Tag Archives: Orthodox Presbyterian 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


Admitting Guests to the Lord’s Supper

In the broader Reformed/Presbyterian context, it is common to fence the Lord’s Supper with a verbal warning only.  Typically that means that the minister makes an announcement inviting any guests to participate who are communicant members in good standing in an evangelical church, or something to that effect.  For some years, this was one of the sticking points that obstructed the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Eventually, an agreement was reached which paved the way for full ecumenical relations between the CanRC and the OPC.  You can find that agreement here.

Last week, amongst the Canadian Reformed Churches, a Classis Central Ontario was held.  Admission to the Lord’s Supper was on the agenda.  We find this reported in the press release (find the full document here):

The Classis ad hoc committee submitted a report on the Lord’s Supper admission as mandated by CCO June 10, 2016. The report, which included an appendix from Burlington Fellowship, was deemed admissible. A discussion ensued. Classis having reviewed the committee report, decided that Burlington-Fellowships practice of inviting guests with only a strong verbal warning from the pulpit is not in line with the Church Order.

I mention this without any further comment at this time, except to say that I agree with the classis decision.

 


Presbyterianism and Admission to the Lord’s Supper

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I’m still working on getting acquainted with my new context here in Australia.  There’s a lot to learn!  I’m keen to pick up whatever I can about the church history in this vast land.  That led me to the autobiography of J. Graham Miller, A Day’s March Nearer Home.  Now to be clear, Miller was actually a Kiwi, but he did spent a lot of his ministry years in Australia, and eventually retired here as well.  Miller was a Presbyterian, eventually affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Australia.  The editor of this autobiography was Iain Murray, who has also served in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

In chapter 11, Miller reminisces about growing up in a Presbyterian manse in New Zealand.  His father, a Presbyterian minister, was quite strict in his beliefs about who should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.  This was in the 1920s.  Graham Miller shared his father’s view.  At this point, Iain Murray (the editor) adds an explanatory footnote:

It needs to be understood that in Presbyterian churches the Lord’s Supper was only open to communicant members.  Only as regard for church discipline declined or disappeared was admission to the Lord’s Table left to the discretion of the individual worshipper.  Historically the Presbyterian churches never practised ‘open’ communion. (page 216)

This might be a surprising statement to some.  We’re told here that an open Lord’s Supper table is certainly not intrinsic to confessional Presbyterianism — as if the Westminster Standards demand or logically entail this practice.  Historically speaking, this practice was unknown, according to Murray.

I have found at least two examples that appear to confirm Murray’s claim.  The first is a booklet by Rev. W.J. McKnight, pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA.  The (undated) booklet is entitled, Concerning Close Communion: An Investigation.  McKnight argues that admission to the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to communicant members in good standing of the church where the sacrament is being celebrated.  I’m told that this was the practice of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) until 1977.  After 1977, the RPCNA switched to “session-controlled communion.”  Sessions (equivalent to a Reformed consistory) admit communicants to the Lord’s Supper table.

I observed a second example in Hamilton, Ontario.  The city has an annual “Open Doors” event where significant historic buildings open up to the public.  One year, our family was able to tour around inside the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church.  This church was once part of the Free Church of Scotland (now a sister-church of the CanRC), but was eventually taken up into the merger process leading to the Presbyterian Church of Canada.  Inside this church, there is a fascinating little museum of communion tokens.  In historic Scottish Presbyterianism, the Lord’s Supper was typically celebrated once per year.  Prior to this occasion, the elders visited all the communicant members to ascertain their spiritual condition.  If they were faithfully walking with the Lord, they would receive a token, which would grant them admission to the sacrament.  No token, no admission.

Admission to the Lord’s Supper was a significant point of discussion between the CanRC and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the lead-up to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship in 2001.  However, eventually agreement was reached on this point.  Both the CanRC and OPC agreed that the Lord’s Supper has to be supervised by the elders.  That also applies to admission.  You can find the text of the agreement here.  I might also add that both the OPC and CanRC also together “rejected the legitimacy of the pluriformity of the church.” (article 45 of the Acts of Synod 2001 —reference is made to this document).  That had also been a matter of contention.

One of the thorny issues in history is causation.  When it comes to church history, what caused a certain practice to develop?  We have to be cautious of simplistic explanations.  To blame an open (or more open) Lord’s Supper somehow on the Westminster Standards isn’t going to work.  Historically, Presbyterian churches holding closely to the Westminster Standards have maintained a restricted or even closed view of admission.  It could be argued, and has been argued, that the Westminster Standards actually require that view.  No, whenever we encounter an open Lord’s Supper (or one with just a “verbal warning”), we are looking at something that has a different explanation.  Iain Murray chalked it up to declining regard for church discipline.  Perhaps in some places at some times.  But maybe there are other explanations for other places and times.  Whatever the explanations may be, where it’s needed, the resources for returning to a proper supervision of the Lord’s Supper are present in Presbyterianism itself.


