What is happening to the Canadian Reformed Churches?

By John Vantil

November 10, 2007

It may be that the above title appears provocative.  How can anyone claim that the current situation in the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) is worse than the situation in the Netherlands Reformed Churches immediately before the Liberation in 1944?

Let me explain.

The Liberation of 1944

It is generally known that this Liberation was a result of the 1943-1944 General Synod imposing an unscriptural binding on the churches and on the members of the church.  This Synod enforced this binding by deposing professors, ministers and other officebearers when they refused to accept its unbiblical teachings relating to the covenant, election and baptism.

What is not so well known is that prior to the 1943-1944 Synod, the unbiblical teachings concerning covenant, election and baptism held a form of ecclesiastical status in the church.  In the years prior to 1944 the churches struggled with a number of pronouncements that were adopted by Synod 1905, more commonly known as the “Conclusions of Utrecht.” Although this Synod had considered that certain of these doctrines were “less correct,” the “Conclusions” did leave room to proclaim, as God’s Word, a number of unbiblical doctrines promoted by Dr. Abraham Kuyper relating to the covenant, election and baptism.  More detailed information about this can be obtained from The Liberation: Causes and Consequences, edited by Prof. C. VanDam, pages 6-20, and also Rev. W.W.J. VanOene’s book Patrimony Profile, pages 226-239.

During the 1930’s an intensive discussion arose in the churches over the legitimacy of these doctrines.  Each side had their publications and tried to win over their fellow church members to their point of view.  As a result numerous sources of information became available for those who were seriously concerned about the issues.  For further information about this period of church history see “Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church” by Rudolf van Reest.

During the Second World War, economic times became far more difficult and communication was almost impossible.  In those dark days church members continued to receive strengthening from the writings of men such as Dr. K Schilder.  Although communication was difficult, there was a desire on the part of ordinary church members to be informed as to what was happening in the churches.

We must note that Dr. Schilder and others who fought for the unity of the Church did seek to live in harmony with those who didn’t agree with them.  At the same time we need to remember that Dr. Schilder’s thinking went through a process of development and was affected by the times in which he lived.  He grew up in an environment where the “Conclusions of Utrecht” were generally accepted.

It was in this context that Dr. Schilder and others with him worked to expose and correct the erroneous teachings that had gained the upper hand in the church.  In his book “…and we escaped” Rev. G. VanDooren describes his struggle with the “Conclusions of Utrecht” and the impact of the Kuyperian doctrine of presumptive regeneration on the congregation at Wezep, of which he was a minister, prior to the Liberation.  Dr. S. Greijdanus submitted an Appeal to Synod 1943-44 against these “Conclusions of Utrecht” which had since been made binding by Synod 1939-42.  For details of Dr. Greijdanus’ Appeal see the booklet “The Broken Staff Called Union” edited by Rev. C. Bosch, Rev. W. Huizinga (editor) and J. VanDyk, pages 22 to 27 – the response by Synod is on page 28.

Dr. Schilder and others were looking for an environment in which the concerns that they had could be freely discussed.  This was impossible due to the political and ecclesiastical situation of that time.  The impact of the war on church-life was difficult in itself.  The actions of Synods 1939-42 and 1943-44, in taking on themselves the role of a “super-consistory” and adding to their agendas worsened the situation.

There is another characteristic of the 1944 Liberation that needs to be considered.  The extreme uncertainty of this period in time brought those of like mind close together.  Living in those perilous times, one never knew when one’s life would be taken away.  The war had an effect on the spiritual life of the people.  People risked their lives and reputations for the defense of the truth.  Dr. Schilder was in hiding from the Germans, and therefore could not personally defend himself before the 1943-1944 General Synod.  Rev. Douwe van Dijk stood alone at this Synod, and was even dismissed by it for his efforts to bring to it the truth of God’s Word (for more information relating to this see “My Path to Liberation” by Rev. Douwe Van Dijk, chapters 7, 8 and 9).

The aftermath of 1944

Those who liberated themselves in 1944 left behind the unscriptural doctrines that the followers of Dr. Abraham Kuyper had imposed on the churches.  At the first General Synod of the newly liberated churches in 1945 the “Conclusions of Utrecht” were set aside.

There were many people who believed that the 1944 Liberation was a disagreement between brothers of the same house.  In the period after 1945 through to the 1950s the Synodical churches made a number of revisions to the 1943-44 decisions.  By 1959 the Synodical churches had removed all the binding aspects of these decisions.  When this occurred a number of those who liberated in 1944 went back to the Synodical churches.

