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The Classis of the Protestant Reformed Churches met in session on September 18, 1929. A number of recommendations were received at this Classis from the Committee on Home Missions made up of Elhart, Korhorn, and VanDellen. Among these recommendations, Classis considered one that was of unusual importance: “that our leaders put forth every effort to instruct our members thoroughly in the basic doctrines and in the Confessions, in order that our members who come in contact with brothers and sisters of other churches may try to win them in the spirit of love for the cause of the Lord.” It was moved to adopt this recommendation. We learn that “after some discussion this motion is rejected.”1
It would be of value to be privy to the discussion that took place at this meeting of Classis. Perhaps it was argued that leaders of the church, both elders and pastors, always put forth every effort to instruct their members in the basic doctrines of the Reformed faith and the Confessions. It is their chief duty to do this. Do the churches need a motion to fulfill what is already their mandate in Scripture? Indeed, if there is any strong point of the Protestant Reformed Churches through the years, it is the thorough training given to children and young people in the doctrines of the Reformed faith and the Confessions. Likewise, the preaching has soundly instructed our members in the Heidelberg Catechism and in the doctrines of Scripture. We have carefully guarded what God has given us by means of instruction and Christian discipline. Furthermore, the doctrine of the covenant has safely guided us to understand the need for the education of our children in Christian schools. This may have been a reason for rejecting this proposal of the committee.
On the other hand, perhaps this proposal was aimed at something a little less noble. The emphasis of this motion falls on the latter part of it, “in order that our members who come in contact with brothers and sisters of other churches may try to win them in the spirit of love for the cause of the Lord.” It is hard to interpret this recommendation in any other way than: “Let’s teach our membership how to approach others with the basic doctrines of the Reformed faith and the Confessions in a spirit of love to win them for the cause of the Lord.” Perhaps it is because of this emphasis that the motion was rejected. It was, after all, only five years after the bitter controversy of 1924. There had been a storm in the church—much agitation, tempers that flared, hard feelings, strong opinions. Perhaps, to pass such a motion as this a mere five years after the battle was too much of an admission.
We will never know what motivated the Committee on Home Missions to propose this recommendation or what motivated Classis to reject it some 85 years ago. Neither may we, looking back from this point in our history, cast judgment on the decision to reject it. There is no reason to doubt that, though there may have been much hurt at the time of the controversy, it was nothing less than a genuine, brotherly concern that motivated our churches in the early years to work toward the reformation of their mother church.
That being said, I believe that we as members of the Protestant Reformed Churches today would have greatly benefitted from the passage of this motion by the Classis of September, 1929. As was mentioned, our membership is rigorously trained in Old and New Testament history and in the doctrines of the Reformed faith, particularly the Protestant Reformed faith. Likewise, we have Heidel berg Catechism preaching, and often our other Confessions are taught in the catechism rooms. But along with this instruction are we also taught how to share that faith in a humble spirit with others? Is there integrated into the preaching and catechetical studies the need to talk with others about the blessed truths of Scripture in order to win them in the spirit of love for the cause of the Lord?
I realize that some might say, “Now that sounds like the wishy-washy, sappy approach of modern evangelicalism! We must make a solid stand for the truth! We must be uncompromising, tell it like it is, defend the faith against the lie, make it abundantly clear from Scripture where those who oppose us are wrong!” The answer to this charge is simple enough. Yes, we must defend the faith and make a solid, uncompromising stand on the Scripture. We must be able to show from Scripture the errors of others. But all of this must be done in order to win others in the spirit of love for the cause of the Lord. That must always be our goal when we speak with others about the basic doctrines of the faith as summed in the Confessions.
There is a particular Scripture I have come to appreciate more as I labor in the work of home missions. God instructs us in, “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.” This is polar opposite from a condescending, haughty, combative witness that portrays to others that we are superior to them, or that we view ourselves as the last bastion of truth on earth. I remember one of my professors said in class while I was in seminary many years ago, “God protect us from theological pride.” We have the calling today as God’s saints humbly to share the truths of Scripture and the Confessions with “brothers and sisters of other churches (to) try to win them in the spirit of love for the cause of the Lord.” And this is true in our witness to those who are not brothers and sisters of other churches too, but who wander in unbelief as unchurched.