Synod Dunnville 2016 (3)

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I’ll make two remarks about the latest set of Provisional Acts (which you can find here).

The other day I used the word “boilerplate” in reference to the Acts of the first day.  Perhaps I sent some of you scrambling for a dictionary.  “Boilerplate” is a term often used in the legal world to refer to standard wording.  If the same wording gets used repeatedly in all kinds of documents (like contracts), you might hear it referred to as “boilerplate.”  It’s not a derogatory word, just descriptive.  The word came to mind again as I reviewed the latest Acts, especially articles dealing with the Reformed Church of Quebec (art. 59), Reformed Church in the United States (art. 60), and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (art. 61).  In each case, there have been concerns expressed in the past about what we used to call “divergences” — a fancy word for different views and practices.  Past committees have been mandated to discuss these.  Some churches feel that these discussions should go on.  Synod 2016 disagrees.  In each of the aforementioned articles, you read this boilerplate in the adopted decisions:

Rule 1 of Ecclesiastical Fellowship states that “the churches shall assist each other in the maintenance, defence and promotion of the Reformed faith in doctrine, church polity, discipline and liturgy, and be watchful for deviations.” Within this context, there is always room for discussion about differences in matters of doctrine and practice.

When we enter EF, we accept each other as faithful churches without qualification.  Differences that were noted and discussed prior to EF but which did not hinder entering EF, do not require resolution. It is incorrect to speak of “outstanding differences.” The word “outstanding” implies a need for resolution. Bringing up these issues repeatedly, without proper proof of necessity, is potentially damaging to the sister-church relationship.  Discussion of these issues may take place naturally in the course of EF, but a specific mandate, identifying particular issues, need not be given.

As I see it, there is a subtext behind past mandates to continue discussing these differences.  The subtext was:  we have to keep discussing these things until they see things our way.  The above-quoted boilerplate is an explicit rejection of that subtext.

Another interesting item in these Acts is the mention of creation as a concern of the ERQ and RCUS.  The CCCNA had discussions with their ERQ counterparts about “the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 in the CanRC.”  They also affirmed to the ERQ that the CanRC “has not adopted any statements regarding the doctrine of creation.”  In discussions with RCUS, it “was acknowledged that some in the CanRC are looking for room within the confessions for views other than a literal six-day sequence of creation.”  Sister churches are taking note of what’s happening with the doctrine of creation in the CanRC, at least in certain corners.


Reaching the Unchurched

New Horizons August-September 2014

The latest issue of the OPC’s New Horizons has an article entitled “Every Church a Mission Field.”  You can find it included in the August-September issue online here.  The article describes a conference held before the last OPC General Assembly back in June.  The entire article is worth reading, but there was one part that is especially worth sharing:

Dale Van Dyke, the pastor of Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan, presented an engaging summary of the book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them.  The author, Thom Rainer, interviewed 353 people who had recently become active in a church after years or even a lifetime outside the church.  Rainer also visited churches that he described as effectively evangelistic.  Here are some of the conclusions from his study:

  • Hiding the denominational name or identity, watering down difficult teachings, and lowering membership requirements do not appeal to new converts.
  • The biggest factors that attract new converts are the pastor and his preaching (90%) and sound, clear doctrine (88%).
  • Other lesser, though important, factors include friendliness, having been witnessed to, and personal relationships.
  • Worship style ranked dead last as a factor (11%).
  • The unchurched appreaciate high expectations for membership.  (Even a seemingly small thing like arriving early for worship communicates value.)
  • Church members should be able to list the core purposes of the church:  worship, teaching, prayer, evangelism, and service (consider Acts 2:42-47).
  • Pastors of effective evangelistic churches have a functioning theology of ‘lostness’ and communicate that through passionate preaching, pleading with the lost, and commitment to personal evangelism.

Pastor Van Dyke finished his presentation with a challenge that could be summarized like this:  Major on the majors (concerning what the Bible teaches).  Be biblical, have conviction, and be joyful.  Give priority and passion to outreach.  Develop effective small-group ministry and Sunday school that encourages teaching, growth, and fellowship.  Pursue unchurched family members and colleagues.  Uphold high expectations for members.  Never forget the power of God!

Rainer’s book certainly sounds worthwhile.  His conclusions go against the grain of what many people apparently think should be the shape of an outward-looking church.  To me this confirms that Reformed churches do not have to hide their identity or adapt their worship in order to be missional.