Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

What is “Reformed”?

The Grand Rapids Press, February 24, 1996, reports on a controversy engaging Classis Muskegon of the Reformed Church. The report, on its front page, states:

A pastor with tolerant, yet controversial, views on homosexuality faces the likelihood of being forced out of the Reformed Church in America, following a committee recommendation to an RCA church governing body.

The Rev. Richard Rhem, pastor of the 3,500-member Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, should leave the RCA due to his “unacceptable” views on Scripture and salvation, according to the executive committee of the Muskegon Classis, a group of more than 20 Lakeshore-area churches.

In a letter mailed Friday to classis delegates, the committee urged “that Rev. Rhem and the Muskegon Classis purposefully move toward a peaceful separation, with humility and a gentle spirit.” The full classis will meet Thursday at Muskegon’s Hope Reformed Church to vote on the measure.

The Grand Rapids Press, March 5, 1996, gave the outcome of the Classical meeting:

A Reformed Church in America congregation in Spring Lake will leave the regional body that last week voted to censure the congregation’s pastor.

“We will sever ties with the Muskegon Classis,” said Don VanOstenberg, chairman of the board at the 3,500-member Christ Community Church.

The Rev. Richard Rhem of Christ Community has been under fire for his beliefs in a non-literal interpretation of Scripture and salvation….

The classis was scheduled to meet this morning. Leaders in Classis Muskegon, the group of 22 churches that includes Christ Community, voted 39-19 last week that Rhem either recant his views or move toward a “peaceful separation” with the classis. Rhem has said he won’t recant.

And the decision has left other congregations in the conservative classis facing a nagging question: Who’s next?

One minister fears there may be no place for his congregation in the classis.

“We would be on the side of Dick Rhem’s stand, and Christ Community’s stand,” said the Rev. Lawrence Doorn, interim pastor of Church of the Savior … in Coopersville. “Whether that would lead us into some difficulty or not, that remains to be seen.”

…Although Rhem came under scrutiny because he allowed a gay congregation to worship at his church, the classis’ action was based on Rhem’s beliefs in a non-literal interpretation of scripture and salvation outside of Jesus.

It was the last issue especially that’s been a sticking point.

Rhem and other scholars have identified three views with regard to Christian salvation. The first holds that there is no salvation outside professed belief in Jesus. The second holds that there is salvation without confessed belief but still through Jesus.

The third position, which Rhem holds, states that there is salvation through other religious systems.

… Christ Community hasn’t exhausted its options within the denomination.

It could transfer to another classis…. Or Rhem himself, who is really the point of contention, could transfer his credentials to another classis….

Darrell Todd Maurina, United Reformed News Service, reports also some of the discussion which took place on the floor of the Classis. There was a majority voting to censure the views of Richard Rhem. But two things stand out in the report: (1) the vote was 38-19 against Rhem; (2) the strongest sentiments reported in Maurina’s release in support of Rhem came from a woman minister and from a woman elder. Rhem himself told the Classis, “I am not prepared to say there is no salvation apart from that mediated by Jesus Christ as understood in the Christian tradition. Even the Polish Pope agrees with me on that issue, and so do many, many others, so I’m not really that far off in that area.”

The women officebearers who supported Rhem’s position, stated:

“There will be many of us who will still be here who will continue the debate,” said Rev. Miriam Baar-Bush — sentiments echoed by a number of other delegates who reminded classis that Rhem was not the only RCA minister with similar views.

“We here at Classis Muskegon are one pocket of our denomination; we have to think about our brothers in the broader Reformed Church in America,” said Elder Marilyn Rottschaefer of Christ Community Church. “I wonder if this is truly representative of what the broader denomination thinks about this….”

… Baar-Bush made clear that a decision to oppose Rhem would also have widespread consequences. “This will separate and divide our denomination,” said Baar-Bush. “If you want to speak truth, the truth needs to be known that we are saying anyone who holds the same views as Dick needs to be excluded. We are setting a precedent for other classes; there are others in the pulpit, there are those in the Reformed Church who teach in our theological schools, who will be affected by this. Who’s next?”

Faced with the inevitability of division within the classis and the possibility of greater division outside the classis, the delegates chose by a large majority to follow the recommendation of the classical executive committee. On a secret ballot vote, classis decided by a 38-19 margin to ask Rhem to recant his views, with the understanding that a peaceful separation would be sought if he does not recant.

