The most recent synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches convened on May 9 in the northern town of Smithers, BC to deal with appeals against decisions of minor assemblies and matters in common among the churches. Over the past years various synods have appointed committees to perform tasks on behalf and for the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC), especially in contact with other churches and federations. Reports from these committees also formed a significant part of the agenda for synod. Other committees that sent reports dealt with Bible Translations and the Book of Praise.
It is impossible in one readable article to touch on all the matters that were dealt with over a period of two weeks by six internal committees who provided proposals to the plenary sessions for final decisions. However, as the decisions that have been made affect the churches in common, as well as churches in ecclesiastical fellowship and especially churches seeking federative unity, a summary will be useful. To that end we will begin with the decisions made by Synod Smithers with regard to relations with other churches and federations.
Committee for Contact with Churches Abroad
Based on a common language and history, as well as the length of the relationship, an argument can be made that the churches in Australia are in many ways the closest to those in Canada. Hence it was no surprise that synod decided to maintain the existing relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship (EF) with the Free Reformed Churches in Australia. Appreciation was expressed for the continued support for, and the extensive use made of, the Theological College in Hamilton by the churches and members in Australia. The Standing Committee for the Book of Praise was also urged to maintain regular contact with the Australians.
The existing relationship of EF with the Free Reformed Churches in South Africa was maintained. Knowledge about these churches was enhanced by the presence of Rev. Klein. He gave a presentation to the congregation of Smithers and synod delegates about the circumstances of the churches in South Africa and their extensive mission work.
It was decided to continue the relationship of EF with the Free Church of Scotland (FCS), but to acknowledge that Synod Chatham 2004 had erred by “continuing” a relationship of EF with the Free Church Continuing (FCC) which, in fact, did not exist, and therefore to discontinue that relationship with them and to express regret for the error and any hurt that may have been caused.
A delegation of four highly placed officials in the Presbyterian Churches of Korea (PCK) (Kosin) also visited Synod. The size and presence of this delegation was intended to show the value which this federation of churches places on its relationship with the CanRC. Synod decided to continue the relationship of EF and express appreciation for the efforts made to visit our synod. The contact committee was mandated to work diligently on improving our relations with the PCK. They are to contact those sister churches who have relations with the PCK with the request that we alternate with them in visiting the General Assembly of the PCK. With regard to some outstanding differences the contact committee was mandated to send a copy of our agreement with the OPC to the PCK and to ask for their reaction and possible agreement to it.
Another long-standing relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship exists with the Reformed Churches – Liberated in the Netherlands. The splitting off of approximately thirteen congregations from this federation to form a small federation called the Reformed Churches – Restored has caused considerable unrest among the Dutch churches and has not left the Canadian churches unaffected. As the Restored federation claimed to be the legitimate continuation of the true church of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Netherlands, synod had a request from them to enter into a relationship.
Synod first dealt with the Liberated churches and decided that they continue to be faithful churches. At previous synods concerns had been expressed about the increased number of hymns being introduced into the Dutch churches. This time synod decided that this subject had been sufficiently discussed but wanted the contact committee to still send the reminder that the vast multiplication of hymns does nothing to advance the priority of psalm singing and places the principle to maintain it as a priority at risk. The committee was also instructed to pay attention to the content of the hymns.
A new mandate was given to the contact committee to discuss with their counterparts in the Liberated churches the new approach to divorce in order to get answers to the hermeneutical concerns highlighted by the committee in its report to synod with respect to “the style-ofthe-kingdom” approach to divorce and remarriage. Attention is to be paid to the suggested revision of the Church Order about discipline in cases of divorce and remarriage.
As a result of various concerns addressed to synod by a number of Canadian churches, the committee was also mandated to generally monitor the situation in the Liberated churches. At the same time synod expressed appreciation for the way the Liberated churches have sought to engage the new Restored churches in unity talks by means of an appeal by Synod Amersfoort.
Based on the decision that the Liberated churches remain faithful churches, synod logically concluded that those leaving such a federation are schismatic. Yet, seeing the concerns that have been expressed by a number of churches, previous Canadian synods, synods from other countries, and the additional concerns presently being expressed by concerned members within the Liberated churches themselves, a case was made that to accuse the Restored federation of being schismatic was too strong a term. However, after protracted discussion and two tie votes of 12 – 12 which defeated the amendments to omit or to ameliorate the strong language, it was concluded to maintain the position that to leave a faithful federation is schismatic. It follows that also the request from the Reformed Church – Restored to enter into a relationship with the CanRC was denied.
