You may be aware that presently there’s a GKv (RCN) synod taking place at Goes in the Netherlands and that, despite the FRCA having broken sister relations with the GKv, two of our deputies were (or still are) there to hand their counterparts in the GKv an official letter confirming our decision to break the ties. Five church federations (including the CanRC) have now broken sister relations with the GKv and others are ready to do so. So what are the GKv deputies for relations with churches abroad (deputies BBK) recommending to their 2020 synod at Goes? After all, as they acknowledge in their report,[I] they are confronted with the fact that “We are in the process of losing most of our foreign sister churches as sister churches.” Are the GKv deputies now urging synod to heed the admonitions and finally to show godly sorrow and repent (2 Cor. 7:10)? Well, no, in line with the course of action taken by the GKv federation they have a different ‘solution’ in line with present GKv practices: one that sacrifices sister-relations based on the truth for a more broad-minded approach. And if we, their former sister churches, don’t watch out, we’ll end up doing the same.
The GKv deputies acknowledge that traditionally the main purpose of sister relations is to be united in the truth, to assist one another to remain Reformed churches (my italics, JN) and to praise God and celebrate unity with each other. In such a unity churches agree to accept, as a general rule, that members from one another’s sister churches may attend Holy Supper and ministers from sister churches may be invited to conduct the church services. Moreover, the “sister relationship also means that there is mutual information about church developments; that we visit each other’s synod from time to time and advise each other if requested. At such meetings we celebrate our mutual unity in praising God together.”
But this way of functioning as sister churches is, for the GKv, in the process of coming to an end. Whilst they maintain present sister relations and are still in the process of promoting unity with those who left them in the 1960s, the deputies can see the writing on the wall: a considerable number of overseas churches have weighed up the GKv and found them seriously deficient. There are likely to be more who break the sister relations with the GKv. So the GKv are faced with the question: what’s to be done?
Now the GKv deputies admit that, in order to prevent more sister churches breaking ties with the GKv, the GKv would need to “change course” (we would say they need to repent). But they add that “at present we have no reason to assume such a change of course will take place”. Nor are the deputies urging their synod to change course and repent. Recognising that the GKv are “undergoing a process of change” they ask themselves what this means “for our future relationships with churches abroad”.
Well, the GKv deputies have concluded that in view of developments in the GKv the whole idea of having sister relations has become somewhat redundant. Whereas, in the past, admission to Holy Supper by others required an attestation, the GKv’s admissions policy has now become broader. As the deputies say, in the GKv “anyone coming from another place or from another country can also be admitted [to Holy Supper] if there is no sister church relationship with the church of which the visitor is a member. A ‘yes’ to a few questions (which vary in GKv churches) is often enough. And when there is a special bond with a visiting pastor from abroad, the church council may also admit him to the pulpit if there is no sister church relation with the church of that pastor. These changes mean that the distinction between sister church and contact church loses its relevance.”
Of course, we don’t yet know what this synod has decided; the Acts haven’t yet been published. But certainly, going by present practice and the observations of the GKv deputies, they’re no longer necessary! The GKv no longer require attestations for outsiders to attend Holy Supper; nor does a visiting minister need to be from a sister church in order to preach in a GKv pulpit. As the GKv deputies add: “Our churches are changing, and a different way of dealing with relationships fits in with that. Foreign churches will also want to consider in what form a relationship with us might be continued.”
This is what happens when we lose sight of our confession about the true church and the necessity of unity in the truth. Scripture speaks about the church as being united in one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:4) and in BCF:28 we confess that everyone is duty bound to join the true church which can be identified by the marks confessed in BCF:29. The need to help and hold one another as churches to that truth is undermined by the GKv when they have ‘contact’ with other churches without the need to supervise one another and hold one another to account. It’s a move into ‘pluriformity of the church’, or what’s often known as denominationalism.
Of course, this denominationalism is the way most protestant churches in Australia, Canada and the USA operate. In effect it means that instead of seeing churches as being either true or false, as our Belgic Confession does, most protestant churches are seen as being legitimate churches of the Lord. There’s general acknowledgement that some are more faithful or pure than others, but because they’re all ‘legitimate’ there’s no need to belong to a ‘true church’. Freely having contact with one another, attending one another’s church services, participating at one another’s sacraments, intermarriage, working (and praying) together in Christian action and being united as churches in evangelism, mission, conferences, etc., without necessarily first being one in doctrinal truth and giving expression to that by formalising a mutually accountable sister church relationship is considered unnecessary.
And, dare I say it, there are signs that we and our present sister churches are heading the same way. Consider this: there are reports of visitors from non-sister churches being permitted to attend Holy Supper in some Free Reformed congregations. As for preaching: one of our ministers recently preached in a Dutch non-sister church; another preached in a non-sister Australian church; both with permission of their consistories. Across the Tasman Sea, our RCNZ sister churches allow members of the CRCA, with whom they don’t have a sister church relationship anymore, to attend their Holy Supper following a brief discussion with the elders. The RCNZ recently called a minister from their (non-sister) CRCA federation. And on the other side of the globe, our CanRC sister churches engage in activities together with non-sister churches in NAPARC and the ICRC. These organisations do not subscribe to the belief that a sister-church relationship must precede cooperating with one another in various activities – including mission work.[ii] Meanwhile member churches accept one another as faithful churches in both these organisations. And the FRCA does not raise objections. So, you see, bit by bit we too are changing.
We need to remain vigilant and defend the truth of what we confess. It starts at home, in our own congregation, in our own federation. And it requires each of us to be alert and to speak up in accordance with Scripture, confession and church order. Otherwise we will find ourselves drawn inexorably in the same direction as the GKv. We can then kiss sister relations goodbye and adopt a sort of denominationalism, an unscriptural pluriformity of the church concept whereby holding one another accountable to the whole truth is compromised in order to accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The answer? Semper Reformanda: ongoing reformation; continually testing the spirits, constant submission to our LORD and His perfect Word, persistent study of that Word and our confessions so that we may honour and serve Him faithfully—applying God’s Word and our confession also in our relations with other churches, as we learnt to do through the Liberation of 1944. Then we may trust that He, the head of the church through whom the Father governs all things, will keep us as His churches steadfast in the truth.
[i] Their report can be found at https://lv-gs2020.nl/gkv/beleidsrapporten-gs-2020/, item 43: BBK – betrekkingen buitenlandse kerken
[ii] NAPARC promotes “cooperation wherever possible and feasible in such areas as missions, relief efforts, training of men for the ministry, Christian schools, activities for young people, and church education and publications”, according to its constitution (see https://naparc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/NAPARC-Constitution-as-amended-by-40th-2014-Meeting.pdf). The ICRC encourages cooperation in mission and other matters, including presenting a reformed testimony to the world (see https://www.icrconline.com/about-us). Both organisations promote these activities without first necessarily establishing sister-church relations.