.

Historically, many Reformed people have objected to union membership on several grounds.  One of the main grounds was the unconditional oath of allegiance that labour unions required.  It used to be that if you were a member of a union you were required to promise that you would put the union above everything else, including God and your biblical convictions.  Moreover, many workplaces were “closed shops,” which meant that if you worked there you were compelled to join the union and pay the associated dues.  This is no longer the case in Australia.  Union membership is voluntary, and no one can be compelled to anything.  For example, if you don’t join a particular union associated with a workplace, neither the union nor the employer can make your life difficult (at least not legally).  If the union starts an industrial action or strike, even if you are a union member, you cannot be forced to participate.  More details can be found here.  So the situation has changed on that front.

Nevertheless, the existence of labour unions is owing to an adversarial model of industrial relations.  It’s an unbiblical notion of necessary conflict between labour and management.  Depending on their leadership and policies, some labour unions might be more militant than others.  In other scenarios, workers in a given situation might be facing an exploitative employer and a labour union could justly and fairly promote their interests.  When faced with the question, a Christian needs to look at the history of a particular union’s dealings with management and any relevant legislation as well.  It’s also worth asking whether that union would stand behind you as a Christian if you got into trouble in the workplace because of your beliefs.  The answer to that question would give you a clear indication of whether you have a place in such an organization.

Finally, a Christian also has to research the particular causes that union supports.  Here in Australia, I can think of at least one union that is openly affiliated with the Labor Party and supports its policies (including on abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, etc.).  Since their historic foundational principles are based on socialist/Marxist ideology, unions do tend to lean to the left politically speaking.  Christians should therefore be aware of whether or not their union dues are going to be supporting causes that are ethically problematic.

So can a Christian be a member of a labour union?  It depends on the union.  In some instances, a Christian will conclude that it’s possible, in others that it’s impossible.  You need to do your research and find out who you’re dealing with.  At the end of the day we can be thankful that we live in a country where we’re never compelled to make a choice contrary to our conscience.


What About Labour Unions?

In our Canadian Reformed heritage there is a long history of opposition to labour unions.  To tell the truth, this opposition has not always been consistent across the board.  In some churches, church discipline was implemented with members who belonged to labour unions.  In other churches, consistory members have not only belonged to labour unions, but have even held leadership positions in them.  In what follows, I would like to briefly outline some important elements to consider in our thinking about this subject.  There is a lot more that could be said, but in the interests of brevity I will focus on these two or three elements.

Labour unions exist to represent the interests of workers.  They will stand up for their brothers and sisters against management.  The typical labour union exists with the premise of an adversarial relationship between management and labour.  This model derives from communist ideology where such conflict is inevitable and even desirable.  As Christians, we must find such a model detestable, since God wills for us to be show love, honour, and faithfulness to those over us (including employers) and to be patient with their weaknesses and shortcomings (see 1 Peter 2:18).

Typically labour unions also require their members to swear or sign oaths of unconditional allegiance.  Members promise to put the interests of the union above and before everyone and everything else.  Thus, if the union votes to go on strike, the members are obligated to strike.  Christians cannot in good conscience swear such oaths.  They cannot vow to put the interests of the union above their commitment to God.  Nor can they promise to use techniques of intimidation and confrontation should the union so decide.  This conflicts with our commitment to live in peace, love, and harmony with our neighbours – including our employers (see Romans 12:18 and Hebrews 12:14).

Many Canadian Reformed Church members have worked in unionized environments, but have opted out of the labour union.  In some instances, this required some kind of adjudication at a provincial labour board.  Office bearers are always willing and ready to help church members prepare for such investigations, should the need arise.  Opting out of the union usually will require union fees be directed elsewhere to a mutually agreed upon charity.

Finally, the above applies generally to labour unions in Canada.  There may be exceptions and thus we cannot absolutely forbid membership in labour unions.  However, believers in unionized workplaces have a personal responsibility to familiarize themselves with the collective agreement of the union, as well as membership oaths and requirements.  You may also want to investigate the sorts of social and political causes that the union in question supports through the membership dues.  Considering those factors in most instances will lead a conscientious believer to conclude that union membership is incompatible with faith in Christ.

For further reading:  see chapter 8 of W. Pouwelse, A Spiritual House (Winnipeg: Premier, 1986).