In my first article with Synod Reflections, I already mentioned a few things about relationships with sister churches and contact churches. There I discussed the argument of geographical distance, which has been used in the past as a reason not to enter in a sister church relationship with church federations in other parts of the world. There I argued that in our present time this is not really a strong argument anymore. I will not repeat my argumentation here. You can read it in the first reflection.
Now I will reflect on a few other matters relating to Inter Church Relations.
In the first place the name: Synod decided to change the name of the deputy-ship to deputies for ‘Interchurch Relations’. The reason is, that these deputies are not only dealing with sister churches but also with contact churches (like the URCNA, OPC, GGRC, GGRI-Timor).
Second: what exactly does it mean to have a sister church relationship. This matter came up in the discussion regarding the termination of our relationship with the Netherlands. Is the termination of a sister church relationship the same as exercising discipline? Some want to believe that. However, that is not true. It is not given to church federations to exercise discipline. A synod or a classis in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) cannot exercise discipline over members of the FRCA. Only a local consistory can do so, in cooperation with the local congregation. They have to ask approval (‘concurring advice’) from the classical meeting, but that is as far as the involvement of broader ecclesiastical assemblies in discipline goes. If that is the rule for our own federation, then it is even farther from us that our Synod should be able to exercise discipline over churches in other countries.
The meaning of a sister church relationship
To understand the meaning of a sister church relationship, we have to look at the church order, articles 5.A.3, 5.B.3 and 57.
To start with article 57: according to the church order, it is the responsibility of the local consistory to determine who is admitted to the Lord’s Supper and who is not. The consistory shall admit to the Lord’s Supper only those who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life. Often this is explained as meaning: only those who are confessing members not under discipline of our own congregation. However, this is not what this article says. It speaks about those who have made public profession of the Reformed faith. That doesn’t necessarily have to have happened in the local church. There are many reformed churches in the world. If someone comes from a reformed church elsewhere and requests to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, the consistory will have to have a meeting with this person, to make sure he or she has made public profession of the Reformed faith. If he/she comes from a federation of churches that is known to us, then that may make it easier to determine, but still the consistory has to do its work properly. The second element mentioned is, leading a godly life. Also that has to be discussed. Someone’s position and conduct in certain practical matters has to be discussed, and having some witnesses may certainly be helpful. Because of this element, it would be good for a consistory first to wait and see for weeks, maybe a couple of months, before someone is being interviewed. Or else it must be someone who is already known to the congregation. If such a person is living in the area of the local congregation, he/she can then become a member of the congregation. If such a person is only temporary (for a few months) in the area of the congregation, then he/she can be admitted as guest.
Of course, this is a lot of work, if a consistory wants to do its work properly. For that reason we have agreed as sister churches, that we can make an exception for those coming from sister churches. They do not need to be examined again, but we accept the testimony of the consistory of this sister church about this person. As sister churches we know each other, we know that we all confess the same Reformed faith, and also exercise discipline over those who live in sin against the LORD’s commands. Therefore, we can trust each other’s testimony as sister churches. This is so for the bond within our own church federation, the FRCA, but this also extends to those federations of churches with which we have a sister church relationship.
Another benefit of sister church relationships is the fact that we can call each other’s ministers. Within the FRCA, every local congregation can extend a call to a minister within the FRCA, because we believe that we are standing on the same basis of the Word of God, and confess our faith as summarised in the Three Forms of Unity. Because we have sister church relationships with churches abroad, this is also true for those churches. And therefore, churches within the FRCA can also call ministers from those church federations. Article 5 gives rules for those situations. According to article 5 a minister who is not a member of a sister church, cannot be called, unless he has first been declared eligible for call within the FRCA or within sister churches of the FRCA.
From this all we can conclude that the principle of sister church relationships is, that we express trust in each other, and can accept each other’s testimonies about ministers and all other members. In order to be able to trust each other, we must know from each other that we are standing on the same basis. If we are not certain about that anymore, or if we are certain that it is not the case, then that is a reason to terminate the relationship. That is what happened with our relationship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. We did not make a decision to discipline them, we only said: we cannot accept their testimony anymore because we are not standing on the same basis.
No judgment about true or false churches
The fact that the FRCA accepts another church federation as sister churches, does not make them true churches. The fact that the FRCA terminates the relations with another church federation, does not make them false churches. What determines whether a federation of churches is a true or a false church, is whether they submit in everything to the Bible as the authoritative Word of God for all times. We have summarised it in the three marks of the church in the Belgic Confession article 29.
