Following each synod, each church council—as the highest governing body in our churches[i]—checks synod’s decisions and approves (ratifies) them if they are in accordance with God’s Word. If a synod (or classis) decision is found not to be in accordance with God’s Word the church council is not allowed to approve of that decision, let alone implement it. To do so would elevate the word of man above the Word of God and the church would lose the right to be church of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was He who taught us to pray: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Hence a church loses the right to be God’s church if it does not do God’s will. Therefore we must be very careful not to depart from that Word and must take very seriously any claim that we are departing from the truth.
There is always a danger that a church council finds it convenient simply to approve a synod’s decision without thoroughly studying the issues. Office bearers lead busy lives and the issues can seem rather complex. So it’s tempting to trust that a synod has made the right decision. Church history has shown how easily this happens. For example, following the Church Liberation of 1944, some 90% of church members remained in the synodical bond of churches. How could they justify that when a careful study of what happened showed evidence of hierarchy and false doctrine? Similarly a degree of apathy and lack of Scriptural study by the majority occurred in earlier reformations/secessions (e.g.1834 and 1886).
Yet it’s not only the church councils which are responsible. This is where the members of the church have a task. Members should read and take a vital interest in the Acts of Synods and, where a decision is contrary to God’s Word, must urge their church council to appeal (giving Scriptural or Church Orderly grounds). If the church council refuses, then the cause of Christ is being undermined, the church fails to be “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and members of the congregation are being wronged. Members then have a duty to appeal to the major (broader) assembly because the LORD’s name and the cause of His kingdom is being damaged. It is this responsibility that leads church members to appeal.
This is the reason why some brothers lodged appeals when their church council ratified (approved) Synod Baldivis’s decision to establish sister relations with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ).
In 2015 the FRCA Synod Baldivis decided to enter a sister church relationship with the RCNZ. That decision appears to have now been ratified by all the Free Reformed Churches. There are three reasons why I believe it is necessary to appeal a church council’s decision to ratify (approve) Synod 2015’s establishment of sister church relations with the RCNZ. First, the decision means we are going back on our word and hence disobeying Christ’s directive to “let our no be no” (Mt. 5:37; James 5:12); second, we are approving of a sinful unity (Amos 3:3; Eph 5:8-14) between the RCNZ and an unfaithful bond of Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA); and third, we are failing in our duty to keep watch over the flock (Acts 20:29-31) by opening the door of the sheepfold to those who distort the truth. Allow me to demonstrate.
1. Going back on our word
As FRCA we went back on our word. Already back in 1962 our Synod said that the RCNZ were not true churches.[ii] I am not commenting about ministers or faithful believers within that federation, but about the federation itself. That FRCA (1962) decision was reconfirmed by Synod 1985 (Art. 75) which declared that the RCNZ were unfaithful because of their relationship with their parent churches (the Dutch synodical churches) and their counterpart the [C]RCA. This, they added, prevents us (FRCA) from continuing any contact with them. Of course, a synod can change its mind; but then it must acknowledge that it has done so and that the previous position was wrong. No FRSA synod ever rescinded this decision; instead, subsequent synods simply ignored this principled[iii] decision and continued the contacts. Thereby, Christ’s command to ‘let your no be no’ was disobeyed.
However, it was also disobeyed in the condition we set next, namely, that the RCNZ must break their ties with the unfaithful CRCA before we could consider establishing sister relations with them. To be sure, there have been inconsistencies in the wording on our part: sometimes synod forbade relations with the CRCA, at other times they spoke of breaking sister relations, and sometimes we even commended the RCNZ for the way they exercised their relations with the CRCA. Nevertheless, we left them in no doubt about the need for the RCNZ to break their relations with the CRCA before we could establish sister churches with the RCNZ. [iv]
But now that the RCNZ did break the sister relationship[v] and replaced it with a relationship of ‘ecumenical fellowship’ we say as it were: ‘They have technically done what we insisted on (we had, at times, referred to their sister relations with the CRCA as being an obstacle to unity); so now we can become sister churches with them.’ But this is wrong, because they did not break their relations with the CRCA but are instead, despite claims of ‘safeguards’ being in place, continuing fellowship with the unfaithful CRCA in a variety of ways.[vi] They have simply changed the relationship to ‘ecumenical fellowship’ in response to the CRCA’s demands that the RCNZ no longer annoys and upsets them with their admonitions.
