Last week Friday Classis North adopted a proposal submitted by the FRC Launceston to “propose that Synod decide to mandate the Deputies for Sister Church Relations to accept invitations to attend ICRC conferences in an observer capacity, beginning with the ICRC Conference scheduled to be held in Windhoek, Namibia from October 13-19, 2021”. It was not a good decision.
The grounds FRC Launceston gave were:
- While the ICRC was controversial in our churches some years ago, this should not be an obstacle to observing proceedings of the ICRC today.
- Observations from our deputies on the current situation with the ICRC might be helpful in gauging whether we ought to pursue re-admittance sometime in the future considering that most of our sister churches are members of the ICRC. [The words in italics were added by this classis.]
- Even attendance as observers can assist our deputies to maintain existing ecumenical contacts and explore new ones.
It soon became evident in the discussion that the ministers were enthusiastic about the proposal. They spoke of rejoicing in the catholicity of the church (presumably evident in the ICRC), of the blessings of interacting with the other churches and so learning from one another, about it being a forum for talking with our sister churches, etc.
One would expect a proposal of this nature to be substantiated by solid grounds that engaged closely with the concerns raised in the past and the reasons the FRCA withdrew. There were none. Although Launceston says that the ICRC controversy that led to so much unrest within our churches some years ago “should not be an obstacle to observing proceedings of the ICRC today”, it does not even attempt to demonstrate why the objections that were raised in the past no longer apply.
Launceston says that observations by deputies “might be helpful in gauging whether we ought to pursue re-admittance sometime in the future”. As was admitted by supporters of the proposal, this is the ultimate aim: re-joining the ICRC. However, this would require the 1996 decision (namely, to discontinue membership of the ICRC) to be demonstrably in conflict with God’s Word or the Church Order. As was stated by Synod 1985 (Art. 88, Ground 1), “Synod can only rescind a decision of a previous Synod when that decision is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order (Article 31 of the Church Order)”. Launceston’s proposal does not even attempt to prove this.
The real problem is that the ICRC’s constitutional aims of co-operation in mission, theological education, presenting a reformed testimony to the world, and cooperating in other matters, can only be done in the unity of the true faith through established sister relations. That’s what the FRCA have said in the past (Acts 1985, Art. 88, Grounds 9, 10, 11). It is a principle for all time. By cooperating in these things without first being united as sister churches, the ICRC promotes denominationalism, pluriformity of the church and invisible church notions.
The delegates at classis were reminded of how, prior to the 1944 Church Liberation, Kuyper’s pluriformity of the church, invisible church and common grace theories led to ‘interchurch’ cooperation in various endeavours. However, through the Liberation a renewed study of God’s Word and our confession taught us that such cooperation, not only with the synodicals who kicked us out but with all other churches, can only be on the basis of being united in the true church. Hence, we established our own church-based schools, political party and social organisations – also here in Australia. When, later, the Liberated churches (RCN/GKv) departed from that Scriptural norm, a process of compromise and deformation set in.
A bit of history
The idea of an ICRC was initiated by the FRCA as a forum of sister churches. The RCN (GKv), who were then our Dutch sister churches, and who hosted the first ICRC meeting at which it was constituted, decided to invite all the churches with which they had contacts. That was a major departure from the original intent.
We (FRCA) became members of the ICRC in 1983. However, it led to such unrest within the churches that the FRCA withdrew its membership in 1996. If this proposal of Launceston, now proposed by this Classis North, is adopted by synod, we may expect further unrest.
Because in effect we embrace thereby the unscriptural notion of denominationalism, the idea that all these churches are legitimate churches of the Lord. Doesn’t the name International Conference of Reformed Churches claim that they are all reformed churches; that is, churches continually governing themselves according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all that conflicts with God’s Word? And does it not declare that one of its purposes is “to express and promote the unity of faith that the Member Churches have in Christ”? (Purpose 3.1)
But let’s look at some of these churches. The Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA) have women in the office of deacon when 1 Tim. 3 shows deacons are to be men. They have rejected the RCNZ’s admonitions about this and other matters. Rejecting Scriptural admonitions is hardly reformed! Moreover, in their church order, they elevate the pronouncements of their synods above the Word of God. Decisions of major assemblies are, in the CRCA, binding until—not unless, as in our CO—they are proven to be against God’s Word.[i] Thus they follow their forbears in the Dutch synodical churches. Can we then say they are reformed churches (re-formed according to God’s Word)? And why would we engage in mission and other purposes with religious bodies showing such unfaithfulness?
Then there are the Presbyterian Reformed Churches of Australia (PCEA) with whom the Free Reformed Churches of Australia were unable to establish sister church relations. Why? Because the PCEA had allowed ministers from other religious bodies (non-sister churches) to preach in their worship services, had an open Holy Supper table whereby they permitted ‘outsiders’ (non-PCEA or sister church people) to celebrate Holy Supper with them, and tolerated the teachings of a prominent minister (their spokesman at the 2017 ICRC) who held to the framework theory of creation. Doesn’t this touch on the marks of the true church (faithful preaching and sacraments)? How can we say no to unity with them at synod and yes to them at the ICRC?
