Reflections and writing by a scribe who blogs and ascribes glory to God.
When Classis Michigan of the URCNA met on October 11, 2016, the primary item on the agenda was the candidacy examination of Arjen Vreugdenhil. According to Classis Clerk Greg Lubbers, delegates took most of the day to conduct a through exam before determining “without dissent” that Mr. Vreugdenhil had sustained all sections of the examination.
“I questioned Arjen in Bible Knowledge, and he was exceptional,” said Rev. Matthew Nuiver, pastor of Faith URC in West Olive, MI, “and he was just that through the rest of the exam as well.”
Because Vreugdenhil graduated from Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Mike Deckinga (representing the Seminary at Classis as its Vice-President of Advancement) was an interested observer. “Arjen readily provided answers to the many questions that were asked of him, making evident his love for Christ and his desire to serve him as a minister of the Word,” he said. “I was thankful to witness this event and I join, with many others, in prayer that God will make clear His will for Arjen and his family.”
While the Vreugdenhil family awaits God’s will regarding a pastoral call, they remain living in Lansing, IL, where Arjen is teaching at Lansing Christian School.
“This period of waiting is exciting, as we look forward to what the Lord has in store,” he said. “It is also a bit unsatisfactory to just sit tight and wait. I am glad I have work for the next few months; but even though I enjoy teaching, I am looking forward to fulfill my calling in the ministry, for which I have been preparing in the past several years.”
Arjen taught at the middle and high school levels in the Netherlands prior to arriving in the US to marry Jodi in 2001. He taught physics at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI, for nine years before attending Mid-America.
During his seminary years, the family grew to include three young sons and the Vreugdenhils’ membership remained at Bethel URC in Jenison, MI (the church that requested his candidacy exam). Pastor Wm. Jason Tuinstra explained that the distance between church and seminary was not that great and didn’t preclude continuing supervision and support.
“Early on in Arjen’s seminary education, the consistory stayed in contact with the professors at Mid-America to give their input about his progress,” he said. Elders visited with Arjen at the Seminary and in his home as well as when he returned to the Grand Rapids area. “He also provided pulpit supply for us on numerous occasions, which has given the consistory a chance to observe his progress. Besides this encouragement and oversight, our council was very faithful to make sure that his physical needs were met.”
At its October meeting, Classis Michigan also conducted routine matters and offered advice on discipline cases. Delegates heard reports from Trinity, Dutton, and Eastmanville URCs, evidencing what Clerk Lubbers called “the on-going work of the Lord” in those churches.
“The reports emphasized the continual building of the Kingdom of God through the faithful preaching of the gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments,” he wrote. “In addition, the healthy organic life of these respective congregations was noted as displayed in the various societies, studies, and activities.”
Bethany URC in Wyoming, MI, hosted the 48th meeting of Classis, with Rev. Casey Freswick serving as chairman and Rev. Mike Schout as vice-chairman. Grace URC was scheduled to convene the next meeting on March 14, 2017.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 11 of the November 30, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.
The Caffeinated Thoughts Briefing, a Christian worldview conference for students and adults on October 15, 2016, in Johnston, IA, featured an impressive line-up of speakers and panelists.
“The conference speakers sounded a clarion call to the church not to retreat, but to stand firm in their public witness as Western culture grows increasingly hostile to God’s truth and Christ’s lordship over every area of life,” said Mark Van Der Molen, an attorney and URCNA elder from DeMotte, IN, who attended the event.
The Briefing format allowed a half-hour for each speech, followed by a 30-minute panel discussion on that subject. Shane Vander Hart, founder and editor of the Caffeinated Thoughts website/blog and co-host of the Caffeinated Thoughts radio program, explained how panel dialogue augmented the lectures. “We were able to drill down a little more on the topics covered, and it allowed attendees to interact with the speakers.”
The conference began with Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, founder and national spokesperson for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, describing “A Christian Worldview.” The subsequent Worldview panel consisted of Dr. Beisner and Rev. Mike Ericson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Reformed Church, which meets for worship at the Johnston Lions Club building where the conference was held.
Mike Ahmed spoke about “Responding to Islam” and participated in the follow-up discussion. Ahmad, who was an acquaintance of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, narrowly escaped death when he declined an invitation to the military parade at which Islamic fundamentalist officers assassinated the president. Among those in close proximity to Sadat during the assassination, 38 were wounded and 11 killed. That experience led Ahmed to question his Muslim faith. After moving to the United States, he converted to Christianity and has helped pastor churches in North Dakota and Iowa. He often visits Cairo, where he assists with planting churches in Egyptian homes.
Sue Thayer addressed “A Culture of Life” from her unique perspective as someone who managed a Planned Parenthood clinic for nearly 18 years. She is founder of Cornerstone for Life Pregnancy Resource Center and a lead strategist for Iowa Right to Life. For the past 26 years, she has parented over 130 foster children. Others who participated in the related panel included Jennifer Bowen and Tim Overlin. Bowen is CEO of Iowa Right to Life and serves on the board of directors for And Then There Were None, a national ministry that assists anyone desiring to leave the abortion industry. Overlin is the Executive Director for Personhood IOWA and speaks about bringing the church back to life.
Dr. Robert Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, discussed “Responding to the LGBTQ Agenda.” He is the author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics and co-author of Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views. Gagnon’s articles have appeared in various scholarly journals and theological dictionaries. He also has been quoted in or written for many popular magazines and news outlets.
“Dr. Robert Gagnon powerfully demonstrated that the LGBTQ movement’s inversion of moral authority is not simply some culture war issue ‘out there,’” Mark Van Der Molen said, “but the Truth of the Word and the church’s very confession of the lordship of Christ are at stake.”
Joining Dr. Gagnon as panel participants were Dr. Nathan Oppman and Kelvey Vander Hart. Dr. Oppman serves on staff of The FAMiLY Leader, a public policy organization located in Urbandale, IA, which seeks to strengthen families by inspiring Christ-like leadership in home, church, and government. He previously worked for the Family Research Council and the South Carolinians for Responsible Government Foundation. Kelvey Vander Hart is a social work major at Hannibal-LaGrange University in Hannibal, MO, and a contributor to Caffeinated Thoughts and Hypeline.org. She has served as a student ministries intern and ministry leader at Grace Church in Des Moines, IA.
The final Briefing lecture featured Shane Vander Hart, speaking on “Our Religious Liberty.” He has served as dean of students for a Christian school and spent 20 years in youth ministry. He frequently speaks and writes about politics and policies and owns 4:15 Communications, a social media and communications consulting firm. The Religious Liberty panel also included Rev. Michael Demastus, pastor of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, who has been active in the culture war and is often quoted on current and political issues in local and national publications.
Brian Myers, senior contributor at Caffeinated Thoughts and co-host of its radio program, organized this year’s event and served as emcee.
“I was pleased with the conference in terms of the incredible amount of information that was presented on some crucial subjects,” he said. “We always have a ‘content rich’ event, and our goal is that the attendees leave having learned a lot. This year’s event was exceptional in that regard.”