This continuing unity of the RCNZ with the CRCA is evident not only in the name of the new relationship: ‘ecumenical fellowship’ but also in its practices. For example, “the RCNZ state that calling of ministers [from the CRCA] with colloquium doctum will still occur”. Although they speak of a “preliminary evaluation” as a “safeguard” the “churches can still consider CRCA ministers for call”. Indeed, recently a CRCA minister accepted a call to the RCNZ (and could now be called to an FRCA). 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 our Deputies wrote, “there remains a practical relationship between the RCNZ and the CRCA”.[vii]
With all this evidence of a continuing fellowship between the RCNZ and CRCA, we FRCA have not kept our word in insisting that the RCNZ’s continuing relationship with the CRCA is an impediment to our becoming sister churches with the RCNZ. Our ‘no’ has become ‘yes’. This cannot be pleasing to our Lord who calls us not only to let our no be no but also to be united in the truth, whereas the RCNZ maintain a fellowship not based on the truth. Our decision undermines this and also fails to guard the church and table of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Approving the RCNZ’s sinful unity with the unrepentant CRCA
There is another important reason to appeal: by changing their existing sister relationship with the CRCA to an ecumenical fellowship, the RCNZ have washed their hands of their agreed duty and responsibility (a condition under the sister-church relationship) to admonish the CRCA in case of unfaithfulness. Scripture directs us how to function as communion of saints to God’s honour and for one another’s wellbeing (e.g. 1 Cor. 12, Mt 18). This mutual responsibility which individuals in Christ’s church have toward one another is also the basis for our churches’ responsibility toward one another within the FRCA bond, and as sister-church federations toward one another.[viii] That is then also the reason why a few years ago our churches broke their ties with the GKv (RCN) when they refused to repent.
The RCNZ have shown unfaithfulness to the Lord here. When the CRCA complained about the RCNZ’s admonitions and refused to heed them, the RCNZ agreed to continue the relationship as an ‘ecumenical fellowship’. Their reason for doing so is because the CRCA became annoyed with the RCNZ’s admonitions, particularly over ‘ordaining women in office’. To overcome ‘the problem’ CRCA/RCNZ deputies together recommended to their synods to change the relationship to one under which the RCNZ are no longer required to admonish the CRCA about its errors.[ix] Yet Scripture clearly forbids continuing fellowship with a member who has not repented (Mt. 18:17; 2 Chron. 19:2).
The principle of Biblical discipline, which aims at bringing an erring member to repentance, applies equally to our sister relations as churches. The CRCA have not repented, as is evident from the RCNZ’s replacing of the sister relationship, and therefore the RCNZ, if it truly seeks to be faithful and does not want to be unequally yoked, must break off all fellowship so that the erring member may be ashamed and repent (Mt 18:17). We share the RCNZ’s unfaithfulness herein by not insisting on the RCNZ’s complete break with the CRCA before entering sister relations (2 Chron. 19:2). We have thereby become unequally yoked with the RCNZ. And this is how the RCNZ and CRCA together bought peace at the cost of the truth.
Therefore it is obligatory for everyone of us to appeal our church council’s approval of establishing a unity with the RCNZ while the RCNZ retain an unscriptural unity (‘ecumenical fellowship’) with the unfaithful CRCA.
3.Failing to watch over the flock in their care
There is yet a third Scriptural reason for appeal. Scripture charges office bearers to take heed to the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made them guardians and admonishes the elders to tend the flock of God that is in their charge (1 Peter 5:2). Church councils disobey this charge by approving of our sister relations with the RCNZ because through the RCNZ’s continuing fellowship with the CRCA we open ourselves to CRCA influences. Consider some examples:
- We have already seen that the RCNZ youth expected youth from both the CRCA and FRCA to attend their 2017 congress/camp. Though the CRCA youth did not turn up, they may well attend in future and courtships may eventuate. Through our sister relations with the RCNZ and their ecumenical fellowship with the CRCA we are sending a message to our youth (and to others) of an implied FRCA fellowship with the CRCA. After all, if the RCNZ are true and faithful churches and as such have ongoing fellowship with the CRCA (the RCNZ even recommended the CRCA as true and faithful churches for membership of the ICRC) then the message to our youth, and the youth of the RCNZ, is that fellowship with the CRCA is fine.