This does not mean that in our defense of the truth we buckle before the onslaughts of heretics and hide ourselves behind a shroud of silence as so many do in the church today. Paul’s command to Titus against “unruly and vain talkers and deceivers” is clear. Their mouths must be stopped! “Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (). The leaders and members of the church of Jesus Christ must be bold to withstand error. There is no room in the church for heretics ( ). But we must remember that there are many in the church world today who because of heretics and false doctrine are ensnared by the devil and taken captive by him at his will. God’s servant is called “not [to] strive; but [to] be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance.” For that reason the recommendation of the Committee on Home Missions was a good one: “that our leaders put forth every effort to instruct our members thoroughly in the basic doctrines and in the Confessions, in order that our members who come in contact with brothers and sisters of other churches may try to win them in the spirit of love for the cause of the Lord.”
This is not to say, of course, that trying to win others in a spirit of love will drastically change the results of the witness we leave as believers and churches. In this postmodern age, any church that remains uncompromising, holding fast the faithful Word and unyielding in matters of truth, is immediately labeled as judgmental, narrow, and hateful, even if God’s people strive to win others in the spirit of love for the cause of the Lord. That too is a matter we learn firsthand in home mission work. Nevertheless, this ought not to influence how we are to witness to others about the blessed salvation that has delivered our souls from destruction and given us fellowship with God.
But I have not yet explained why I believe that we as members of the Protestant Reformed Churches today would have greatly benefitted from a passing of this motion by the Classis of September, 1929. Our churches today are removed from this decision by three and four generations. The question we confront today is not whether or not our witness is done properly. The question is, do we witness at all? Is there a desire to speak with others about the truths of Scripture and the Confessions? Is there a desire to share the precious gospel with brothers and sisters in the spirit of love to win them to the cause of the Lord? We have been blessed by God with the truth— a precious, glorious truth in which we can truly rejoice. We are thoroughly trained in the doctrines of Scripture. Why do we not want to talk about them?
There are those who do. In fact, there are those who are very good at talking about their faith with others. This question is not asked of them. These members are a blessing to our churches. But I ask this question to our generations in general. How often do we find ourselves discussing even among ourselves what God has done for us in our salvation? How often are we genuinely excited about what we heard in a sermon and want to talk about it with our fellow saints after the worship service? Not very often? Well, if we cannot get past the ability to talk with each other about spiritual matters, how will we ever be able to speak with others outside of our churches? When was the last time you freely spoke with someone about your faith in a spirit of love and humility?
There may be various reasons for our lack of witness. It could be we are afraid that what we believe might be challenged and we will not know what to say. It could be that, though we have been taught the doctrines of Scripture, they are not of real interest to us. It could be we are so overtaken with worldly-mindedness that our own salvation is not a concern to us anymore. We certainly pray that is not the reason. Maybe it is as simple as taking for granted the truth passed down to us in our generations, and therefore, a lack of zeal for the gospel. Or, maybe we do not know how to share our faith in a spirit of love with others in order to win them for the cause of the Lord.
The recommendation of Classis of September 1929 was rejected. But one thing is for certain: it was not rejected because the classis believed it to be erroneous. Unnecessary perhaps, but not in error. Is it necessary, then, for the Domestic Mission Committee to come to synod in our day with a similar recommendation? Not at all! But it is necessary that our leaders make a concerted effort to continue to teach our members the basic doctrines of Scripture and the Confessions in such a way that members learn how to share what they believe with others in a spirit of love and patience. Perhaps such instruction will help recapture some of the enthusiasm for the gospel that seems to be waning. May we not lose our first love exhibited by our fathers in their recommendation 85 years ago.
1 Article 21, September 18, 1929 Minutes of the meeting of the Classis of the Protestant Reformed Churches.