RCNZ–CRCA relations, a response to my critics

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Disagree publicly with FRCA Synod’s decision about the RCNZ, and be prepared to cop some flack. Recently I published a letter to the editor of Una Sancta questioning the decision of the FRCA to establish a sister relationship with the RCNZ because the RCNZ maintains a relationship of ‘ecumenical fellowship’ with the CRCA. I received some very critical and abusive emails.

For those who do not read Una Sancta, here is the ‘offensive’ letter I published in Una Sancta 3rd December 2016.

Dear Editor,

Although declaring the RCNZ true churches in 2000, the FRSA have for decades refused to enter a sister relationship with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) because the RCNZ maintained a sister church relation with the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA). Recently the RCNZ, after frequently admonishing their errant sister, discontinued their sister relationship 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? After all, a sister church relationship mirrors the brotherly relations within the congregation. There is unity of faith when members live in love and faithfulness to the LORD. And if someone departs from the faith in conduct or confession they are admonished in a spirit of love. But if they refuse to heed the admonitions, they are excommunicated. The fellowship is discontinued as Christ commanded.

Instead of breaking all ties with the unrepentant CRCA, the RCNZ replaced the ‘sister relationship’ with a relationship of ‘ecclesiastical fellowship’. Hereby, as the CRCA delegate to the 2014 RCNZ synod noted, the closeness remains, as well as the love, care and respect. It appears that the warm fellowship with the CRCA remains without the need for the RCNZ to have the same discipline responsibilities required by a sister relationship. And as the term ‘ecumenical fellowship’ implies, the RCNZ continues in various ways to express unity of faith with the CRCA. For example, the RCNZ recently sponsored the CRCA to become members of the ICRC, which 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) established by the CRCA and closely affiliated with it. 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 some ‘safeguards’ have been put in place “churches can still consider CRCA ministers for call”. 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”.

Given this, I fail to understand our latest synod’s decision to enter a sister relationship with the RCNZ. Technically the impediment to unity with the RCNZ appears to have been removed by them breaking the sister relationship with the CRCA. However, the RCNZ have simply replaced it with a relationship of ‘ecumenical fellowship’, which essentially declares unity of the faith, albeit with ‘some safeguards’.

It grieves me to see already one of the ramifications: youth from both FRCA, CRCA and elsewhere are invited to an RCNZ youth camp in January. Not hard to see where this can lead.

J Numan

One FRCA critic buttered me up by saying, “generally I enjoy your articles and letters that frequent the pages of the Una Sancta … there is encouragement, balanced views and positive criticisms”. But then came the punch: my letter about the RCNZ, he said, “displays a lack of Christian love in that it is not up building and humble, but instead reflects arrogance and a personal agenda…. character traits that we definitely shouldn’t be displaying in a family journal for the edification of the scriptural way of life…” Just how the letter reflected “arrogance and a personal agenda” was not said.

Another FRCA brother accused me of “sin” because I was “denouncing and calling God’s Churches false churches”, had “no hope to offer” and spread “ungodly fear”.  Now, I don’t see my letter reflecting any of that but do want to engage here with some critical remarks because, as the brother said, “we differ widely on the application/ meaning of true church/sister church”. The purpose of my interacting with his letter here is not so much to justify myself but to comment on some of the views of the church which come to the fore in the letter—views that one hears more often.

My critic writes:

I have found many churches in Australia and overseas that are churches of our Lord, where the true Gospel is preached, yet these are not, nor can they be sister churches.  There are true churches that unfortunately due to our sinfulness can never be sister churches.  These include Reformed Baptist churches, Reformed ‘low church’ Anglicans, Presbyterian, Reformed EPC, PCEA, OPC, URCNA, PRCA, etc and many more, including some of the CRCA in our own country, that I may not, and cannot call “false” churches as you seem so ready to do.

Now my letter to the editor nowhere states that any of these churches are false churches or, for that matter, true churches. Despite his claim that I “seem so ready to”, my letter makes no judgement on these churches. The FRCA simply have not made a judgement in relation to most of these federations.

