Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Free Reformed Churches And Ecumenical Relations

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
This issue of The Messenger has several reports of visits made by representatives of our Free Reformed Churches to the meetings of some of the churches with which we have established various levels of ecclesiastical relationship.
During the first two or three decennia of her existence in North America the Free Reformed Churches (FRC) lived in virtual cultural and ecclesiastical isolation. This was due in part to a linguistic problem, English being the second language for most of us. But another reason, perhaps the most important one, was that the organization and building up of an orderly and healthy church life demanded the bulk of our time and effort. But gradually our eyes were opened for the biblical call to seek ecclesiastical unity with other faithful churches. It was only natural that we first thought of churches with a Dutch background.

Contacts were made and discussions held with the Canadian Reformed (CR) Christian Reformed (CRC), Orthodox Christian Reformed (OCR), United Reformed (URC), Heritage Reformed Congregations (HRC) and various Presbyterian denominations, especially after we joined the ICRC (International Council of Reformed Churches). All of this has resulted in what we call limited contacts with some of the above federations. With only one denomination we maintain a complete corrresponding relationship, namely the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands (CGKN), the sister churches of the FRC. Our relationship with those churches dates back to 1948, the year when the Rehoboth Reformed Church--now the FRC of Grand Rapids requested and was granted full correspondence with the CGKN.

Reformed Churches
As far as our contacts with the Canadian Reformed Churches are concerned, these have been fairly intensive but without yielding much in the way of positive result. The differences remain significant. Despite the fact that we both wish to stand on the basis of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions, we think differently about the religion of the confessions, especialy on the matter of the appropriation of salvation, as well as other aspects of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The same must be said of the contacts with the United Reformed Churches, although we have only had a few meetings with these brothers. Yet in our discussions with them too we sense that there is a diffferent understanding between us regarding the view of the congregation and the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation. As far as that goes, there is but little difference between the Canadian Reformed and the United Reformed churches. This is due to the fact that ultimately both these churches draw from the same Doleantie (Kuyperian) sources.

When it comes to our relationship with the Heritage Reformed Churches (HRC) we can be more positive. Athough there remain differences between us on the way we view the relationship between covenant and election, there is substantial agreement on the crucial issue of the appropriation and experience of salvation. It is gratifying to see how the HRC brothers are increasingly moving in a Puritan direction, especially in the preaching of the well-meant and unconditional offer of salvation.

Presbyterian Churches
Limited or restricted contacts have been established with the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). whose General Assembly I was privileged to attend last year (May, 2004) as representative of our churches. Also at the General Assembly of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland there was a representative of our FRC in attendance in 2004 (Pastor Jack SchoemanÑsee report on p.8). With both these denominations we have Òlimited correspondence.Ó

Doleantie Effects
With both these Presbyterian denominations we feel a spiritual bond and kinship that, sad to say, we do not always feel with some of our Dutch Reformed brothers. Why is that? I believe the answer is really quite simple. We share something with these Presbyterian brothers that we no longer share with many of the other Dutch Reformed churches in North America. It is the heritage of experimental or experiential Calvinism, both in its Dutch Second Reformation and English-Scottish-Puritan forms.

The difference between the FRC, the HRC (and let me include here also the NRC) on the one hand, and the CRC, URC, OCRC and CR on the other is this: The latter have distanced and even disinherited themselves from the Second Reformation (Nadere Reformatie), while the former have not (although we are in danger of losing the connection too, if we are not careful).

The Presbyterian churches never went through the historical upheaval called the Doleantie led by Dr. Abraham Kuyper. They ought to be thankful for this for they have been spared much unnecessary strife and division over questions such as covenant and baptism--think of the book, Een Eeuw van Strijd Rondom Verbond en Doop (A Century of Strife about Covenant and Baptism), common grace and the cultural mandate. Presbyterians have had other problems, of course, but they have not suffered the consequences of what Dr. W. Aalders has called The Great Derailment (De Grote Ontsporing). Yes, with Kuyper and the Doleantie the Reformed train went off the track and to this day his disciples are still picking up the pieces of the wreck.

Preserving Our Spiritual Heritage
In a recent article, Dr. A. Baars, professor at the Theological Universtiy of Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, wrote this about the Free Reformed churches:

Every church, which for the most part consists of Dutch immigrants and their descendants, wrestles with the double question how one can remain faithful to the heritage one has brought with one from the Òold fatherland,Ó and how how one can responsibly put that inheritance to use in a completely different situation. This struggle plays a crucial role in the still young history of the FRC. We could say that the issue here concerns the tension between persistence and assimilation.

I believe this is a correct analysis of our position as Free Reformed Churches in North America. We are trying to hold on to the spiritual heritage we have brought with us from the Netherlands. Yet we cannot avoid that especially our young people are influenced by what is going on around us spiritually and religiously. The evangelicals are making an impact on us by way of radio, videos, books, and other means of communication. Much of that is good and worth reading and listening to, but we do have to be on our guard for Arminian tendencies. More consistently Reformed are Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. Pipa and other Presbyterians who bring soundly biblical messages.

Besides these resources, there is a treasure of Puritan writings that is readily available, both in their original form or presented by their modern exponents such as Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Iain Murray, Sinclair Ferguson and many others.

Undoubtedly, all of this has consequences for the spiritual development of immigrants of the third and fourth generation. Our youth is definitely not Christelijk Gereformeerd (Free Reformed) in the Dutch sense of that word. But what Free Reformed in essence wants to be is not restricted to the denomination which bears that name. I remember the definition mentioned by Rev. J.H. Velema, minister in the CGKN, now retired. When he asked one of his parishioners, an old fisherman, what Christelijk Gereformeerd was, he replied Christelijk Gereformeerd means Òsoundly converted.Ó May we and our children be or become and stay Free Reformed in that sense.

Then we will also know what to say when discussing doctrinal issues with other Reformed denominations. Then vital matters, such as the appropriation of salvation, the need of the new birth and what grows out of it--the life of godliness--is not negotiable. Only where there is fundamental agreement on these crucial issues, there will be mutual recognition as members of one body, united to Christ the Head and therefore to each other.

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