Are we following the reformed churches in the netherlands? 3
Rev. J. Moesker
5 What about the CanRC?
The question here and now is, what about the CanRC? Are we maybe being drawn into a similar kind of emotionalism as so many in our sister churches in the Netherlands? I'm afraid I do see some signs that something similar is stirring in the CanRC. After all, though our culture has some differences with Europe, here in North America we also live in a post-Christian emotionalistic culture. And we exist as Reformed churches among all sorts of evangelical and charismatic churches where faith is often measured by feeling. So there’s also constant and increasing pull on CanRC members to emotionalism, to judge things more by our feelings and emotions than by the plain and sufficient Word of God. As Dr. Visscher has pointed out, there are things that may mitigate that pull in the CanRC. Nevertheless, the pull is definitely there. And history shows us that because of the weakness of the covenant people, reformations are needed again and again. But let me mention a few things I have noticed which cause me to suspect movement toward emotionalism.
I mentioned declining RCN membership statistics. Thankfully the CanRC membership is still increasing. But you know something? The rate of increase is steadily declining. Membership increase 2013 -369; in 2014 – 210; in 2015 125. Fewer children are being born, but the decline also reflects an increasing number of members leaving the churches, many for evangelical churches. Early in my ministry already I had to do with people, mainly young people, who withdrew from the church I was serving. Many of them stated that they didn’t feel part of church, didn’t feel happy or lifted up in worship, didn’t like the Genevan tunes, and so on. There’s nothing Biblically wrong with this church, but I don’t feel good worshipping here, so I’m going to that community church. The first sign of withdrawing from the church is often attending only one worship service on Sunday and then skipping worship more and more. And it used to be mainly young people, but over the years I more and more heard that kind of talk and noticed "onceing" from more mature people. And I know that all consistories and ministers deal with this on a regular basis. How many CanRC people aren’t worshipping in evangelical churches like Harvest churches today?
That’s also why for instance the article of Rev. R. Schouten in the August issue of Clarion entitled, “So You’re Thinking of Leaving Your Church…” A very thoughtful and to the point article in which he uses the Form for Profession of Faith to confront people who are unhappy with the CanRC they belong to and are thinking of leaving for a community church or megachurch. Worth reading! He invited reactions, and there were a couple of letters to the editor critiquing the article. One reaction referred to the beginning of the article where Rev. Schouten says that when questioned, those intending to leave often say, But I just feel happier and more at home in this new church. The letter writer asked, Is it wrong to desire to feel happy and at home in one’s home church? If our members do not feel happy in church, are there ways we as church community can make that happen? And then, the letter also critiques Rev. Schouten’s statement that truth should trump emotion every time in the Christian life. The letter writer asks, Can truth and positive emotion not stand side by side in the Christian life? In worship can and should they not both be present? I’m afraid that that reaction shows something of the pushing forward of feeling as a measure of Christian life and worship. Should we really make truth AND feeling the measure of good worship? Are we so afraid that truth won’t bring that positive emotion that feeling is elevated beside it as touchstone of godly worship?
Dr. T. VanRaalte was asked a couple of years ago at a conference about the place of emotion in worship. He replied that there is emotion and there is emotionalism. Emotionalism seeks to arouse positive emotions. Like happy clappy worship. On the other hand, emotion is the good benefit of godly worship, but not the aim of such worship. In fact, the effect of Biblical worship should also be negative emotion when confronted by one’s sins and weaknesses. The gospel is after all an affront to our pride and weakness.
Some time ago I rubbed shoulders at a gathering with someone with whom I had some words about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I was going to administer the Lord’s Supper the next Sunday and that person said, Do the elders invite up to the table in this church? What would you do if I simply walked up to take part without being invited and without an attestation? He didn’t go up to the table, but I understand that he later withdrew himself from the CanRC he belonged to about this issue. I know that person isn’t alone in feeling upset by the way the table is fenced in the CanRC. It feels as if the CanRC are saying that unless you have an attestation we don’t accept that you’re a true Christian, or we don’t trust that you are such. And as such fencing the table feels offensive to some members if it also offends guests at that time. But this is not a matter that’s decided by emotion, but by Scripture. We confess quite clearly in LD 30 and 31 that the elders of the church have the task and authority to admit and to withhold from the table of the Lord, and this is reflected in Article 61 of the Church Order. In this truth has to trump emotion every time. But I’m afraid that there is increasing push to let emotion trump the truth in this matter. I noticed, by the way, that Synod 2016 has decided that the Committee for Contact with Churches in North America are no longer mandated to raise the issue of fencing of the Lord’s Table with the sister churches in the US. I wonder why not, especially if the fencing of the table is a matter we confess from Scripture.