About 70 people attended the Caffeinated Briefing. Early registration was $20, while students paid only $15. Late registrants and walk-ins paid $30. Primary funding of the conference comes through a sponsorship program. Donors at different levels receive a variety of perks, including conference tickets, booth space, as well as website, brochure and/or radio advertising.
Caffeinated Thoughts was founded in 2006, and the first Briefing was held in 2014. Last year’s event focused on politics and featured three presidential candidates. While topics vary from year to year, the goal remains the same.
“Our goal has always been to provide those who attend with relevant information about issues that concern our readers and listeners,” Vander Hart said. “I think each year we’ve accomplished that.”
Caffeinated Thoughts addresses culture, current events, faith and politics with news articles, news analysis and opinion pieces written from a Christian and conservative point of view.
Caffeinated Thoughts Radio airs on The Truth Network, KTIA 99.3 FM in Des Moines, on Saturdays at 8 AM and 6 PM (Central). Broadcasts can be live streamed from thetruthnetwork.com or accessed from iTunes.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-8 of the November 30, 2016, issues of Christian Renewal.
On October 16, 2016, E. Calvin Beisner spoke at Trinity Presbytery Reformed Church in Johnston, IA, on Godly Dominion versus Environmentalism. Beisner founded the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a network of theologians, scientists, economists, and scholars promoting biblical earth stewardship, economic development for the poor, and the proclamation of the gospel.
Beisner began by describing two vivid memories from his childhood in Calcutta. The beauty of a red flowering vine in the courtyard of his apartment complex awakened within him his love for God’s wonderful creation. This second memory imprinted within him the devastating effects of poverty. Because his mother was paralyzed from a virus, a native woman cared for him while his father worked. As he was led several blocks to that house during early morning hours, he stepped over the dead bodies of poor people who had died during the night.
The October 16 lecture focused on threats springing from a denial of doctrines found in Genesis 1:27–28. Beisner defined godly dominion, or biblical earth stewardship, as “people made in the image of God, reflecting God’s own creativity, working together to enhance the fruitfulness, beauty, and safety of the earth for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.” He explored what it means to live out the dominion mandate, how the environmental movement undermines that mandate, and how to recover it.
“Essentially, environment means everything,” he said, describing its etymological derivation from the word surroundings. Therefore, “environmentalism means everythingism,” which he equated with totalitarianism. “Environmentalism…is inherently totalitarian in nature.”
Beisner urged believers to use biblical terms for biblical activities, noting that the adjective “godly” distinguishes dominion from the “careless, rapacious, abusive activity” some wrongly associate with the term.
A biblical view flows from Genesis 1. Verse 27 reveals the essence of man: God’s image, male and female. Verse 28 expands on the mission of man: to multiply and fill the earth, to subdue and rule it.
“But these two ideas, multiplication and dominion, are the nemeses of environmentalism,” he said. “Even many Christian environmentalists,” who advocate what they call “creation care,” undermine the message of Genesis 1:28 by borrowing “without discernment, from a broader worldview,” which they fail to recognize as part of a “spiritual world war.”
Some of this stems from applying a faulty interpretation of Genesis 2:15 to Genesis 1:28. Beisner views this reinterpretation as involving two mistakes: assuming the command was for the entire earth rather than only the Garden, and restricting the meaning of the Hebrew verb to “serve,” which it means only when its object is personal, not impersonal.
“They insist that ‘serve and keep’ in Genesis 2:15 restates and controls the meaning of ‘subdue and have dominion’ in Genesis 1:28—despite the fact that the verbs have very different meanings.”
The threats to liberty and property
Beisner believes the environmental movement, with over a million organizations worldwide and billions of dollars spent on marketing its message, is the greatest threat to the survival of Western civilization with its rule of law, government by consent, and protection of “God-given rights to life, to religious and civil and economic liberty, and to property.”
The threat is particularly dangerous for four reasons: 1) It is not external like war or terrorism, but internal, and perceived as friend rather than foe. 2) It speaks to the inherent spiritual yearnings of human souls. 3) It incorporates strengths from other threats (Marxism’s utopian vision, humanism scientific façade, and jihad’s religious fervor). 4) It encompasses the “vague spiritualities” that have already overwhelmed secular humanism and threaten the Christian faith.
What some have called the Dark Green Religion “divines and resacralizes nature and so subjugates mankind to her, turning upside down the order revealed in Scripture,” Beisner said. “The worldwide environmental movement today unites pagan religion, ecological utopianism, and socialist politics and economics to create a vision for a global government that is the conscious goal of those who lead it…a fundamental transformation of the values, institutions, and practices on which modern civilization has rested.”
Beisner noted that Darwinism attacked Genesis 1:27, man created in the image of God, with tragic results to modern society. “We largely lost that battle, and the sad consequences are obvious all around us,” he said. “Our response to environmentalism’s attack on Genesis 1:28 today must be better.” From 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, he urged Christians to be “wise, courageous, and powerful in spiritual warfare, tearing down ideological strongholds and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
Quoting many statistics, he showed that the last two hundred years have brought huge improvements to the human condition. Environmentalism threatens to “trap the poor in poverty and rob people of property rights” while expanding “oppressive government” and “weakening sovereign states” by pushing toward global government. Although industry provides the benefits of better living, many environmentalists promote abandoning industrial civilization and living ‘in harmony with nature’ as they mistakenly think human ancestors did. “For our ancestors,” Beisner said, “nature was to be feared because it hadn’t been subdued.”
The threat to science
Science is one of the most important tools in fulfilling the biblical mandate of godly dominion, but it is being undermined by irrationalism. Beisner contrasted the rationality of “real science” with the mysticism of “post-normal science.” Science from a biblical perspective views God as a rational being who created the universe and reveals himself increasingly to humans.
According to Beisner, post-normal science is “postmodern deconstructionism” applied to science. This results in researchers who go “through the motions” of scientific inquiry but with “preconceived conclusions to serve a predetermined agenda.”
To describe that agenda, he quoted from an influential professor of climate change, who wrote that “‘self-evidently’ dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth-seeking…scientists—and politicians—must trade truth for influence….. The function of climate change…is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change…to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.”
Beisner said, “The global warming juggernaut is how environmentalists are promoting both socialism and global government…. And because it draws conclusions based on climate models regardless of real-world observations, it is also as irrational as pagan mysticism.”
The threat to faith
The threat to the Christian faith attacks the gospel and Christian ethics, biblical authority, and the pro-life movement.
Many books by environmentalists reduce the gospel from the truth of Christ’s complete atonement and present reign to the mere concept of loving God by caring for the earth.
“It’s true that if you love God you will try to take good care of the earth—and I encourage you to do just that—but that’s not gospel,” Beisner said. “It’s law, and law cannot give life.”
Although some books promoting “creation care” get the gospel right, they present environmental practices as “moral imperatives,” which replace or contradict God’s commands with traditions of man. He said, “So-called ‘Christian environmentalism’ can become a new legalism.”
