Tag Archives: United Reformed Churches

Book Review: How to Plant a Reformed Church

How to Plant a Reformed Church, The Missions Committee of the United Reformed Churches of North America, 2015.  Paperback, 104 pages.

As the title suggests, this is a practical guide for Reformed church planting.  It comes from the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA).  Many of my readers are familiar with the URCNA.  For those who are not, this federation of churches emerged out of the 1990s-era Christian Reformed Church.  As the CRC drifted away from Scripture on issues like women in office, faithful Reformed believers headed for the exits.  As a new confessionally Reformed federation came into existence, there was also an eagerness amongst many of these believers to be outward looking.  Church planting and missions was in the DNA of the URCNA from the start.  Especially in the United States, some of their instituted churches date back to church plants begun in the 2000s.

Fast forward to the 2010s and discussions were taking place about how to collate lessons learned from these early endeavours.  Could the URCNA Missions Committee put together a resource that would help churches better do the work of church planting?  The Orthodox Presbyterian Church had developed their own guide:  Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (you can find it here).  When I was a missionary, I found that manual incredibly helpful, even though I’m not a Presbyterian.  Many lessons learned in the OPC are transferable to other contexts, even to the type of cross-cultural work I was doing.  Some URCNA church planters discovered the same, but also saw the need to develop a resource that would be more explicitly aligned with URCNA beliefs (the Three Forms of Unity) and church government.  That led to this little book.

There are many helpful insights in How to Plant a Reformed Church.  How do you decide when it’s time to plant a church?  Where should you plant a church?  How should it be overseen?  How do you promote the church plant in the community it’s placed?  When do you know that it’s time to institute the church?  What’s the role of the classis?  All these are questions addressed here.  There are also five appendices with teaching materials for church plants.  They cover topics like:  “What is Church Membership and Why Is It Necessary?” and “What is Reformed Worship?”  As a pastor in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, I think much of this could be transferable to our context here, and equally to the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I’m sure that others in different contexts could also make use of the wisdom in this book.

Besides the practical bent, I also appreciate the emphasis on developing a confessional ethos in church planting.  The title says How to Plant a Reformed Church, and ‘Reformed’ there means unabashedly confessional.  This approach has nothing to do with the bait-and-switch model — i.e. attracting people by pretending to be something other than Reformed.  Like the OPC manual, this book emphasizes beginning with the end in mind.  If we want a truly Reformed church, then the approach needs to be confessionally Reformed from the get go.  The book explains how.

If it’s not obvious, I have high praise for this resource.  I hope it not only gets read, but that it stimulates Reformed churches, URCNA and otherwise, to continue giving attention to the spread of the gospel.  After all, that’s a principal reason behind the existence of the church.  We’re here to proclaim Christ crucified and be God’s instruments to see more people worship him in churches everywhere.

A free electronic copy of How to Plant a Reformed Church is available here.


Concurrent CanRC/URC Classis

For some years now, the Canadian Reformed Churches and United Reformed Churches have had a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship.  The ultimate goal has always been a federative merger, but so far that goal has proven elusive.  Nevertheless, this relationship is unique and close.  A press release on the CanRC website gives hope that the relationship is growing closer.  On April 3-4, a CanRC Classis Manitoba was held concurrently with a URC Classis Central US.  It took place south of the border, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  They met both jointly and separately.  From the press release, it appears that everyone agreed it to be a worthwhile ecumenical venture.  It’s a first, but hopefully not the last.  Let’s pray that such endeavours will see the two federations grow in love for and trust in one another.


Women in Office = False Church?

It could happen later this year that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decide at their synod to officially allow women in office.  I pray that it doesn’t, but the possibility is definitely there.  That raises questions relating to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Specifically, if a church federation were to adopt women in office does that automatically mean that they have become a false church?  That question needs to be answered carefully.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the idea of women in office in Reformed churches.  Back in the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America first discussed it, and then gradually adopted it.  That adoption was one of the biggest catalysts leading to the mass exodus from the CRC between 1992 and 1994 — over 17,000 members left just in those years.  A good number of those ended up forming what would later become known as the United Reformed Churches.

