Developments in New Zealand (5)

In the February 1 issue we pointed out that the doctrinal controversy in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand was accompanied by personal cases involving some of those who had brought the doctrinal issues to the fore. These personal cases involved grave charges of wrong-doing against these brethren, charges which, if true and if upheld, certainly would make them worthy of suspension from office. We contended, however, in the first place, that in dealing with these personal cases the churches made themselves guilty of persecution and of a perversion of one of the marks of the church: the proper administration of Christian discipline. In the second place, we contended that this corruption of discipline is at the same time proof that even though some of the doctrinal decisions may have somewhat of a sound of orthodoxy, nevertheless these doctrinal decisions were basically unsound and constituted a failure to exercise doctrinal discipline. For, so we reasoned, if the Synod and the churches had been truly of a mind to maintain doctrinal purity, they would certainly have done justice in the related personal cases of the very brethren who had championed the cause of doctrinal purity in the churches. But justice they surely failed to do, as we shall now see. 

What Happened In the Personal Cases? 

In the case of the Session of Christchurch versus Elder W. van Rij, charges were preferred against Mr. van Rij and an abortive attempt was made to discipline him while he was still in office. In December of 1970, however, his term expired with the Session’s case against him unfinished. 

What then happened? The Session sought the advice of the neighboring Session of Dunedin (which, by the way, itself had a gravamen pending against the Westminster Confession on the Sabbath). 

Together these two sessions (consistories) came up with a decision which is, to say the least, highly unusual and altogether unknown to the Church Order. Here follows what Mr. van Rij received under date of March 23, 1971:

Beloved Brother, 

The Session asks you to carefully consider the following, as it is our mutual responsibility to seek the will of the Lord and by His grace and Spirit to perform it. 

With the consent of Session Dunedin, which advised that “Whereas brother van Rij as an elder did not choose to act within the accepted structure of our churches, we recommend that br. van Rij be not suspended but, be officially reprimanded and subsequently discharged.” 

This Session advises you that it considers you have erred in: 

1. failing to lodge your objections against the decisions of Synod 1969 with your own session before making them public. 

2. judging the courts of the church without lodging proper appeal through the appropriate channels. 

3. adopting the attitude of “I am right and doing God’s will” without providing scriptural grounds for your strong statements. We believe that you as the plaintiff have the obligation to present the evidence. 

We strongly urge you to reconsider your actions. We also remind you that it is your obligation to respect the courts of the church until you can clearly prove from the Word of God that their actions are contrary to God’s will. 

With this you are discharged from the office of elder in the Church of the Lord Jesus (the term of which office terminated for you at the end of 1970). 

May the Lord grant you true insight and humility as you seek His will, the glory of His Name and the edification of His Church. 

On behalf of the Session

As I said, this was a very strange action. It is not any kind of disciplinary action found in the Church Order, It might be classified as a kind of verbal spanking and unnecessary discharge from an office which a man had in actual fact left three months earlier, when his term expired. From this point of view, this letter is a kind of “nothing.” Yet, because of its heavy charges and disorderly character, it was far too serious to be ignored. Besides, there had been no final resolution of this case, nor any final adjudication of the charges of slander which had been laid against Mr. van Rij by others, outside of the congregation and session of Christchurch. Hence, this could not be the end of the matter; that would have been injustice compounded, let alone the fact that at this point there was no reconciliation of those involved. 

Hence, there was a further exchange of letters. First of all, Mr. van Rij asked four things of his Session: 1) He asked the Session to specify his alleged sin. 2) He asked for an explanation of that strange discharge from office: was it a disciplinary action, or was it merely a statement of the fact that he retired from active eldership at the end of 1970? 3) He called attention to the clear Scriptural support of his statements and asked if Session had considered this. 4) He inquired whether this letter of admonition is also Session’s answer to the accusations and charges made against him by others. 

In reply the Session sent a lengthy communication which was unsatisfactory, which largely repeated previous positions, and which also dealt with a van Rij communication of March 8 which was intended for Synod and which dealt with the doctrinal issues. In connection with the latter, Session not only expressed its disagreement, but also charged that van Rij had falsely accused Dr. Runia, and further required of him to retract and apologize for “all such writings as infer that: 1) Dr. Runia denies the sovereignty of God with respect to reprobation. 2) Dr. Runia denies the historicity of Genesis 1, 2, 3. 3) Dr. Runia is an unbeliever.” The last, of course, Mr. van Rij had never stated and had never implied. The Session simply pulled this one out of thin air! 

And thus matters went to the Synod of 1971 in August. They were sent directly to Synod, partly because the last communication of the Session was not received by the appellant van Rij until July 9, too late for him to go first to Presbytery (classis); besides, Mr. van Rij informs me that the meeting of Presbytery was not even made known to the congregation, and even that he was erroneously informed by an elder that there would be no meeting of Presbytery. However this may be, Synod dealt with his appeal in a way, as we shall see presently. 

First, however, we must backtrack and see what happened in the personal cases of Messrs. Koppe and van Herk, whose suspension the Session of Silverstream-Wainuiomata had decided upon and announced to the congregation. We may be brief in this account. In the first place, the Session sought, but failed to get, the support of a neighboring session for this suspension. In the second place, when this attempt failed, the Session sought to get the support of the Presbytery of Wellington. But this also failed! At this point one would think that the Session was duty-bound to retract its serious charges and announcement and to apologize to the brethren concerned. If they at all .wanted to maintain the charges, they would have to appeal the matter to Synod. Mind you, they did neither! Messrs. Koppe and van Herk were left in a kind of limbo. To get the matter resolved they themselves had to bring a personal appeal to the Synod. 

