The last editorial (March 1) was a lament for the schism in the PRCA. Our hearts, grieving for the division, look to God for mercy and long for the good of the Protestant Reformed Churches and all her members whom we love. This love motivates this editorial, explaining why membership in the PRCA is membership in the true church.
In January of this year, many members of our Byron Center PRC in Michigan separated from the Protestant Reformed Churches. Two elders and three deacons led them out. These five officebearers called all the members of the congregation to come out from the PRC. Members of a few other PRCs in the Grand Rapids area have joined the group, although many of them had already transferred to Byron Center PRC in the recent past. Remaining as the original Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church are yet a goodly number of families and individuals. They are led by the remaining six elders and three deacons. We pray the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ keep them.
The departure was not peaceful. The official separation took place two days after the minister was deposed by the consistory for the sin of schism. The minister had been previously suspended, but deposition requires approval of classis and concurrence of synod through its deputies from the neighboring classis. On Friday, January 15, 2021, Classis East did approve the consistory’s actions, after which the deputies of synod from Classis West concurred. On Sunday, January 17, the deposition took place. Two days later, on Tuesday, January 19, an “Act of Separation” was distributed to the congregation by the departing officebearers. The “Act” is an explanation for the separation and a call to “come out” of the “apostatizing Protestant Reformed Churches.” At the end of the “Act,” the departing officebearers also declare that they “do not recognize the unjust suspension and deposition of our minister but continue to recognize him as our pastor and teacher….” Thus, the newly organized group has elders, deacons, and the former minister.
Writing about the schism gives me no joy. I said recently in public speeches about the troubles that, if God promised to bring back those who had departed on the condition that I would cut off my right arm, I would accept the proposal instantly. That would be less painful than writing, speaking about, and enduring schism. Writing publicly about it even involves a kind of shame, as David expressed in his lament over the sad death of his best friend Jonathan and Jonathan’s father Saul: “Tell it not in Gath!” (And, you readers outside of the PRCA—who certainly are not in “Gath”—and who lamented with us in the last issue, please pray for us as you read of the PRCA’s struggles.) I would rather write about anything else.
But writing about the schism is necessary. The schism poses a deadly threat to the church of Christ represented in the PRCA.
For the “Act of Separation” was sent out with an invitation to you and your children to join them by signing it. Since the elders who formulated the “Act” were displeased not only with the consistory’s decision to depose the pastor but also with the entire denomination’s conduct that preceded the deposition, they invite others in the denomination to join them in signing. They said, “Signing the Act of Separation will constitute the organization of the church….” The invitation to sign the “Act” (at a public meeting on January 21) announced that the meeting was “open to all, including families and children, and including members from churches other than Byron Center.” This broader goal of the group was repeated: “…all who are so convicted may sign… whether you are currently a member of Byron Center PRC or not” (emphasis added).
That is, the schismatic group aims at your family, your children, your grandchildren. Their objective is to convince you and your children that, because the PRCA has lost the marks of the true church, you and your children must “flee from the coming destruction” that awaits the PRCA.
The “Act” is an unmistakably clear and violent assault on the PRCA. It is important to learn or be reminded how severe it is. The “Act’s” opening salvo is a citation of the Belgic Confession’s call to all believers “to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the church,” and to “discern from the Word of God which is the true church” (Arts. 28, 29). The “Act” declares the “apostatizing of the Protestant Reformed Churches,” of her “corrupting the marks of the true church and the manifesting the marks of the false church.”
Specifically, those who sign the “Act” assert that the glorious gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone has been “polluted with the filth of conditional theology, while the defense of the pure gospel…has been declared schismatic and sinful.” In the PRCA, “false doctrines and errors multiply exceedingly through heretical writings.” “…[D]efenders of error are exonerated and protected… while discipline is wrongly applied to faithful watchmen.” The PRCA is guilty of guarding “the empty honor of men.” At the same time, she allows Jehovah’s truth “to be trampled underfoot by the idolatry, false worship, and blasphemy of false doctrine in God’s house.” “The Word of God…has been ignored and disdained, and the will of man prevails.” The churches are accused of shrewd deception of her members. In addition, the PRCA “confesses Christ in name” but her deeds do “not acknowledge him to be the only head of the church.” They have made “false charges against God’s Word” and “strengthened the hands of the evildoers.” Then Jeremiah is called to witness against these churches: “…every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.” Because the PRCA “will no longer hear the Word of the Lord,” these officebearers “flee from the coming destruction” of the denomination and “separate (themselves) from this untoward generation….” They call others to join them.
Thus, it is not overstatement to say that the departure was “not peaceful” and to describe the “Act” as a violent attack on the PRCA. Everyone who remains a member of the PRCA (and her friends in her sister churches) understands what the “Act” declares about present membership in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
This editorial (and the following) are an attempt, by the grace of God, to declare and demonstrate that the PRCA are true churches of Jesus Christ and are not what the “Act” says about them. They will be an attempt, in love for the readers, and love for those who departed from us, to show that by the grace of God the Protestant Reformed Churches in America have, do, and will maintain the truth of the Reformed faith and defend the faith against errors (the first mark of a true church); that by God’s grace they have, do, and will worship God in the manner that His Word prescribes, particularly in the sacraments (the second mark); and that by His grace they have, do, and will exercise discipline according to the Scripture and Church Order. The editorials will be an attempt, God helping, to show that you who are members of the PRCA ought to be confident in your membership, and that those who have departed may return and be safe, even in their generations, as God continues to preserve us.