The ones who returned to the Synodical churches had liberated because of the binding that had been imposed on the churches.  They were not concerned about the wrong doctrine that was being taught.  Therefore when the binding was removed they felt free to return.  However a true reconciliation with the Synodical churches could not occur as long as this wrong doctrine continued to be permitted.  A reconciliation that would permit the wrong doctrine would deny the unifying character and content of our confession, and undo the gain in doctrinal understanding that was the fruit of the 1944 Liberation.

Rev. Clarence Stam writes, concerning the Synod of Dort 1618-1619, the Secession of 1834, the “Doleantie” of 1886 and the Liberation of 1944:  “In retrospect, the many battles in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands show a basic similarity:  the struggle to remain faithful to the Scriptures and the accepted confession (against human ideas) and the desire to preserve the freedom of the Churches in the unity of the federation according to the accepted Church Order (against hierarchy).”  (Everything in Christ, page 97).

What is happening today in the Canadian Reformed Churches?

In 1944 the General Synod acted in a dramatic and hierarchical manner by deposing professors, ministers and other officebearers, when it became apparent that these would not accept the synodical decisions.  The General Synod had imposed a “mind” and “mouth” control that was contrary, not only to the confessions, but also to the Church Order.  The members were denied the right they had under Article 31 of the Church Order to hold not “settled and binding” that which they had proven to be in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.

At first glance it appears that such dramatic and hierarchical action has not occurred in the CanRC federation.  We do not hear of CanRC professors, ministers or elders being deposed by general synods.  Therefore the current ecclesiastical situation would appear to be less serious than in 1944.

But is it?

We are confronted with the decisions of the CanRC General Synods to extend relationships of ecclesiastical fellowship with a number of churches that have been listed on the main page of this website.  We can add to this the decisions of Synod 2007 to extend relationships of ecclesiastical fellowship to the RCNZ and the ERQ.  In all of these cases we object to these relationships on the basis that these churches accept the practice of an improperly supervised Lord's Supper, promote the false doctrine of the pluriformity of the church, impair the authority of the office-bearers in maintaining discipline, and undermine confessional membership.

The acceptance and promotion of the above wrong doctrines and practices is similar to the acceptance and promotion of wrong doctrines in the churches in the years between 1905 and 1944.  It is now acceptable in the CanRCs to admit someone to the Lord’s Supper when it is not known whether this person professes the Reformed faith.  It is now acceptable in the CanRCs for sister churches to admit someone who does not believe what the church confesses to membership in the church.  If the CanRCs can permit their sisters to do this, how can they prevent it among themselves?  Can the CanRCs rely on an attestation that comes from such a sister church?  Is not this a double standard?

Numerous appeals have been presented to the General Synods on the question of ecclesiastical relationships.  A closer examination of some of these appeals will uncover some startling facts.  It is instructive to note that many Observations are not dealt with in the Considerations but are simply ignored.  How can justice be rendered if material that is presented to the major assemblies and to the consistories is not dealt with honestly and with integrity?

Elsewhere on this website the evidence has been presented how General Synod 2004 has dealt with the appeal of the CanRC at Abbotsford, and how this same church at Abbotsford has dealt with correspondence from concerned brothers in the church.  From this material it is evident that only a portion of the Abbotsford Appeal has been recorded in the Observations of Synod 2004 (see Acts, Article 86).   It is also obvious how only a small portion of the material that was presented to the church at Abbotsford by concerned brothers was actually dealt with by the consistory.

Isn’t this familiar?  This is also how Synod 1943-44 dealt with the previously mentioned Appeal by Dr. Greijdanus, along with the appeals of many others.

As in 1944, so also today, the consciences of the members are bound by the general synod decisions.  The difference is that the source for this binding does not come from the general synods, but from the consistories!  When consistories accept and implement these general synod decisions then the members are again confronted with a “mind” and “mouth” control.

This occurred in Lynden and in Abbotsford.  When concerned members spoke out against these decisions, and refused to participate in them, their appointment to office was withdrawn, they were deposed from office, they were publicly called to repent, and they were placed under church discipline.  The members’ right under Article 31 C.O. to hold not “settled and binding” that which they had proven to be in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order has been denied.  These actions were not taken by synods but by consistories!

Now worse than 1944?

Similar to the 1930’s and 1940’s, in the 1980’s and 1990’s there was considerable discussion in the ecclesiastical press.  Magazines such as Clarion and Reformed Polemics carried on vigorous debates over these matters.  Today, after a number of years’ hiatus Reformed Polemics has recently resurfaced, and discussion of certain issues in Clarion (regarding the relationship with the URC) appears to be beginning.  The material that was written in the 1980’s and 1990’s, concerning these ecclesiastical relationships appears to have been forgotten.

