The letter below was submitted to Una Sancta early last month but not yet published. It explains what God’s Word says about the norms for relationships between churches, and how these are being applied and denied by the RCNZ’s actions.
I seek your kind permission to follow up my previous letter to the editor about the RCNZ with this letter about what I see as the underlying Scriptural principle of mutual 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 privately 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 “take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses”. If the sinner still doesn’t repent, the consistory is informed and if the sinner still doesn’t heed the admonitions he is excommunicated. The church is told not to associate with that person so that he 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 other 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’. 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.
Just as individuals within a congregation and individual congregations within a national federation are to help keep one another in faithfulness to the Lord, so sister federations in the world are to function to help one another stay faithful to the Lord.
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 our 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.
Allow me now to apply this principle to the relationship between the RCNZ and CRCA. If the CRCA have heeded the admonitions extended to them by the RCNZ and give evidence of serving the Lord in faithfulness to His Word and the Three Forms of Unity, the RCNZ would be wrong to break the sister relations with the CRCA and there would be reason to rejoice. If, however, the CRCA have not heeded the ‘sisterly’ admonitions but have hardened themselves in disobedience—as appears to be the case—then it follows, surely, that in accordance with the above Scriptural principle, the RCNZ ought to break completely with the CRCA in order that the CRCA may come to repentance. I cannot see how the RCNZ, having broken the sister relationship for good reasons, are acting Scripturally by maintaining unity through ‘ecumenical fellowship’.
I want to expand here on the last paragraph of my letter. For decades the RCNZ admonished their sister churches, the CRCA[i]. Our deputies “note that over the years the RCNZ has called the CRCA to task on a number of issues which did cause their relationship to come under strain”.[ii] Whilst one can point to some improvements, as Rev. S ‘tHart did in a Una Sancta article[iii], the CRCA evidently did not repent from what the RCNZ identified as unscriptural deviations. Deputies report that “the last few decades of dialogue between the RCNZ and the CRCA have been dominated by discussions on various issues”[iv] because the RCNZ “believed the CRCA was deviating from Scripture and Confessions”. Clearly the CRCA’s failure to repent led the RCNZ to apply Scriptural norms and break the sister relationship. Unity of faith can only exist if both federations show that they wish to submit to God’s Word.
However, the aim of such discipline—the repentance of the CRCA—was undermined by the RCNZ’s subsequent action. Instead of demanding repentance with a view to establishing a sister relationship in the unity of truth, the RCNZ have simply placed the sister relationship in an unworkable too-hard basket and replaced it with a new relationship of “Ecumenical Fellowship” which does not demand the same level of mutual discipline. Thereby they retain all the benefits of a sister relationship, albeit with some “safeguards”, without the need to admonish and hold one another accountable in the same way as before. As deputies say, “the RCNZ now exercise their contact with the CRCA with much greater caution”.[v] By retaining ecumenical fellowship with the unrepentant CRCA the RCNZ fail to uphold the Biblical norms for discipline.
The RCNZ’s decision to break the sister relationship with the CRCA is a form of excommunication, and excommunication is an act of love intended to bring the sinner to repentance. But the Biblical purpose of that excommunication is torpedoed by the re-establishment of another form of fellowship with the CRCA. Biblical principle is thereby replaced by pragmatism. It is a failure to show obedience to God’s norms, a lack of awareness of the gravity of the CRCA’s disobedience on “issues with worship practices and the doctrine of the church”, and a lack of true love for the evidently wayward and unrepentant CRCA.
[i] Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, formerly RCA. These churches arose out of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (synodical).
[ii] Deputies reports to the 2015 Synod of the FRCA, June 2015, p. 266.
[iii] “RCNZ and CRCA”, 17th December 2016.
[iv] Ibid, p. 267.