Sharing Reformed Christian Resources Around The World
Rev. D. G. Agema
Taken from Reformed Polemics Vol. 5, No. 17, June 1, 1999.
The decision of General Synod Fergus 1998 about the OPC has given cause for quite a few reactions. This does not come as a surprise. I don't think that the brothers at Synod 1998 were of the understanding that this decision would resolve all the differences about this matter. They felt that this was the responsible way of dealing with it. The churches now have to examine what they did. Some have already indicated their disapproval and have suggested that the decision must be appealed. There are also many who feel that Synod 1998 did the right thing. Prior to Synod 1998 we had our differences about it, and we still have them today. The number of submissions to the last few General Synods and their contents are a proof of this. It is therefore very important that we listen to each other.
General Synod 1998 maintained several decisions of previous Synods about our contact with the OPC, but it also indicated that the matters of admission to Lord's Supper and confessional membership must be resolved according to an agreement proposed by Synod (See Acts, pages 157, 158). If the OPC does not adopt this agreement, Synod decided that the next General Synod would have to reconsider the present relationship (Recommendation J).
Several brothers have criticized and questioned this approach. Although I can appreciate the direction that Synod 1998 took, I share the concerns expressed by others. I share their concern that as we seek unity with other federations we are making rules and conditions as we go along. Will we do the same with the United Reformed Churches? Then we have a very long and difficult road ahead. Is it indeed proper to come up with these kinds of agreements as we find out things about the other federations? I do not think so! On what basis do we seek unity? Is it not on the basis of Scripture and Confession? That is sufficient. When a federation pledges to abide by the word of God and the Doctrine of God's Word and also proves this in its actions and decisions, then we should not come up with more conditions. Rather, we should extend the hand of brotherhood, sincerely and honestly. You could compare it to admission into the church. What do we ask of those who want to join? Do we ask them to sign all kinds of agreements about confessional membership and supervision of the Lord's Table. No, we admit them when they promise and prove to be bound to God's Word and the Three Forms of Unity, no more, no less.
...as we seek unity with other federations we are making rules and conditions as we go along.
The trouble concerning the contact with the OPC is that since 1977 the churches have proceeded on two tracks: the one said, "you are a true church," the other said, "but no fellowship." Subsequent Synods have continued this two track system. It was the hope of Synod Abbotsford to get away from this. Synod Fergus has shifted the emphasis, perhaps, but continued on the same two-track system. I do not believe that this will solve the difficulties. We have to go deeper. We have to get rid of this two-track approach.
Allow me to work this out further. As Reformed Churches we put a lot of emphasis on the Confessions, and rightly so. We maintain that in the confessions the Church summarizes the true and complete doctrine of salvation. The Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. This means that when the church uses confessional language, she holds up the doctrine of Gods Word. This, in turn means that when you use this confessional language you are duty bound to abide by it and live up to it. Otherwise , what do your words mean? If the church publicly states, this is what the Confession says, but does not abide by it, she devaluates her own language. It will have far reaching consequences for the church. I believe that this is the case in our decision regarding the OPC.
In 1977 the CanRC made a decision regarding the OPC. Synod decided with thankfulness to recognize the OPC as a true Church of our Lord Jesus Christ as confessed in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession. (Acts 1977, Art. 91) Synod even referred to the Confession. We made a decision with our Confession in our hands. We said, "OPC, we recognize you as a church of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Word of God speaks about it." But then we decided not to live up to this decision, no pulpit exchange, no intercommunion. Here lies the problem. We have not lived up to what we said on the basis of God's Word and the Confession.
Now it is possible that having made the decisions in 1977, the churches came to serious doubts about this whole matter. But then you cannot maintain such strong language as we used in 1977, and at the same time not implement it. Indeed, it is one of two things; either we live up to the decisions of 1977 or we admit we were wrong in 1977. Our wrong as CanRC is that we have maintained that decision of 1977, but at the same time have refused to live up to it. This way you can make all kinds of agreements, but they sidestep the issue.
Either we should go to the OPC and say, "here is our hand of fellowship, we are one." But then we should also dare to admit that we have been wrong all these years. Or, we should go to the OPC and say, "we cannot maintain what we said in 1977 for these reasons." Then we also have to admit wrong for not saying this sooner. In light of the language used in 1977 we have no other way out. At the same time, whether we go ahead or break it off, an admission of wrong is in place.
