For most readers of this Bit to Read, the honest answer to this question is, I suspect, that we’re Canadian Reformed because we were born into these churches.
A minority of readers would say they’re CanRC because they married a CanRC person. And a handful actually made a deliberate and well thought out decision to join this federation of churches.
The more pressing question then becomes: why are we still CanRC today? There are a couple of angles to an honest answer to that question:
- On the more subjective, human side, many of us remain CanRC because the CanRC represents our comfort zone. That’s a reference to:
- This is where our parents and siblings are and where our friends are. To leave this church would be socially very disruptive
- We’re generally comfortable with how things go in our church;
- Largely very good schools are attached to the CanRC. Leaving the CanRC would/could have unhappy consequences for whether our children may attend these schools.
Of course, the interplay between these factors invariably varies from person to person.
- On the more objective side, there’s the conviction that the Lord wants us to be members of the CanRC. Then appeal is made to Article 29 of the Belgic Confession where three marks of a true church are listed: the pure preaching of the gospel, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the right use of church discipline.
It seems to me proper that we all give the question some honest thought. What actually are my motives for being and remaining CanRC? Vital to this thought exercise needs to be: what does the Lord think of my being CanRC? And: is he pleased with my real reasons for remaining CanRC?
The last few decades have seen a gradual shift in CanRC circles of understanding what the church is and hence why we are Canadian Reformed. A simple illustration of that development is the observation that in my youth withdrawing from the church was distinctly frowned upon and prayer was offered in church for the repentance of the withdrawing member. It has become more common today to note a member’s withdrawal with the wish or prayer that the Lord bless the departing person in his new church home.
Because of this shift, it seems to me imperative that we pause to ask the question at the head of this Bit to Read. Yet to answer the question properly we need, I’m convinced, to have our eye not on people or what suits us; we’re instead to have our eye on the Lord. I say that because the church is not a human organization but is a divine work; Christ, after all, is the Head of the church. That is why the pressing question is: does the Lord want me to be Canadian Reformed?
With this question in mind, I intend in this Bit to Read to dig into the past to show that the very existence of the CanRC is not people’s work but the Lord’s. That provides the first part of an answer to our question. But more will need to be said. So, the Lord willing, in future Bits we’ll talk about other church gathering work the Lord is doing in our land, give some attention to the current health of the CanRC, and explore other potential angles in pursuit of a good answer to this question.
Why did the CanRC come into existence?
We read in Acts 16 that Paul and Timothy were “forbidden” to speak the Word of God “in Asia” (the north-west corner of present-day Turkey). A bit later: “they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (vv. 6f). That’s because the Lord wanted to Word of God to go Philippi instead in order that His church might be established in that town.
We’re curious how the Spirit of Jesus may have prevented Paul from travelling one way and instead nudged him to go another way. I have no idea what means the Spirit used. But this anecdote is vital to our analysis of how the Canadian Reformed Churches came into existence.
This federation of churches begins with the arrival in Canada of migrants from the Netherlands after the Second World War (1939-1945). Predictably, these migrants took with them into their new country the scars and experiences of the war itself. In similar way these migrants took with them what they’d experienced and learned in the church struggles culminating in the Liberation of 1944. In fact, the Head of the church used those experiences in the Netherlands to ensure the establishment of the Canadian Reformed Churches in this new land. To demonstrate the truth of that statement, I take a moment to refresh our memories about what that Liberation was all about.
A number of doctrinal issues came under discussion in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the course of the 1930s, with several ending up on the table of General Synod 1939. As examples I mention the doctrines of Common Grace, Visible/Invisible Church and Presumptive Regeneration. What prompted a split in the churches in 1944, though, was not these doctrinal discussions and Synod’s conclusions about them, but was the heavy handedness by which those conclusions were forced upon the churches. Allow me to take one of these doctrinal topics to illustrate this point.
