I do not understand how the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA), of which I am happy to be a member, could decide to enter a sister church relationship with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ)[i]. In this article I explain why.
For many years, the FRCA refused to enter a sister relationship with the RCNZ because the RCNZ maintained a relationship with the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA). Recently the RCNZ discontinued their sister relationship with the CRCA. Thus, they appear to have done what the FRCA required over the years, and on this basis the FRCA have now entered a sister relationship with the RCNZ.
The trouble is that the RCNZ have not really broken the ties with the CRCA. They have simply replaced the sister church relationship with another relationship of Ecumenical Fellowship. In effect, they broke the sister relationship, thereby declaring that they are not united in the true faith, only to establish a relationship of ecumenical fellowship which essentially declares unity of the faith. In many ways it’s like a sister-church relationship, albeit with ‘some safeguards’.
Is the RCNZ’s continuing relationship with the CRCA Scriptural? And have the FRCA therefore acted justly in establishing sister relations with the RCNZ? Let’s consider how church relationships function.
The principle of discipline and unity
The church, we know, is the body of Christ, a congregation of true Christian believers who depend on Jesus Christ for salvation and on the Holy Spirit to work with the Word so that we love God and lead a holy life. If a member of the flock strays, we are to apply the ‘rule of Matthew 18’ whereby the witness will admonish the sinner in love. If the sinner doesn’t heed the admonitions the witness will again admonish, this time taking along a witness. If the sinner still doesn’t repent, the consistory is informed and if the sinner still doesn’t heed the admonitions he or she is excommunicated. The church is told not to associate with that person so that he or she may be shamed into repenting. The purpose is to safeguard the flock in the unity of true faith and godliness and to save the sinner.
If, however, someone sins publicly, for example by openly advertising a godless life style or promoting heresies, that person is admonished publicly. We see examples of this in Scripture when John the Baptist publicly calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” and Jesus openly tells them “You are of your father, the devil”. Paul publicly warns congregations against Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom he has “handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme”. He warns the flock about “Diotrephes, who loves to be first” … but “does not accept what we say”. Paul names two quarrelling ladies, Euodia and Syntyche, urging them “to live in harmony in the Lord”. And there are more. Again, the purpose is to safeguard the flock and bring sinners to repentance.
I understand that principle of warning the flock and admonishing those who go astray in life or doctrine to apply also to churches within a federation. If, for example, the FRCA church at (….) was to promote false doctrine, and sister churches were to find out about it, the church would be admonished. One of the reasons we have yearly church visitation is to safeguard the bond of churches and to help ensure that we remain one in the truth and godliness. If an erring church ignores justifiable admonitions the matter is to be brought to classis and, if there is still no repentance, the matter is to go to synod. Should the church maintain its false doctrine or tolerate ungodly lifestyles amongst its members it would be excommunicated from the FRCA federation of churches. The FRCA is to have no relationship with that church so that the unity in the true faith is not undermined and the spiritual life of the flock is not threatened.
The same principle applies to sister relationships between federations of churches as is evident from our ‘Rules for Exercising Sister Relations’.[ii] Consider the first two rules:
- Sister relations shall be used mutually to assist, encourage and exhort one another to live as churches of God in this world.
- The churches shall mutually care for each other so that they do not depart from the reformed faith in doctrine, church polity, discipline and liturgy.
We have a current example of exhortation and discipline in the FRCA relationship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN). Since the turn of this century the FRCA and other church federations have expressed serious concerns about deviations from the truth of God’s Word in these Dutch sister churches. The FRCA Synod 2012 decided to place the sister relationship with the RCN “under strain” and FRCA Synod 2015 suspended the sister relationship. If there is no repentance (and we earnestly pray that they will repent) the relationship will be “untenable”. That is, there can no longer be a sister relationship because the FRCA and RCN would no longer be one in the faith and the FRCA would have to conclude that the RCN were a false church federation. That doesn’t mean that all the RCN members are headed for hell but it does mean that as a bond it can no longer be considered a legitimate church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence there could be no continuing relationship with them.
Applying the principle to the relationship RCNZ-CRCA
Allow me now to turn the attention to the RCNZ. In 2000 the FRCA synod declared the RCNZ true and faithful churches but said that their continuing relationship with the CRCA formed an impediment to unity. Such a declaration can only be justified if the CRCA is a false church federation. The RCNZ, to its credit, had expressed concerns about developments within the CRCA, with whom it had historical ties. To its further credit the RCNZ recently broke the sister relations with the CRCA. Such a breaking of sister relations with another church federation can surely only be justified if that church federation (CRCA) did not repent from its sins. Why else break the sister relationship? Does it not follow, then, that the RCNZ should, for the sake of the faithfulness and spiritual safety of its church federation, discontinue a relationship with the unrepentant CRCA?
But what is the case? The RCNZ have replaced the sister relationship with a relationship of ecclesiastical 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.[iii] It appears that by establishing “Ecumenical Fellowship” the warm fellowship with the CRCA remains without the need for the RCNZ to have the same responsibility of expressing concerns or warnings towards the CRCA as would happen in a sister relationship. Under the new form of relationship, the CRCA no longer needs to cope with letters of complaint from the RCNZ.
As the 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.[iv] Such a recommendation could only be justified if the RCNZ considered the CRCA to be faithful. Yet did the RCNZ not break the sister relations with the CRCA because of the latter’s unfaithfulness?
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 Deputies’ Report notes that 12 of 17 pastors/missionaries/vicars in the RCNZ’s 20 churches are RTC trained and the RCNZ continues to levy its members $20 per confessing member in continuing support for the RTC. Summer internships at the RTC continue to be arranged for RCNZ students even though “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. FRCA 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?”[v]
We see then that although the RCNZ have cut the sister ties “they want to maintain closeness … a close relationship because of the history”.[vi] 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”.[vii] 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”.[viii]
Does not honesty compel us to conclude that the RCNZ’s new relationship with the CRCA is an unscriptural 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)”.[ix] FRCA 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 completely 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”.[x] 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 to Synod 1962’s decision which “stated that the Reformed Churches of New Zealand were not faithful because of their relationship with the [Christian] 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, surely they should not permit the sister relationship with them to be broken. However, if the CRCA are not true and faithful churches, as the FRCA evidently believe by having for more than half a century required the RCNZ to break the sister relationship with them, then does it not follow that the RCNZ do wrong to continue the close relations with them? True, they have now discontinued the sister relations with the CRCA but, by agreeing to a new bond of “Ecumenical Fellowship”, they have not distanced themselves completely from the CRCA’s theological liberalism and unreformed worship and polity. Scripture speaks of a little leaven’s dangerous influence, and of the need for unity in the truth. Does it not appear, then, that the obstacle to the FRCA’s unity with the RCNZ has not been removed and FRCA Synod 2015 has acted prematurely in establishing sister relations with the RCNZ?
[i] Acts of the 2015 Synod of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, Baldivis, Western Australia, Article 38.
[ii] Acts 1992, Article 95.
[iii] Deputies Reports to the 2015 Synod of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, June 2015, p. 252.
[iv] Ibid, p.252.
[v] Ibid, p.253.
[vi] Ibid, p.264.
[vii] Ibid, p. 265.
[viii] Ibid, p.265.
[ix] Ibid, pp.265-266.
[x] Ibid, p. 256.