The relation with Churches abroad shall be regulated by general synod. With foreign Churches of Reformed confession a sister-Church relationship shall be maintained as much as possible. On minor points of Church Order and ecclesiastical practice Churches abroad shall not be rejected.
“This holy church,” we confess in Art. 27 B.C., “is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world. However, it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.”
Although the federation of churches is confined to one country — that the American Reformed Churches are members of the federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches is only because they are too few in number yet to form their own federation — yet the churches also recognize in their Church Order that the church of Christ is not confined within the borders of one particular country. While acknowledging that the boundaries between the nations are set by the Lord, the churches also recognize that the Gospel bears fruit throughout the world and that the Great Shepherd gathers His sheep from among all tongues and races, all tribes and nations.
This is what is being acknowledged in Art. 50 of our Church Order. How is the relation with churches in other countries established and who decides this issue? Is this each local church on its own or is it done at the classical or synodical level? How is this relation arranged and by whom is it being exercised?
Some have argued that it is a matter for the local church, but the arguments brought to the fore for this statement do not sound very convincing. Besides, would such a practice not result in disorder or even chaos? Imagine, one church maintains a sister church relationship with a local church in another country, but its sister church next door refuses to do the same on various grounds. Besides, would each and every church have the resources to investigate and come to a conclusion on the question whether it is warranted to establish such relationship? And, most important, there is the fact that this relationship is not just between a local church in one country and a local church in another country, but between one federation of churches and another federation of churches. In social and political life one particular city may recognize a specific city in another country as a sister city, whatever this may entail, but this does not apply in ecclesiastical respect.
In the church, those matters that concern the federation are conducted through general synods. It is these synods which appoint a committee on relations with churches abroad.
This is not to say that a general synod would have the right, on its own
initiative, to seek for churches abroad with which it might establish a bond, or to charge the above-mentioned committee to do so. Here, too, the initiative should come from the churches. We recall that a provision is made in Art. 30 that “a new matter which has not been previously presented to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it.” The relationship with foreign churches as such may be a matter for the broadest assembly; the relationship with a particular foreign federation is a matter which has to be properly brought to a general synod, namely, through screening by the minor assemblies.
The relationship of which we speak is one with “foreign churches of Reformed confession.” This is an indispensable condition. The church though it be dispersed and spread throughout the entire world, “is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.” When establishing a relationship as sister churches, it is not the churches which bring something about but they merely and thankfully acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, in other countries.
As unity of faith is the basis of the federation within our own country, so the unity of faith must be the basis for the sister church relationship with churches in another country. This does not mean that their “Reformed Confession” must have been worded in exactly the same terms the Canadian Reformed Churches are using in their confessional formulas, but it does mean that the basic contents must be the same: a summary of the doctrine of the Old and the New Testament.
It should need no further elaboration that these foreign churches not only must have the Reformed confession but also must uphold it and be faithful to it so that it is the rule for their doctrine and ecclesiastical conduct. Their merely having the Reformed confession is not a reason for allowing us to establish a sister church relationship; there must also be proof that they honour and maintain it in practice.
Thorough investigation into this question is a first prerequisite, because it remains necessary to keep track of any developments in the foreign churches with which this relationship is being maintained, lest they deviate from the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures and pernicious influences should, by way of that existing relationship, endanger the Canadian Reformed Churches.
Since general synods are only brief meetings, lasting from three to four weeks, a Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad is charged with performing all that is needed to maintain the relationship. In their report to general synod, this committee is to inform synod about their activities, their findings, their conclusions, and their advice. They must make certain that they are well-informed about what is going on in the foreign churches so that they may also warn the churches betimes if they discover dangerous trends or detrimental developments. If dangerous trends are perceived, general synod may consider it necessary to make the concern of the churches known to the foreign churches, urging them to oppose the evil in its beginning, and exhorting them to remain faithful to the Truth.
