By John Vantil
July 17, 2008

Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction
in keeping with the prophecies once made about you,
so that by following them you may fight the good fight,
holding onto faith and a good conscience.
Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith.
(1 Timothy 1:18,19, N.I.V.).

In recent months many of you may have questioned the legitimacy of the secessions from the Canadian Reformed Churches which have occurred in Lynden and Abbotsford, and about which much has been written on this website.  Recently a document was placed on this website that was described as an Act of Secession and Return.

This document highlights numerous instances of federative and local corruption within the Canadian Reformed Churches that result from consistories’ acceptance and implementation of general synods’ decisions to establish relationships of ecclesiastical fellowship with a number of churches.  This document refers to various articles of the Three Forms of Unity and the Church Order that no longer are being maintained by the Canadian Reformed Churches as a result of these decisions.

Although there is a substantial amount of information available on this website, questions are still being asked. What gives these people the right to leave the church and could these people have fulfilled their task better within the Canadian Reformed Churches?  Are these people usurping the authority of the consistory?  Did these people act schismatically by breaking the unity of the church?  And are the issues at stake really worth seceding over?

Before we answer these questions we need to consider the scriptural, confessional, and church orderly basis for this Act.”

Scriptural Basis

The relevant section in the Act is “in consideration of the fact that we are called to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), “holding on to faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19a).

We focus on the latter text, together with the context that is evident from the preceding verse as quoted under the title of this editorial.  What is it to “contend for the faith” or to “fight the good fight”?  And what is it “to hold onto faith and a good conscience”?

William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker offer the following commentary on the above passage of Scripture (the following are quotations from Baker’s New Testament Commentary – available on CD):

            “My child Timothy, I wish to remind you of these prophetic utterances,” says Paul as it were, in order that with their aid you may war the good (or noble or excellent) warfare. Timothy is viewed as a high-ranking officer, who has received his “orders,” and is “warring his warfare” (see I Corinthians 9:7; II Corinthians 4:4; 19:3) against evil, particularly against the Satan-inspired perversion of doctrine described in verses 3–12 (cf. I Timothy 6:12; II Timothy 4:7; Ephesians 6:10–20). In this warfare reflection on former prophecies can be very encouraging (see N.T.C. on John 16:1, 4). They remind one of the fact that nothing happens contrary to the eternal decree of God, that one is engaged in a battle which is not merely his own but the Lord’s, and that courage and faithfulness will certainly be rewarded.

The manner in which this warfare must be carried on is now set forth: holding on to faith and a good conscience.  Timothy is admonished to hold faith, that is, to hold on to it.  In warring his warfare against errors and errorists he must keep clinging to the truth of the gospel. The fact that the word faith here in verse 19 means truth is clear from II Timothy 2:17, 19. By living and teaching in accordance with this truth, remaining firm and steadfast in the midst of all opposition, Timothy will be obeying the voice of conscience. For the meaning of “a good conscience” see on verse 5. Paul continues: (the kind of conscience) which certain individuals have discarded and have suffered shipwreck with reference to their faith.

A Christian must be both a good soldier and a good sailor. Now a good sailor does not thrust away or discard the rudder of the ship. The good conscience — one that obeys the dictates of the Word as applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit — is the rudder, guiding the believer’s vessel into the safe harbor of everlasting rest. But “certain individuals” (the Ephesian heretics; see on verse 3) have discarded that rudder.  The inevitable result was that with reference to their faith — the truth which they had confessed with their lips; the name of Christ which they had named (see on II Timothy 2:17–19) — they suffered shipwreck. If even literal shipwreck is agonizing, as Paul had experienced (Acts 27:39–44; II Corinthians 11:25), how much more to be feared is religious shipwreck!

In their commentary on verse 5 they explain the meaning of “a good conscience” as follows:

            Conscience is man’s moral intuition, his moral self in the act of passing judgment upon his own state, emotions, and thoughts, also upon his own words and actions whether these be viewed as past, present, or future. It is both positive and negative. It both approves and condemns (Romans 2:14, 15).