This appeal is very clear; and it presents a case in which there was only one proper decision for Synod to make. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs to make this plain:

The Church of Silverstream/Wainuiomata has PUBLICLY STATED the fact, that they have decided to have us removed from this holy office in the church of Jesus Christ, both in the Silverstream/ Wainuiomata bulletins of 21-2-’71, and 11-4-’71, and in PUBLIC in the Congregational meeting at Silverstream, on 19-7-’71. 

According to the Church Order, and the whole teaching of Scripture, such removal from office in the Church of Jesus Christ, must be made ONLY upon the ground that the persons so suspended, have been found and adjudged guilty of committing GROSS SIN. This is clearly taught in Art. 79 and 80 of the Church Order. By thus PUBLICLY ANNOUNCING that they consider us worthy of such suspension, they have thereby inferred that we are guilty of some GROSS SIN, and that we have been adjudged guilty of such GROSS SIN.

Here, therefore, is the fundamental issue. 

The grievance is stated as follows:

This is casting aspersions on our names, as is evident from the fact that we have never, according to those directions given in the Church Order to safeguard the persons of officebearers, been adjudged guilty of committing GROSS SIN. 

The following facts indicate this without question: 

a) The Church of Wellington, (being the neighboring Church of Silverstream/Wainuiomata) has on two occasions refused to accede to the request of the Session of Silverstream/Wainuiomata to agree to our suspension; 

b) The Presbytery of Wellington, having received the same request from the Church of Silverstream/ Wainuiomata, passed no judgment, but returned the matter to Silverstream/Wainuiomata; 

c) The Church of Silverstream/Wainuiomata has never advised us of disciplinary action being decided upon, that would restrain us from the Lord’s Table, but to the contrary, has permitted us to sit at the Lord’s Table, and has agreed that we may thus partake.

This appeal concludes with a petition to Synod to direct the Session of Silverstream/Wainuiomata to do one of two things: 

1) Either specify the gross sin with which they have by implication publicly charged the brethren, and then act according to the requirements of Scripture and the Church Order;

2) Or publicly retract and apologize, and reaffirm the standing of the brethren as officebearers. 

This, I say, is very clear. It might be termed as open-and-shut case. 

Thus matters stood at the time when Synod convened. 

What Happened At Synod? 

The actual decision of Synod is very brief. After treating these personal appeals in closed session, Synod passed an identical decision on the appeal of Mr. van Rij and on that of Messrs. Koppe and van Herk. It is as follows: “Synod pleaded with all concerned to seek reconciliation on the basis of Scripture and confessions as also reaffirmed by this Synod.” (Articles 113, 115, Acts of Synod, 1971) 

We should notice that this can by no stretch of the imagination be termed a treatment of the appeals and an answer thereto. On the contrary, this is atrampling of the Church Order, which guarantees of the right of appeal to any member or officebearer. And it is a case of gross injustice. Synod was called to make a judgment in these cases; it made no judgment. Synod was called to enforce the provisions of the Church Order concerning the suspension of elders; it completely failed to do so. Synod was called to uphold righteousness in two cases in which brethren-elders had clearly been wronged by their consistories (sessions). The issues could not have been more clearly and correctly stated than in the appeal of Koppe and van Herk. The wrong was entirely and obviously on the part of the session, which had persisted in its attempt to suspend in spite of the fact that neither a neighboring consistory nor classis (presbytery) would agree with them, and which had then compelled the brethren to take the initiative in seeking to have their names cleared. The way of the Church Order was surely followed by the brethren. Their appeal was evident: either prove their charge of sin and follow the Church Order in disciplining, or retract and apologize! 

Yet Synod took what sounds like a neutral decision and urged “all concerned” to seek reconciliation. This may sound pious, but in actual fact it is a trampling of truth and justice. 

The Outcome 

Obviously, the brethren concerned had failed completely to get justice done at either the local level or the broadest level. After Synod’s decision, they were right back where they had begun. 

What is worse, their sessions showed no inclination to reconcile in the sense of retracting and apologizing for their heavy charges of gross sin. To this day the charges have not been removed. And in the case of W. van Rij, the session even continued to maintain its charges and to insist that the apologizing had to be done by Mr. van Rij! 

And there is only one possible course in such cases—after the ecclesiastical way has been followed all the way to Synod. It is the way of separation. The churches have not given satisfaction in the doctrinal issues. On the contrary, they have perverted justice in the case of the very men who called them to doctrinal purity and to doctrinal discipline. They have used discipline to persecute those who sought to maintain the confessions. The Synod itself has done nothing to help the brethren even though it called for reconciliation. It did not point the obviously erring sessions to the right way of reconciliation. By its failure it became co-responsible for the injustices committed. 

Separation has been the course followed. 

It is to be hoped that some in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand will still see the light in these matters, and that they will have the courage to take a stand. 

Meanwhile, let us remember the few brethren who have had the courage to fight this battle and who now stand alone; and let us also do what we can to help them! 

I would also warn the Reformed Churches of New Zealand that though they may have gotten rid of thecases under discussion, they have not really solved any problems by their failure to exercise the necessary doctrinal discipline and to take a clear stand over against false doctrine. In fact, the very same issues may face them sooner than they think! To this I will call attention—with evidence—next time, D.V.