Our Australian Tour (14)

In this concluding article concerning our tour, I wish to make a few observations by way of evaluating this work and to make a few suggestions of a general nature with respect to the calling of our churches and possible future labors in this area of our ecclesiastical life. I will not at this time write concerning the concrete proposals which our Committee for Contact With Other Churches is making to the coming synod. There will be such proposals and our Synod will have to consider them seriously and reach some rather important decisions. For the time being, however, I will not write about these, but wait until after our 1976 Synod has met. Then these matters will be reported. My present remarks will be of a more general nature. 

In the first place, we may ask whether this tour was worthwhile? Was it worth the time, the effort, and the expense connected? I think that by this time, after our lengthy account of this tour, I hardly have to argue the fact that I am not asking whether this was a worthwhile pleasure trip. For a vacation trip this certainly was not. I may point out that in the space of thirty-eight days we held a total of 40 meetings of various kinds: services, lectures, cottage meetings. Some 21 different air flights, plus numerous trips by train, bus, and private car, were involved in our travels of more than 30 thousand miles. In our various meetings we spoke to a total of about 1800 people, many of whom we met personally and engaged in conversation concerning the Reformed faith. As far as the amount of work accomplished is concerned, therefore, there can hardly be any question as to whether this tour was worthwhile. Nor can the expenses be considered exorbitant when you consider that, due partly to the fact that our hosts also assisted with these expenses, the total expense for each emissary amounted to less than 7 1/2¢ per mile. But permit me to quote, in answer to this question, from the official report which Rev. C. Hanko and I submitted to our committee and to our churches: “There is not a shadow of doubt in our souls as to the worthwhileness of this tour. In the first place, being on the scene and learning to know the situation—especially in New Zealand and Australia—firsthand, as compared with what we have learned by correspondence in the past, is invaluable. In the second place, the reception accorded us both in New Zealand and in Australia was far beyond our expectation. We are referring now not merely to the friendliness and hospitality of the people, but to their reception of us as representatives of our Protestant Reformed Churches and their reception of the message which we brought. There was an exhilarating air of delight and excitement among these people, and we shall never forget this experience. Our strongest impression is that lasting bonds have been established with the churches in New Zealand and in Australia, while in other areas seeds have been sown.” It is my hope that by means of our report to the churches and by means of this series of articles in ‘our editorial columns something of this worthwhileness has been conveyed to our people. After all, this was not the work merely of a couple individuals or of a committee, or even of our synod, but the work of the churches and the work of the Lord. Personally, I have been deeply involved in contact with New Zealand and Australia both in correspondence and through writing for several years; but the value of this face to face contact far outweighs the value of such impersonal contact. And if the occasion should arise again, as well as the need, I would not hesitate to recommend that our churches follow this course again. I would also recommend strongly that sometime in the future emissaries from the churches down under visit us. This can only result in a strengthening of the bonds between us. 

In the second place, I call your attention to the fact that this is a first for our churches. It is the first time that there have been any positive results of our efforts toward contact with others. For many years we have had a synodical committee whose work it was to seek such contacts on behalf of our churches. And at various points in our history we have attempted such contacts, and sometimes seemed on the verge of a break-through. I may mention in this connection the fact that our churches have repeatedly sought contact with our mother church, the Christian Reformed denomination, but were shunned. We have sought fellowship more than once with the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, but the door was closed. Unofficially, during the 1940’s, we had some contact with the German Reformed Church (Eureka Classis), but this came to nought at that time. We sought fellowship with the Gereformeerde Kerken, both Synodical and Liberated, but doors were closed in our faces. And now at last we have been received, and received warmly: and there is a real possibility of establishing some official ties of ecclesiastical fellowship. This is reason for thankfulness to our God. For it is good to know, is it not, that as churches we do not stand alone and shunned. This is reason for encouragement: for is it not encouraging to have fellowship in the faith and the bonds of the truth? And in the same connection, it is good for our ecclesiastical self-esteem and I believe that there is such a thing as sanctified self-esteem—especially in the light of the fact that we have so often been shunned and looked down upon as being sectarian. 