            It is in the believer that conscience attains its highest goal. For the regenerated individual God’s will, as expressed in his Word, becomes “the Lord of conscience, its Guide and Director” (I Peter 2:19). The “conscience good” of which the apostle speaks here in I Timothy 1:5 is more than merely a “clear conscience.” Rather, it is the conscience which:
a) is guided by God’s special revelation as its norm;
b) pronounces judgments that are accepted, and issues directives that are obeyed;
c) produces “godly sorrow which works repentance unto salvation” (II Corinthians 7:10), a salvation by means of which “the love of God is spread abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). And God’s love evokes the response of love.

The positive aspect of a really “good” conscience is faith, for a good conscience not only abhors the wrong but embraces the right. Such faith is true and genuine. It is not mere play-acting, “a vile conceit in pompous words expressed,” a mere mask, like the one which an actor puts on and under which he hides his real self. Was Paul contrasting living faith with the “faith”(?) of the ring-leaders among the errorists? However that may be, the faith which he has in mind is “a true knowledge of God and of his promises revealed to us in the gospel, and a hearty confidence that all my sins are forgiven me for Christ’s sake” (Compendium to the Heidelberg Catechism, answer 19). Such faith results in love.

The substance, accordingly, of verse 5 is this: the essence of the charge given to you, Timothy, which you by public preaching and private admonition must convey to the Ephesians is, “Pray and strive daily to obtain a pure heart, a conscience good, and a faith without hypocrisy, in order that these three, working together in organic co-operation, may produce that most precious of all jewels, love.”

From the above quotations it is evident that “a good conscience” is rooted in the truth of God’s Word, which one must hold onto with a pure heart and without any hypocrisy, and without which one will make shipwreck of his faith.  When a person is confronted with unscriptural general synod decisions, as accepted and implemented by his consistory, does he not have the obligation to act, for the honour and glory of the Name of the Lord, his own salvation, and the salvation of his descendents?

Confessional and Church Orderly Basis

The relevant section in the Act is “in accordance with Article 32 of the Belgic Confession, “We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded.  Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.  We accept only what is proper to preserve and promote harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God.  To that end, discipline and excommunication ought to be exercised in agreement with the Word of God.”

The confession considers the possibility that churches may make decisions which “bind and compel the consciences.”  The acceptance of and participation in such decisions by members of the church would ultimately cause them to make “shipwreck of their faith.”  Such decisions do not “keep all in obedience to God,” but rather result in a suppression of the truth and force members to hold onto the church “institution” rather than to the truth of God’s Word.

As we confess in Lord’s Day 12, Q & A 32, of the Heidelberg Catechism, we may “as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life.”  This charge includes the fight against decisions that involve unscriptural compromise.  When faced with such compromise the members’ first responsibility is to testify against these decisions and to explain how they are contrary to the Word of God.  That is holding onto the truth of God’s Word with a pure heart.  At the same time, for the sake of their conscience, when testifying against these decisions members cannot participate in the consequences of these decisions.  For example, if unity in true faith is one of the conditions for participation in the Lord’s Supper, as set out in the Form, it becomes impossible to participate when this required unity is absent.  Participation in a decision, which one knows to be wrong, can only be an act of hypocrisy.

It can also happen that a consistory feels compelled to use the tools of church discipline and excommunication to enforce its decisions.  But when such tools are used to enforce decisions that are unscriptural, and to silence the testimony that is brought against such decisions, these tools are no longer used “in agreement with the Word of God.”  This happened in the Netherlands in 1942, as Rev. G. VanDooren writes in his book …and we escaped.  The synod then had effectively decided that, “If one cannot, for conscience sake, convinced by God’s Word, submit, then there is no place anymore for you in the Church of Jesus Christ” (page 66).  These tools were then used to promote the lie and to suppress the truth of God’s Word.