To demonstrate how the greening of the church undermines the Bible’s authority, Beisner related his experience as a lecturer for “Care of Creation,” the 2012 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Other plenary speakers, two New Testament scholars, were shocked that he challenged widespread environmental beliefs. They accepted without question that nearly 100 percent of climate scientists affirm catastrophic global warming, but that idea is based on an extremely limited and prejudiced survey.
To show how “creation care” organizations threaten the pro-life, Beisner explained how the largest and most influential organization, the Evangelical Environmental Network (heavily funded by the pro-abortion and pro-population-control Rockefeller Brothers Fund) promotes emissions controls as being pro-life. Based on how members of Congress voted regarding emissions, it praised those who voted for controls as pro-life, even if their record was 100 percent pro-abortion. The pro-life commitment of those who voted against controls was questioned, even if their record was 100 percent pro-life.
In response, the Cornwall Alliance prepared a statement “Protecting the Unborn and the Pro-Life Movement from a Misleading Environmental Tactic,” but the EEN campaign continues and increases. Still, a recent news article reported that despite millions of dollars poured into attempts to “green” American evangelism, the effort has failed. That failure was attributed largely to the truths about climate change communicated by the Cornwall Alliance, which does so with very little funding.
Beisner concluded with a call to spiritual arms: 1) Know and teach the Word, 2) Do the Word, 3) Support the Cornwall Alliance, and 4) Pray.
He explained how doing the Word might include helping your neighbors through local stewardship programs such as cleaning up lots, creating community gardens, or assisting with energy-saving improvements. But noting that “America is already pretty clean and safe by historical standards and compared with poor countries around the world,” Beisner encouraged listeners to consider assisting the poor in developing countries. One way is to help them resist pressure to adopt policies that would slow or reverse economic improvement.
“Finally,” he concluded, “we all need to pray for each other and for the church around the world to gain, and to put into practice, sound understanding of the biblical, theological, scientific, economic, and other aspects of godly dominion, to reclaim the blessings of Genesis 1:27-28.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 8, 9 & 39 of the November 9, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.
What do we mean when we speak of a worldview? At a conference in August of 2016, Dr. Joel Beeke defined it as how “we see and evaluate everything” with “assumptions that control how we think and feel and act.” A worldview, he said, is “not just a pair of glasses or contact lenses that we can take off or remove at will, but more like our eyes themselves, which are an organic part of who we are.”
Dr. Beeke was one of several speakers at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary’s eighth annual conference, The Beauty and Glory of the Christian Worldview. About 400 people attended the event, held at the Prince Conference Center in Grand Rapids, MI, from August 25-27, 2016.
Dr. Charles Barrett began the conference by addressing A Worldview for Pilgrims. In separate lectures, Dr. Derek Thomas spoke on two aspects of the Christian worldview: The Trinity and Daily Life. He summarized the latter by saying, “It’s realizing who Jesus Christ is and who you are in Jesus Christ that is the key and the secret to powerful, victorious Christian living.”
Other aspects of the Christian worldview included Dr. David Murray on Human Identity and Rev. Brian Cosby regarding Suffering. Attendees could choose from two breakout sessions: Rev. Mark Kelderman on A Christian Worldview of Sexuality or Dr. Charles Barrett’s Viewing This World by Following Jesus into the Next.
The blended voices of the Jubilee Women’s Ensemble provided special music to open the Friday evening session. In his speech on The Puritan Worldview, Dr. Joel Beeke spoke of how the Puritans took Calvinistic doctrines and applied them to every area of life, bringing “vital, Reformed, experiential, confessional piety” to the average person in the pew. He identified “one great truth that illuminated” the Puritan worldview as “God’s sovereignty, and more importantly, God’s fatherly sovereignty in Christ.” Friday’s session concluded as Rev. Kelderman moderated a Question and Answer session with a panel of speakers and one PRTS student, Sherif Atef Fahim.
Attendees were welcome to attend a Saturday morning prayer meeting, which was followed by lectures about two additional aspects of the Christian Worldview: Dr. Michael Barrett on The Old Testament and Dr. Jerry Bilkes on The Great Commission.
In a video overview of the event, Rev. Cosby spoke about how helpful these conferences are in encouraging Reformed believers that they are not alone.
The conference is an annual highlight for Mr. Randall Kirkland, who travels each year from St. Louis, MO, and is an elder at Christ Fellowship Bible Church. “The conference has been consistently rewarding in several respects,” he says, “solid Reformed experiential preaching, accessibility to the speakers, and wonderful hospitality.” He says, “All of the speakers very capably addressed the pivotal importance and implications of a Christian mindset or grid through which to process these challenging times, but with varying points of emphasis.” He found Dr. Thomas’s speech on daily life “a powerful overarching perspective that helped to frame the other messages.”
According to Chris Hanna, Director of Development, organizers were “very happy with the attendance, messages, book sales, and general response from those who attended.”
Speakers included several members of the PRTS faculty. Dr. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics as well as pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids. Dr. Michael Barrett is Vice President for Academic Affairs/Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament as well as a minister in the Heritage Reformed Congregations who serves as the denomination’s Professor of Theology. Dr. Bilkes is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and is ordained in the Free Reformed Churches. Rev. Kelderman serves as Dean of Students and Spiritual Formation as well as instructor in Pastoral Theology. Dr. Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology and pastors the Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church.
Two speakers serve as ministers at Wayside Presbyterian Church in Signal Mountain, TN. Rev. Brian Cosby is Senior Pastor as well as Visiting Professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Charles Barrett (the son of Dr. Michael Barrett) is Assistant Minister. Both men additionally teach as adjunct professors at Belhaven University in Chattanooga.
Dr. Derek Thomas is the Senior Minister at First Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Columbia, SC, and the Robert Strong Professor of Systematic and Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He is a Teaching Fellow with Ligonier Ministries and Dean of its DMin. program.
Plans are being made for the ninth annual conference, The Beauty and Glory of the Reformation, to be held from August 24-27, 2017.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 16 & 17 of the November 9, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.
For the last five years, Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) has met for worship in the historic Grace Reformed Church building, located on 15th Street in downtown Washington, DC. Like other Gothic Revival style churches, the building features lofty spires and luminous stained-glass windows. But the architecture stands alone in its sculptural tributes to key places and persons of the Reformation.
About to enter the front of the building, you’d see an arch over the double doors that bears the name “Grace Reformed Church” and depicts Christ’s ascension. You might pause in surprise when you noticed the arch is flanked by shields for the cities of Zurich and Geneva. Lift your eyes higher, above the soaring stained-glass window to the very top of the building’s facade, and you’d see a carved figure holding the coat of arms for Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate, who commissioned the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism.
A Sunday School building echoes the Gothic Revival style as well as the theological emphasis. Dr. Brian Lee, Christ Reformed Church’s minister, calls the building’s outside wall on the south, “Washington DC’s version of the Reformation Wall.” Sculpted elements list Zwingli and Calvin, Bullinger and Beza, Ursinus and Olevianus.