But that, apparently, doesn’t stop my critic from making a judgement call: he declares them to be true churches. If people have evidence for declaring other churches as ‘true churches’ they should inform their consistory which, if it agrees, can take the matter to synod via classis. That way the churches can investigate and make a judgement. In that way things are done decently and in good order as per the Church Order.

I raise this matter here because making personal judgements in declaring churches true without following the church orderly route is something we are increasingly experiencing. As church members travel, either around Australia or abroad, some feel free to attend ‘church services’ on Sundays in a variety of federations and return home with declarations about certain churches being ‘no different to ours’, having ‘similar liturgies’ with ‘fine sermons’ and giving every evidence of being ‘true churches’. However, judgements about other church federations being ‘true churches’ require thorough study and those who believe they have the necessary evidence need to proceed in a church orderly way.

My critic adds:

True churches of our Lord are not churches that our Synods have defined as such, nor are they perfect in doctrine or practice or even in the use of sacraments.  They are churches that seek the Lord sincerely in truth. The church at Corinth with its most horrific errors and abuses would probably be condemned by you as a false church, but it was not by Paul nor the Lord himself. 

I can agree in a certain way with the first sentence, and certainly with the second. Of course, I would not call the church at Corinth a false church. The true church, we confess, adheres to the norms of God’s Word through faithful preaching, sacraments and discipline. It “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it…” (BCF 29).  The point is not whether a church has errors in doctrine or practice but how it reacts when those errors are pointed out.  If the church at Corinth had not repented it would have become a false church. The Lord warns some of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 of their errors and says, “Repent … or I will remove the candlestick”. In other words, Christ says as it were: if you do not repent you will no longer be a church of the Lord. A church may, like the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, still have admirable qualities and conventions, but if it refuses to repent from errors it is not a true church.

Let’s now apply this to the CRCA – RCNZ situation. The CRCA were admonished over the years by the RCNZ. Evidently, they did not repent so the RCNZ discontinued the sister relationship with them. We can only applaud the RCNZ for doing that. But then the RCNZ turned around and established a new relationship of ecumenical fellowship. Thereby it maintains many of the conveniences of a sister relationship, albeit with some ‘safeguards’, but without the need to exercise the mutual discipline expected in a sister-church relationship. That is not acting consistent with the Scriptural norm of Mt. 18 as it applies, by extension, to sister-church relations.

My critic also makes an appeal to Calvin:

Please read John Calvin in the Institutes concerning the true church.  I am 100% with Calvin.  Who are you with?   Certainly not with Calvin!

One hears this sort of broad, generalised appeal to Calvin or other historical figures from time to time. No substantiation; just a bold claim. I hold Calvin in high regard. But when I publicly professed the faith, made my promises at the baptism of my children and signed the Subscription Form for Office Bearers, I did not promise to be “with Calvin” but “with” the doctrine of God’s Word as summarised in the Three Forms of Unity.  We may all hold one another to what we confess there.

It’s tempting to elaborate on other points made by my critics, but let me return to the issue and reiterate my point.

Back in 2000 the FRCA declared the RCNZ to be “true and faithful churches” even though the RCNZ retained a sister relationship with their unrepentant CRCA sister. It was a decision unsuccessfully appealed by several FRCA churches and individuals. Now the RCNZ have finally broken the sister relationship—as required by the FRCA for decades—but the RCNZ immediately replaced it with another relationship of unity (ecumenical fellowship). Thereby they are again binding where God does not call them to bind.

The breaking of the RCNZ’s sister church relationship with the CRCA was commendable because it was in accordance with Scriptural norms for disciplining one another. It was a Scriptural spur to the CRCA to repent. Lamentably, the RCNZ have applied a pragmatic ‘solution’ whereby they retain unity by re-establishing a new form of fellowship with the CRCA. This is not the way of love God shows in His Word.

JN