The Act also cites specific examples of federative corruption in the preaching, in the use of the sacraments, in the use of church discipline, in the government of the church and in the integrity of the process of appeal under Article 31 of the Church Order.  All of these examples impact the marks of the church as we confess them in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.

It is also stated in this Act that “we cannot consider “settled and binding” matters that are “proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order” (Article 7 of the Belgic Confession, Article 31, C.O.).”  The Church Order here provides legitimate recourse for those who are confronted with unscriptural decisions.

In their book Decently and in Good Order, (see pages 64-65) Prof. K. Deddens and Rev. G. VanRongen state that:
"After one has gone the full ‘ecclesiastical way’ … one has either to accept the latest decision as yet - which does not create any insurmountable difficulties whenever it is not a matter of conscience - or he has to ‘liberate’ himself from the binding decision.  The latter way had to be followed when the general synod of the forties in the Netherlands took decisions which were indeed in conflict with the Word of God and with the Church Order, and when they interpreted the word ‘unless’ in Article 31 as ‘until’ – which does not make any sense as we have shown in the above lines, and led to moral constraint."

In his book Patrimony Profile, Rev. W.W.J. VanOene also addresses this issue.  He writes (page 362):
Article 31 C.O. gives a member the right not to consider a decision by an ecclesiastical assembly settled and binding, if it should conflict with God’s Word or with the articles of the Church Order.”  He continues (page 363) “It is even more obvious that a decision which conflicts with the Word of God has to be rejected.  Are we not taught that we must obey God rather than man?  And does the Lord not tell us in His Word that man by nature is far from trustworthy, to put it mildly?  One must, of course, be firmly convinced that such a conflict exists indeed, and one must prove it too.  But no one has the right to compel the consciences and no one is obligated to consider a decision that is in conflict with the Word of God settled and binding until his proof has been accepted.  Such a demand would make a mockery of the ‘unless’ of Article 31 C.O.

Secession in Abbotsford – One Year Later

At the beginning of this editorial a number of questions were asked.  What gives these people the right to leave the church and could these people have fulfilled their task better within the Canadian Reformed Churches?  Are these people usurping the authority of the consistory?  Did these people act schismatically by breaking the unity of the church? And are the issues at stake really worth seceding over?

Leaving the church?
Those who seceded in Abbotsford did not leave the church.  Secession became necessary when it became evident that the consistory of the Canadian Reformed Church at Abbotsford had hardened itself in its unscriptural position.  The consistory there had stated that “we consider the matter finished” (see letter dated May 31, 2007 elsewhere on this website).  Without explanation, the consistory had reversed its own position as expressed in its appeal to General Synod 2004.  This position was that the decision to recognize the OPC as a sister church “conflicts with the Word of God and the Church Order” (see the text of Abbotsford’s Appeal to General Synod 2004 elsewhere on this website).

Instead the consistory proceeded to implement the unscriptural decisions (through accepting and issuing attestations, pulpit exchange, admission to the Lord’s Supper, etc., of members and ministers of churches in improper relationships of ecclesiastical fellowship) while ignoring the objections which had been brought forward.  Consistory also withdrew the appointment to office of an elder and employed the tool of church discipline to suppress those who were acting consistent with their conscience.  By these actions the consistory sought to muzzle those who were faithfully testifying to the truth.  In all this it became increasingly evident that the Canadian Reformed Church at Abbotsford had ceased to be a church of our Lord Jesus Christ and that an act of secession was required to preserve the church in Abbotsford.

Usurping authority?
It is clear that consistories do not have authority to bind the members under their care to unscriptural decisions.  When they do, the consistories bear responsibility for the schism in the church, for it is the consistories that have broken the unity of the church.  This happened in the Netherlands in 1944 when many consistories accepted unscriptural decisions that were imposed on them by the general synods.  This also happened in the Netherlands of the 1960’s (see article elsewhere on this website) when many consistories refused to be bound to general synod decisions that were indeed based on the Scriptures.