Unlike the situation in the 1940’s, it is evident that among the membership of the CanRCs there is little knowledge of or concern about unscriptural doctrine and practices.  “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).

This is a major difference.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s the discussion was focussed on the interpretation of doctrines contained in the Reformed confessions.  There was no question about whether the confessions themselves should be maintained.  There was no debate about whether the Three Forms of Unity should be upheld in the Reformed churches.  The debate was about the nature of biblical doctrine taught in the Three Forms of Unity.  There was no question that the members of the church had to be bound to the Reformed confessions.

Now there is very little debate.  The pressing question of whether the Three Forms of Unity are actually being maintained in the CanRCs is ignored (see my previous editorial, “Maintaining the Reformed Confessions”).  There is no realization that the acceptance of an attestation from a church that does not maintain the Reformed confessions presents a serious problem.  The acceptance of such an attestation undermines the binding and unifying character of the confessions on all of the members.

In 1944 the basis for resolution of doctrinal error was still accepted by all parties to be the reformed confessions, since all parties wished to be bound to them.  Today, however, the confessional basis for such a resolution is no longer maintained.

This is another major difference.

The issues of supervision of the Lord’s Supper and confessional membership did not come to the foreground in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  However they stare us in the face today.  At the same time, doctrinal divergencies, similar to the doctrinal errors against which Dr. Schilder and others fought so valiantly in the 1930’s and 1940’s, are reappearing in the CanRCs as a result of these ecclesiastical relationships.

Satan attacks, but he is subtle.  In 1944 he did so in a blatant manner.  Now it is less obvious as he is quietly chipping away at the foundation of the church.  As the confessional foundation of the church erodes the church collapses and she can no longer be a pillar and bulwark of the truth.  Where are the watchmen on the walls of Zion?

The decision by Synod 2001 to extend a relationship with the OPC was a unanimous decision, despite the fact that this relationship had been a source of debate for years and the confessional implications were widely known by those who were concerned.  The decision by Synod 2007 to relax the requirement for a federationally controlled seminary was also a unanimous decision (see Acts, Article 104), despite the fact that a church-controlled seminary was agreed to as a requirement in the 1892 Union.  This unanimity did not occur in 1944 (see my previous reference to Rev. Douwe Van Dijk at the 1943-44 Synod).

We live in a comfortable environment.  We have been spared the ravaging effects of war.  We have economic prosperity, major advances in technology and an active church community.  We value our social contacts, our recreational activities, and our vacations.  Why would we want to disturb this by bringing forward serious confessional divergencies?  After all, doctrine divides but service unites!

We didn’t have as much to lose in 1944.

Satan attacks.  The weapon of ridicule is particularly potent.  Who would want to be considered uncharitable or unloving to their brother or sister?  What will happen to those who are concerned?  The correspondence from the CanRC of Abbotsford serves as an example of what might happen to those who address their consistories about these matters.  Concerned members have been placed under discipline or threatened therewith, labeled divisive, perverse, obsessed, factious or malcontent (see consistory correspondence elsewhere on this website).  Standing up for the truth is not easy, even among brothers in the Lord. 

Is the ecclesiastical situation worse than 1944?  Yes indeed.  In 1944 the wartime situation strengthened the spiritual life of the members of the church. Approximately 10% of the membership joined the Liberated churches at that time. Today we have more serious issues, but there is no discussion and consequently no leadership.  We only hear that all those delegates at general synods cannot be wrong.  Trust them!  After all, they are the ones who are responsible for these decisions – not us.  Or are we?

Do we live in fear of losing our social standing, those we care about, or the economic position we have been given?  Did we forget that the Lord gave us all these things?  What then does the Lord require of us when the honour and glory of His Name is at stake?  What did we agree to when we made public profession of our faith?  Did we not promise “steadfastly to continue in this doctrine in life and death, rejecting all heresies and errors conflicting with God’s Word?

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save” (Psalm 146:3).

Our Lord requires faithfulness and obedience to His Word.  We are responsible.  “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

When it became clear that consistories would not consider the Scriptural, confessional and Church Orderly material placed before them, concerned members in Lynden and Abbotsford completed their rejection of a binding to unscriptural ecclesiastical decisions and to an unbiblical doctrine by liberating themselves.  It happened in 1944 and it has happened again.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13).  We can only acknowledge with thanksgiving the work of our Lord and Saviour.  He will defend and preserve His Church to the last Day!