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Churches Abroad: Caring for Each Other

Churches Abroad: Caring for Each Other 

We’re all used to the fact that members of a given congregation are meant to look out for each other.  We call it the communion of saints, and so pray for each other, encourage each other when the going gets tough, admonish each other when we observe one dropping the ball or embracing sin, give each other physical support, etc, etc, as the case might be.

The Lord’s church gathering work is not at all limited to His church in Yarrow.  We recognize the Lord’s work across the Valley and over the country, and so form a federation with other churches of the Lord.  As Canadian Reformed Churches together, we support each other in whatever way is necessary, be it in giving financial support to a needy church, be it giving each other advice or encouragement or even a reprimand at classis, etc.  We understand that that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  It’s something of the communion of saints on the national level.


The same concept works internationally.  Since the Lord gathers His church in lands far off, we gratefully recognize what the Lord is doing and seek to stand beside and support these foreign churches in a life of faithful service to the Lord – and in turn expect them to support and encourage us in that same service.  Of course, it’s harder to give a hand to another if we’re separated by great distances, let alone a language barrier, for such barriers make the knowledge required for encouragement and/or admonishment harder to obtain.  So we’ve organized to do relations with foreign churches through a committee appointed and mandated by Synod.  Each Synod (which meets every three years) appoints a number of brothers to this Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad (CRCA), and gives a mandate in relation to each overseas church with whom we have a relation of Ecclesiastical Fellowship.  The first and central purpose of this Ecclesiastical Fellowship is caught in the first and central Rule determining the committee’s behaviour and mandate: “the churches shall assist each other in the maintenance, defence and promotion of the Reformed faith in doctrine, church polity, discipline and liturgy, and be watchful for deviations” (see Acts of Synod Lincoln 1992, Article 50).  By my count, the Canadian Reformed Churches currently have a relation of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with seven overseas churches.  (We have the same kind of relation with four other churches in North America, but maintaining those relations is the task of a different committee.)

Reformed Churches in the Netherlands

When all is going fine with these overseas churches, the work of the committee is reasonably manageable.  There are foreign Acts of Synod to read and report on, there are visits to make and some letters to write, but the work is doable.  But, as any elder finds out when there is an address in his ward with special needs, work can multiply quickly when things go awry.  And by the judgment of our previous Synods (cf Art 40 of Acts 1998, Art 80 of Acts 2001, Art 44 of Acts 2004 and Art 133 of Acts 2007), special needs have indeed arisen in the sister churches in the Netherlands.  In accordance with the care we’re meant to give each other as children of one Father and churches of one Saviour, these Synods all gave mandates to its Committee that instructed the brothers to assist the Dutch brethren on specific points.  This meant that the brothers had to do considerable work, be it in researching certain questions, getting their minds around where the Dutch brethren were proposing to go on a particular issue, and eventually discussing with the Dutch brethren what the Lord’s will for His people might be.  As a result of the labours done in fulfilling their mandates, committee reports to previous Synod were rather long in connection with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  

It turns out that Synod Smithers 2007 mandated the Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad to speak with the Dutch sister churches on a number of specific points (notably application of the decision the Dutch churches had earlier made on the Fourth Commandment as well as the hermeneutical questions arising from their approach to divorce).  More, Synod instructed the CRCA “to hold joint meetings at least every two years with Deputies of the BBK (that’s the Dutch CRCA) to discuss pro-actively matters of mutual concern and interact with requests for advice or feedback about issues coming before synods as much as possible in keeping with Rule 1 of Ecclesiastical Fellowship” (that’s the Rule quoted above).  With this mandate (note especially the term “pro-actively” and the phrase “as much as possible”) Synod foresaw that there was a lot of work to do in relation to our sister, and so Synod even expanded the size of the committee from six members to eight (see Article 159).