If it appears over a number of years that the sisterly admonitions did not have the desired effect and that the foreign sister churches have lost their Reformed character, it will be necessary to terminate the relationship. It will be a difficult decision, but it may shock the foreign churches into action to return from the wrong path. Moreover, it is imperative to protect the churches here against being infected by the same deviation.
How could the churches in our own country be influenced by such deviations? By way of the manner in which the sister church relationship is being practised.
No Ecumenical Synod
Art. 50 states that the sister church relationship shall be maintained “as much as possible.” This implies the realization that there are differences between various countries which put limitations on the extent to which the relationship can be maintained. One of the ways in which it cannot and should not be maintained is through a so-called ecumenical synod.
The reason for this is not that our Church Order does not speak of ecumenical synods. The mere fact that our Church Order does not mention a specific matter does not mean at all that for that reason it is impermissible or should not be done. Our Church Order is not a book with regulations concerning each and every aspect of church life. That it does not mention a certain thing does not constitute a prohibition.
There are various reasons why such a world-wide synod is undesirable. Let us take a look at some of the consequences that emerge in this connection. One of the difficulties would be the language. As long as only English-speaking churches were involved, this would not form an impediment. Things would become more difficult if Spanish or Portuguese or Chinese or Korean or Japanese or Singalese speaking churches became involved. Apart from the difficulty of conducting things properly and efficiently at such an assembly because of language difficulties, there would be the practical impossibility of having all matters prepared through the minor assemblies. If such an assembly were to bear the name of “synod” aptly, the same rules would have to apply which cover our major assemblies. This means, among other things, preparatory work at the minor assemblies. Would all documents and all proposals and reports then have to be translated into all the different languages of the participating federations and would all consistories then have to receive them?
What would such an “ecumenical synod” have to do with our theological seminary and its operation? Would copies of the reports of the Board of Governors have to be sent all over the world? Would we lose the right to bring about changes in the Church Order or in our confessional or liturgical forms? If it rightly were called an ecumenical synod, this would mean that national issues would have to be decided on the international level. In that case not much would be left of the autonomy of each federation.
Knowing our Reformed people a little, we are also certain that these “ecumenical synods” would be approached with “appeals” against decisions of
our own general synods, and, if we had these “ecumenical synods,” its decisions would be binding upon appellants and the consistory against whose decision the appeal was launched in the first place.
Perhaps someone has the impression that there is some exaggeration in the above. So be it, although we do not think so, as long as it is clear that we should not have “ecumenical synods,” and this for more reasons than were adduced in the preceding paragraphs.
An international conference is a different matter. It is a conference convened for mutual help and consultation. Each national church remains completely autonomous and is in no way bound by conclusions or recommendations coming from an international conference, even if all countries were represented there. The Canadian Reformed Churches act, therefore, not contrary to our Church Order or in conflict with their own interests by being a member of the International Conference of Reformed Churches.
As Much As Possible
How, then, should the bond as sister churches be acknowledged and practised if not by route of an “ecumenical synod?” Are there other ways and means?
Our general synods did deal with this question in the past and adopted certain guidelines, rules for recognizing past and present unity and for practising the bond. They adopted some “Rules for Correspondence.”
The term “correspondence” might cause some misunderstanding as if simply an exchange of letters was meant. This would be a wrong impression. For this reason the committee charged with the task of maintaining the contact is now called the “Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad,” and the “Rules for Correspondence” should be renamed “Rules for Relations with Churches Abroad.”
They read as follows.
a. To take mutual heed that the corresponding Churches do not deviate from the Reformed Confession in doctrine, liturgy, church government, and discipline;
b. To forward to one another the agenda and decisions of the broadest Assemblies and to admit each other’s delegates to these Assemblies in an advisory capacity;
c. To inform one another concerning changes of, or additions to, the Confession, Church Order, and Liturgical Forms, while the corresponding churches pledge to express themselves on the question whether such changes or additions are considered acceptable. Regarding proposals for changes in the Three Forms of Unity, the sister churches abroad shall receive ample opportunity (at least three years) to forward their judgment before binding decisions will be made.
d. To accept one another’s attestations and to permit each other’s ministers to preach the Word and to administer the sacraments.
e. To give account to each other regarding correspondence with third parties.
