In this post, I’d like to explore some of the differences between the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia. Before I begin, there are two qualifications which need to be made. First, there are many similarities between the two federations. For example, we share a common Reformed confession, as well as a common Reformed heritage in the Netherlands. The commonalities far outweigh any differences. Second, I’m not commenting at all on the culture of these federations, nor really on church life on the ground. This is not about outlooks or approaches to matters theological. After all, I’ve only been here a grand total of two weeks — I’m not qualified to say anything meaningful about most aspects of the FRCA. Even then, my experience so far has been limited to one church in Tasmania. I’ve never even been to Western Australia, where one finds most of the Free Reformed congregations. So, in what follows, I’ll just restrict myself to the differences that exist in terms of the Church Order. This is an area where it’s quite feasible to objectively lay out some of what makes the FRCA different from (to) the CanRC. (You can find the FRCA Church Order here and the Canadian Reformed Church Order here).
Our Church Orders are also similar in many respects — both are based on the time-tested Church Order of Dort. The basic principles of Reformed church government are the same in both federations. However, there are some ways in which these principles get worked out in unique ways.
Both the CanRC and FRCA COs have articles regarding the elders. In both, churches in the federation agree to have the elders faithfully visit the members in their homes. Yet only the FRCA CO, in article 20, explicitly says that home visits are to be done at a minimum of once per year. This is the practice in the CanRC, but it’s not directly said in article 22 of the Canadian CO.
One of the more noticeable differences has to do with the broader assemblies. The Canadian Reformed Churches have had Regional Synods for several decades already. Because of their smaller size, the FRCA have not had these assemblies. In fact, article 28 of the Australian CO says that there are to be three kinds of assemblies: consistory, classis, and synod. Presently, there are three classical regions in the Australian churches. If that number were to ever expand to four, I imagine there might be a move towards having regional synods here too.
Both church federations maintain the Reformed practice of church visitations. However, there is a difference between the Canadian article 46 and the Australian article 44. In the Canadian churches, only ministers can be appointed as church visitors. In Australia, though, the Church Order does allow for a classis to appoint an elder alongside a minister, if necessary. I’m not sure how often this happens in practice. Related to this, but not mentioned in the Church Order, is the fact that church visitation reports are done in closed session. At least that’s the way it’s done in Classis North of the FRCA. By contrast, most Canadian classes (except for Alberta and Manitoba, apparently) tabled these reports in open session, unless there might be a compelling reason to do otherwise.
When members depart a local church for a sister-church, both federations have agreed to provide attestations of doctrine and conduct. The church at the other end then automatically receives these new members on the basis of these attestations. It’s a good, wise, and time-honoured system. However, the FRCA CO adds something that we don’t find in the Canadian CO. According to article 59, “The consistory of the congregation concerned shall be notified in due time.” For a while, I have been puzzling over what this means. However, I recently received a District Bulletin of the churches in the Perth metro area and it has become clear to me from some of the consistory press releases. Apparently, an attestation is given to the communicant members involved and they bring it to their new church. However, the old church also sends a letter to the new church informing that the members are coming their way. I suppose this adds another layer of due diligence. I have heard of this practice in Canada, but it is not something agreed upon in the CanRC CO.
There are a few other differences that could be noted, but let me end with what the churches have said in their COs about marriage. In the Canadian article 63, marriages may be solemnized in either a private ceremony or a public worship service. I’m unaware of the latter being done in any recent times. However, it’s still feasible in the CanRC. Not so in the FRCA — a private ceremony is the only option in the Aussie article 67. More significantly, the CanRCs made a change to article 63 of their CO a few years back. This change was made to protect the churches from legal action in regard to officiating, approving, otherwise being forced to participate in same-sex “marriages.” The Canadian Church Order explicitly states that “The Word of God teaches that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.” This is actually a confessional statement and one could argue about the suitability of such a statement in the CO, but the fact remains that it is easier to change the CO on such matters than it is the Heidelberg Catechism. With the growing strength of the pro-homosexual lobby in Australia, the time may come when the FRCA will be wise to follow suit.
One shouldn’t expect these two church federations on opposite sides of the world to be clones of one another. Though both descended from post-war Dutch immigration and both emerging from the same Reformed church history, they came to unique situations which led to their own development. Yet we obviously and thankfully share the same Reformed faith. Over the years, the relationship between Australia and Canada has been very strong. I, for one, pray that it will continue to be.