In this same connection, there are some rather striking facts about these contacts which we should not overlook. In the first place, those with whom we have been brought into contact are, for the most part, not of Dutch and Reformed background; but they are Presbyterians. This is not to say that we had no contact with people of Dutch and Reformed background, particularly in New Zealand; but as far as the church groups are concerned, these were the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches in New Zealand and the Evangelical Presbyterian Churches in Australia, not to overlook the Reformed Presbyterian congregation in Sydney, Australia. Perhaps this was even one factor in the fact that we were received among these people: I refer to the negative fact that among these people are not found some of the prejudices against us which are found among the Dutch-Reformed people, due to the fact that we have been misrepresented and maligned many a time among Reformed people. A second striking fact in this connection is the fact that it was exactly our Reformed stance which undoubtedly constituted the main element of attraction to us. I am convinced of this fact. We noted it time and again during our tour. We certainly made no effort to hide our position, either in our speaking or our preaching; on the contrary, we made it known clearly. And we experienced that it was exactly this which constituted the element which attracted others to us. This is reason for gratitude, and reason for hope with respect to future relationships. Thirdly, we may take note of the fact that these contacts came in an altogether unexpected comer of the world. The way of the Lord with His Church is sometimes surprising, is it not? Some ten years ago we were not even aware of one another; and although, perhaps, some of us knew that there were people of Reformed and Presbyterian persuasion in the countries of Australasia, we certainly did not give this much thought, nor did we pay attention to these churches. In our thinking, they were more or less on the sidelines. And we certainly made no conscious effort to have contact with anyone in Australasia. As far as our churches are concerned, these contacts grew spontaneously and without conscious effort and solicitation on our part. Providentially, and in an unexpected manner, the Lord has brought us to know one another. 

At the same time—and this is my third observation—we ought to keep things in the proper perspective. We must maintain our sense of proportion, and our enthusiasm should be a tempered enthusiasm. Our Committee for Contact With Other Churches is well aware of this. Perhaps the danger of over enthusiasm is greater for those of us who are directly connected with this work than it is for others. Yet we may well bear in mind that though great and good things have taken place in this area of our ecclesiastical life, they are notbig things. Nor, I believe, must we expect big things in the outward sense of the word. The groups of churches with whom we have been brought into contact are certainly not large and significant according to the standard of men. Our own denomination is small, but those with whom we have established contact are smaller than our own. The movement in New Zealand is still in the struggles of its infancy. And the churches in Australia are also small and struggling. We certainly should be accustomed to this as Protestant Reformed Churches because of our own experiences. But it is well that we keep this in mind, lest we also should have false expectations. Personally, I do not believe that we are living in times in which we may expect big things in. the outward sense of the word as far as the faithful church is concerned. Nevertheless, let us also bear in mind that the significance of a church is not dependent upon its size and numbers, nor upon worldly power and influence. The crucial issue is that of faithfulness to the Word of God. And in that same connection, let us not forget that the Lord our God does not despise the day of small things; neither ought we, as His people, to do so. 

My fourth observation—and this is a key one—concerns the fact that the Lord has very evidently brought us into contact with one another, and that, too, in a very wonderful way. About the fact of the contact, of course, there can be no doubt. But also about the fact that this is the Lord’s work, I want to stress, there can be no doubt. I make bold to say this, first of all, in the light of the fact that it became very clear during our tour that the one factor which attracted us to one another was that of agreement in the truth of God’s Word and our Reformed heritage. This, you understand, can only be the work of the Lord; and, at the same time, this may be the only kind of ecclesiastical contact that we may seek. But I also say this in the light of the very manner in which we have been brought together. This was not our work. We did not seek and did not even expect these contacts. Not many years ago we did not even know of one another. These contacts were altogether unexpected and unsought, and came about in a wonderful way through what appeared to be a series of coincidences. This, too, should say something to us. And when I say “us,” I have in mind not only our Protestant Reformed Churches, but also the churches in Australia and New Zealand. We mutually may not ignore this. To ignore it would be wrong. We are confronted by a calling. 