I remember some of the early talks between the CanRC and URCs in the Bulkley Valley in north-central British Columbia.  This would have been in the early 2000s.  Questions were asked of our URC brothers such as:  do you now view the CRC as a false church?  No URC person would say that.  It was as if some of the CanRC people felt that the ex-CRC people could only have been justified in leaving if they viewed the CRC as a false church.  At least some in the URC would say that the CRC was no longer a true church, but they would not say that having women in office (and the other theological aberrations) resulted in the CRC being a false church.

I think I can see why they said that.  Certainly I don’t believe that a Reformed federation which adopts women in office can be said, by virtue of only that, to have become a false church.  Let me explain.

Let’s agree that article 29 of the Belgic Confession gives a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture about the marks of the true and false church.  Let’s use that as our starting point.  What are the marks of a false church according to the Confession?

  • It assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.
  • It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.
  • It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases.
  • It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.
  • It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

So, while the true church has three marks, the false church has five.  Just as all three marks need to be in order for a church to be true, so it follows that all five marks need to be seen for a church to be false.  In the original context of the 1561 Belgic Confession, there was only one church that fit the bill:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Does a church that adopts women in office become a false church?  Certainly those first two marks are being exhibited, and perhaps the fourth too.  However, not necessarily the third (notice the focus on adding and subtracting in the BC) or the fifth (the persecution envisioned leads to martyrdom).  A church adopting women in office would have to go off the rails in all these other areas for it to be a false church.

But if it is not a false church that doesn’t mean we’re saying that it is true.  Let’s review the marks of a true church:

  • It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
  • It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
  • It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.

Does adopting women in office compromise any of these marks?

“The pure preaching of the gospel” could be understood to refer narrowly to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  However, sometimes the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the Word of God in general.  I believe the latter, broader way is found here in BC 29.  I say that because the French (or Gallican) Confession, upon which the Belgic is largely modelled, does not say “gospel” in its articles 27 and 28, but “the Word of God.”  Therefore, if a church is not proclaiming the Word of God purely about who can serve in the offices of the church, this mark has been compromised.

What about “the pure administration of the sacraments”?  Did Christ institute the Lord’s Supper and Baptism with the intent that women would administer them?  Does administering the sacraments to those who follow false teachings like women in office constitute a pure administration?  We have to conclude that this mark too is imperiled by women in office.

Church discipline is also essential for a church to be true.  When members hold to false teachings like women in office, they need to be admonished and warned that they are departing from the Scriptures.  When local congregations hold to women in office and begin implementing it, then there needs to be brotherly admonition on the ecclesiastical level — and action too, if no change takes place.  But if a Synod decides that black is white and women can be ordained, then all possibility for discipline on this point disappears.  So, yes, here as well we have to conclude that the church which adopts women in office has ceased being a true church.

All three marks of a true church are affected by women in office.  The church which adopts this position ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ.  This is why the Canadian (CanRC) and Australian (FRCA) churches will no longer be able to have ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands if they go in this direction.

That still leaves the question hanging:  if not a false church, and if not a true church, then what?  It’s often forgotten that there is a third category in article 29 of the Belgic Confession:  the sect.  The sect is a religious organization which is not entirely a true church, but not entirely a false church either.  In the days the Confession was written, this was the label applied to the Anabaptist groups in the Netherlands.  Guido de Brès wrote a volume of over 900 pages on the Anabaptists.  He never calls their groups “false churches.”  Instead, consistently, he calls them sects.  If you want a category for the church which adopts women in office, “sect” is what you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, I pray that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands rejects women in office once and for all.  I pray that the faithful members will gain the upper hand and steer the RCN back to God’s Word.  I pray that the churches which are already practicing this false teaching will either repent or be removed from the RCN.  I don’t want to see them become a sect.  I earnestly desire that we can continue to recognize them as a true church of Jesus Christ, our sister churches.  We must keep praying!


URCNA/CanRC Relations — Status Quo (for now)

Photo credit: Randy Mulder (via Facebook).

Photo credit: Randy Mulder (via Facebook).