- An RCNZ member visiting Perth could attend a church service and participate in Holy Supper in an FRCA service in the morning and do the same in a CRCA service in the afternoon (as an RCNZ minister attending a meeting of our ministers recently did!). What sort of message is that sending to our people? If RCNZ members can do so, why shouldn’t our members do so? And why shouldn’t our young people, then, date CRCA youth?
- An RCNZ minister visiting Perth could preach the Word or conduct Holy Supper in an FRCA service in the morning and do the same in a CRCA service in the afternoon. Again, we are promoting the unscriptural pluriformity of the church hereby.
- Most RCNZ ministers have been trained at the Reformed Theological College (RTC) affiliated with the CRCA. Our deputies expressed concern “about theological training and ongoing influence of the CRCA and RTC in the RCNZ”. The influence of this training now poses a danger to us.
- We have had members of our churches who, because of church discipline, have joined the CRCA. Moreover, a deposed FRCA minister (F van Hulst) was permitted to preach in the CRCA and his congregation was accepted into a CRCA classical region. How can we pray for their repentance if the RCNZ, with whom we say we have unity of the true faith, have a unity of ‘fellowship’ with the CRCA? Indeed, how could we then continue to justify our separate existence as FRCA from the CRCA?
Office bearers are called to be watchmen on Zion’s walls (Is. 62:6), watching over the souls of the congregation as those who must give account (Heb. 13:17). The wellbeing of those souls is endangered by a unity with churches (RCNZ) who have compromised the truth by maintaining unity with unfaithful churches (CRCA).
By maintaining a relationship with a bond of churches which are unfaithful the RCNZ show themselves to be unfaithful. Yet we have decided that there is no impediment to declaring, by establishing sister relations with the RCNZ, that we have with them a unity in Christ that is based on the truth of God’s Word. Church councils are tasked with a grave responsibility. The declaration of each church council to approve (ratify) Synod Baldivis 2015’s decision “To offer sister church relationship to the RCNZ under the established rules, and to accept their offer of a sister church relationship” (Acts 2015, Article 38) is wrong. It is a decision that does not stand the test of Scripture or further unity in the Truth. There are solid reasons to confront one’s church council with the error of approving synod 2015’s decision.
[i] Elders and deacons are called to their respective offices by God (see Form for Ordination). Members of classis or synod, however, are delegated by the churches.
[ii] FRCA Synod 1962 (Art.18 & 37) decided to warn Dutch GKv immigrants against going to New Zealand because there was no church of the Lord there, even though the RCNZ were instituted in 1953. Thereby Synod 1962 implied that the RCNZ were not true churches of the Lord.
[iii] What was the principle behind that previous position? It was that the RCNZ had grown out of the synodical churches from which we liberated ourselves in 1944. Hence they retained for years a relationship with the Dutch synodicals and with their counterpart the synodical CRCA. Later they cut the ties with the Dutch synodicals but retained them with the CRCA. The RCNZ’s determination to retain fellowship with the unfaithful CRCA remains an impediment for our unity with the RCNZ. Moreover, the CRCA are synodical. That hierarchical structure is still evident in the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA) today. Their Church Order states: “The decisions of assemblies shall be considered settled and binding.” That’s it. Full stop. The congregations and members must adhere to the major assembly’s decision, even if members believe the decision is contrary to Scripture and CO. The crucial words “unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order”, words that played such an important role in the Liberation of 1944, are missing in the CRCA’s Church Order. Appeals are possible but meanwhile the decision remains binding. Thereby the CRCA maintain the hierarchical position of their synodical forefathers.
[iv] Why would we insist on this? There is a good reason. Christ calls us to be united in the truth; that is, on the basis of His infallible Word. And if one church (federation) is unfaithful—as the CRCA have demonstrated themselves to be—then the unity we have in Christ is disrupted. Christ’s church is “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). That truth is the standard we hold one another to, also as churches. Faithfulness to God’s Word also governs our fellowship or unity with other churches.
[v] The RCNZ-CRCA sister-church relationship was never a true sister-church relationship. The CRCA does not know about sister relations but has only ‘ecclesiastical fellowship’ with other churches.
[vi] Deputies Reports to the 2015 Synod of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, June 2015, p. 264/5
[viii] see e.g. rules 1 & 2 of ‘Rules for Exercising Sister Relations’
[ix]Deputies’ Reports to FRCA 2015 Synod, pp. 290-294.