There can be true churches which are not our sister churches. We don’t have the capabilities to visit and investigate all churches on earth. It may happen when you are travelling to other countries, that you meet brothers and sisters there, who are standing on the same basis as we do, yet we don’t have a sister church relationship. We have the principle that we do not go out, travelling all over the world, to find as many true churches as possible; but if God does place a church federation on our path, we have the duty to interact with them, to see if they are true churches and if so, to see if it is feasible for us to maintain a sister church relationship with them. Being sister churches not only means that we can accept each other’s ministers and attestations, but we also have to maintain this relationship: help and encourage each other to remain reformed and admonish there where we see deviation. We can decide that there are true churches on this earth but we don’t have the capability to fulfil our responsibility to them if we were sister churches. Of course, it is important there to see if these churches have other sisters to take care of them or not. If not, then that gives us a greater responsibility towards them. Other reasons to enter into a sister church relationship may be an actual or desired cooperation on mission fields, in training for the ministry, or meeting each other regularly in contact with other sister churches.
We have more brothers and sisters on this earth, than only those who are members of sister churches. In Matthew 12:50 the Lord Jesus says: For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother. That is the criterion for calling someone brother or sister; not the question whether they are members of sister churches.
Two sister church federations in one country?
For a long time, the FRCA has used the rule that we can only have a relationship with one sister church federation in one country. However, some questioned at the last Synod if this is still tenable. We have contacts with two or three church federations in one country. We recognise that they stand on the same basis as we do. We can mention here the churches in the Netherlands: two small church federations: The Reformed Churches (DGK) and the Reformed Churches Netherlands (GKN). Also North America: we have a relationship with the Canadian Reformed Churches, but we also have contact with the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). A situation like this we also find in Indonesia: we have a relationship with the Reformed Churches in Indonesia (GGRI), but we also maintain contact with the Calvinist Reformed Churches (GGRC) and the Reformed Churches in Timor (GGRI-Timor). If we determine that these church federations are standing on the same basis as we do, the Word of God, and they are true churches, can we accept them as sister churches, or do we have to continue the situation of having only contact and no official relationship? What does the Bible say about this? I don’t go into a detailed discussion about this now. That is something for another time. Just a few points to consider.
- The Bible makes it clear that the Holy Catholic Church is gathered locally and authority is given by Christ to local office bearers (Titus 1:8 : elders in every town; Revelation 1-3: the seven churches that are in Asia; and more texts). That is why we believe that the FRCA is a federation of local churches. No church shall lord it over any other church.
- The local churches do bear responsibility for each other. The churches in the NT were called by Paul to collect for the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, when there was a famine (2 Corinthians 8); the churches asked and received guidance from the apostles and the elders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15); Paul encourages the Colossians to maintain contact with the church in Laodicea (Colossians 4).
Local churches in one area or country should not ignore each other. They have a responsibility towards each other. That is why we have federated as reformed churches in Australia within the FRCA. If there are true local churches in one country which have federated in two different federations, then these federations should not ignore each other, but start with accepting each other as sister churches and then working towards one federation. The question is: how far must this process be before we can accept those two (or more) federations as sister churches? Do they have to be completely one, or can we do it already from the moment that they accept each other as sister churches?
Let it be clear: if two federations in one country refuse to see each other as sister churches, then we should stand back and admonish them, if we still believe that they are true churches.
We also cannot have sister church relationships with two federations in one country if they cannot accept each other as sister churches or see each other as true churches. That was the situation with the Reformed Churches in New Zealand, when they still accepted the Christian Reformed Churches as sister churches. The FRCA could not accept that and said: we cannot be sister churches of a federation that accepts the CRCA as sister churches. That situation has changed and now the RCNZ are sister churches of the FRCA.
The situation in Indonesia is even more complicated. Synod Bunbury 2018 expressed concerns about our sister churches, the GGRI, as well as about the GGRC. It was decided that the deputies should support the GGRI and continue contact with the GGRC, both with the purpose to help them to strengthen the Reformed character of these churches. That is exactly what the responsibility is for sister churches. We are doing that to both the GGRI and the GGRC. However, there is no need to do that with regard to the GGRI-Timor. They are being recognised as Reformed Churches and contact shall be maintained with them. Many of our young members are travelling to Timor on their ‘Wings to Work’ trips and worship in these churches; there is a lot of contact between the GGRI -Timor and members of our churches. The GGRI-Timor even have their own (government accredited) Seminary. We encourage the GGRI in their efforts to work towards federative unity with the GGRC and the GGRI-Timor. This means that we do see them as true churches, or else we should not encourage the GGRI to seek unity with them. But we cannot enter into a relationship with them, because we have accepted the GGRI as sister churches. Is this a healthy situation? One can wonder if with this practice the rule of one sister church relationship in one country has become merely a formality and whether it is time to revisit this rule.
I know that the situation in Indonesia is very confusing for a lot of our church members. Many will have a hard time, reading through the decision of synod about Indonesia, to understand what it is all about. I hope in the near future, to give some more information about this situation, in a different post.
For now I will end this reflection on Synod Bunbury’s discussions and decisions regarding relationships and contact with other churches.
I hope to write one more article with reflections on the decision about an Australian seminary.