Abraham Kuyper was a man used mightily by the Lord at the end of the 19th century to work reformation in the Dutch ecclesiastical scene. Kuyper loved his Lord and Savior, wrote prolifically about what it meant in practice that Jesus Christ was sovereign over every square inch of life, started a Biblically based university in Amsterdam in 1880 and became Prime Minister of the Netherlands in 1900; he died in 1920. But he had emphases in his teachings that led to unhappy consequences.
Kuyper noticed that not all children with whom the Lord God established his covenant (signed and sealed in baptism) ended up believing the promises embodied in the covenant. That observation led him to speak of an “inner covenant” and an “outer covenant”. Those covenant children who ended up believing the Lord’s promises were, he said, in the “inner covenant”, while those covenant children who ended up in adulthood not believing God’s promises were in the “outer covenant”. The “inner covenant” was the real thing and overlapped those who were elect. The “outer covenant” was, well, somehow less than the real thing and contained little a parent of an “outer covenant” child could work with. Kuyper added: those children in the “inner covenant” were regenerated (or born again) upon their baptism; those children in the “outer covenant” were not regenerated upon their baptism.
In the years of the Great Depression and the War a substantial number of children died in infancy. Bereaved parents wanted to know whether their deceased child was with the Lord or not. Those who took Kuyper’s teaching on the covenant to its logical conclusion had to answer: we don’t know. For parents can’t know whether their child is in the inner covenant or in the outer covenant until their child has reached adulthood when evidence of regeneration is real. Meanwhile, parents should presume the regeneration of their children when they were baptized. Obviously, you cannot comfort parents at the burial of their infant with a teaching on their child’s presumed regeneration – and hence election.
This restlessness in the pew led to discussions in the press and eventually to requests for General Synod to adjudicate whether this teaching was in fact Scriptural. Now I need to add that back in 1905 already a Synod had said that baptizing children on the grounds of presumptive regeneration was “less correct” than baptizing them on the grounds of God’s promises to them (so-called “Pacification Formula”). In other words, this Synod thought it best to leave room for Kuyper’s teaching without saying that his views were Scriptural. Synod 1939 (it ran through to 1943), however, decreed that Kuyper’s teaching was the only correct position. A new Synod beginning later in 1943 (yes, during the heart of the War) received appeals on the matter. Despite arguments against the decision of the 1939-1943 Synod (including requests to return to the 1905 position to ‘live and let live’, at least till after the war), this new Synod decided that all office bearers had to embrace and teach this presumptive regeneration. When a noted leader in the churches, Klaas Schilder, professor of Dogmatics in the church’s Seminary, stated his objections to Synod’s decision, he was summarily suspended from his office as Minister of the Word and professor in Kampen. Candidates for the ministry who disagreed with Synod’s position were refused access to the pulpit. Churches that protested were put outside the federation. Efforts to soften Synod’s authoritarian and heavy-handed approach were futile. That hardness resulted in a sizable percentage of the church membership liberating themselves in 1944 from Synod’s iron fist; yes, that’s 75 years ago this year. These people wanted space to believe what the Lord had revealed concerning their (deceased) children without having their consciences bound by human (synodical) teaching. This desire for freedom to believe God’s own promises came with our fathers to the new world.
Christian Reformed Church
Church leaders in the Netherlands, particularly Schilder, told migrants to the new world that Jesus Christ gathered a catholic church and so they should assume that there was already a church in Canada they could rightly join. The first post-war migrants took that advice and joined themselves to the existing Christian Reformed Church (its roots in North America go back to the 1840s). Because we’re living in the Niagara Peninsula, let me relate one episode centering on St Catherines that illustrates what numerous Liberated migrants experienced across Canada.
By 1948 four Liberated migrant families were members of the Christian Reformed Church in St Catherines (the family heads being C Groenewegen, TJ Hart, JJ Knegt and WJ Hamoen); br JJ Knegt was even an elder in that church. In a letter dated 3 December 1948 these four brothers (plus a communicant son to br Knegt) expressed concern to their Consistory on emphases they heard in recent months in the preaching as well as in Catechism Class. They also urged the Consistory to initiate action to exchange the existing sister church relation with the Synodical Reformed Churches in the Netherlands for a relation with the Liberated Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. They expressed their willingness to talk about these subjects with brothers from the Consistory in the near future.