As I mentioned, CanRC worship services have changed in various ways over the years. And change isn’t always bad. It’s positive if we find Biblically better ways to glorify God in Christ and to encourage one another in praise. I preached in the RCNZ for some time recently and though their liturgy is quite similar there are some differences, some we could learn from. In the RCNZ the the deacons place the offerings on a table at the from and stand in front of the table and offer prayer connected with those offerings. The thing is, though, sometimes proposals to change the way worship is conducted are made more on the basis of feeling than Scripture. Some time ago a consistory had received a proposal for a change in the liturgy, and they presented it to the congregation. There was a fair bit discussion about it. Until one brother stood up and said that the only substantial reason he heard throughout the discussion about the change in the liturgy was that people were bored with the way it was. Well, he said, if you start changing the worship because people feel bored, be prepared to change it again and again in the future because they’ll eventually get bored with each change too! We don’t worship to keep people entertained, but to glorify God and be called to repentance and faith in Christ.
We also regularly hear criticism of our Genevan Psalter. I have heard criticism about the tunes and that there ought to be many more hymns since they are more uplifting. Again, arguments largely based on feelings. The psalms were originally inspired for worship. There is lots of emotion in the psalms, and by them the Spirit channels our emotions in a good direction. Yes, there could be different tunes, the Genevan tunes weren’t inspired, but they have historical value and connect us with brothers and sisters of the past. And according to Synod 2004 we could add more hymns, but they need to Biblical and in a worship style that isn’t faddish but classical. But I suspect though that the continual urging for additional and more contemporary hymns which I hear from time to time, is due to a desire for more emotional worship.
I also believe that as our society becomes more and more egalitarian there will be a movement to push females more to the fore in worship and in church work and eventually in church office. You can think what you will of the decision to allow women’s voting, but I personally expect that there is a degree of egalitarianism behind it. And I researched it a bit, but pretty well every church in North America which has opened the way to women’s voting has over time also accepted females in church office in spite of what the Bible so plainly says. And I’m thankful for the seminary and I trust that our seminary and its board of governors and the professors all have mind and hearts focussed on the Word and training men to bring that Word. But I do expect that over time there will be increasing pressure on the seminary to accommodate the feeling-based changes which ferment among local churches.
6 So how forward?
I need to come to some concluding remarks. I can't look into the future. And I pray not, but I expect that the emotionalism of our man-centred culture will continue to have an effect on CanRC members and churches as it has in the RCN. It will likely continue to push on the way we worship in the first place, as it already is in some places. There will be less unity in practice and more modality churches and maybe even modality church assemblies. There will probably be push for more member participation in worship. There will be a push to change the songs and music in worship, to bring instruments and also allow bands in worship. The role of women in the church will likely become a matter of study. Maybe also in time the status of same-sex relationships. There will be more ecumenicity of the heart with Christians of differing confession and practice. There will be more drive to make room for members who don't necessarily stand fully for the Reformed confessions. There will be more pressure on the way the Bible has always been understood throughout the history of the NT church with its changing cultures. And that push will reach out for the support of the seminary. Overall, a process which may differ in some ways from the developments overseas, but which will follow a similar course as in the RCN and too many other churches. Changes based more on emotion than on reasonable discussion about what the Bible says.
What should we do if our desire is to remain close to the Bible? Well, in the first place we need to hold fast to what we confess in Article 27 BC that the holy catholic church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects. He gather, defends and preserves for Himself by Spirit and Word in the unity of faith a church chosen to everlasting life, as we also confess from the Bible in LD21. So there’s no need to be afraid, and every reason to pray and to trust that as long as you do your task in your own place and station according to the Bible as best you can, that the Lord will continue to gather and keep His church and keep you for it. Work and pray to remain faithful as church members. Know your Bible and confessions and teach your children to love the Lord. And work and pray to keep the church you belong to true to God’s Word. And be faithful to that holy catholic church of Christ wherever and whatever. As we have seen throughout church history, churches decline and reformation is needed again and again. So time and again in history believing people had to leave a church to stay with the church of Christ. I pray that in my lifetime no one may need to leave the CanRC to remain with Christ's holy catholic church. But let's not think that that might not be needed 20 years from now.
Let me bring what I just said together in the apostolic command throughout the NT to be sober and self-controlled. Especially the apostle Peter who was inclined to be so emotional. He learned to ground his mind and heart in Christ and in the gospel. In his letters he later emphasizes then that Christians need to be sober. In other words, not carried along by passions, by emotionalism, but self-controlled and subject to the whole Word of God. Let me end by reading 1 Peter 5:6-11:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever.
Rev J. Moesker is Minister emeritus of Owen Sound, Canada. He held this speech in Smithville ON, November 2017.