What is the nature of that calling as far as our Protestant Reformed Churches are concerned? Negatively, let me point out that we are not speaking here of mission work, and do not and must not view the brethren and sisters down under as objects of mission work, so that we have in mind to change them, perhaps, into Protestant Reformed Churches of New Zealand or of Australia. No, we do and must recognize them as churches in their own right, not as potential Protestant Reformed Churches. We neither can change them, nor ought we to change them. They are not Protestant Reformed, and they never will be. They have a different background. They have a different constituency. They have a different history. They are very definitely Presbyterian and hold tp Presbyterian Confessions, or subordinate standards. They do and must live their own ecclesiastical life and run their own ecclesiastical affairs. We understand this, and we certainly want the brethren down under to know that we understand this. But as our Church Order puts it, rather negatively, churches which differ from ours in non-essentials shall not be rejected. The positive of that is that it is our calling to have ecclesiastical fellowship with them, and, to the degree that this is possible, to recognize one another as sister churches. It is our calling to be of mutual strength and comfort to one another, to assist one another, to stand shoulder to shoulder in the bonds of the faith. Certainly, there are differences; and there will continue to be difference. As long as those differences are not essential, however, they may not stand in the way of fellowship and cooperation. 

One of the notable differences is that our Protestant Reformed Churches are older, and we are a more established and experienced denomination. The churches down under are younger and of comparatively recent origin. They recognize this, too. As ‘far as our churches are concerned, this means that we must be careful that we do not assume an overbearing, know-it-all attitude. We must not assume the attitude of a kind of big brother who knows best. As I stated, our attitude must be that of equals, so that we recognize the churches down under as churches in their own right. And therefore we must not attempt toimpose our help and our advice and our knowledge and the benefit of our experiences, but we must show ourselves willing to help when called upon. We must be prepared to exercise ecclesiastical fellowship mutually to the degree that this is possible. 

At the same time, as far as the churches down under are concerned, I hope that they will continue to see this calling, even as we discussed it together face to face. They must remember, too, that fellowship is a two-way street. We may not and must not go our independent ways and ignore and forget about one another, now that the initial contacts have been made. That would be wrong, and it would be a sad mistake if that which was accomplished during our visit would be allowed to become nothing but a fond memory.

That leads me to my fifth remark, namely, that we mustwork at maintaining contact with one another. We must do so from both sides of the ocean. If our contacts are to be worthwhile and fruitful, they must not be allowed to languish. We must not be so parochial and so preoccupied each with the affairs of his own churches that we lose from sight the broader scene. This is all the more necessary because we are so small and because we are so far separated from one another geographically. Officially as churches, but also unofficially through correspondence and through writing in our respective magazines, we must work hard at maintaining and fostering the ties which have been established. For my own part, I shall continue to do this, also through our Standard Bearer. I know too, that it is the mind of our Committee for Contact to do so officially. And I sincerely hope and expect that our Synod will do all in its power to cement the bonds, and will see its way clear to take various concrete actions in this regard. 

Finally, I wish to say a word about our Standard Bearerin this connection. There is no question about it that our Standard Bearer, as well as our other literature, has played a significant role in our contacts with New Zealand and Australia. I mention this not to boast, but to encourage our RFPA to continue and to increase the witness of our Standard Bearer in those countries and in other places, as much as possible. Let us bear in mind that this is a significant part of our work. The primary question is not whether we gain paid subscribers, or whether the Standard Bearer pays its way in other lands. The fact of the matter is that even on paid subscriptions we lose money. But this is not the question. Our calling is to send forth our witness. We may do so and ought to do so in the confidence, too, that the Lord will take care of the fruits of that witness. We do not know, and we need not be concerned about, the outcome of that witness when we send it forth. We should learn this, and we should learn from experience that the results may be very surprising and unexpected. If I may put it that way, let us learn to cast our bread upon the waters. Who knows what the results may be? In recent years the Lord has prospered our RFPA financially, so that we do not have the struggle to “make ends meet” which we had in some earlier years. Hence, we are very well able to spread abroad our witness wherever and whenever the occasion arises. We should not hesitate to do so, and to do so freely and generously. 

I have one more suggestion of a practical nature. During our travels we noticed repeatedly in various places an extensive use of cassette recorders and recordings. I know that our First Church in Grand Rapids has a rather extensive cassette library service. Perhaps there are others of our churches who are engaged in this work also. I believe that it is a good work, and that it can be even better. More can be done along this line. This is an excellent means of spreading abroad the truth. One of the problems undoubtedly is that of publicity and distribution. For, surely, if people do not know of this tape library service and do not know the materials which are available, there can not be extensive distribution. I urge, therefore, that more extensive use be made of this medium. And for my part, the pages of the Standard Bearer are also open for purposes of publicity in this regard. 

This brings me to the end of this published account of our tour. I hope that it has been interesting, and not tedious, to our readers. And I hope that it has served the purpose of informing and encouraging our people with respect to this work.