How did the structures come to be embellished with such distinctly Reformed touches? The history page on the church’s website provides the answer. In order to appropriately represent the church’s philosophy, architect Paul J. Pelz studied the history of the Reformed church and became inspired by it. Sculptor James F. Earley incorporated the unique names and symbols, contributing to a final appearance that Pelz believed made Grace Reformed “more artistic than any church in this city.”
The Reformed Church Messenger, the denomination newsletter, agreed with that assessment while affirming the clarity of the building’s Reformed witness. An article about the church’s dedication in 1903 reported, “In erecting this building the Reformed Church has done an appropriate thing in a beautiful way…. Within and without it is as beautiful and artistic as it is substantial and complete…. It stands as a monument first of all to the power and grace of the kingdom of Jesus Christ but it represents at the same time the history and genius of the Reformed Church….. The style of architecture; the shields of Geneva, Zurich and the Palatinate; the emblems cut into stone arches over the entrances to the church and the memorials in the windows and the chancel, combine to make one harmonious story easily understood by anyone who knows the Reformed church.”
A structure with such Reformed elements seems the perfect place for the newly-organized URC congregation to meet, except for the fact that the building is for sale and Christ Reformed Church needs to find a new meeting location once it sells.
The building belongs to Grace Reformed Church, formerly a Reformed Church in the United States congregation, but now part of the United Church of Christ. The dwindling congregation, composed primarily of elderly parishioners, has realized for some time that it could not continue to maintain the building. In the summer of 2016, the church informed Christ Reformed that current rental arrangements would conclude soon.
Although the owners appear willing for the building to remain a place of worship and encouraged Christ Reformed to put together a proposal, that possibility does not seem likely. Church buildings in the DC area bring a premium sale price because real estate developers are keen to convert them into high-end condominiums or other lucrative secular uses. Because Grace Reformed Church, with its Sunday School building and parish house, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, its value could be even higher than average. While Dr. Lee hates to speculate, recent sales lead him to estimate the building could be sold for around $5 million. He foresees the proceeds being placed into a trust that would eventually benefit UCC charities.
While the loss of this unique location poses extreme challenges to the fledgling congregation, leaders and lay members are embracing the opportunity to assess and solidify the church’s vision and mission.
“This is a blessing,” Dr. Lee says, “especially for a newly-organized church like ours, a precious opportunity to ask anew where the Lord would have us plant our pilgrim flag and how he would have us serve him in this time and place.”
About a dozen volunteers, representing a broad range of the congregation’s demographic, are meeting for prayer and discernment. Part of their task is to determine questions and issues to bring before the entire congregation. Do they want to continue meeting downtown as the only Reformed witness in the city? Or do they want to move out to the suburbs, where most of them live? Do they want to continue focusing exclusively on Sunday worship and fellowship or find a facility that will permit the implementation of mid-week programs? Parking in DC is a problem, and many residents prefer not to drive in or out of the city. Church leaders feel it is important for members of the congregation to have input and play an active role in the important decisions that must be made.
Dr. Lee views this as a two-step process. The first step is figuring out, “How do we want to live our life together?” And the second step follows. “If we do that, what kind of building do we need?”
He explains that doing ministry in the midst of a city with a highly-transitory population is very different from the situation experienced by many URC congregations. Churches in smaller towns often enjoy a “generational aspect” that provides continuity and foundational resources. By trial and error, Christ Reformed Church has been discovering the “little details” that work within its metropolitan context. Although many city churches have updated worship or made compromises in other areas, Dr. Lee believes the congregation remains committed to the priority of worship that centers on the preached Word. Nevertheless, the church faces what he calls a “covenantal renewal moment.”
“This is a big step in the life of our church,” he says. “We’ve always been somewhat ‘accidental’ in our worship space, and we desire now to make a more intentional and long-term commitment in a particular neighborhood with a particular vision.”
Christ Reformed Church began meeting for worship on November 4, 2007, under the supervision of Zeltenreich URC (New Holland, PA). Classis Eastern U.S. concurred with the request for organization on October 14, 2015, and a celebratory worship service was held on January 21, 2016.
The congregation consists of about 70 total souls, although its composition is constantly changing. One family recently moved out of state, but two young women are being instructed toward membership. In addition to Dr. Lee, the church is served by two deacons and an elder. A former elder, who served for many years, continues as a member of the church.
As Christ Reformed Church faces the challenge of what may well be the loss of its historic and unique location, the congregation requests prayer for unity.
“We’re not so much seeking a particular outcome, as we desire spiritual unity through this process,” Dr. Lee says. “And stay tuned to see how the Lord blesses us during this time. He is the Lord of Provision, and we know he will.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 18-20 of the October 12, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.
Next time you vacation in the Wisconsin Dells, plan to drive less than 20 miles southwest to Reedsburg and worship with the saints at Grace Reformed Church. You’ll find sound preaching and warm fellowship in a congregation that reaches out in unusual ways.
The church began as a mission work of the Presbytery of the Midwest of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and was organized (particularized) as a church in 2007, with the ordination of three elders. Two deacons were installed in July of 2013.
Rev. Christian M. McShaffrey has been involved with the work since he graduated from Mid-America Reformed Seminary in 2003. He was ordained as an evangelist in 2004 and installed as pastor of the church in 2007.
“Though we are organized as a church, my work is not done,” he says. “While at Mid-America, I learned the ‘three-self’ formula of missions: 1) Self-governing, 2) self-supporting, and 3) self-propagating. The first two are done, but the third is yet future.”
The congregation consists of 48 communicant and 14 non-communicant members. They meet for Sunday worship at 11:15 AM in a PCUSA, whose space they rent at 148 North Park St. in Reedsburg. A luncheon at 12:30 PM follows the morning service. Members meet again for singing and prayer at 1:30, with a Bible study beginning at 1:45.
Rev. McShaffrey explains that the group originally met for morning and evening services, but because many members travel as much as an hour, evening attendance was lacking. When the congregation began renting its current facility, the worship schedule had to be adjusted around that church’s 9:30 AM service.
“The current schedule was based on necessity, but I have come to love it,” Rev. McShaffrey says. “Attendance in ‘second service’ has increased, and the bonds of our fellowship have deepened by breaking bread together each Sabbath. During the summer months, some linger about at the church in fellowship until evening.”
A home meeting is held each Wednesday at 6:00 PM for prayer, study, and fellowship. Members also take the initiative to sponsor Friday evening hymn sings, summer sporting events, hikes at a nearby state park, or community service projects.
The church’s website (reedsburgchurch.org) highlights several ministry and outreach efforts. One link leads to the unique Serious Christianity website (seriouschristianity.org), which answers multiple questions about different aspects of the Christian faith. Its purpose is to challenge the many “mere professors” of Christianity out of their complacency into true conversion.
“As a church planter, I spent a lot of time talking to people in the community,” Rev. McShaffrey says. “Almost everyone claimed to be ‘Christian’ and their claim was based on either 1) growing up in a church or 2) decisional regeneration. Antinomianism is rampant today.”
