Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Brothery Love in Philadelphia

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
The month of June seems be the favourite time of year for denominational synods, general assemblies and ecclesiastical gatherings. Thus the Christian Reformed Church, United Reformed Churches, Free Reformed Churches and various other Reformed and Presbyterian churches met last month in their broadest (not highest!) assemblies to discuss various issues and concerns that face us as churches in the 21st century. In addition to these annual ecclesiastical synods, June was also the month selected for the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) which meets every four years. The host city for the fifth meeting of the ICRC, held June 20-27, 2001, was Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Sponsor denomination for this conference was the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the place of meeting was the chapel of Westminster Theological Seminary, located in the suburb of Glenside.

Our readers may recall that the Free Reformed Churches of North America became members of this international conference in 1993. This year our Synod delegated pastors Roth and Pronk to represent our denomination while pastor Vander Meyden was present as member of the Interim Committee charged by the Seoul, Korea Conference (1997) to prepare for this yearÕs meeting. Mrs. Pronk accompanied her husband and attended the sessions as an observer along with several other delegatesÕ wives. Upon arrival we met at the registration desk pastors B. de Graaf and M.J. Kater and Prof. Dr. H. Maris from our sister churches in the Netherlands.

The opening worship service took place on Wednesday, June 20 at 7:00 p.m. in the aforementioned chapel. The sermon for the occasion was delivered by the Rev. William Shishco, pastor of the O.P.C. in New York city Based on Ephesians 3:21, the theme was ÒA Passion for the Glory of God.Ó It was a powerful message in the tradition of John CalvinÕs emphasis on the glory, majesty and sovereignty of God. Various members of the conference took part in intercessory prayer for the part of the world they represent. The needs of the member churches were laid before the throne of grace in the following order: Africa, Asia and India, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The following morning, June 21, the Conference was duly constituted upon acceptance of the credentials of those delegated by the member churches. Upon a motion of the Interim Committee the Conference appointed the following brothers to the Executive: Chairman: the Rev. Jack Peterson (Orthodox Presbyterian Church); Vice-Chairman: the Rev. B. de Graaf (Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands); Recording Secretary: the Rev. Dr. P.J. Naylor (Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales); and Corresponding Secretary: the Rev. M. Van Beveren (Canadian Reformed).

Several delegates were appointed to advisory committees to facilitate discussions of reports submitted to the Conference. Your delegates, Pastors Roth and Pronk were assigned to the Mission Committee and the Committee dealing with the credentials of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) respectively. The latter Committee was charged with a most difficult task in that it had to investigate the claim of the aforementioned church that it is the lawful continuation of the Free Church of Scotland and thus entitled to seat its delegates to the Conference. The problem was that representatives of the parent body, the Free Church of Scotland, from which the other group had recently seceded, made a similar claim and had already been seated as official delegates. Two members of this newly organized church, the RevÕs Maurice Roberts and John MacLeod were present at the Conference and sought to address the meeting but were not given the floor until the matter of their seating was resolved.

After hours of discussion, the Committee came with a recommendation to invite the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) brothers to be seated as non-voting participants for the duration of the 5th Assembly of the ICRC. Grounds given were that since the ICRC is a Conference and not a church court it does not have the jurisdiction to evaluate the claim of the FCSC. In addition, the Committee advised the Conference to urge the FCSC to apply for membership in the ICRC since they are de facto a separate denomination.

This advice was accepted by the Conference and the brothers of the FCSC also indicated that this was the best solution under the circumstances. The Conference expressed the hope that reconciliation might be brought about under the LordÕs blessing in the near future.

Thus we were painfully reminded of the brokenness of life due to sin, so that even this Conference whose very reason for existence is to promote unity among Reformed Christians world-wide, had to deal with a division within its own ranks. It was very sad to see how brothers who for many years had served together in the same denomination, at first avoided looking at and talking to each other. Only after the matter of the seating arrangement was resolved we noticed a slight warming towards each other, evidenced by the fact that during one afternoon recess discussions were held between the two parties.

The Conference spent much time discussing membership requirements, confessional standards, planning regional mission conferences and activities, and hearing reports on what is going on in the countries where member churches are located and seek to minister. Especially moving was the report given by representatives from the Reformed Churches in Indonesia. These churches go all the way back to the 17th century when the Dutch colonists established the Reformed Church there. When Indonesia became independent in 1945, the Reformed Church also became independent. In 1950 a number of congregations severed ties with the larger body which had become liberal in theology and practice. Another split became necessary in 1995 due to Pentecostalism making inroads in the denomination. This resulted in the formation of the present denomination numbering 10 churches with some 1500 members and 9 ordained ministers plus 2 candidates. All of these pastors are young, being under 40. All are committed to the Reformed faith. The brothers spoke of terrible persecutions by Muslim majorities in their country and asked for prayer and financial support.

