To the reader of this column:
This column is rather different this month than the usual. Several months ago, I wrote a couple of articles on the subject of Biblical ecumenicity. In them, I pleaded for local churches like yours, and challenged elders and deacons like you, to pursue ways in which the Biblical unity of the Body of Jesus Christ could be given local expression.
I was asked recently by the CRC Interchurch Relations Committee to serve as Fraternal Delegate to the PCA General Assembly which would be meeting during the 3rd week of June in my “back yard” at the Dallas Airport Hyatt Hotel. That appointment would involve bringing the greetings of the eRe denomination to a “church in ecclesiastical fellowship (in short, to a denomination with whom we have formal “fraternal” (brotherly) ties. We together belong to NAPARC (the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council); we share the legacy and heritage of the Reformation; and we stand historically close in our commitment to articulate the Reformed Faith to this worldly culture.
A bit of recent history will help you understand some of the importance of this relationship, and thus of the address included below. TheCRC has been “wrestling” for some 23 years over the matter of women in ecclesiastical office, now forbidding the practice, now allowing it, going back and forth like a badminton birdie. The worst dimension of the issue has to do with the fact that the two views represent two contrasting (I would say “conflicting”) hermeneutic approaches to Scripture. Simply put, the options are these: do we listen to the specific words of texts like I Timothy 2:11f., or do we believe God speaks clearly through the general direction we infer from passages like Galatians 3:28? To put it differently, does the general direction of God’s perceived redeeming program (thought 10 be revealed in Gal. 3:28) override the specific commands in passages like I Timothy 2:11?
This year, the synod of the CRC met, beginning the week prior to the PCA General Assembly. On Monday and Tuesday, June 19 and 20 the CRC would make a momentous decision allowing its classes and congregations to ordain women to all offices of the church. The very next day I was to address the General Assembly, which had, in recent years, joined with several other fraternal denominations and addressed rather strong letters to previous CRC synods, rebuking them for their failure to stand (or the historic Reformed hermeneutic and practice in regard to this issue and related issues. In short, I was to address a body of believers that had a history with the CRC over this very issue.
In that context, what is one to say? My answer was to be rather simple. Biblically, the concept of brotherhood within the family of believers has several dimensions. First, brothers are related by their common faith, their common confession, their common belief system. Second, brothers live and work together. Finally, brothers hold each other accountable. Luke 17:3 contains Jesus’ powerful instructions to His disciples regarding these things: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.”
With this in mind, my address sought to celebrate the first two dimensions of our fraternity: our common faith, our joint labors, and our common experiences as we have lived and labored together over the 23 years of the PCA’s existence. At the same time, and given the urgent and faithful concern of this denomination for the CRC and her Scriptural fidelity, I sought to challenge the brothers in the PCA to fulfill the other dimension of the responsibilities of fraternity—to hold us accountable.
Those same issues lay heavy upon you in your walk with other believing church communities in your cities and towns. You cannot, you may not, live and work with an attitude of presumptive arrogance, believing that you witness as church is the only expression of faithfulness in the world today! You must find those believing brothers and sisters with whom you can Biblically cooperate on matters of faith, obedience and prophetic strategy. But in doing so, you must understand your responsibilities to such brothers. That’s why I reprint this speech. Fraternal relationships between churches are wonderful, so long as they are Biblical. I would suggest that the Bible demands that we hold each other to mutual accountability.
I hope this brief address, although very specific in its target, will challenge you to think about these questions: What would you say to those churches with whom you are closest? What would you celebrate with them? On what issues would you challenge them? How would you pray for them?
Dr. John R. Sittema, Bethel CRC, 6506 Frankford Rd., Dallas, TX 75252.
ADDRESS TO PCA GENERAL ASSEMBLY
BY CRC FRATERNAL DELEGATE JOHN R. SITTEMA Grapevine, Texas June 21, 1995
Dear Brothers in Our Lord Jesus Christ,
I bring you the greetings of your brothers and sisters in the Christian Reformed Church of North America and pray that the King of the Church will guide you in the business you transact in His Name in these days.
As I stand before you today, my task is bittersweet.
On the one hand, we have together tasted the sweetness of close and cooperative fraternity.
1. What a sweet joy it has been to revel in our common commitments and labors:
• to being churches of Confessional integrity, you in your loyalty to the Westminster Standards, we in our loyalty to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. Such standards are increasingly important as witnesses to unchangeable doctrinal truthfulness in an age characterized by relativism, and in the midst of churches which are “blown about by every wind of doctrine.” I believe with increasing conviction that they are most effective discipleship tools in an evangelistic setting.
• to joint diaconal works and witness (e.g. Bethany Christian Services, joint labors in defense of the family and in support of adoption as a positive alternative to the wickedness of abortion).