Visitors to the website can click on questions, which are answered with short, biblically-based articles. Other pages include comments from the Puritans and modern theologians. An “outreach” tab provides access to files for printing cards that invite people to explore the website by asking, “Do you take your Christianity seriously?”
A “diaconate” page on the church website introduces a couple of deacons, extensively explains their work and church guidelines, and offers links to other local resources.
We have a fairly active diaconate,” Rev. McShaffrey says. “We meet a lot of people by offering help. Of course, the majority of our work in done within the church. But I get about one phone call per week from strangers asking for help. Somehow, our church got the reputation of being generous, and I know that other pastors direct people to us. Having a public policy posted is helpful when it comes time to say, ‘No.’”
The website also includes links to Bible audio files and a way to request a free copy of a Bible.
“I believe that the Word of God is powerful. Reading it can change lives,” Rev. McShaffrey says. “One of our deacons is a Gideon and his love for distributing Scripture encouraged me to do the same. I get about one call per month. I order and ship directly from Amazon.com (because most people are not interested in meeting). I include my name and phone number in the front cover.”
Grace Reformed also offers Bibles through its radio ministry. It broadcasts sermons and prayer times as well as sponsoring daily Bible reading. When Pastor McShaffrey introduces himself to people, they often ask, “Are you the Christian who gives away free Bibles on the radio?”
The website includes an invitation page in Spanish, although it acknowledges that a specific Spanish-language ministry does not yet exist. The website even includes directions for taking a cab to the church service and having the deacons pay the fare.
Most church members participate in the annual Life Chain, in which pro-life advocates stand together to pray for God to forgive our nation and put an end to abortion. The Reedsburg group stands on Main Street for 90 minutes on a Sunday afternoon. Rev. McShaffrey says, “It is a visual statement of solidarity by the local Christian community that abortion kills children, hurts women, and angers God.”
In addition to his ministerial duties, Rev. McShaffrey serves as Clerk of the Presbytery of the Midwest. He appreciates his education at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, saying, “I received sound theological instruction and was also encouraged by the good example of my professors in seeking the peace, purity, and unity of the church.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 10 & 11 of the October 12, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.
In 2013, Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA, welcomed Mihai and Lidia Corcea, a young couple who had traveled from Romania for Mihai to study at Westminster Seminary California. During 2016, Mihai graduated on May 28, sustained his candidacy exam by Classis SWUS on July 19, and was ordained on July 24. The couple returned to Bucharest on July 25, where they began a church plant.
“It has been a tremendous blessing to see how the Lord has answered our prayers for Mihai and Lidia,” Rev. Michael Brown says. “I met Mihai years ago, when he and another member of the core group in Bucharest, Claudiu Stefu, travelled to Milan for its Reformation conference. He told me about the desperate need in Romania for solid churches to be planted. He explained that, besides a few Hungarian-speaking churches, there is no Reformed presence in Romania, nothing to reach the Romanian-speaking population. I was impressed with Mihai’s passion about bringing the gospel to his native country and planting confessional churches. It was obvious that he had given much thought about how to do in Romania what Rev. Ferrari was doing in Italy. We discussed the challenges and obstacles to planting a Reformed church in Bucharest. At the time, it seemed almost impossible, little more than a dream.”
He adds, “But of course, with God all things are possible. Within a couple of years, Mihai and Lidia left their jobs and home in their native country and made the long journey to California.” Mihai began his seminary studies, and the couple attended Christ URC, where they warmly bonded with their church family.
Mihai served a year-long internship at Christ URC, attending consistory and council meetings, teaching catechism classes to youth, and going on home visits with the elders. He also led worship and exhorted at least once per month.
“We were pleased with his maturity, humility, and wisdom,” Rev Brown says. “We had the joy of watching Mihai and Lidia grow in their faith as well as their love for Christ’s church.”
Rev. Brown says Mihai did “an exceptional job” on his candidacy exam, “which is especially remarkable when you consider that he did this in a second language.”
At Mihai’s ordination service on July 24, Rev. Brown preached from Ephesians 4:1-16 and gave the charges to the pastor and congregation. Rev. Corcea pronounced the benediction. He is now a Missionary Pastor, called to make disciples in Romania by planting a church in Bucharest and evangelizing the lost.
“I think the best way I can describe the church that we hope to establish in Bucharest is by the three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism,” Rev. Corcea says. “Our church plant should be a people gathering in a place where they understand their sin and misery, they receive the knowledge of God’s merciful salvation through the gospel, and they start living more and more according to all the commandments of God out of thankfulness for God’s grace.”
The Evangelical Reformed Church in Bucharest (Biserica Evanghelica Reformata din Bucuresti) began meeting in a rented building in downtown Bucharest. It is about three minutes walking distance from a subway station and two blocks from the city’s largest park.
“We chose this location because it is easily accessible to anyone by car or subway,” he says. “We are also very close to the financial district where most young professionals work.”
A few local Reformed Christians, who had became members of Chiesa Riformata Filadelfia (Rev. Ferrari’s work in Milan) four years ago, now attend services at 10 AM and 6 PM. Church members are inviting friends and family to worship, and the group utilizes social media, such as Facebook, and have a website, where they post video recordings of the sermons.
Although Milan is a two-hour flight away, the two church plants encourage each other. The consistory of Christ URC supervises both groups by maintaining regular contact with the pastors, encouraging them, and helping raise funds for support. Each church planter reports via Skype at Christ URC’s month consistory meetings and communicates weekly via email. The hope is for Rev. Brown and an elder to visit Bucharest in conjunction with their annual visit to Milan.
“We believe that an annual visit to our missionaries from a member of our consistory is an important component of effective oversight,” Rev. Brown says, “as it helps us to encourage them on the field and maintain our fellowship with them.”
Although a Reformed presence previously existed in Romania, the last Romanian Reformed church disappeared in the 19th century. Today 97% percent of Bucharest’s two million people are Eastern Orthodox.
While Mihai was growing up, his family left Eastern Orthodoxy to become Baptists. But he experienced a great deal of religious confusion as a young person. The Bible began to make sense for him when he started reading Reformed literature. His stint at Westminster and time at Christ URC have shaped the way he envisions the Reformed church in Bucharest.
“Spending three years in an URC church in California has helped me understand more that church is not an add-on to our ‘relationship with Jesus,’ but the main way through which God has promised to bless us. As I preach every Sunday and I look at the covenant children present in our church plant, I am reminded of God’s grace to them that they have the opportunity to grow up in a church where they are catechized according to the truth of the gospel. I rejoice in the fact that, Lord willing, they will not have to go through the same confusion and pain of not having a healthy church close to them.”
In addition to the work involved with planting a church, the Corceas plan to begin publishing Reformed literature that they have translated over the last three years. He says, “We hope that by this small Reformed publishing house, we will be able to raise awareness of the Reformed church and the Reformed doctrine and practice.”
The Corceas appreciate the financial support they received during Mihai’s seminary years, saying they are “greatly thankful” for the “love and generosity” of individuals and churches.