Synod 1998 has not helped the churches by continuing on a two track approach. It maintains 1977, but at the same time puts conditions on the table that prevent full fellowship. That is wrong toward the OPC, it also has consequences for us. In maintaining this approach we continue to devaluate our confessional language. For what does it mean to say, you are church of the Lord Jesus Christ?
I see this devaluation reflected in the decisions of Synod as well. On page 153 of the Acts, (Consideration B.4.c) I read:
"It should be understood that there is no doubt that the divergencies need to be discussed on an ongoing basis. But it should then also be realized that they can be discussed within a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship. Meanwhile, no one in the Canadian Reformed Churches is bound to the Westminster Standards within such a relationship. The confessions of others may be of interest and value to all, but one is bound only to the confessions adopted by the federation of which one is a member or officebearer. Similarly, in a relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship, though the pulpits are in principle open, this is still by invitation only."
Apart from the question of whether these divergencies can be discussed within a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship (I don't believe it) Synod's consideration devaluates the binding to the confession. You can have your own standards, but another can have a different set. You can take or leave it. Sure you have to discuss, but what does that mean when you have accepted each other already? It sends the message, your confession can say this, but so what? In dealing with the ICRC, Synod it was rightly concerned about this, but now it does exactly what it warned against in Art. 52. We begin to legitimize what we have been doing with the OPC over the years.
The Consideration I just quoted comes back as part of Recommendation C. Moreover, that the differences between the three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards are not such that they prevent Ecclesiastical Fellowship but they are divergencies about which there can continue to be discussions among those who belong to Reformed Churches.
Synod maintained the decision of Synod 1992 in this regard (Acts 1992, Art. 72, V.B, page 5.5). Not only does it maintain this decision, it also broadens it. Synod 1998 speaks of a discussion among those who belong to Reformed Churches. Who are they? Are we still dealing with a sister-church relationship? Synod 1992 at least made it specific, it said this concerns the OPC. But now it is "those who belong to Reformed Churches". That is not only vague language, I see it as a proof of devaluation of confessional language.
Does all this mean I would favour entering into a sister church relationship with the OPC? Not at all. My point is that you cannot maintain 1977 and at the same time put up additional conditions. You are either duty bound to implement 1977, or you are duty bound to break it. Several brothers who voiced objections to Synod 1998 want to go the first way, I would defend that we have to go the second, the decision of 1977 has to be taken back. We have been wrong as churches to make it and maintain it. The basis on which I say this is the fact that the OPC maintains the Westminster Standards and the CanRC the Three Forms of Unity. Synod 1998 in the Consideration quoted above indicates that there is a difficulty between these two sets of standards. Why would you otherwise make such a consideration? But then you have to go further. The discussion has to deal with the question whether the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity can be put on the same level. If they can, then stop putting up conditions. If they cannot, then let's deal with that.
Now I know that Synod 1986 received a report dealing with these divergencies. Synod 1998 said that it is the ground for the 1977 decision. If that is so, then why put up conditions? In addition, that report submitted to 1986 had its conclusion already before the evidence was presented. Synod 1984 gave the Committee the mandate: "to publish, for the benefit of our Churches, a detailed evaluation of the confessional and church-political divergencies, showing proof that these divergencies do not form an impediment in recognizing the OPC as a true Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The mandate was not to evaluate and see whether there is no impediment. But to evaluate to prove that there is no impediment. The conclusion of that report was already determined before the report was written. My conclusion is that these two sets of Standards have not been properly evaluated.
A related question to this is whether the sister-church relationship as we had it at the time, and as it had developed over history was meant to cover a relationship between churches with different confessions and church orders.
That brings me to these two matters which Synod 1998 now wants to resolve by means of an agreement. I said earlier that this is not right. You accept each other on the basis of God's word and the Confessions. I share Synod's concerns about these matters, but I go a step further. These matters have everything to do with the Confessions. The way the Westminster speaks about the Church is not the same as the Three Forms of Unity. Therefore do not make a separate agreement and end up in long debates about the history of fencing the table or whether we ever had confessional membership, but go to the root - the difference in Standards.
We are all aware that we are not dealing with a minor issue. If we as churches maintain 1977, then we better stop making agreements for then we can be found opposing the Lord. I believe we have to go the other way. Admit our wrong in making the decision of 1977. Admit our wrong in not implementing it all these years. It is drastic, yes. but if before the Lord this is required, then we better do it. The first rule in the church of Jesus Christ is to be more obedient to God than to man. Then we can expect a blessing from the Lord.
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