Several representatives from non-member churches were given the opportunity to introduce their churches. Among them were the Church of Christ in Sudan among the Tiv; Compassion of Jesus Evangelical Presbyterian Church (Eritrea); Independent Reformed Church (Korea); Presbyterian Church in Uganda; Reformed Church in Japan; the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Central and Eastern Europe; and the Reformed Church in South Africa (Dopper Kerk). Many of the reports reflected the great difficulties under which the Reformed faith is being propagated. Yet they also testified to the grace and faithfulness of Him who continues to gather, defend and preserve to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life (LordÕs Day 21). It is hoped that most if not all of the above churches will soon become members of the ICRC. Membership is granted only if the applicants can demonstrate that they adhere to Scripture and the Reformed Confessions, either the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Creeds.

One highlight of the Conference was the joining of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North East India. This church, established in 1979, traces its beginning to 1835 when Presbyterian missionaries first came to the region. In 1969 this church sent students to the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to learn more about Reformed doctrine and government. Presently there are 43 churches in 2 states with 18 pastors and over 4000 members and 13 missionaries to the Hindus.

This brings the membership in the ICRC to 22 churches representing about 560,000 people worldwide who confess the Reformed faith in a meaningful rather than merely nominal way.

Much Conference time was spent listening to and discussing various papers presented by representatives of member churches. The subjects ranged from ÒBiblical Principles of Church UnityÓ to ÒHermeneuticsÓ (Science of interpreting Scripture), ÒWork Among the Jewish People,Ó the ÒRegulative Principle in WorshipÓ and ÒThe Work of the Holy Spirit in the Believer.Ó Most of these papers were followed by spirited and sometimes heated discussions, which reflected significant theological differences especially between the continental Reformed and the Presbyterian traditions.

One very important benefit, perhaps the most beneficial of all, was the personal contacts we had with representatives from various churches. During meals and afternoon recess periods we were able to meet with several delegates to discuss and exchange views on a number of issues such as Biblical, experiential preaching, the work of the Holy Spirit in appropriating salvation and other crucial issues. Especially heart-warming was our discussion with brothers from the Independent Reformed Church of Korea, as these men appeared to have a real concern for vital godliness--something they said was scarce in Korean churches in general.

So what purpose does the ICRC serve? Is it worth our time and money to belong to this Conference and to send delegates to its meetings? As to the first question, the Conference's stated purpose is:

1. to express and promote the unity of faith that the member churches have in Christ;

2. to encourage the fullest ecclesiastical fellowship among the member churches;

3. to encourage cooperation among the member churches in the fulfilment of the missionary and other mandates;

4. to study the common problems and issues that confront the member churches and to aim for recommendations with respect to these matters;

5. to present a Reformed testimony to the world.

Surely, these are scriptural goals, especially the desire to express and promote the unity of faith Reformed churches have in Christ. In a world that is increasingly becoming anti-Christian and hostile to the Reformed faith, it is important that we reach out to and maintain contact with other Reformed Christians, wherever these may be found in the world. Many of these churches are small and weak; some are being persecuted, and they need both financial and moral support from their more affluent and theologically equipped, though not necessarily more spiritual(!) brothers and sisters in the West and North.

From our formal discussions as well as personal conversations with delegates it became clear that while there are differences with respect to preaching and the SpiritÕs work in regeneration and conversion, there is also basic agreement on the authority of Scripture and the value of the Reformed confessions. We are thankful to God for the opportunity to meet fellow believers from many parts of the world (Korea, Japan, India, Sri-Lanka, Indonesia, Australia, South Africa and many other countries), all of them living out of the rich heritage of the Reformation which stresses the sovereignty of God, the depravity of man and consequently his absolute dependence on the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the only Saviour.

We cannot say that the Reformed cause is popular in the world today. It is a relatively small movement compared with other branches of Christendom. But it is by no means a dying movement. This conference proved it is very much alive and growing. We heard of remarkable developments in Indonesia, Africa and Asia, especially in Korea and in Eastern Europe. We do not know what the future will bring. It is possible that the Lord will restore His Church to a measure of her former glory. He may also allow her to be even further reduced in size and influence in the world. In either case, His will shall be done. ÒMy counsel shall stand,Ó the Lord has said, Òand I will do all my pleasureÓ (Isa.46: 10). We are allowed, however, to pray for better times, times of revival and of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19). One thing is sure, glorious days lie ahead for the Church of Christ. Things may look dark right now, spiritually and morally speaking. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. One day, Òthe earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Isa.11: 9). Lord, hasten that day!

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