Rev. Brown explains that the Romanian mission work is funded by URCNA congregations who wish to participate in “this exciting opportunity to make disciples in Romania and establish a confessional and Reformed denomination in that country.” He adds, “We encourage all churches in the URCNA to consider supporting this mission, helping us to shoulder the burden of this worthy labor for Christ and his gospel.”
The above is a slightly edited version of an article by Glenda Mathes that appeared on pages 18 & 19 of the September 21, 2016, issues of Christian Renewal.
How should Christians participate in today’s culture wars? Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New Braunfels, TX, addressed that question by hosting a conference at which Dr. Rosaria Butterfield spoke about “A Welcoming Gospel.”
Rosaria Butterfield is the well-known author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, which chronicles her journey from a tenured professor, who self-identified as lesbian and atheist, to a minister’s wife, whose identify is in Christ.
Christ Presbyterian Church advertised the conference as “an effort to change from a field of battle to a place of hearing, understanding, and healing” and “lay down our arms, not to surrender our beliefs, but to embrace our LGBT neighbors with the compassion of Christ and to bind their wounds—and ours—with the gospel of peace.”
Over 250 people from all over southern Texas attended the conference on August 11 & 12, 2016. Rosaria began the conference on Thursday evening by describing her conversion experience as something that felt like “a train wreck” or “an alien abduction” or perhaps “a bit of both.”
She said, “I was actually not converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief.” She defined homosexuality as “a fruit, not a root,” saying, “Homosexuality, at least biblically speaking, is consequential, not causal.” From God’s point of view, it is an “identity-rooted ethical outworking of original sin.”
Under the topic of “Identity” on Friday afternoon, Rosaria spoke about sexual orientation as a definition of personhood. She explained how sexual orientation went from a category invention in the 19th century to an idol in the 20th century to a civil right in the 21st century. She said, “In 2015, when five unelected Supreme Court judges appended (or attached) sexual orientation to the 14th amendment, sexual orientation metastasized from a description of one’s felt sexual desires to a national idol with civil right weight.”
She said, “Gay marriage did much more than change the definition of marriage, it changed the definition of personhood. When a culture embraces a category of personhood that rejects God as author of our person and purpose, we lose our grip on any truthful understanding of who we are, and we no longer then have access to categories like sin, grace, heaven, hell, repentance, faith, forgiveness, restoration.”
Rosaria urged Christians to embrace biblical truth and not to bow to the idol of sexual orientation. If Christians accept it as a definition of personhood, believing there is such a thing as a gay person, “then on what grounds do you oppose it as a civil right? You’re either a bigot or a theonomist. But if you don’t believe that this is a category of personhood that God assigned to His people, that’s the bridge of gospel hope.”
Speaking Friday evening on “Loving Community,” Rosaria discussed the need for Christians to go beyond fellowship with like-minded believers to open their homes and hearts to needy neighbors. She said, “I believe that Christian hospitality and the community that develops from it is the ground zero of our life in Christ.” Having experienced the closely knit companionship of her gay network, Rosaria initially felt that “Christians were living on a starvation diet of community.” She urged listeners to “create places of compassion,” saying, “Home is where isolation is broken…where suffering meets accompaniment. Home is the best place to incorporate people who need you into the rhythms of life together.”
Audio recordings of the three conference sessions are available online at sermonaudio.com under speaker Rosaria Butterfield. After each conference speech, Rosaria also answered questions from the audience.
According to conference coordinator Jana Henry, “It was apparent in the unrecorded Q&A sessions, that many in our community have loved ones and family living the gay lifestyle. They are hurting, unsure how to handle it, and Rosaria gave them some very wise advice. From Christians who have same sex attraction, to parents of children who are marrying their same sex partners, all came together to hear a message of God’s love and how we can best express it to a fallen world.”
Rosaria also spoke to ministers and their wives at a special luncheon on Friday. She addressed the unique position in which they find themselves as they attempt to relate to others and how their ministries differ from those of lay persons.
Andrew Moody, pastor of San Antonio Reformed Church, said, “Listening to how God used a Reformed pastor and his wife to befriend Rosaria and point her to Jesus in the Scriptures is an encouragement that God works powerfully even through humble servants such as we are. May He give us more opportunities to forge such friendships with people in desperate need of His grace.”
The conference met organizers’ expectations with regard to the content of Rosaria’s messages, while Rosaria herself and listener response surpassed expectations. “Rosaria was winsome and approachable. She was very giving of herself to others,” Jana said. “We received overwhelmingly positive responses from attendees. Some admitted reluctance to attend and did not plan to come for all the sessions. After hearing Rosaria speak, her openness, her honesty and humility, they expressed enthusiasm for the conference and its blessings.”
One person wrote, “I was challenged to examine what I may be taking for granted when I respond to others. Am I holding myself at a safe distance and leaving a needy soul to twist in the wind? Rosaria’s admonishment, ‘To put the hand of the suffering into the hand of the Savior, you have to stand close enough to get hurt’ has returned to mind over and over again. Am I protecting myself instead of fulfilling the call to minister to others who need Christ?”
Jana concluded, “Rosaria emphasized that her problem was not that she identified as a lesbian, her problem was that she denied Christ. Looking through that prism, one could plug in any number of other sins in place of homosexuality and see that the message is about Christ overcoming sin. Changing one’s lifestyle will not bring salvation, but salvation through Christ will change our lives.”
Christ Presbyterian Church frequently hosts conferences that challenge Christians to think with a biblical world and life view, securing speakers able to communicate truth in particular spheres of influence. “A Welcoming Gospel” was a one-time event to address a current need in our culture. The church also hosts two annual conferences. Each spring, a women’s conference is held with speakers such as Nancy Guthrie, Melissa Kruger, and Aimee Byrd. In July, the church organizes an annual Patriotic Celebration with speakers that have included Tony Perkins (president of Family Research Council), Kelly Shackelford (president and CEO of First Liberty Institute), and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) William G. “Jerry” Boykin.
In 2015, Crown and Covenant Publications (the publishing arm of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America) released Rosaria’s second book, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identify and Union with Christ. Rosaria is currently at work on The Gospel Comes with a House Key.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 12 & 13 of the September 21, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.
The 44th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met from June 20-23, 2016. Responses to its actions ranged from trivial humor to full approval to serious concern.
A new denominational logo, which depicts a cross and an open Bible, occasioned social media remarks noting a resemblance to the helmet of Boba Fett, a Star Wars character. Even the Washington Times picked up the story, running a brief online article that cited tweets and featured a photoshopped image posted by the Facebook group, “Presbyterian Memes.”
The social media spate about the logo quickly faded, but some responses to other actions continued. The GA’s more significant actions dealt with racial reconciliation and the role of women. It also received noteworthy information regarding sexual brokenness and a department name change at Covenant Theological Seminary.
Racial Reconciliation was discussed at length on the final evening of the 2015 GA and came before the 2016 Assembly in the form of 43 overtures. Many of them echoed sentiments found in others, and the Overtures Committee incorporated elements from several into one, which commissioners approved.