With respect to the Gereja-Gereja Reformasi Calvinis in Nusa Tengarra Timur (GGRCNTT), even though the church at Smithville informed synod that they have “a mission field in Timor and [have] regular contact with the GGRC through [their] missionary, Rev. Edwer Dethan, and through visits of several members of the Mission Board of Smithville to Timor,” synod decided not to accede to the request for EF until contact and discussions about these churches have been had with other churches in EF, especially the Australian churches. The contact committee was also urged to clear up a number of outstanding local issues.
Upon recommendation of the Committee for Contact with Churches abroad synod decided not to enter into EF with the Presbyterian Churches of Eastern Australia and to inform our Australian sister churches about this. Synod also declined EF with the United Reformed Churches in Myanmar and the Independent Reformed Church in Korea (IRCK). In both cases very little benefit would be derived from EF with these churches, while contact can still be experienced at ICRC meetings.
Synod did, however, accept the invitation from the Reformed Churches in New Zealand (RCNZ) to enter into a relationship of EF. It was also decided to send a delegate (delegation) to the next synod of the RCNZ in order to formalize relations and visit the churches. Rev. Agema, as chairman of synod, addressed Rev. Hoyt, the RCNZ delegate, and expressed thankfulness that we could enter into ecclesiastical fellowship with the RCNZ.
Committee for Contact with Churches in the Americas
The Committee for Contact with Churches in the Americas also reported on contacts and discussions it has had over the past three years. The Eglise Reformee du Quebec (the Reformed Church in Quebec) has been in discussion with the CanRC for many years. A few of the individual churches, and especially the church in Owen Sound, have established a strong relationship. There has been a desire to work toward EF for some years, but due to the relatively small numbers in the ERQ it is difficult for them to deal with all the questions and outstanding matters quickly. Although synod wavered on the issue for a time, it was decided to accept the offer of EF from these churches. Synod also charged the contact committee to express to the Interchurch Committee of the ERQ a willingness to provide encouragement and assistance in the adoption of the liturgical forms presently being reviewed in the ERQ and to respond if specific requests for assistance and advice are made about matters of confession, church polity, liturgy, and mission, as per the Rules for EF.
The contact committee had also been mandated to seek out the Korean Presbyterian Church in North America as they are affiliated with the Kosin church in Korea with which the CanRC presently has EF. However, synod decided not to renew this mandate with the consideration that even though the KPCA membership lives in North America, cultural and language barriers presently hinder contact.
The work of the contact committee with respect to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) has dealt with the establishment of a synopsis that deals with the history of the contact and discussions between the two federations about the differences that have been encountered. The synopsis wants to show the history and the progress of the discussions. Synod accepted the synopsis and appreciated the fact that it had been sent to the OPC for concurrence. Synod also pointed out that, as churches in ecclesiastical fellowship, there are presently a number of new issues within both the OPC and the CanRC that need each other’s attention. For example, both federations are working on a new or revised Song Book, both are in various stages of unity talks with the URCNA, both are working on revisions to their respective Church Orders. In an existing relation of ecclesiastical fellowship, these topics-of-the-day need attention as much as the outstanding matters of confessional membership and supervision of the Lord’s table.
It is interesting to note that synod did not always speak in one line. In some of the decisions, it was good to consider a mandate about broaching an issue with churches in EF to be concluded. Yet when it comes to the Reformed Churches in the United States (RCUS) synod spoke a different language. This difference has nothing to do with the church federation in question but a lot more to do with the synodical subcommittee that dealt with the different federations. Here it can be seen how the pressure of compressed time frames leads to failure to draw straight lines in all the deliberations and decisions. With regard to the RCUS synod thought the following (paraphrased for easier reading):
The contact committee has addressed the topics mandated to them by the previous synod, and requested that synod consider their work complete in relation to each topic. The churches that wrote to synod about the RCUS request that the topics not yet be considered closed. It is not necessary to state that discussion on particular topics is completed. In the dynamic of church life, opportunities to speak about differences between our federations will remain beneficial. As churches in ecclesiastical fellowship, we are obliged to “assist each other in the maintenance, defense and promotion of the Reformed faith in doctrine, church polity, discipline, and liturgy, and to be watchful for deviation” (Rule 1). As the contact committee carries out the CanRC’s responsibility towards the RCUS according to this rule, attention can continue to be given to the topics mentioned by the churches when necessary and appropriate.