At those same public speeches recently, which I gave at the request of congregations who have no pastor at present, I offered my own personal confession about my own and my wife’s membership and that of our six children, their spouses, and their children. There is little I would not do to persuade them to remain in the PRCA. I am grateful to God for these churches, love them, and devote my life to the cause of God and truth in them. I pray that the readers of the Standard Bearer will have the same sentiments.
This is not to say that there are not weaknesses in the PRCA. In fact, the Lord is using the present troubles to compel us to examine ourselves and confess our weaknesses and sins.
In the lament offered in the last editorial, I emphasized the third commandment (God’s name, His truth, and thus doctrine) and asked whether we have taken for granted the deposit of truth the Lord so graciously has given us. Have I presumed that the PRCA and her sisters would always have the truth, perhaps even deserved to maintain the truth because of our faithfulness? Have I imagined that—over against those who do not hold the truth with the same purity as we believe we have it—that the PRCA holds it for some other reason than the free favor of God? Does the present controversy humble us to confess with fervency what has been lacking: What do we have that we have not received? (I Cor. 4:7). Are these weaknesses the reason that the Lord chastens us with doctrinal controversy?
What God requires of a church—in relation to truth—is more than having the truth in the confessions, preaching it in sermons, defending it in writings, passing it on in catechism classes, exposing errors and rooting out heresy. God calls the church to love the truth. The church that does not love the truth is not a church that can be said truly to hold the truth. Paul does not prophesy God’s damnation on those who do not hold the truth, but upon those who do not love the truth (II Thess. 2:10). Have we, with the fervency of “all our heart and mind and soul and strength” loved God and His truth?
I am thankful to see that PRCA love for truth is growing. Consistories are asking their ministers to speak about the truth that was threatened in the past few years. Please listen to Prof. B. Huizinga’s lecture from last October explaining Synod 2018, and the more recent lecture by Rev. M. Kortus in Redlands, CA, on the doctrine at issue in 2018. There have been many others. I have received more questions about the Reformed faith and the PRC’s stand on doctrinal questions in the past five years than any others of my ministry. My time has been consumed by these questions. The people of God are asking them. They are reading. They are interested in a way they have not expressed interest before. These are signs of a true church, evidences that the Lord is not forsaking the PRCA.
But our weaknesses have been more than a lack of love for truth. There have been errors—doctrinal errors— among us. The errors were serious. We sincerely wish it had not taken so long to correct the errors. We are grieved by how long it took. But in the end, Christ’s Spirit of Truth enabled the churches to identify and condemn them. And now, if there are more signs of error elsewhere, the people of God know the proper manner in which to address them. The assemblies work. Yes, sometimes “the wheels of justice turn slowly….” We are thankful that, weak as we are, the Lord has enabled the ‘wheels’ to turn. But “slowly” is usually the nature of ecclesiastical process.
In sum, first, I take comfort in the Lord’s work in the churches both to identify and root out error. I believe firmly that the PRCA are not false, but in fact manifest the marks of the true. I will be encouraging my children and grandchildren to remain, but also to take more seriously what perhaps we have taken for granted. Seek first God’s kingdom. Love Him and His Son.
Second, I urge all the members of the PRC to continue to confess, defend, and grow in the knowledge of the fundamental truths of the Reformed faith that the Protestant Reformed Churches are determined to maintain: 1) the truth of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone, without any works; 2) the truth of sanctification and good works as the necessary and inevitable fruit of justification and the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ; 3) that these good works are never the basis for, foundation of, reason for, ground of, or instrument to God’s blessings to us; 4) the decisions of Synod 2018 (confirmed and clarified by 2019), that our experience of fellowship with God is always on the ground of Christ alone, by the instrument of faith alone, and in the way of obedience— where obedience is never the ground, reason, foundation, or instrument; 5) the truth of the unconditional and gracious covenant of God with His elect in Jesus Christ—established and maintained unconditionally (which is another way of saying #1-4 above). The glorious truth of God’s unconditional covenant of grace is a major reason, we believe, that God gave existence to the PRCA in the world. Our understanding of the “unconditionality” of the covenant has grown and developed in this strife. The generations to come must be fluent in all these doctrines. And the best way to do so is to read the Scripture, guided by our confessions. When one is fluent in the Scripture and confessions, he will be able to discern truth from error.
Finally, I pray that you, young people, may not have doubts about your church membership. Let me end by speaking directly to you. You must discern for yourself. But I want you to know why I will remain a member of the PRCA. I love our God and His truth in Jesus Christ. I love Him for His presence in the Protestant Reformed Churches, which are not the only true church in the world, but one of them.1 I love God’s truth as it is explained in our Reformed confessions. I am so very thankful that the Protestant Reformed Churches have been my mother and my spiritual family for over 65 years now. This love, many of you know, explains why I seek opportunity to teach you young people whenever a vacant church needs a catechism teacher. At the same time that I am thankful, I am also sorry for my own sin that brings down God’s chastening hand upon us. May He forgive and restore. May He strengthen my resolve to grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that you, with me, can do that, too, as you make your own assessment of the PRCA. Together, I pray, we can express our determination (in a spirit of love) to “strive together for the faith of the gospel.” To God’s glory.
“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:23).
To be continued.
1 Please re-read Prof. R. Dykstra’s editorial in the SB—about the “point of the wedge”—from September 1, 2018.