The document, “Pursuing Racial Reconciliation and the Advance of the Gospel,” stated six resolutions. The first two recognized, confessed, condemned, and repented of “corporate and historical sins” in the past and “continuing” racial sins as well as “failures to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures” and “lovingly confront brothers and sisters” concerning racial sins. The third reaffirmed the GA’s commitment to racial reconciliation for God’s glory and the gospel’s furtherance. The fourth urged congregations and presbyteries to inform members about the resolution in order that they may “prayerfully confess their own racial sins” and strive toward reconciliation for the gospel advancement, the love of Christ, and the glory of God. The fifth brought attention to a pastoral letter (contained in Overture 55) as an example of how to provide leadership toward reconciliation. The final resolution reminded churches and presbyteries of sections in the Book of Church Order (BCO) that provide means for dealing with persons who continue to sin in these areas.
Some commissioners objected to the listing of continuing sins as inaccurate reflections of current practice. Others seemed to protest the practice of confessing past sins as a denomination. Rev. Reed DePace, pastor of First Presbyterian, the Church at Chantilly (Pike Road, AL) addressed this aspect in a guest post at Lane Keister’s “Greenbaggins” blog.
He wrote, “Regarding the issue of our denomination’s repentance for sins in the Civil Rights era, this is the most common objection raised by those who sincerely disagree with actions taken at the PCA 2016 General Assembly.” He believed it’s not that they fail to recognize the need for repentance, but rather “they do not agree with what we might call corporate-historic repentance.” He made a case, based on biblical models, why such a practice is “biblically valid” and applies to this matter.
Commissioners additionally approved the formation of a study committee to recommend specific steps toward racial reconciliation and the advance of the gospel. The GA also voted to create a PCA Unity Fund, administered by Mission to North America (MNA), to “raise up” future church leaders from minority groups.
Role of Women
Against advice and over many objections, a study committee was established to examine the role of women in the PCA.
The proposal for a study committee came from the PCA’s Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC). The Committee of Commissioners (CoC), which functions in an advisory capacity for the GA, recommended against a study committee for two reasons: 1) the matter had been clearly decided in 2009, and 2) this issue had not come before the GA in a proper manner. The 37th GA in 2009 had stated that “the question of the role of women in the church is not a new or unstudied issue” and a study committee would be “unlikely to break new ground or shed new insights.” Both the 36th and the 37th GAs declared the “appropriate ways to bring” such issues before the GA are “through presbytery overtures” to amend the BCO and “the preferred method” of calling for “study committees should be through the Presbyteries.”
Many commissioners agreed with the CoC, 26 of them filing a formal protest. According to a June 28 report by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra at ChristianityToday.com, protesters included Dominic Aquila, President of New Geneva Theological Seminary in Colorado Springs, CO, Andrew Barnes, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, MO, and Dr. Joseph Pipa, Jr, President of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Stated Clerk L. Roy Taylor reported that the GA approved a response to the protest, which called it a “grave mischaracterization of the action.” On July 7, GPTS online published an extensive report about President Pipa’s protest, relating the GA’s response to it. Dr. Pipa left the hall shortly before midnight, during the closing session. After his departure, those favoring the study objected to the protest (that had already been received) on grounds it included ‘”intemperate language” (which may not appear in protests).
The GPTS report continued: “The objectors, led by World magazine founder and former G.A. moderator Joel Belz of Asheville, N.C., charged that Dr. Pipa’s claim that the study committee was being created ‘with no apparent respect to Scriptural or Confessional parameters’ was intemperate. The Assembly overwhelmingly accepted the objection, while still registering the Pipa protest, the result being that both the protest and the objection to it were accepted by the Assembly.”
The GPTS report fleshed out points of the protest as well as GPTS policy, which allows women to obtain degrees that do not lead to ordination. It concluded with moderate remarks from Dr. Richard Phillips, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, in Greenville, SC: “Given the way that gender roles have served as a battering ram against the walls of biblical authority in so many Protestant denominations, progressives should not be surprised that conservatives feel threatened by this initiative. Moreover, conservatives were alarmed that this motion originated not from a presbytery but from the denominational headquarters and were distressed when the moderator overruled a procedural objection against the action. Actual events should relieve much of this anxiety, however, as our well-respected moderator appointed a study committee that is amply stocked with complementarian stalwarts.”
According to By Faith’s online article, the study committee was to be composed of men and women, representing “the diversity of opinions” within the PCA, and would explore issues of: 1) the biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination; 2) the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon; 3) clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses; and 4) should the findings of the study committee warrant BCO changes, to propose such changes for the GA to consider. The committee is to propose a pastoral letter that could be sent to the churches, encouraging them to promote the practice of women in ministry, appoint women to serve alongside elders and deacons in the pastoral work of the church, and hire women on church staff in appropriate ministries. A $15,000 budget was recommended for the committee.
The 44th GA received a report from the subcommittee on Sexual Brokenness in a Fallen World, which addressed the issue from a pastoral perspective and listed resources. Many commissioners attended and appreciated a seminar on the matter of human sexuality.
Covenant Theological Seminary
The PCA’s seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, has changed the name of its Systematic Theology department to Missional Theology.
Rev. Terry L. Johnson, pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA, expressed his concern about this and other GA matters in a post on the “reformation21” blog. “Missional is a fashionable term of recent coinage. This, of itself, is enough to raise suspicions,” he writes. “I heard the discussion while present on the floor of the Assembly and was alarmed, not comforted.” Although he has been assured the curriculum was not reduced, he remains concerned that incorporating “missional themes” may occupy “time and energy otherwise devoted to traditional” systematics curriculum, with a possible result of diluting “commitment to core dogmatics.”
Stated Clerk Taylor described three evening worship services as highlights of the GA. Dr. Tim Keller, Dr. Thurman Williams, and retiring moderator Jim Wert (a ruling elder) spoke at the services. Keith and Kristy Getty presented music one evening.
The 44th GA took place in Mobile, AL. The 45th PCA GA is slated for June 12-16, 2017, in Greensboro, NC.
The above is an edited version of an article that appeared on pages 9-11 of the August 24, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.
The 2016 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America affirmed marriage as “a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman,” but Synod’s atmosphere was more melancholy than joyful. And a similar level of disunity would strain any marriage.
Some delegates, who anticipated difficult decisions regarding denominational affiliation, felt a sense of reprieve.
“God showed His right arm of mercy upon the RCA, in my opinion,” said Rev. Mark Jicinsky, a delegate who pastors Ebenezer Reformed Church in Leighton, IA. “Many of us arrived thinking we needed to prepare to part ways with the RCA when Synod would finish, but not many left with those same feelings.”
Other delegates experienced Synod from a very different perspective. Rev. Jacinsky believes it was “an extremely difficult Synod, if not devastating” for many who were “shocked and saddened” by decisions. He said, “One thing was clear, the grief the last day of Synod was palpable as we all felt it.”