This is the manner in which the Canadian Reformed Churches have concluded the relationship can and is to be exercised and maintained. In this decision they have endeavoured to show their willingness to consult others as far as possible while, at the same time, maintaining their autonomy. Let us pay attention to each of the above points.
The “corresponding churches” shall take mutual heed that they do not deviate from the Reformed Confession in doctrine, liturgy, church government, and discipline. How can they do this?
The instrument through which this is done is the “Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad.” These brothers are to scan not only the Acts of Synod, but also as many periodicals and books appearing within the foreign federation as they are able to read so that they may discern forthwith any trend in the wrong direction, and signal any deviation from the Reformed Confession.
What they are to pay attention to is not in the first place whether any members of the foreign churches deviate from the Reformed Confession, but whether such deviations are condoned by these churches. No one can prevent errors, heresies, and deviations from forming and being propagated, but the question is: “What do our sister churches do about them? Are they opposing them in every way and condemning them?”
When members of the churches discover any deviation, it is their obligation to inform the above committee of their findings, for although it is a relationship between federations, all the members are vitally interested in the well-being of both federations and therefore have the duty to do whatever is in their power to make it work and to uphold its purity.
This is important. As mentioned above, the relationships foster a flow back and forth of influences, and each federation must be able to trust the other federation implicitly also with a view to what the following point unfolds.
The second rule for maintaining the relationship is that the agenda for and the decisions of the broadest assemblies shall be exchanged. In this manner the committees know beforehand what will be dealt with at the general synods and what has been decided there. This is necessary for them in order that they may be able to fulfil their mandate. It also enables the delegates to prepare themselves for the meetings.
Delegates are mutually received in an advisory capacity. They usually attend each other’s synods for a few days or weeks only. However, when they are there, they are not just figureheads whose only privilege is that they may give a nice speech, but they may attend all sessions or committee meetings and serve the assemblies with their advice.
In this manner they get an opportunity to sense the spiritual climate in the sister churches, to discover trends and currents, and to learn what the reaction to these matters is in the foreign sister churches.
From the above it is evident that maintaining such a relationship makes sense only when no language barriers exist. It would be very difficult indeed to see any merit in receiving someone who only understands and speaks Punjabi and to accord to him all the privileges due a foreign delegate. Contact and help is laudable, but for a relationship such as mentioned here it is necessary that the possibility of mutual understanding is present.
When after the institution of the Canadian Reformed Churches the bond with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands was recognized and continued, there was a difference between what the Netherlands churches wanted and what the Canadian Reformed Churches had in mind. This difference is the concern of point c.
The Netherlands churches wanted prior consultation when a change in Confession, Church Order, or Liturgical Forms was being contemplated. The Canadian Reformed Churches did not see how this would be possible without sacrificing the autonomy of the national federations.
If the sister churches had to express themselves beforehand about changes in the Church Order or the Liturgical Forms, how was this to be done, and what would the effect of it be? Who should express themselves on the proposals? Would it be the Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad, or the general synod of the foreign churches? But as the agenda of a general synod is made up by the churches, would then the local churches of the sister federation have to deal with the proposals? And would this not mean that the sister federation at least co-decided on changes considered necessary or advisable in the sister federation? Would not the autonomy be endangered thereby?
For this reason the Canadian Reformed Churches refused to go along with the condition as set by the Netherlands churches and insisted on maintaining their freedom. They declared themselves willing to inform the sister churches of any changes made and also to give the sister churches the right to express themselves on the acceptability of these changes after they had been made, and to judge whether these would constitute a reason for discontinuing the relationship, but that was all. Each federation remained completely independent from the other.