It is gratifying to note that, while a young federation invariably has many difficulties to overcome, the Igreja Reformadas do Brasil (IRB) gives evidence of striving to go in the way of the Lord. Synod therefore expressed gratitude to the Lord for the continued desire and effort within the IRB to serve Him in sincerity and truth, and mandated the contact committee to continue the Relationship of EF with the IRB either directly or via the sending churches for mission work in Brazil.
While the contact committee has become acquainted with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) synod was not ready to enter in EF with this group of churches. Synod considered that Christ prayed that His followers would be one in faith. It is therefore the duty of His church to observe where the Lord Jesus Christ is busy gathering His church, and unite with those who are obedient to Him. Since the initial conclusion of the contact committee is that the RPCNA exhibits the marks of the church, we are called to consider further whether one can in fact recognize the RPCNA as a church of the Lord, and if so, to pursue unity. However, a number of churches suggested that the contact committee should be instructed to study the status and content of Testimony in the RPCNA, including what it says about the covenant. Concerns about exclusive psalmody ought to be investigated further, as ought their views on ordaining women as deacons. Hence the request to establish ecclesiastical fellowship with the RPCNA was considered premature.
Historically, the CanRC have declined to be involved with North American Reformed and Presbyterian Council (NAPARC) because the Christian Reformed Church of North America was a member. In 2002 the expulsion of the CRCNA from NAPARC was confirmed. In 2002 and 2003 CanRC observers first attended NAPARC, and reported positively to Synod Chatham 2004 of their experiences. The contact committee reported to Synod Chatham that this fellowship of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches is fully committed “to the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God written, without error in all its parts and to its teaching as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.” Similarly, “all actions and decisions taken are advisory in character and in no way curtail or restrict the autonomy of the member bodies.” The foundation and authority of NAPARC are not hindrances to membership. The current membership of NAPARC consists of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, l’Église Réformée du Quebec, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church of America, the Reformed Church in the United States, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the United Reformed Churches of North America. The CanRC have close contacts with five of these eight churches. The contact committee also reported that their participation at the meetings of NAPARC has given them opportunity to interact meaningfully with sister churches as well as with other churches with whom contact has been established. Issues of joint concern, as well as matters wherein differences exist, have been and can continue to be discussed in this forum. The committee was mandated to apply for membership in NAPARC.
Committee for Promotion of Ecclesiastical Unity
A special committee had been appointed several synods ago to deal with federative unity. This committee’s mandate deals mainly with the United Reformed, Free Reformed and Orthodox Reformed Churches. The fact that there has been little contact or interest from the latter two saddened synod and led them to mandate no further contact with those churches at this time. However with respect to the effort toward federative unity with the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA) much work had been done and appreciated. However, synod recognized the difficulty of establishing a definite time frame for the final act of federative unity, but encouraged the various committees to work diligently toward that goal.
There was expression of gratitude for the efforts of the three sub-committees that dealt with Theological Training, a Common Song Book, and a Revised Church Order. The main stumbling block that threatened progress appeared to be the desire in the CanRC to maintain a church-run seminary while the URCNA position was not to have such a seminary at all. Synod expressed appreciation for the fact that it can not be scripturally proven that a seminary must be operated by the church(es), however, based on a positive experience with this concept it maintained a strong preference for such a seminary in a proposed united federation, conceding that it need not be the exclusive training facility for future ministers.
In the matter of a common song book, synod continued to express a strong preference for a complete Anglo-Genevan Psalter within the Common Songbook; however it stipulated that this may not be a defining obstacle to federative unity. Synod also expressed appreciation for a suggestion by some of the churches about the possibility that “for every one of the 150 Psalms in the Book of Praise, one selection be made from the most loved and well-known psalms in the URC repertoire.” Other possibilities which include the 150 Psalms in the Book of Praise can also be considered. Synod further agreed that the Common Songbook should be the exclusively used songbook of the united federation but acknowledged that such a rule does not exclude exceptions, which would be regulated by a proposed church order.
Although a completed Common Songbook before federative unity is most desirable, a clear commitment to an eventual Common Songbook by both federations is sufficient to enter into federative unity. It should be remembered that at present churches in both federations are worshipping with accepted collections of psalms and hymns, and it is feasible to continue in this way in a united federation until a Common Songbook is attained.
Having received the Proposed Church Order and the four-column document of comparison, as well as the minority report, synod agreed that these documents should be sent to the churches for discussion and evaluation with a view to the eventual adoption of a Church Order by Synod 2010. Synod was grateful for the URCNA Protocol Procedure Proposal and is hopeful that the time frames expressed therein—including the recommendation of the proposal that the URCNA adopt the Proposed Church Order by 2010—can be met.