The words of Professor Kamphuis still hold true today, that the Reformed churches have always made a clear distinction between a scriptural patience in case of a lack of understanding and an unscriptural tolerance of false doctrine (Prof. J. Kamphuis, “The Short Meaning of a Long Story:  The Schism Unmasked” translated by Rev. W. Pouwelse, Lux Mundi, December 1988 issue, p.5).  We see that in the Netherlands today the sister churches of the Canadian Reformed Churches (the GKV) have come full circle.  There the general synod decisions that were based upon the Scriptures in the 1960’s are ignored today so that a sister church relationship could be reestablished in the 2000’s with those who do not want to be bound to the reformed confessions.

Those who have seceded are charged with the act of schism.  However, as in 1944, the schism has been caused by consistories’ acceptance of unscriptural decisions that were entered into by general synods.  And this time there are very few, if any, consistories that are rejecting these unscriptural decisions.  The more recent general synod decisions do not take into account previous general synod decisions that were indeed Scriptural.

For example General Synod 1965 (Acts, Article 141, II) considered that "Correspondence with Churches abroad should not be entered into, until upon a conscientious and serious investigation, it has become apparent that these Churches not only officially embrace the Reformed confession and church polity but also in fact maintain them."  Consistent with this decision, a proposal or overture was sent by Classis Pacific in April 1971 to Synod 1971 to have Deputies, eg. “explain to the OPC that the unity of the faith between the churches requires agreement in one another’s confessions and church polity and the maintenance thereof” (see text of the 1971 Classis Pacific decision elsewhere on this website).

The churches were also confronted with the decisions of Classis Ontario South that “in the case of the OPC, the historical developments surrounding this case warrants a calling of the OPC to repentance and a breaking of the present relationship if this repentance is not forthcoming” (see March 1986 report to Classis) and “the Tri-County Reformed Church had rightfully separated herself from the OPC” (see March and December 1987 press releases from Classis Ontario South elsewhere on this website).  None of the Canadian Reformed Churches have appealed these decisions, which were indeed consistent with the decision of Synod 1965.  Initially, there were a number of appeals against the decisions of general synods 1992 and 2001 that entered into the unscriptural ecclesiastical relationships.  Although these went unheeded without any Scriptural grounds, the consistories have, for the most part, now accepted these unscriptural decisions.  Clearly the responsibility for the present schism lies with the local consistories.

Worth a secession?
The above points bring to light a serious lack of confessional integrity in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  This lack of confessional integrity is also identified by Rev. C. Bouwman in his “A Bit to Read” dated June 8, 2007 entitled “Partnership in Quebec.”  He writes that the council of the Canadian Reformed Church at Yarrow “recommended to Synod that “the outstanding issues, namely, confessional membership, supervision of the Lord’s Supper and supervision of the pulpit should be concluded before we enter into Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the ERQ.”  As it turns out, Synod Neerlandia (2001) had decided that the issues needing further discussion with the OPC (two of the three were the same; see Acts 2001, Art. 45) should be further discussed after Ecclesiastical Fellowship had been established.”

However Rev. Bouwman does not reckon with the fact that all the churches that now accept the decisions to extend ecclesiastical fellowship to churches that do not maintain the reformed confessions, do so in violation of their own acceptance of the Synod 1965 decision.  More importantly, the acceptance of decisions to extend ecclesiastical fellowship to churches that do not maintain the reformed confessions result in the Canadian Reformed Churches themselves not maintaining the reformed confessions. In addition, the officebearers in these churches who accept these decisions are also in violation of their commitment under the Subscription Form.  In this Form they promise “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine”, “reject all errors which militate against this doctrine” and to “exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors”  (see Rev. W.W.J VanOene, With Common Consent, page 120).

When the churches that reside in the relevant classical region accept these decisions, they do so contrary to the Classis Pacific 1971 or the Classis Ontario South 1987 decisions which were in line with General Synod 1965.  Similar to what happened in the Netherlands of the 1960’s and what is currently happening in the Netherlands in the 2000’s, the previous general synod decisions are now being ignored by the consistories.  As a result the consistories now persist in continuous violation of their own commitment under Article 44 of the Church Order, which is to ensure that the “decisions of the major assemblies are being honored.”

