I could not help but hum the Psalter tune and say its words in my heart: “The lines are fallen unto me (us!) in places large and fair; a goodly heritage is mine (ours!) marked out with gracious care.” My heart was glad. It still is.
What goodness our God showed to us this year at our annual assembly called synod! How I was wishing all our people could witness the public examination of the three seminary students—now candidates—and sit with us to hear Prof. Dykstra’s graduation sermon. What joy if even more could hear synod deliberate and decide to become sister church with Covenant ERC in Singapore; welcome Rev. M. McGeown of our other sister in Northern Ireland; approve the work of and commend our missionaries; and more. True, the handful of visitors who heard Missionary Richard Smit’s emotional report on the floor of synod were joined by over seven hundred on Sunday night as he gave a slide/video presentation of the work in the Philippines. But there were thousands more who, with us, could have wiped away tears of joy as our souls were refreshed by this good news from a far country. Someday, all of you who can ought to try to visit these important meetings.
People in all parts of the world were able to listen in on the graduation speech as it was streamed live on the Internet. Perhaps in the future even the student examinations and synod’s deliberations could be accessible in that way. Whatever problems might be involved in such a broadcast, it could be to our great advantage. To be a part of the synodical proceedings is instructive, even moving, especially as you reflect on the (undeserved!) goodness of God to the PRCA.
And I am committed not to allow even the few controversial issues with which synod needed to deal, to erase my sense of thankfulness to God, sobering and discouraging as such disagreements usually are. God’s goodness and mercy followed us even then when He was setting the crooked over against the straight, the day of adversity against that of prosperity…for our profit.
Synod began with a summons to worship in the beautiful sanctuary of the congregation of Grandville (MI) PRC. (What gracious and capable hosts these saints were all week!) Rev. R. VanOverloop, president of last year’s synod, proclaimed the good news to us from Titus 1:1-4, and led synod and the assembled congregation in singing and in a meaningful prayer for this “work of the churches in common.” Tuesday morning, synod elected four men who showed themselves to be very capable servants of synod: Rev. J. Slopsema (President, for the sixth time, by my count); Rev. K. Koole (as Vice-President); Rev. D. Kuiper (we have lost count how many times, as efficient First Clerk); and Rev. G. Eriks (as Second Clerk).
The reader may find on the prca.org website a more comprehensive report of synod’s actions from our Second Clerk. In a few short months, our stated clerk will make available the official Acts of Synod and Yearbook to all the members of the PRCA (free), and to others by special request. In this July editorial we commonly report and reflect on what we consider to be some of the more significant items synod treated.
The churches may rejoice greatly in the able and faithful men the Lord provides for our vacant churches. Mr. Nathan Decker, Mr. Brian Huizinga, and Mr. Jonathan Mahtani preached edifying sermons for the synod and sustained the lengthy oral examinations. Unanimously they were approved and declared eligible for call on or after July 16, 2011. In a special way, the professors who taught these men are humbly grateful that the Lord uses their instruction and example to fit these men for the ministry. Each student testified that the Lord used many other things as well to prepare them for the ministry. May God bless each of them and their families, and prepare a congregation to receive them. They love the Lord. They love His church. God is good. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that bring good tidings…. We are undeserving.
With joy, synod approved the admission to our seminary next year of Mr. Ryan Barnhill, of our Hudsonville, MI, PRC. But student population has dipped. Are the churches praying fervently for the Lord to separate unto the gospel sons of their congregations? The seminary’s rector reported that a larger-than-normal number of young men plan to take pre-seminary Greek this fall. May they all succeed! May God be good in providing many sons of the churches who aim at this high calling!
Synod kept busiest with the cause of missions and the churches’ “sacred duty to manifest the true unity and catholicity of Christ’s church on earth in as far as that is possible…with all churches which have obtained like precious faith with us, both domestic and foreign.” God has been good to the PRC in this regard also.
Is it possible that synod is now finished with the modifications of the constitution of the Contact Committee? In recent years, our churches made room for a corresponding relationship between the PRCA and others, and approved this with our long-time contact, the Evangelical Presbyterian Churches in Australia. The differences between us prevent a full sister relationship; but the agreements are enough to permit a “corresponding relationship.” The precise wording of the constitution to govern this relationship was at issue—how much the relationship must involve discussion of differences? The carefully balanced wording of the constitution now directs this committee of synod to interact with these brothers and sisters by discussing “areas of agreement and matters of difference.” God is good.
We have full sister relations with the CPRC in Northern Ireland. Their missionary from Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, Rev. Martyn McGeown, was seated at our assembly and observed all our deliberations. He reported on their mission work in Limerick as well as on the state of the church in Ballymena. As the Lord has provided for the PRCA materially, we gladly provide some support for these gospel labors in the UK.
The Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore, after a lengthy recovery, following a very difficult period of her existence, becomes our sister again. Precious unity, good and pleasant! “Gracious God, do not allow sin and folly to break this bond again; covenant God of friendship, allow no barriers to be built between us; teach us to live in truth and holiness, without compromise, with saints in all the regions of the earth.”
The churches eagerly await another invitation from the churches in Namibia, Africa, whose struggle for the faith keeps them too busy presently to extend another invitation. Private correspondence gives hope for an invitation in the future. It also indicates we are still in need of funds for translating Rev. Ronald Hanko’s Doctrine According to Godliness into Afrikaans. Rich gifts for this have already been offered. May all of us who are rich be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate. Please contact Rev. Garrett Eriks for details if you have an interest in the translation of this and other good, Reformed literature into Afrikaans.