One wonders what the outcome will be. The claim, reported by Maurina, was that there were many others in the Reformed Church who believed like Rhem. The 19 votes supporting Rhem indicate that in the conservative Classis Muskegon there are those who agree with him. How many more supporters would he then have within the whole of the denomination?

Strange, too, is the strong support he receives from two women who serve in the office of elder and minister. Is it possible that in violating Scriptural instructions concerning women in church offices, there is increasingly a willingness to violate other clear instructions of Scripture?

One might raise questions too about the manner of handling so serious a matter. When heresy arises from within the bosom of the church, is this the way with which it must be dealt? One receives the impression that Classis Muskegon is saying, “We have serious differences of opinion about Christ and Holy Scripture — so let us separate peaceably.” Is this the way to seek the salvation of the sinner?

Meanwhile, various writers also point out the relationship of the “women in office” issue and other issues presently confronting many denominations. Rev. Daniel Brouwer in The Outlook, February 1996, reminds his readers that the same arguments used to maintain the right of women to serve in office can be and are being used to promote the legitimacy of monogamous homosexual relationships. It comes down to this: “What do we say of Scripture? Is it the infallible, inspired Word?” Only with a proper answer to that question can one rightly grapple with and answer the many heresies arising today. Where one refuses to recognize the trustworthiness of Scripture in one area, he will inevitably refuse its guidance in many others also.

The “Church” of the Promise-Keepers

Perhaps the title seems inappropriate. Many have insisted that the “Promise Keepers” is an organization which promotes family life. It especially encourages men to take their rightful place within the home. It encourages individuals to pray for their pastors. All worthy goals indeed!

But at the same time Promise Keepers increasingly assumes to itself the tasks which Christ gave exclusively to the church. The preaching of the Word is not considered adequate or sufficient to direct the men of the congregation in a godly walk at home and in the church. Promise Keepers must do the “preaching” to encourage each to keep the seven promises that have been devised. Promise Keepers encourages men to pray for their pastors — but reports indicate that harsh and bitter words are spoken against any pastor who dares to condemn this movement. Some have even left churches because their pastor or church did not support this “worthy” organization.

Yet it is maintained that Promise Keepers does not consider itself a “church,” though admittedly it seeks to “break down the walls” that separate denominations. And where is the proof that PK does not consider itself a church? Well — it does not administer sacraments — that is, until recently. The Austin American Statesman, February 15, 1996, prints an Associated Press release:

The Rev. Samuel Edwards believes portability and convenience shouldn’t be issues when it comes to taking Holy Communion.

But a Chicago company is promoting exactly that in the form of pre-packaged Communion grape juice and wafers, despite mixed reviews.

… The pre-packaged Communion cups will be used Thursday night when about 40,000 clergy will observe Communion at a Promise Keepers rally in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome….

So, now, is this movement a “church”? It has at least one sacrament offered to the attendants of the Atlanta rally. Is this the movement that so many, even in Reformed circles, are defending?

What’s Next? Christian Nudists?

The Christian News, March 4, 1996, reports on a strange, nay, disturbing movement.

“Amazing Grace” lifts softly into the North Carolina pines from the meeting room where voices gather greater fervor with each verse in praising God.

Take away the video screen and music and it might be just another Saturday night in a Christian campground tradition that goes back decades – except the woman leading the song has no clothes on, her husband wears only a T-shirt and all the others are similarly undressed.

Welcome to the first Christian Nudist Conference….

Some 40 Christian nudists from around the country stood naked and unashamed before their God at the conference which ended Sunday with a worship service….

“The No. 1 goal of this whole thing, ultimately, is to glorify the name of Christ,” said Carol Love, an owner of the Whispering Pines Resort…. “We feel like we’ve been Christians for a long time, and this is our next step to get closer to God.”

One might wonder: what’s this world coming to? What is the “church” coming to?

There could be given a long discourse on the place of clothing. Adam after the fall clothed himself with fig leaves. God replaced that with animal skins — reminding Adam and us that proper covering for sins requires shed blood. Now some, claiming Christianity, would stand in their shame so that all can see — while singing: “Amazing Grace.” It is shocking.

The passage of Hosea 2:2-3 comes to mind. Is this God’s judgment upon those who willfully ignore God’s Word and call evil “good”?