Today, 21 June 2018, the Synod of Free Reformed churches of Australia (FRCA) decided “with sadness to terminate the sister relationship with the RCN” (Reformed Churches of the Netherlands), as recommended by deputies.
This is a momentous decision, but not surprising given the many years of admonitions which went unheeded by the RCN. It follows on the heels of a decision last month bythe Reformed Churches in the United States (RCUS) to end sister relations with the RCN.
In the lead up to the recommendation, Deputies said:
“It is with sadness that we as delegates are forced to conclude that the relationship indeed has become untenable. While historical ties mean that such a decision is difficult to take and brings much emotion with it, ultimately the decision to terminate the relationship must be made with a view toward the honour of Jesus Christ Himself and the edification of his churches. In practice, such a termination is the result of the new and unscriptural course consciously taken by the RCN. They have knowingly brought this impasse in our relationship upon themselves.”
The RCN delegates were present to witness the discussion and, prior to Synod making the decision, were invited to address synod and the audience. The first RCN delegate, Rev J Plug, made an impassioned speech, appealing synod not to adopt the deputies’ recommendation to end the sister relations. The second RCN delegate, Dr M H Oosterhuis, chairman of Synod Meppel 2017, was invited to present an address about the decisions of the RCN, especially concerning Synod Meppel’s decision on the topic of women in office. He endeavoured to persuade synod that the way the RCN interpreted Scripture was the right way.
RCN’s way of interpreting Scripture
Dr Oosterhuis referred to two guiding hermeneutical principles: first, the need to go back to creation (how things were intended at the beginning); second, the need to consider the changing historical circumstances. In short, he said that whilst creation showed that man and woman were to be one flesh—an enduring unity that was later to mirror Christ and His church—changing circumstances permitted Moses to allow divorce (though it disadvantaged women). Years later, said Dr Oosterhuis, the historical context was such that the Apostle Paul forbade women to be office bearers because it would lead to slander in that culture (though this also disadvantaged women). The implication was that the culture in which one lived determined the meaning and application of Scripture. Since we today live in a different culture, churches should be left free, for example, to promote the rights of women by permitting them to be office bearers in church.
The synod delegates, however, were unimpressed and not persuaded. Synod was not convinced by the arguments of RCN delegate, Dr Oosterhuis, to justify the hermeneutics used in the RCN to arrive at outcomes legitimising, among others, women in office. As one delegate pointed out, the RCN are now discussing what their position should be on homosexuality. Will they use the same hermeneutical approach to legitimise it? Synod members pointed to contradictions and errors; they also drew attention to concerns expressed by earlier synods about an array of RCN developments . These concerns had not been addressed by the RCN. Indeed, the RCN had told the FRCA to stop addressing them about those concerns.
After several rounds of questions and observations, during which the RCN delegates were given the opportunity to offer answers, Synod unanimously decided to end the relationship. Their decision is recorded as follows:
Article 45 Reformed Churches in the Netherlands
Decision: With sadness to terminate the sister relationship with the RCN.
- The relationship with the RCN has become untenable due to their use of the ‘New Hermeneutics’ – principles allowing the current cultural context to play a determining role in explaining scripture. This has allowed the RCN to turn away from the clear instruction in God’s Word and to show unfaithfulness by lack of submission to that Word.
- The evidence of ground 1 above is given particular expression in the recent decision of the RCN (Synod Meppel 2017) to allow women to the office of deacon, elder and minister.
- There has been no adequate response, let alone repentance, to earlier admonitions:
- Letter of admonition from Synod Armadale 2012 to RCN Synod Ede dated 22 April 2013 (Acts of Synod 2012, Appendix 5);
- Letter from Synod Baldivis 2015 to RCN Synod Meppel 2017 (Acts of Synod 2015, Appendix 2).
The chairman notes that this decision is made with great sadness, and leads the meeting in prayer.
Sorrow and gratitude
On the one hand, there is sorrow. Sorrow at the decline in the RCN over several decades. Sorrow that, despite the concerns and admonitions expressed time and again, not only by the FRCA but also by other sister churches of the RCN, there has been no repentance but a hardening. And that affects the membership of the RCN. Sorrow also, because we have our roots in the RCN, in the Liberation of 1944 whereby the Lord graciously brought us out of what had become a federation of false churches which bound its members to unscriptural doctrine and imposed upon us an unscriptural hierarchy. We look back with appreciation for what the Lord gave in the way of rich insights into Scripture through redemptive historical preaching and published material; through an understanding of the significance of the covenant and antithesis, which led to a blossoming church life with its unique reformed organisations including the reformed schools for the children of the church; and for so much more. Hence there is sorrow that we are breaking with a body of churches which, certainly in the early decades, were instrumental in God’s hands in giving us so much and with which we once had a great affinity.
But there is also reason for gratitude that the brothers at synod sought to be, and were, faithful to the Head of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ. They had to make the hard decision in obedience to Him who is the great Shepherd of the sheep to whom the under-shepherds, the office bearers, are responsible. They are to ward off false teachers and teachings and to keep the flock in faithfulness to Him. And this is what they have done in this matter. Synod in its decision let itself be guided and directed by the Holy Spirit. In the end it was His work. For this we prayed and now thank and praise our triune God. Through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, He not only gathers but also defends and preserves His church.