The United Reformed Churches of North America are currently holding their synod in Wyoming, Michigan.  I’m not going to comment on everything discussed and decided at this assembly.  Instead, I just want to mention one item of interest since I’ve discussed it here many times.  On Wednesday, they discussed relations with the Canadian Reformed Churches.  According to the press release:

Wednesday morning’s session included an address from a fraternal delegate of the Canadian Reformed Churches encouraging a continued dedication to work toward ecclesiastical unity even while recognizing that obstacles remain on the path to merger.  In connection with ecumenicity, an overture seeking to adjust the mandate of CERCU was not adopted. Synod re-affirmed its desire and intention to continue pursuing ecumenical developments with the CanRC acknowledging that formal steps forward will not take place within the next six years.

I am pleased to read this.  If I’ve read it correctly, the United Reformed Churches have not completely cut off the hopes of a merger with the CanRC.  Specifically, there was an effort to get the CERCU (Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Union) to drop all efforts towards merging with the CanRC.  Looking at the agenda, it seems that there were two overtures about this.  It’s not clear to me which overture was not adopted, or whether both were sidelined.  I will leave the comments open if someone wishes to clarify or correct my reading of the press release.
I might also add that I’m also pleased that an observer from the Free Reformed Churches of Australia is present at this synod.  Hopefully, in due time we can pursue relations with the URCNA as well.

Synod Dunnville 2016 (5)

Synod Dunnville

I’ve now had the opportunity to take a closer look at the most recent batch of Acts (which you can find here).  The highlights from Monday May 16 definitely have to do with the relationship that the CanRCs have with the United Reformed Churches.  As you may recall, the CanRCs have been working diligently towards federative unity (a merger) with the URCNA.  However, the CanRC efforts have not always been received the way that they hoped they would.  I’ve been remarking on this for a few years now.  While it must be said that some substantial steps have been taken forward since then (especially in discussions of theological concerns), federative unity appears to be as elusive as ever.

Article 77 of Synod Dunnville is where we find the decisions regarding the Committee for Church Unity Coordinators.  Synod observes the comments of the coordinators regarding an overture from URC Classis Pacific Northwest going to URC Synod 2016.  If adopted, this overture “will spell the end of the merger in the foreseeable future.”  Synod Dunnville, in its considerations, is also not hopeful about the prospects for federative unity:  “unification seems unlikely to take place in the near future.”  However, they are compelled by love to carry on, regardless of what the prospects may be for the time being.  As a result, the Committee for Church Unity carries on and, in fact, Synod Dunnville decided to double the number of coordinators to 4, two each from East and West.

In articles 78-80, the three sub-committees of the CCU are discussed:  Liturgical Forms and Confessions, Theological Education, and Church Order.  Synod decided to continue these sub-committees as well.  Even though there are no URC counterparts mandated to discuss anything with them, Synod Dunnville decided to at least make these brothers available, should there be a change of heart.  One wonders how long that approach will last — how many more CanRC Synods will appoint committees who never do any work because their URC counterparts have no mandate to work with them?  I can see more churches reaching a point where the futility of this is becoming rather obvious.  I might also add that Church Order sub-committee has also been mandated not to entertain any more changes to the Proposed Joint Church Order.  I can understand such a decision.  Yet I also lament the fact that so much good work, done in good faith, so far has been so poorly received and carries little prospect of serving its intended purpose.

I remember one of my seminary professors speaking of his dream for unity with the United Reformed Churches.  He had his mind fixed on 2000, if I remember correctly.  The turn of the new millennium came and went.  In 2009, I wrote that I didn’t see it happening in the next 10 years.  Now I can say that for sure, and not with any joy in the business.  Back then I found it deplorable and today I still do.  I still think the URCNA and CanRC belong together — they could be stronger together.  However, let’s be realistic:  it’s not going to happen for a long time, maybe not in even my lifetime.  The time is overdue for the CanRCs to get real about this relationship.  Rejoice in what has been accomplished and build on it in terms of a vital and mutually beneficial sister-church relationship.  And, I might add, I hope that the Free Reformed Churches of Australia will also be able, in due time, to enjoy the fruits of ecclesiastical fellowship with the URC.  The ball is rolling…