Although this has been a rather extensive list of contact with other churches, it is what the Canadian Reformed Churches are about at present. A large amount of the total time of synod was taken up by this work and a report about the synod with this coverage is just not accurate. As a matter of fact there were considerable submissions by individual churches interacted with by synod in its Considerations that may well be of value and interest to the reader. These can all be found in the Acts of Synod 2007 on the CanRC web site: www.canrc.org.
Other Items of Interest
Eighteen appeals from churches and individuals were addressed to synod. Some were considered inadmissible but most were answered. The Board of Governors of the Theological College in Hamilton recommended the establishment of a fifth professorate. This professor would function as a professor of Biblical and Theological Studies and would be appointed at synod 2010. However, synod thought that it would be better if the justification for an appointment were not recommended from within a department or school but from an external assessment. The recommendations from the Board of Governors do not have the required distance to give the sense of an objective recommendation.
Synod decided not to agree with the recommendation of the Board of Governors to add a fifth professor but to mandate the Board of Governors to initiate a full and independent review that considers all aspects related to the work of the College and that this review and its recommendations be presented to General Synod 2010. It also mandated the Board of Governors to review the appointment procedure for faculty members to insure transparency within the generally accepted academic appointment process. This review should include the possibility of appointing an academic search committee and a short list of candidates to be presented to the churches.
Synod Chatham 2004 gave the Committee for Bible Translations (CBT) the mandate to do a preliminary investigation of the English Standard Version (ESV) and to provide Synod 2007 with a report on the ESV translation, using input solicited from the churches. In its report the CBT stated that the ESV seems to “show a much greater respect for the Bible as the Word of God than the RSV.” They believe that the ESV is, in many respects, a considerable improvement over the RSV, especially in key matters of theology and text. However, given that Synod 1995 found that the RSV could no longer be recommended because there were “better translations available” and given that the ESV is built upon the RSV, the CBT wonders whether it is truly worth the time and effort to engage in a full investigation. Further, the CBT wonders how thorough the ESV revisions of the RSV truly are and gave some examples supporting their concern. The CBT believes that the churches are well-served by the New International Version (NIV). It stated that “after a decade of usage, our members are finally getting used to it and are making it their own.” They do not believe that it is healthy to frequently change the recommended translation of the Word of God for use in the churches. Since the last synod, the CBT has not received any communications from the churches in regard to problems with the NIV. This demonstrates that the vast majority of the churches in the federation are content with the NIV as the recommended translation for the churches.
Synod Fergus 1998 indicated that besides the NIV, other approved translations include the NKJV and the NASB. Synod decided to continue to recommend the NIV for use within the churches but to leave it in the freedom of the churches, should they feel compelled to use other translations that have received favorable reviews in the reports of the CBT, namely, the NKJV, the NASB or the ESV.
The request by one of the churches to include churches in EF in the discussion about Bible translations has merit, especially with respect to the work of the Common Songbook Committee. Working toward a common songbook for the CanRC and the URCNA will eventually require a common Bible translation for biblical passages cited in the confessions and liturgical forms.
The Standing Committee for the Book of Praise proposed twenty-eight new hymns. Synod approved them for testing in the churches over the next three years. Churches are encouraged to evaluate them and send their comments to the committee in time for it to deal with them in its report to synod 2010.
A letter from one of the churches requested that a committee be appointed to continue a study about the possibility of women voting for office bearers in the church. This matter had been studied twice in the past and many felt that no new grounds had been raised in order for this proposal to be admitted to the floor of synod. Yet, after considerable attempts by the synodical sub-committee to present something that synod could agree upon it was decided to accede to the request to appoint a committee to examine the biblical teaching on headship and voting and also study the following questions:
-With regard to headship: What is the position of widows and single female communicant members?
– With regard to headship: What is the relationship between husband and wife when they discuss who to vote for – doesn’t the husband therefore show and practice equality as joint heirs of the grace of God?
– With regard to voting: What do the Bible and our Church Order say about congregational participation in electing office bearers?
– With regard to voting: What is the relationship between congregational (a) nomination, (b) election process, (c) ratification/approbation, and (d) the final appointment by council?
The committee is to present its conclusions on this matter to the churches six months before the next general synod. For a more detailed understanding of the deliberations of Synod as well as a treatment of those items not dealt with in this article the interested reader is recommended to view http://www.canrc.org and click on Synod 2007.
Mr. Pete de Boer is an Elder in the CanRC at Willoughby Heights. He was one of twenty four delegates at Synod Smithers.