A Bit to Read
Some weeks ago a letter dd July 17, 2007, was distributed “to all members of the Canadian Reformed Church of Abbotsford, BC,” under the heading “Act of Secession, Abbotsford”. The signatories, 4 brothers of the congregation, used the letter to
“call all members of the Canadian Reformed Church of Abbotsford to do the following:
- To liberate yourselves from the unscriptural decisions of General Synods 1992 through 2004 to establish and maintain ecclesiastical fellowship with the PCK, FCS, OPC, RCUS, and the URC;
- To liberate yourselves from the unscriptural acceptance and implementation of these decisions by this consistory, and return to the authority of Jesus Christ as Lord and King of His church;
- To recognize the legitimacy of the secession that has occurred in Lynden; and
- To join with us in restoring the Church of Christ here in Abbotsford in accordance with Article 28 B.C. and gathering for worship beginning July 22, 2007 at 10AM and 2PM at the premises of The Coast Hotel, 2020 Sumas Way, Abbotsford, B.C.”
We realize: these four points are all of one piece. By “gathering for worship … at … The Coast Hotel,” one declares specific decisions of certain Synods about interchurch relations null and void, one frees oneself from a consistory that “considered settled and binding” these decisions of the major assembly, and so restores the Church of Jesus Christ in Abbotsford – and all the while recognizing that the breakaway group in Lynden last year was correct. In plain English: those who congregate at the home of Rev Hofford are the true church of Jesus Christ in Lynden, and those who congregate at The Coast Hotel are the church of Jesus Christ in Abbotsford. Conversely, those who continue to meet on Northwood Road in Lynden are not Christ’s church in Lynden, and those who continue to meet on King Road in Abbotsford are not Christ’s church in Abbotsford.
Of course, there’s a story behind this call. The four brothers who signed and authorized the distribution of this letter are convinced that a number of Synod decisions concerning the Presbyterian Church of Korea, the Free Church of Scotland, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church of the United States, and the United Reformed Churches were wrong before the Lord. These decisions were wrong because these churches have an admission’s policy to the Lord’s Table that gives place to the error of pluriformity – for guests are permitted to the table on the grounds of their personal testimony that they are upright Christians belonging to a Bible-believing church. The four brothers tell the congregation that they have corresponded in the past with the consistory in an attempt to get the consistory to agree that Synod’s decisions were in error, but to no avail; the consistory continues to accept as settled and binding what the Synods have decided in relation to these churches. Consistory’s persistent refusal to see this error means that the four brothers are duty bound to restore the Church of Jesus Christ in Abbotsford through an act of liberation. It follows: if the four brothers are correct that the decisions of Synod were wrong, and if consistory’s refusal to agree in turn justifies continuing the Canadian Reformed Church of Abbotsford at a different location, then all other members of the congregation ought also to follow the four. Hence the letter to the whole congregation, with its public call to liberation.
These developments in Abbotsford do not leave us further up the Valley cold. At its recent meeting, the Consistory of Yarrow has –responsibly, I think– given consideration to whether these developments have any pastoral spin off in our congregation. The consensus of the brothers was that, at a minimum, something should be written on the subject in an effort to guide the congregation in analyzing what has happened. There’s a conviction in the consistory that not all the decisions of past Synods on interchurch relations are as solid as they should be, inasmuch as some decisions leave room for condoning pluriformity of the church. It’s a concern several members of our congregation share. For that reason consistory urged me to address these developments in this forum.
The letter of the four brothers raises a pressing question. It’s this: when may one rightly leave the church? When may one rightly state before God that you are “the lawful continuation” of the church, and thereby claim that the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church is in fact illegitimate in God’s eyes, a false church? Is that when there is a point of doctrine about which you disagree with the majority? Is that when the point of doctrine concerns admission to the Lord’s table – or disagreement about whether adopted children should be baptized, or whether the souls of the dead go to heaven or sleep, or whether the length of the creation days is exactly 24 hours, of whether you must forgive a wrongdoer before or after he repents, etc? All of these points have, at some time or another, been points of disagreement between brothers in one household of faith. But does the inability to convince the other (irrespective of whether the reason lies with them or with you or with both) give the freedom –or even the mandate before God– to part ways?
It’s an old question. John Calvin answered it like this more than 400 years ago (Institutes, IV.1.12)
“The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the points that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults.
What is more, some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church. For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith. Suppose that one church believes –short of unbridled contention and opinionated stubbornness that souls upon leaving bodies fly to heaven; while another, not daring to define the place, is convinced nevertheless that they live to the Lord. What churches would disagree on this one point? Here are the apostle’s words: ‘Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be of the same mind; and if you be differently minded in anything, God shall reveal this also to you’ (Philippians 3:15). Does this not sufficiently indicate that a difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians? First and foremost, we should agree on all points. But since all men are somewhat beclouded with ignorance, either we must leave no church remaining, or we must condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation.
But here I would not support even the slightest errors with the thought of fostering them through flattery and connivance. But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions. For in it alone is kept safe and uncorrupted that doctrine in which piety stands sound and the use of the sacraments ordained by the Lord is guarded. In the meantime, if we try to correct what displeases us, we do so out of duty. Paul’s statement applies to this: ‘If a better revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent’ (1 Corinthians 14:30). From this it is clear that every member of the church is charged with the responsibility of public edification according to the measure of his grace, provided he perform it decently and in order. That is, we are neither to renounce the communion of the church nor, remaining in it, to disturb its peace and duly ordered discipline.”
No perfect insight
The fact of the matter is that the church Christ gathers is made up of sinners. These sinners expect their salvation in Him alone, are washed by His blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit (Belgic Confession, Art 27). In boundless mercy He has even joined me to His church in Yarrow. Does the fact that the Lord has joined me to His church mean that now I have perfect insight into every point of doctrine? And shall I expect that others whom God has joined to His church with me also have clearest insight into every part of God’s will for us? (And therefore, of course, agree with me….) I confess something different in Lord’s Day 23: though righteous before God, I “am still inclined to all evil”. I add in Lord’s Day 44 that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of [the] obedience” God requires. Note: this does not excuse shortcomings. But it certainly does produce great patience with the brother who does not see things as I see them – and patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). More, an awareness of my remaining weaknesses produces great humility: where there is disagreement, perhaps I’m not seeing things rightly. The Lord has joined me to His church, and many others also, and we need to listen carefully to each other. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22), and “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
One may have his convictions on what God’s revelation concerning the church actually is, and hence how one ought to fence the table of the Lord. Those convictions in turn can lead to disagreement with the decisions of Synods and consistories. That’s all part of the reality characterizing life between the Fall into sin and the Restoration on the Last Day. It’s also true that one must do whatever he can to persuade the brothers and sisters of one’s better insights. Yet in it all, there comes a time when one needs to leave matters for the Lord to clarify in His time – be it in the minds of others, be it in my own mind, be it in both.
Meanwhile, Article 28 of Belgic Confession is still scripturally accurate: “no one ought to withdraw from [the church], content to be by himself, no matter what his state or quality may be. But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the Church.” What the church is? It’s the assembly of the redeemed, the true Christian believers. Does this assembly of the redeemed not meet Sunday by Sunday on King Road??
September 7, 2007