The lack of unity was recognized by denominational officials. “We do not have agreement as a denomination, and we do not have consensus,” reported General Secretary Dr. Tom De Vries. “[T]he decisions of General Synod illustrated how much diversity of thought there is within our denomination. For those looking for a more traditional view of marriage as between a man and a woman, the results of Synod were welcomed. However, those who sought to move the RCA to a fully open and affirming denomination experienced a General Synod that was not willing to go in that direction.” Regarding the mood of delegates, he added, “Synod ended on a somber note, with a recognition of nearly all delegates that the decisions of Synod brought pain to brothers and sisters.”
Still he expressed his hope in the future of the RCA, challenging its members to love one another “fully and completely” and through that “commitment to love…figure out how to find resolution and reconciliation that is God-honoring, and a witness to our faith in Jesus Christ.”
General Synod met from June 9-14, 2016, on the campus of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL. In addition to actions related to marriage, delegates paved the way for commissioned pastors to become ordained ministers, approved matters related to mass incarceration, encouraged classes to develop family leave policies, and celebrated the RCA’s Transformed and Transforming ministry goal.
General Synod took multiple actions related to human sexuality this year. Delegates voted in favor of elevating the Order for Christian Marriage liturgy to constitutional status. The liturgy had been recommended for use in the churches in 2002, however, becoming part of the constitution would make it the approved form for marriages within the RCA. The document states: “Christian marriage is a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman.”
The recommendation was one of five presented by a special council that met in April, at the direction of the 2015 General Synod, to find “a constitutional pathway forward” regarding human sexuality issues related to “ordination and marriage.”
The other four recommendations called for a report on the church order and past synodical statements, defined marriage as “between two persons,” suggested the establishment of “affinity classes” for like-minded persons, or recommended the appointment of a task force to explore “options and consequences…for grace-filled and orderly separation over time, should the different perspectives regarding human sexuality keep us from remaining as one.” Although delegates debated these four recommendations at length, none were adopted.
The recommendation to make the Order for Christian Marriage liturgy part of the constitution must be approved by two-thirds of the classes and ratified at the 2017 General Synod.
Another action requires the same ratification process because it would amend the RCA’s Book of Church Order. The approved amendment seeks to “assure that marriages solemnized in a church or congregation are between a man and a woman.”
When the original form of this amendment came before the 2015 General Synod, it suggested only that consistories or governing bodies should “determine what marriages may be solemnized in a church or congregation.” Synod 2015 deferred that initial amendment to Synod 2016 to allow the special council to work with it in April. The special council recommended no substantive change, although it suggested emphasizing the authority and responsibility of classes and consistories.
On the floor of Synod this year, a substitute motion was adopted that introduced the language “between one man and one woman.” That substitute motion was reviewed by a committee before coming back for vote. Delegates approved this final form: “The consistory or governing body shall assure that marriages solemnized in a church or congregation are between a man and a woman.”
Again, the above two actions require approval by two-thirds of classes and then synodical ratification in 2017.
Before Synod dismissed, delegates demonstrated compassion by passing this resolution:
No matter what position we as Christians have taken on the moral status of same-sex behavior, we reject all forms of mockery, degrading words and thoughts, economic oppression, abuse, threats, and violence made against members of the LGBTQ+ community, and we call on anyone involved in such behavior to repent and immediately begin walking in obedience to Jesus’ command to love.
A related matter dealt with reparative therapy, which encompasses the spectrum of treatments aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation. Last year, the General Synod answered an overture by directing a committee to study the issue and report this year.
In its research, the study committee discovered documentation of reparative therapy’s adverse effects, but no data supporting its effectiveness.
General Synod responded to that report with a two-pronged approach. All statements regarding the use of such therapies will be removed from the denominational website. General Synod also declared “that the RCA does not support the use of reorientation/reparative therapy but does affirm the power of the Holy Spirit to transform all lives.”
Delegates also approved a motion directing the General Synod Council to “develop processes and guidelines for forming future special councils and RCA-wide groups so that the full diversity of the church may be accurately seen and represented.”
In recent years, the RCA has been defining and developing the role of commissioned pastors. These are elders trained and approved by their classis and commissioned for specific ministry needs such as church planting, ministerial staff, or hospice service.
The 2016 General Synod approved an effort to facilitate the ordination of commissioned pastors as Ministers of Word and sacrament. The action calls for a meeting between the Commissioned Pastor Advisory Team and the board of trustees for the Ministerial Formation Certification Agency in order “to clarify a more seamless path from commissioned pastor training to the Approved Alternate Route process.”
The Approved Alternate Route permits ordination eligibility without a master of divinity degree. The person must meet certain requirements, which are more extensive than those for a commissioned pastor and are listed in the BCO.
Another continuing discussion within the RCA is the subject of mass incarceration. This year’s Synod approved a document, “The Church and Criminal Justice: A Brief Exhortation,” for posting on the new “mass incarceration” page of the denominational website. Churches are encouraged to make use of the document, which laments multiple issues related to incarceration and injustice, including the evils of racism. Among several other things, it affirms a “biblical witness to God’s rich vision of love and justice for all humanity” as well as God’s providence in our lives. It recognizes “our own sinfulness” and the need for a “humane, fair, and appropriately limited” criminal justice system. It calls for a perspective “shaped by the prodigal grace and mercy of God in Jesus” and for prayer that remembers those in prison.
Synod also approved a meeting of persons “interested in the study and work of mass incarceration as the beginning of a learning community.” According to a report on the RCA website, the estimated cost of the proposed meeting will be over $11,000.
General Synod encouraged the classes “to develop and adopt family leave policies, commensurate with other professional positions in society, for ordained clergy serving in churches within their boundaries, as soon as practicable.”
While the recommendation came from the Commission for Women, based on a ministerial survey, the proposal would allow either women or men to devote more time in providing care for loved ones.
Transformed and Transforming
The RCA’s ministry goal, Transformed and Transforming, was highlighted throughout the 2016 General Synod with stories of positive transformation in individuals and churches. An interactive online tool, the Transformed and Transforming dashboard, is now available and shows at a glance how many churches, classes, and regional synods are involved with different aspects of the goal.
While the RCA General Synod met from June 9-14 at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL, the CRCNA Synod met from June 10-16 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. As a symbol of the denominations’ desires to continue working toward closer fellowship, the RCA’s General Secretary, Dr. Tom De Vries, and the CRC’s Executive Director, Dr. Steven Timmermans, communicated via a video dialogue.
The RCA Synod also committed $5,000 for a survey regarding worship practices, to be conducted in partnership with the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, which is located at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.
The RCA will attempt to address the lack of unity within its ranks by beginning a denominational conversation regarding a Reformed perspective of the Bible. The General Synod Council is to consult with the Professors of Theology to develop “a process of denomination-wide discussion centered on a Reformed understanding of the nature, purpose, authority, and interpretation of Scripture; and further, to identify existing and/or develop new resources in support of this process.” A report on this effort will be presented to the 2017 General Synod.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-8 of the August 24, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal. NOTE: Mark Jicinsky has since become the lead pastor at Crossroads Fellowship, the CRC in Des Moines, IA.