Or take the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands who tolerated the Scripture criticism of their Dr B J Oosterhoff and Dr J P Versteeg, professors at their theological seminary, at the time, who interpreted the historical events of Genesis 2 & 3 symbolically. How can we accept them as reformed churches when they tolerate such unreformed views?
Then there are the Heritage Reformed Congregations (Nth America). According to one website, “the baptized children have many of the outward benefits of the children of God. Until they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, however, they remain outside of the saving benefits of covenant of grace.” Several of their websites reinforce this. Notice: the children of believers “remain outside of the saving benefits of covenant of grace”. We rejected this unreformed view of the covenant when we liberated ourselves in 1944. But at the ICRC these churches are reformed and Launceston’s proposal (now Classis 20 Nov. 2020’s proposal to next synod) is to mandate deputies as observers with a view to membership of the ICRC.
ICRC’s purposes should be for sister churches
To be sure, one of the ICRC’s purposes is “to encourage the fullest ecclesiastical fellowship among the Member Churches”. The trouble is, it doesn’t restrict itself to this. It doesn’t restrict itself (if it is done at all) to discussing differences in front of an open Bible with a view to humbly submitting to God’s Word and establishing unity in the true faith. Despite all the unreformed views held by a number of “reformed churches” that make up the ICRC, they promote “cooperation in such areas as mission, theological education and ministries of mercy”. Without first being sister churches, without first being united in the Truth, they’re going to spread the gospel together! Which gospel? Not one that insists God created the world in six literal days, because some wouldn’t insist on that. Not a gospel that insists that the children of believers also belong to God’s covenant and are the recipients of Christ’s saving work, because some don’t believe that. Not a gospel that ensures the pulpit and the sacraments are safeguarded, because some churches aren’t as fussy as they ought to be about that. Not a gospel that elevates the Word of God above the decrees of men, because some churches tolerate those who don’t adhere to that.
That’s why the FRCA once declared that “On reaching sister-Church relations (my italics, JN), inter-church cooperation in mission and other matters is possible” (FRCA Acts of Synod 1985). That’s because fulfilling the mission mandate (Mt. 28:19,20) and other mandates given to Christ’s church can only be justified where that church is clearly identified as being the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, that is: when the marks of the true church of our Lord Jesus Christ are established, when we hold one another to account on the basis of God’s Word and the Three Forms of Unity.
And as for presenting “a Reformed testimony to the world” (Purpose 5 of the Constitution), just what sort of “reformed testimony” will it be? If it’s partly watered down in order not to offend any of the member churches, can one still speak of a testimony that is reformed (i.e. faithful to Scripture as we confess it)? Hardly, when on key points there is unfaithfulness and disparity in doctrine and worship service practices by member churches. As with mission and other matters, presenting a reformed testimony to the world can only be done where sister churches have been established and are accountable to one another to have the marks of the true church. As FRCA Synod 1985 said: “Sister-Churches have a duty to encourage each other to present a Reformed testimony to the world”. That reformed testimony is to be manifested in the daily life of its members (LD 12 & 32).
Engaging in ecclesiastical purposes together without first being sister churches can be done when you hold to the notion of denominationalism or pluriformity of the church. To Launceston’s ground that sending observers “might be helpful in gauging whether we ought to pursue re-admittance sometime in the future” this classis decided to add the words “considering that most of our sister churches are members of the ICRC”. Who are these churches? The Canadian Reformed Churches, the Korean sister churches (KPCK), the Indonesian (GGRI), the RCNZ and the South African (FGKSA). Some of these have the Westminster Confession whose Article 25 about pure and less pure churches lends itself, as the late Rev C Stam points out, “to being interpreted as promoting denominationalism”.[ii]
Churches that hold to The Three Forms of Unity ought to know better because they confess, as Scripture clearly shows, that religious bodies are either the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, having the marks of Christ’s (true) church, or they’re not. But as the late Rev C Stam also declares, the Canadian Reformed Churches already showed denominationalism-in-action through their membership of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) back in the late 1970s. He illustrates how this denominationalism is a dangerous view of the church that originated in America and influenced other immigrant countries such as Canada and Australia.[iii]
In effect, says Rev Stam, denominationalism sees the church not as Christ’s work but as man’s work. Man has instituted churches that are “more or less pure” and it is believed that Christ is gathering His invisible church out of all these churches.
But we confess that the church is Christ’s body of which He is the Head as well as the Cornerstone and Foundation. As Rev Stam said, “Since Christ is concerned with and responsible for the growth and development of His Church, He has given clear directives for its organization, worship, confession, and government. And nowhere in the ministry of Christ (before or after His resurrection) can we find any indication that the organization of the Church is merely human and thus of secondary importance. On the contrary, the Apostles took great care to establish and promote a sound Scriptural order for and in the organization and life of Christ’s Church”.[iv]
The true church: not perfect but submits
Of course, there’s the old argument that, since we’re all sinful and no church is perfect, we should be more tolerant. However, we don’t say that the true church is perfect. Far from it. There are sins. Worldly influences creep in. There is often nominalism. And all these threaten the ‘form’ Christ gave for His church. And that is why she continually needs to be re-forming according to the pattern Christ gave for His church. Articles 30-32 of the Belgic Confession give Biblical directives for the organisation, order and government of the Church.