One would expect, then, that the CRCA would have produced a hefty report detailing the considerable work they did to assist the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands “as much as possible” in the challenges they currently face – going out of their way (“pro-actively”) to give the support and encouragement required.  The report turns out to be six pages, plus four more containing the speech our delegates delivered at the Dutch Synod (of which the biggest chunk is introduction to the Canadian Reformed Churches).  Length, though, is obviously not everything.  What does the report say?
The report relates that meaningful contact with their Dutch counterparts was disappointing.  A delegation from the CRCA travelled to Holland to be present at the Dutch Synod (May 2008), but reports that “there was no real opportunity to speak together as Canadian and Dutch deputies.  As a result, we were not able to discuss a number of pertinent matters with our Dutch counterparts.”  They also relate that the Dutch translated into English only two reports that served their Synod (at Zwolle), and so our deputies “received an opportunity to address only two matters on the agenda of Synod.”  When the delegation from our churches attended the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) in New Zealand 15 months later, they took the opportunity to meet “several times” with their Dutch counterparts present there – something I note with gratitude.  Meanwhile, of course, the Dutch sister churches have completed another Synod and made particular decisions, to which our committee had little input.  One would wish that our deputies would simply have boarded another plane to demonstrate in deed and word that we take our sister relations seriously.  It is too easy for Canadians to talk in Canada about the Dutch sister churches; it is far more helpful and Biblical to go out of ones way to speak face to face.  And that was the mandate given to our Committee – “pro-actively”, “as much as possible”.  Further, was access to the Dutch language really a problem for our committee??  Given who Synod Smithers appointed to this committee, I am confident of the answer.
While our delegates were in Holland for the Dutch Synod, “a closed session was held in which foreign delegates were urged to be frank and open about their evaluation of the two reports that had been translated into English.”  The Committee reports to our churches that “it would not be proper to reveal what precisely went on in this closed session except to say that a number of brothers used the opportunity to speak in a very forthright manner.”  
I’m thankful that there was space to speak candidly.  Yet I puzzle as to why the public could not be let in on the points of concern the delegates raised.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out on all the members of the church so that all are responsible before God (be it that some have greater responsibility because of their position of leadership).  More, the trends occurring in the Netherlands touch the entire membership and so our care for the Dutch brethren needs to extend further than the officials in a meeting.  Again, our Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad received its mandate from the (Canadian) churches, and so needs to report to them – but then there should be openness on how the discussions went and what the precise issues are.  This is the more so because we ought not to think that the developments in Europe will pass Canada by; it may very well be that we shall be in a similar boat in a decade or two.  At a minimum, then, we can arm ourselves against the devilish attacks that may be coming.
The last Synod of the Dutch churches was held in the summer of 2008.  The Acts of this Synod are readily available at www.gkv.nl.  Yet the report of our Committee does not pass on to our churches what the (major) decisions of Synod Zwolle were, nor does the report provide an analysis of this Synod’s decisions.  Given the concerns our recent Synods have expressed about developments in the Dutch sister churches, and given the mandate Synod Smithers gave to our Committee, I fail to understand why the Report omits the more recent developments of our sister churches.  Are the developments encouraging?  Or discouraging?  How can we continue to give the help we’re obliged by God to give if the churches are not informed?
Further, I miss in the report evidence of serious study of the issues troubling our Dutch sister churches.  To give good help, one needs to understand both the circumstances and the will of God in those circumstances.  Synod Smithers registered concern in relation to how the Bible is being used in the Netherlands to find answers to questions about divorce.  The Committee replies by suggesting that the professors of the Theological College in Hamilton and of their Dutch counterpart in Kampen do a conference on the subject.  I have no doubt that the professors of both institutions are able to say very good things on the subject.  But it’s the Committee who has a mandate to fulfil here, and so it’s for the Committee to do the (preliminary) research on the subject.  Yet where’s the evidence that the Committee has done so?  Further, if questions are asked about how the Bible is being used in the sister churches, surely it is out of place to go to their seminary to learn how it ought to be done as preparation for further discussion!  
The report mentions the two men associated with the seminary in Kampen who have been in the news in the last couple of years.  The one, Dr George Harinck, spoke in the press in a distinctly unscriptural manner about homosexuality and women in office (amongst other topics).  The Committee relates to our churches that those in a position of oversight in the Netherlands “did not call on him to retract his remarks.”  The other, Dr Stephan Paas, had written a Ph.D. thesis in which he made “many concessions to liberal scholarship” and yet he was appointed to teach the next generation of preachers.  I appreciate that our Committee raised these issues with the Dutch churches, as indeed they ought to do according to that rule of helping each other.  Even so, the question arises why the one professor can get away with saying what he said and why the other can be appointed despite his concessions to liberal scholarship.  How does this reflect on Biblical backbone?  It seems to me that the episodes concerning these two men says something about where the Dutch churches are at.  A good analysis would be welcome and helpful.


Of all the overseas churches with which we have Ecclesiastical Fellowship, we are in a historical sense arguably closest to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  This is also the church about which our recent synods have given the most labour intensive mandates.  In light of these facts, the report to Synod Burlington of the Committee for Relations with Churches Abroad fails to do justice to the responsibility we have to exercise the communion of saints in relation to the Dutch brethren.  Synod Burlington will need to ensure that something better happen in the coming three years.

C Bouwman
March 26, 2010