For decades now, the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) have seen the necessity for the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) to break their relations with the Christian Reformed Church of Australia (CRCA). A sister relationship between the RCNZ and the FRCA was out of the question until that happened. A few years ago, the RCNZ finally broke the sister relations with the CRCA. However, they replaced that sister relationship with a relationship of ecumenical fellowship – a continuing unity but with some ‘safeguards’. I therefore questioned, in Una Sancta 3/12/2016, whether our FRCA Synod Baldivis 2015 was right to accept the RCNZ as sister churches.
A reaction to my letter appeared in the following Una Sancta (17/12/2016) defending the ongoing relationship between the RCNZ and the CRCA. The writer acknowledged that things in the CRCA are not what they should be. He referred to what our FRCA synod 1996 had said: “The current trends in the [C]RCA … show that they and we travel in a different direction” and the minister opening the 2012 CRCA synod had spoken of “a creeping liberalism” within the CRCA. However, the writer pointed to several “encouraging signs”, adding that “if the RCNZ can continue to lovingly interact with and speak the truth to those in the CRCA, that is a good thing”.
Such a position of the RCNZ continuing “to lovingly interact” with the CRCA through a relationship of “ecumenical fellowship” runs counter to the mandate our FRCA Synod 1996 gave its deputies, namely, to encourage “the RCNZ to continue with their admonitions to the [C]RCA, and to terminate relations with the [C]RCA if these admonitions continue to go unheeded”. Yes, the RCNZ did admonish the CRCA, over ‘ordaining women in office’. But the CRCA became annoyed and, as a result, CRCA/RCNZ deputies together recommended to their synods to change the relationship to one under which the RCNZ are no longer required to admonish (Deputies’ Reports to FRCA 2015 Synod, pp290-294). So the RCNZ have not terminated relations; they have exchanged one type of relationship for another with some ‘safeguards’.
Moreover, is it appropriate to speak of “encouraging signs” in the CRCA while they reject admonitions and fail to repent? If a brother devotes time to pornography or promotes a heresy, and refuses to repent, no consistory is going to say: Let’s excommunicate him but we’ll continue to maintain close fellowship with a few safeguards because, after all, there are “encouraging signs”: the unrepentant man recently contributed financially to church, attends church services and Bible Study, and lately was less aggressive to his family. Such “encouraging signs” become meaningless if the person hardens himself in sin. Whilst the Lord Jesus does point to positives and negatives in His letters to the churches of Revelation 2 & 3, He adds that if there is no repentance, if the warnings are not heeded, the candlestick will be removed. It will cease being a church of the Lord, no matter how many “encouraging signs” there may still be.
Furthermore, one does not need to be in a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship to admonish others. Just as within the church we are exhorted to warn an excommunicated brother or sister without associating with him or her (‘Form for Excommunication’), so too we can continue to admonish a federation with which we once had sister-church relations, but without establishing another form of fellowship.
There is a Scriptural principle underpinning church relationships. The relationship between churches within a federation, as well as the relationship between federations of churches, is based on what Scripture teaches about the relationships within the congregation. Within the local church there is a unity of faith when members live in love and faithfulness to the LORD. If someone becomes unfaithful in doctrine or conduct he is admonished in a spirit of love. If admonitions are not heeded the person is excommunicated in accordance with the ‘rule of Matthew 18’. Such an excommunicated person is to “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”. Matthew Henry explains: “let him be cast out of the communion of the church, secluded from special ordinances, degraded from the dignity of a church member, let him be put under disgrace, and let the members of society be warned to withdraw from him” etc. The person has broken the unity of the true faith. The aim is to bring about repentance, maintain the true unity and holiness of the congregation and to safeguard the congregation.
The RCNZ have not applied this principle. True, they have admonished the CRCA, and the CRCA’s failure to repent has led the RCNZ to break the sister church relationship. As within a congregation, the purpose is to bring about repentance, maintain true unity and safeguard the churches. It follows, then, that the RCNZ should refuse to maintain a form of unity with the errant CRCA through a bond of ‘ecumenical fellowship’. Would the CRCA not be stimulated to repent if the RCNZ were to withdraw altogether until the CRCA honoured the Lord through true faithfulness? And isn’t it also wrong to give an impression of unity when the unfaithfulness that led to the CRCA’s excommunication shows there is not a unity in the true faith?
Hence what our FRCA churches have for decades seen as an impediment to establishing sister relations with the RCNZ has not been removed. The RCNZ continue to maintain a relationship which, despite some ‘safeguards’, shares pulpit exchanges, attestations, mission, a theological seminary heavily funded by the RCNZ, promotes the CRCA to the ICRC, and enables CRCA ministers to be called into the RCNZ.
Undoubtedly there are many sincere believers in the RCNZ and undoubtedly there are congregations that reflect a desire to serve the Lord faithfully. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is whether the RCNZ as an instituted federation of churches act in accordance with the norms of God’s Word. When the RCNZ say ‘No’ to a unity of faith through a sister relationship with the CRCA but ‘Yes’ to a unity of faith through ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRCA they are disobedient to Christ’s command to let their ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and their ‘No’, ‘No’ (Mt. 5:37). When the unrepentant CRCA are on the one hand ‘excommunicated’ through the breaking of the sister relationship but on the other hand embraced through another relationship, the RCNZ are disobedient to our Lord in Mt. 18:17 and in 2 Thess. 3:14-15. Consequently, when our Synod Baldivis 2015 declares that we have ‘unity of the true faith’ (LD 21) in our sister relationship with the RCNZ, while the RCNZ on the other hand maintains a unity of faith through ‘ecclesiastical fellowship’ with the unrepentant CRCA, Synod Baldivis has not acted in accordance with God’s Word (Eph. 4:4-6) and the Confession where it speaks, for example, of being joined and united in one and the same Spirit (BCF:27). And when the detrimental influences of what transpires in the CRCA can continue to infiltrate the RCNZ and, through our sister relations with the RCNZ, the FRCA over which the Lord has given the office bearers the oversight, Synod Baldivis 2015 failed to exercise its God-given instruction to be ‘watchmen on Zion’s walls’.
Christ’s church is identified in that it “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it” (BCF:29). I can only conclude that the RCNZ acted contrary to Scripture when they established with the CRCA a relationship of ecumenical fellowship, with all the unity of faith that entails. It follows that FRCA Synod Baldivis 2015 acted contrary to Scripture when it established a sister relationship, a declaration of spiritual unity in the truth, with the RCNZ and, via the RCNZ, with the CRCA through the RCNZ’s ‘ecumenical fellowship’.
(This article was submitted to Una Sancta with a view to furthering the discussion. However, Una Sancta decided not to publish any more material on the RCNZ/CRCA relationship as part of its decision taken last year to limit these sorts of discussions.)