So the question is not whether there are sins in the church. But the question is: if there are sins or wrong teachings, what does the church do when these are exposed? Does she apply discipline? Does she eradicate errors when these are pointed out? Or does she neglect discipline and tolerate heresies.
As Rev Stam says: “By reason of sin, there is always the danger of deformation (moving away from the ‘form’ given by Christ) and therefore always the need for reformation (back to the ‘form’ given by Christ) is present. In the Reformed Churches we sometimes speak of ‘ongoing or continuing reformation’, and we mean that the Word of God must not simply remain our foundation and strength but must also more and more influence every area of our lives. The Word of God must dwell richly with us (Colossians 3:16), and who will deny that there is always need and room for improvement?”
However, he follows this up by adding:
“The necessary admission of our own weaknesses and sins, however, may not lead us to downplay the Scriptural institution and organization of the Church (nor to find relief in an ‘invisible Church’) but must bring us to strive all the more towards perfect obedience. For Christ’s directives in this respect are quite clear, and the organization of the Church is not a puzzle for those who adhere to the Scriptures. Christ does not permit deformation (thus recognizing and implicitly accepting that inevitably churches are ‘more or less pure’, as the Westminster Confession does), but Christ demands reformation. Facts (the reality of the existence of more or less pure churches) should not be presented as norms (for the Church is to be pure, period). That is, in part, my difficulty with Article 25 of the Westminster Confession.
In Christ’s letters to the seven Churches in Asia, we read of many impurities that are found in those Churches. But we also find many strong admonitions, ‘Repent then. If not, I will come to you and war against them with the sword of my mouth’ (Revelation 2:16). The Churches are faced with the fact that failure to repent will cause removal of the lamp-stand (2:5) and that means: no longer recognized as the true Church of Christ. Constantly throughout these letters we hear the echoing refrain, ‘He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches’. Therefore it is clear, I would say, that if a church permits impurities in doctrine, worship, or conduct, it loses the right to the title ‘Church of Christ’. The facts [reality] should not become norms, but the norms should alter the facts! And as always, it is not the sin itself which causes divine judgment, but the hardening in sin, the refusal to reform”.[v]
Rev Stam places the emphasis on the true and complete doctrine. That’s why the creeds and the Three Forms of Unity are so important. They’re firmly rooted in Scripture. And calling ourselves the true church of Christ is not being pretentious or haughty, but as Rev Stam says, “we are simply maintaining what has been given to us by Christ. Underlying our stance is the simple, yet Scriptural, confession that Christ gathers His Church according to the clear norms of His Word: in Him lies the origin, the continuation, and the perfection of the Church. And it is a great comfort that the true Church on earth is not dependent on the insights and failures of men, but truly Christ’s own possession, not a human attempt but ‘the pillar and bulwark of the Truth’, where people ‘behave’ not according to their own standards, but in keeping with Christ’s expressly given ordinances (I Timothy 3:14, 15).
Classis North 20/11/2020 made a bad decision. Will Synod 2021 stop this threatened departure from what we confess about Christ’s church on the basis of God’s Word? Or will we, by our actions, demonstrate that we increasingly embrace a Westminster view of the church which, as Schilder once said, is “far from reformed”,[vi] and as Rev Stam says, promotes denominationalism and pluriformity of the church. Will we uphold the true doctrine of God’s Word, as we confess it in our Three Forms of Unity, or will we gloss over departures from it for the sake of a superficial unity of non-sister churches? Will we regard Jesus Christ as the only Head and Cornerstone of the church, or will we base ourselves more on men, and see the church as human work rather than the work of Jesus Christ?
An ICRC? Only if it has a constitution that mandates the members to strive for unity through sister church relations based on the truth as we confess it in our Three Forms of Unity, a unity around the one Holy Supper table. Not a constitution based, in effect, on denominationalist pluriformity-of-the-church notions whereby errors are maintained and truth is sacrificed on the altar of artificial unity on which they then together promote “reformed” mission work and a “reformed” testimony to the world, etc. They kid no one but themselves that this is reformed work that is somehow pleasing to Him who says “I am the truth” and who expects His church to walk in the truth.
[i] In their Church Order, Article 26, the CRCA have a hierarchical structure. Although classis and synod have delegated positions: “In matters that are properly the concern of a major assembly, such a major assembly has authority over a minor assembly – the classis has authority over the session, and the synod has authority over the classis.” Moreover, in their Article 28 the CRCA remain synodical: “The decisions of assemblies shall be considered settled and binding.” Appeals are possible (Article 29) but meanwhile the decision remains binding. The crucial safeguard ‘unless it is contrary to God’s Word’ which we have, and which played such a critical role in the Church Liberation of 1944, is missing in the CRCA’s CO.
[vi] Prof Dr K Schilder, De Kerk (Vol 3), Oosterbaan en Le Cointre, Goes, 1965, p. 364. “De Westminster Confessie (lang niet gereformeerd inzake de kerkleer) …”