Synod Baldivis 2015 of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) decided to offer a sister church relationship to the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) in accordance with recommendations of deputies for contact with the RCNZ. For many years the FRCA have seen the RCNZ’s sister relationship with the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA) as a principle impediment to establishing a sister relationship with the RCNZ. Now that the RCNZ’s sister relations with the CRCA has been discontinued, the way appears open for the FRCA to establish a sister relationship with the RCNZ. However, a study of the Deputies’ Report leaves one wondering just how seriously Synod Baldivis has taken the principle underpinning earlier synods’ position in requiring the RCNZ to break with the CRCA before we establish sister relations with the RCNZ.
Admittedly there is no longer a ‘sister relationship’ between the RCNZ and the CRCA. It has instead been replaced by a relationship of ‘Ecumenical Fellowship’. Why? The CRCA delegate to the 2014 RCNZ synod “noted that many points of concern kept coming up for discussion between RCNZ-CRCA, and whenever most of them were dealt with, new ones would come up, hence need for new relationship”. He expressed the view that “the closeness remains” as well as the love, care and respect.[i] Evidently by establishing ‘Ecumenical Fellowship’ the warm fellowship with the CRCA remains without the need for the RCNZ to have the same responsibility of, for example, expressing concerns or warnings towards the CRCA as happens in a sister relationship. Under the new form of relationship the CRCA no longer needs to cope with letters of complaint from the RCNZ.
Nevertheless, as the new term ‘Ecumenical Fellowship’ implies, the RCNZ continues in various ways to express unity of faith with the CRCA. This unity of faith is expressed, for example, in that the RCNZ recently sponsored the CRCA to become members of the ICRC.[ii] Such a recommendation could only come about if the RCNZ thought highly of the doctrinal faithfulness of the CRCA.
The RCNZ’s unity with the CRCA is also expressed in its continuing links to the Reformed Theological College (RTC) which was established by the CRCA and remains closely affiliated with it. The RCNZ levies its member $20 per confessing member in its financial support of the RTC. The Report notes that 12 of 17 pastors/missionaries/vicars in the RCNZ’s 20 churches are RTC trained. Summer internships are arranged for RCNZ students despite the fact that “Deputies Students for the Ministry have previously reported concern about the influence of the CRCA on the RTC”. Although there is a perception by some in the RCNZ that the RTC “might be theologically conservative overall”, others do express concerns. Our deputies astutely ask “could it be that in areas like worship it is having an unwelcome influence on the RCNZ that the RCNZ itself doesn’t realize or see clearly?”[iii]
Although the RCNZ are willing to forego the responsibilities of a sister relationship “they want to maintain closeness … a close relationship because of the history”.[iv] Moreover, “the RCNZ state that calling of ministers [from the CRCA] with colloquium doctum will still occur”. Although they speak of a “preliminary evaluation” as a “safeguard” it’s clear that “churches can still consider CRCA ministers for call”.[v] Pulpit exchanges continue to be allowed after “an examination with the local consistory” and CRCA visitors will “be able to attend Lord’s Supper” and receive “membership in the RCNZ … following an interview”. Then there are the joint projects in diaconal work, mission work and a joint “Christmas compassionate catalogue” as well as shared theological training. As the Deputies remark, “there remains a practical relationship between the RCNZ and the CRCA”.[vi]
It is evident that the RCNZ’s new relationship with the CRCA is a compromise. On the one hand the sister relationship is discontinued, yet on the other hand they “have not yet been so bold as to say that the CRCA lacks the marks of the true church (Art 29 BC)”.[vii] Our deputies make the claim that “our past synods … have not required the RCNZ to break ties with the CRCA” and refer to our Synod 2003 which “expressed appreciation for the manner in which the RCNZ use their relationship to admonish their erring sister (Art 62, p.33)”. However, this ignores the fact that since 1962 successive synods have clearly stated that the RCNZ’s continuing relationship with the CRCA was an impediment to our unity with the RCNZ. What else can this mean but that they must break with the CRCA?
The deputies refer to a 1985 synod decision that states that “recognizing another church as a true and faithful church of the Lord Jesus Christ ‘has as direct consequence that a sister-Church relationship can be established, without disregarding the fact that historical developments may well give cause to several stumbling blocks still lying on the road to a practical realization of unity. (Art. 67, p.40).”’ One might imagine such stumbling blocks to be culturally determined practicalities such as singing of unrhymed Psalms, how ministers are called, how they run synods, etc. Deputies, however, make the claim that “FRCA synods have considered the RCNZ’s sister-relations with the CRCA to be one such stumbling block that required resolution before accepting their offer for sister-relations”.[viii] Thereby deputies have devalued our concerns about the RCNZ relationship with the CRCA to merely an historical stumbling block on the road to practical unity instead of seeing this, as our churches have always seen it in the past, as a matter of Scriptural principle.
That we’ve always seen it as a Scriptural principle is evident from the decisions of Synod 1985 which referred back to Synod 1962’s decision which “stated that the Reformed Churches of New Zealand were not faithful because of their relationship with the Reformed Churches of Australia…” (Art. 75, p. 49). Moreover, Synod 1998 agreed that the “RCNZ’s sister-relations with the CRCA is an impediment” which posed “principle difficulties regarding third party relations”. Ignoring such principle difficulties would “also flow to practical difficulties” (Acts 1998, p.187-189). Indeed, it cited one of the RCNZ’s own reports which said that relationships needed to be true in all dimensions: “This is being consistent with the principle of a true and faithful church and consequential thinking, as otherwise there would be a triangular problem when A and B establish close relationships while C who already has an intimate relationship with A still has principle objections to B” (Acts 1998, Art. 89, p.42-43).
If the RCNZ hold that the CRCA are true and faithful churches, they should not permit the sister relationship with them to be broken. However, if the CRCA are not true and faithful churches, as we believe, the RCNZ do wrong to continue the close relations with them. They have agreed to discontinue the sister relations but by agreeing to a new bond of ‘Ecumenical Fellowship’ they have not distanced themselves from the CRCA’s theological liberalism and unreformed worship and polity and will continue to be influenced by it. Hence the obstacle to unity between the FRCA and RCNZ has not been removed and the FRCA’s Synod Baldivis 2015 has acted prematurely in establishing sister relations with the RCNZ.
[i] Deputies Reports to the 2015 Synod of the Free reformed churches of Australia, June 2015, p. 252.
[ii] Ibid, p. 252
[iii] Ibid, p. 253
[iv] Ibid, P. 264
[v] Ibid, p. 265
[vi] Ibid, p. 265
[vii] Ibid, pp. 265,266
[viii] Ibid, p. 256