• to educational enterprises, especially evident in our mutual strong support for Christian schools from K through college. I commend you on the excellence of your Covenant College, which several of the members of our local CRC have attended, and in which they have been nurtured and blessed. We, with long commitment to strong support for Christian schools including the support of several colleges, rejoice in such institutions. I also commend you on the many seminaries in which you have a hand. Your commitment to the training of ministers of the Word of God is noteworthy and matches our commitment to a well-equipped pastorate.
2. What a sweet blessing to share common experiences. My own personal life has been significantly intertwined with many dear brothers and sisters of the PCA:
• You have taught me: Dr. John Werner, of your fraternity, taught me Greek in college many years ago; additionally, I attended post-graduate studies at Westminster in CA a decade ago, and was blessed immeasurably by PCA brethren both at that time and subsequently.
• You have cared for family and friends: brother Tom and family now reside in Charlotte, N.C., and worship happily and with great blessing at Christ Covenant PCA.
• You have labored alongside of me: over the course of the years, many CRC pastors and I have enjoyed wonderful fraternity in cooperative ventures in our various communities.
• You have encouraged and advised us: wise and thoughtful assistance in our local efforts to begin a Christian day school was sought and received from Colleyville, TX, PCA and Christ Covenant PCA in Charlotte, NC.
But there is also the bitterness of the reality that we are (as Berkhof said it) part of the church militant. In fact, there is no fraternal responsibility greater than that of standing alongside brothers and sisters in the spiritual battles of the day. Ephesians 6 teaches us that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers. Indeed! In Acts chapter 20 the Apostle instructs us about the nature of the foes: both the savage wolves of the world whose teeth rip and tear at the sheep of the flock, and the doctrinal corruption of the faith from within the body of believers. The teeth of the “savage wolves” in our day represent those worldly ideas and philosophies that attack all Christ’s followers, irrespective of denomination: secularism, feminism, relativism, materialism. Likewise, we together live amid a church world in which the primacy of Biblical doctrine is replaced by “relevance,” and priorities of the church’s task are compromised by “pragmatism.” Together we must stand against such attacks.
You have been faithful brothers in these things, standing firm with us in the face of the challenging issues of the day. You have addressed us in recent years Biblically and most appropriately in our seeming perpetual struggle over the issue of women in ecclesiastical office and other related hermeneutical and doctrinal issues. You have sought always to hold us accountable to Scripture. I thank you for that.
Would that I could report that our struggle with the issue of women in office has been laid to rest, and that in complete peace and unity in God’s truth. In fact, however, the last 48 hours have revealed that our struggles are not over. Last year, the Synod of the CRC took a decision in harmony with the desire expressed in your fraternal communication; over the last two days, the Synod of 1995 has reversed 1994, declaring that two hermeneutically different positions on women in office are both acceptable within the boundaries of our denomination, and that each classis may choose to declare “inoperative” the Church Order article that prohibits the ordination of women to the offices of minister and elder. Since this action avoids amending the formal and relevant Church Order article, ratification by a subsequent synod is not required.
While the decision was taken and will be defended by many as a way to “put this divisive issue to rest among us after 23 years,” many others expect that this decision will further the deep divisions that tear at the fabric of our denominational unity. Since you have written to us in recent years about these issues, I am sure you are exasperated with us; I am too. I am sure you are frustrated with us over our inability to stand firm, as we seem to change positions with each passing year; I am too.
We are the church militant. Because our spiritual battle is not over, yours with us is not over either. Dr. Barker referred in his sermon last night to Francis Shaeffer’s plea that we “put the chasm in the right place”—between church and world, not between Christ’s true disciples. Calvin called it “the great void.” The point is that, despite your frustrations with us, I have been sent as a fraternal delegate. By that word, we testify that you are our brothers, and we yours. You must still pray with us and for us that our witness to Biblical truth will not waver, will not be compromised; you must hold us accountable, as we must you, to that Scriptural standard that transcends any synod or General Assembly’s decisions. Those are brotherly duties! The words of Luther at the Diet of Worms ring as true today as they did onApril 18, 1521 when he spoke them in answer to Eck, the prosecutor, and the emperor himself:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.
I would plead with you, brothers, to stand by such commitment yourselves, to stand with us in our professed and confessional commitment to the selfsame Word of God, and where need be, to stand up to us (in the face of our repeated contradictory decisions and statements), to hold us accountable to that Word as we co-labor in a world that so desperately needs unshakeable truth in an age of relativistic confusion.
May you be found faithful in all you do in these days of your General Assembly; may Christ be honored by the love and devotion you demonstrate for Him and for His Word; and may you be instrumental in the coming of the Kingdom of Christ.
For the Christian Reformed Church in North America,
Dr. John R. Sittema