A concession was made regarding changes in the confessional forms. On this point the churches agreed to submit proposals to this effect to the judgment of the sister churches so that these would be able to express their judgment on the acceptability or non-acceptability beforehand. In order to give the sister federation ample time a period of at least three years was mentioned. This would provide sufficient opportunity for a general synod of the sister federation to come to a responsible conclusion.
Such changes regard only the contents of the confessional forms, not the text or translation as such. Thus, when the Canadian Reformed Churches worked on a new translation of the confessional forms, they did not have to ask for the judgment of the sister churches, since no change of contents was involved.
This point illustrates how important the “Rules for Correspondence” are in practice. When attestations given by foreign sister churches are received as reliable with no questions asked, the churches must be able to trust those foreign churches and to be convinced that they have remained faithful to the basis.
The same is to be said in regard to ministers of foreign sister churches. When visiting here, they may be invited to conduct services, to proclaim God’s Word, and to administer the sacraments. The only thing which we would require is that they show a statement issued by the Committee of the sister churches that they are ministers in good standing within these churches. Allowing them to function as a minister in our midst can be done only when we can trust the sister federation.
We are referring here to a temporary stay, not to a visit to serve in our midst permanently or for some years. For this we have a provision in Art. 5.
The last point of the rules governing the relationship with churches abroad deals with contact with third parties. We provide that the federations shall mutually give account regarding “correspondence” with others. This refers to possible new contacts and new connections.
The approval of the other federation is not required, but an account shall be given. This is to prevent that a sister federation will be faced with an unpleasant surprise and be put into a most difficult position.
What would happen, for instance, if a foreign sister federation established a relationship with a federation in our country without our being aware of it, while we are convinced that this federation is not standing on the same basis and cannot be recognized as a sister church? Imagine that ministers of a sister federation came here and conducted services with a group that meets separately from us and has no intention of establishing any bond with us? It would not only be very embarrassing, it would also tend to undermine our own church life.
From this it should be clear that giving account of contact with third parties is mandatory. It may prevent mistakes and a going astray in this respect. By means of the giving of account the possibility is also created to serve each other with advice. Perhaps, even, eyes are opened for previously unknown possibilities.
Not to Be Condemned
The stipulation in the last sentence of this article has given occasion to misunderstandings. Before, the word “adiaphora” was used, and this word means something like “things that are somewhere in the middle,” or “things that do not matter, whether one does them the one way or the other.” Some even understood it as meaning “mediocre.” In this manner the impression was received that there are things in the life of the church which are of such
little importance that we do not care whether they are done or not, or whether they are done one way or the other.
In our present article we speak of “minor points.” These “minor points” are matters which have not been expressly revealed or provided in God’s holy Word or which cannot with absolute certainty be deduced from God’s Word.
Commentators on our Church Order mention such things as receiving the holy supper standing or sitting down or kneeling, or sprinkling one or three times at holy baptism. Such differences, however, may be found within our own federation as well. It seems that these things are too “minor” to function as a definition of what is meant in this article.
When a provision has been made that churches abroad shall not be “rejected,” this means that they shall not be condemned or rejected as true and faithful, as legitimate churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. One can see that the expression implies more than the question of sprinkling one or three times at holy baptism.
As the Lord has guided and directed each nation and set their borders, so He has also guided and directed the development and history of His church in each country. Every nation, even though it may share a common heritage with other nations, has its own specific character, and this affects the church in that country as well. It may even have a different formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures than we have. It may have a different liturgy or different provisions regarding church government than the Canadian Reformed Churches have.
In as far as these differences do not infringe on the truth of God's Word or the Scriptural character of church government, these churches shall not for these reasons be condemned as not being Reformed, as not being true and faithful churches of the Lord with which, as a consequence, no relationship as sister churches can be established. The criterium is and remains God’s expressed Word. As long as the churches go by that rule also in their relationship with others, they follow the correct and safe course.