Even though there is so much positive to report about missions, I begin with a couple of those “controversial issues” I referred to earlier. Already last year, synod denied, on two grounds, a request of the Domestic Mission Committee (DMC) to call a second home missionary. This year, the DMC brought an objection against the grounds synod used. The important issues raised in the grounds were: 1) whether vacancies in the local congregations have a bearing on whether synod approves the calling of another missionary; and if so, how much; 2) whether a mission field can be maintained and developed in the absence of a missionary. After much debate, reformulation of advice, and more debate, synod did not sustain the DMC’s objections. This year, the DMC again proposed the calling of another home missionary, but synod again rejected it, this time because the proposal was late, did not appear in the printed Agenda, but rather in a later, supplemental report. Synod applied its rule that “matters of importance” may not be presented to synod if they do not come on the normal Agenda. Synod must make judgments in cases like this. Both these decisions were discouraging to the DMC and others. We submit to the Reformed way of deciding matters “by majority vote,” even when the decision is by slimmest of margins.
Two other matters relating to missions were not easily decided. In fact, a proposal for a process of “tenure” for home missionaries, although not rejected, was sent back to the DMC for further study. Hours of debate revealed some disagreement, but the worth of the proposal for tenure includes 1) the emphasis it gives to the unique gifts needed for a missionary, 2) the promotion of long-term labor in home mission works, and 3) a way for both the missionary himself, his calling church, and synod to assess whether he indeed has the gifts to do the work of missions…and release him from the position if he does not. This proposal for missionary tenure parallels, although is not identical to, the process of tenure for a seminary professor: after he begins his work, he and synod’s Theological School Committee must evaluate whether he has the gifts that he and the synod thought he had. Next year will reveal whether the DMC desires synod to revisit its proposal.
Last, synod decided to “take ownership” of what for many years has been the unofficial website of the PRCA. The DMC will be responsible for monitoring its content and maintaining it weekly. Rev. G. VanBaren spent 14 years developing what many report to be one of the most extensive and useful websites of its kind. The churches can be very thankful (and synod expressed this gratitude) for the brother’s untiring efforts to extend the witness of the PRCA worldwide.
About this decision, two matters. First, the DMC will have to decide what standards are used to “monitor” the content. Since this is now an official denominational work, it will be interesting to see what responsibility synod will have for personal opinions expressed on the website, for links to sites some may judge to be questionable, etc. The shift from “unofficial” to “official” raises some sticky questions.
Next, in taking ownership of the website, the DMC will do well to remember synod’s first ground used to justify this ownership. (“As an aspect of missions, and rightly the mission work of the churches in common, the website prca.org properly belongs to the work of synod.”) This first ground clearly implies that the website is an ecclesiastical matter, and specifically states that it is work that belongs to the churches in common—to the DMC. No reasons were given to defend these positions; perhaps they were considered self-evident. However, the DMC can help the churches if the committee can consciously and openly work through why the website should not more properly be taken up by a para-church organization (the RFPA is a para-church organization), or by a local congregation which may need some synodical support (the Reformed Witness Hour is the local work of First PRC Grand Rapids, but has some support from and reports to synod).
Raising this point is no criticism of the DMC, but is rather a reminder to us as churches. Fundamental to the Reformed Church Order (Article 30) is the demand that our ecclesiastical assemblies (consistory, classis, synod) treat only “ecclesiastical matters”; and that the major assemblies (classis and synod) treat only that which could not be finished in the minor assemblies, or what pertains to the churches in common. As an “ecclesiastical matter” it belongs either to a local congregation or to a major assembly—it is the work of the office of Christ and not to believers generally. As a matter pertaining to “the churches in common,” it is the business of the synod, and not only of the local church. Synod’s adoption of the website is a statement that the website is both “an ecclesiastical matter” and is a matter of “the churches in common.” It would be a service to the denomination if the DMC, in its taking up this task and fulfilling its responsibility, would demonstrate that the website does truly fit both requirements.
I raise this because denominations today are adopting as their business many things that are not ecclesiastical matters. They own and maintain colleges, run publishing houses, engage in social efforts—all of which may be useful, even important, but are not ecclesiastical—that is, the work of the church as church. The PRCA have long warned about the church engaging in business that is not ecclesiastical. As the PRCA grows larger and our synod faces other proposals of importance, let us remind ourselves of the vital importance of Article 30 of the Church Order to direct the churches in their own work.
But let us return to rejoicing in the mission work we are able to perform as the churches band together to do what otherwise one could not do alone. Let our hearts sing with joy at the reports of the missionaries from the Philippines, and from our home missionary from Pittsburgh. Let us pray for the Lord’s provision of many able and faithful men who aspire to the work of missions, and for the denominational will to send them. May He encourage those who are involved in missions and its oversight that “God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Heb 6:10).
May He forgive what sins we committed at synod, overrule all our faults and weaknesses, and prosper the Protestant Reformed Churches as they labor in His cause, until Christ comes again.
Nathan Peter Decker
7448 Pinegrove Dr.
Jenison, MI 49428
Wife: Jessica; Child: Kate
Brian Lee Huizinga
3608 30th St. SW
Grandville, MI 49418
Children: Anna, Calvin, Jacob
4396 Choctaw Dr.
Grandville, MI 49418