Clearly, the general synods from 1992 on do not take into account the decisions of previous synods regarding the entering into of ecclesiastical relationships.  As a result the consistories can “cherry pick” the general synod decisions they wish to follow.  However consistories are responsible to ensure that all general synod decisions are in accordance with Scriptures, the reformed confessions and the Church Order.  When the churches accept general synod decisions that have been proven to be in conflict with Scripture, with the reformed confessions or with reformed church polity, they lose their reformed character and as a result these churches can no longer be considered reformed.

The underlying matters had been appealed at numerous general synods, without success.  The process of appeal provided for under Article 31 C.O. had been completed; therefore the responsibility to the rest of the federation was also complete.  The only matter in question was whether consistory, as the highest authority in the church, would liberate itself from these unscriptural decisions and maintain the reformed character of the church.

A Good Conscience

When it became obvious that the consistory, as a body, had decided to sustain these unscriptural decisions, and had refused to consider the evidence that was presented against these decisions, secession not only became an option, but also a duty.  As we confess in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession “it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate from those who do not belong to the church …”.

How can the members agree to be bound to contradictory general synod decisions with a good conscience?  And what must the members do when placed in this situation?  Can they participate in these unscriptural decisions, to obey consistory, even though their conscience testifies to them against these unscriptural decisions?  As Prof. S. Greijdanus writes in Bound Yet Free, edited by Prof. J. De Jong (pages 63-64), that:

The apostle Paul, for instance, did not write to the Galatians that they should continue to entrust themselves, for the time being, to the false teachers and their preaching, until he himself could come to them and straighten everything out again. Without any attempt to mollify them, without any compromise or postponement he said, as sharply as possible, 'But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one which you received, let him be accursed,' Galatians 1:8. When? Later? In a little while? After this or that? May or should matters continue for the time being? No, now, immediately. 'As we have said before, so now I say again, If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed,' Galatians 1:9. The apostle knows nothing of temporarily permitting and acquiescing in what conflicts with the Word of God, until others too will share your insight, and will admit, that this or that preaching, that this or that synodical decision, conflicts with the gospel of God, the Holy Scriptures. Everyone has his own responsibility, which cannot be passed off to others. Everyone must judge for himself, must decide now, when something does not conform to God's Word, to reject it and to break with it, not continuing with others in the wrong. No synod, no church federation affords you any excuse. People are not the lords of the church. Christ is its absolute owner and commander.

Humanly speaking, the prospect of secession is dreaded by anyone who considers it.  If we could avoid this step we certainly would.  Reformation is not easy.  Who would want to take that on himself?  However we must remember that secession is not our work but the work of the Lord. When, as it is stated in the “Act,” “Submission to … ecclesiastical decisions … brings us into conflict with what God teaches in His Word …” and “with what the churches have agreed to concerning the order of the Church …”, we can understand how secession becomes a necessity out of faithfulness and obedience to God’s Word.  As in 1944, 1834, and the time of Martin Luther, so also today the Lord uses our conscience to convict us so that we will not be bound to or participate in unscriptural decisions and practices.

As we read in Hebrews 12:7a, we are to “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.”  And in verses 11-13 we read that “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Therefore strengthen your feeble arms and your weak knees.  Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

Last year in Abbotsford the Lord, by His grace alone, led a small number of members to see their responsibility to liberate themselves from the consistory’s binding to unscriptural decisions.  We know that there is nothing special in these members.  They are not any more righteous than those who have remained behind.  Instead these members continue to pray that more people will come to see their responsibility.  These members have been freed from unscriptural doctrine and unscriptural binding to serve the Lord with a good conscience, in confessional integrity and in true unity of faith.

We must all hold onto a good conscience, otherwise we make shipwreck of our faith.  Therefore “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He Who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:22-23).