The Consistory answered this letter on 22 December 1948 indicating that they would not enter into discussions with these brothers on the subjects raised; on the contrary they admonished the letter writers for importing the Dutch church struggle into Canada. Some three weeks later br JJ Knegt received a letter from his Consistory (dated 10 January 1949) stating that he had been suspended from his office of elder. This letter was signed also by delegates from the Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton. What made the matter particularly painful was the speed of the suspension combined with no existing evidence that the Consistory ever approached Elder Knegt for a discussion or verbal admonition about the contents of their letter. For men who came out of a context of heavy fistedness, this response to their letter was sufficient to close the door to further cooperation with the Christian Reformed Church. All four family heads withdrew their families from this church’s membership.
Please note that this experience was not unique to St Catherines. Space prevents me from relating parallel episodes from across the country. But the outcome was: the Spirit of Jesus did not permit these post-war Liberated brethren to remain in the Christian Reformed Church.
Protestant Reformed Church
During a prewar trip to North America, Klaas Schilder had befriended Herman Hoeksema, the principle leader in the Protestant Reformed Church (this church had broken away from the CRC in 1924 and existed only in the USA), and was comfortable with much of what he heard about the PRC. So he encouraged migrants to Canada to get in touch with Protestant Reformed churches south of the border to see if they would assist them in establishing PR Churches in Canada. PR Churches in Michigan were happy to send “missionaries” to Canada to assist the Liberated migrants in establishing church life.
To stay again with the Niagara region: Liberated migrants in the Hamilton area took up contact with the PRC in America and with their assistance instituted a Protestant Reformed Church in Hamilton on April 19, 1949. The four families who could find no freedom for their conscience in the CRC of St Catherines joined this church. In short order this church called and received a minister in the person of Rev Herman Veldman from the United States. From the start of his ministry among the migrants he stressed those points of doctrine where the PR position differed from the thinking of these Liberated people. One point of clear confrontation was on the covenant: does God actually make his covenant with non-elect children or not? Veldman insisted the answer was No; God gives his covenant promises only to those children whom he has elected to salvation. So parents cannot impress on all their covenant children that God’s promises are real for them; parents can only presume God’s promises are for their children. Given what Liberated people had been through in the old country, we can well understand that they pushed back against Veldman’s teaching. But Veldman was unmoving and put his foot down; any new migrants seeking to join ‘his’ church first had to submit to his instruction and embrace it. When the Consistory distanced itself from the minister’s position, the matter came to Classis – and Classis sided firmly and squarely with the minister. This intransience became the reason why Veldman’s congregation (except for the minister) left the Protestant Reformed Churches. Again, parallel accounts can be raised from elsewhere across the country. Here is an example of how the Spirit of Jesus did not allow these Liberated migrants to join the PRC.
Other migrants in the late 1940s and into 1950 were well aware of what happened in relation to the Christian Reformed Church and the Protestant Reformed Churches. With no knowledge of other churches in Canada that could be said to be Biblically faithful, they saw no option but to begin a new federation of churches. In Ontario the first Canadian Reformed Church was instituted in Georgetown (now Orangeville) on August 13, 1950. A CanRC was instituted in Hamilton on May 20, 1951, with which the independent PR Church merged soon after.
Were these institutions simply the work of men? Behind all the human toil and human weakness, we need to recognize the hand of the Lord. It was his pleasure that the heritage received through the church struggle in the Netherlands culminating in the Liberation of 1944 should result in the establishment of another federation of churches in Canada.
Why, then, are we Canadian Reformed? The first part of the answer needs to be: because the Lord has formed these churches and -notably through birth- given us a place in them. As we contemplate the question of whether we should remain CanRC, we must first acknowledge that the Lord made us CanRC.