The Importance of Interchurch Relationships

Michael Flinn

Why seek relationships with other churches here in New Zealand and overseas? What does it mean for us as Reformed Churches of New Zealand that we have what is called a sister church bond with, say, the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands? Arenít we wasting valuable denominational resources in maintaining ties that bear little or no relevance to local congregational life here in New Zealand? These are important questions and it is our purpose in this article to address them.

If we go back to the Scriptures, we can see that unity amongst His disciples is something that the Lord of the Church has on His heart. In John 17, He prayed that the disciples would "all be one", thereby reflecting the unity that exists between God the Father and God the Son, and so that the world might believe that Jesus had been sent by the Father (vs.21). These same sentiments are expressed again in verses 22 and 23:

"And the glory which thou has given me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that thou didst send me, and didst love them, even as thou didst love me." When Jesus speaks of the disciples becoming perfected in unity, He indicates that this is an aspect of spiritual growth and is part of the process of our sanctification as Christians under the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This is an important point to notice because in His prayer, Jesus also expresses the desire that the disciples would be sanctified in the truth of the Word of God (vs.17). In other words, the disciples had to be unified in their understanding of what Godís word teaches. Of course, there would be questions that arose from time to time and there would be differences of opinion expressed, but their unity in Christ would drive them back to the Word of God and they would strive for a common confession of biblical truth.

For this reason, we see Paul in 1Corinthians 1 exhorting the congregation at Corinth "by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgement." Notice the emphasis again on the growth in a unified understanding of the truth. Again, our commitment to common doctrine is crucial if we want to maintain and grow in biblical unity. This is further shown in the negative examples of the Judaizers in Galatians, whose teaching that the Christians needed to be circumcised undermined the foundation of the gospel (5:1-12) and that of the docetists in 1John, whose denial of the incarnation of Christ put them outside the Church (4:1-4).

Recognition of this important principle of "unity in truth" led to the formation of our churches in 1953. Many of the Dutch immigrants understood that they would able to find a spiritual home in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. However, they soon discovered that the 1901 Declaratory Act had resulted in some significant departures from the Westminster Confession of Faith. On April 4th, 1953, the Dutch Reformed Community issued a public statement regarding the establishment of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand. They said:

"The principal consideration, which has led us to the establishment of our Reformed Churches has been that we are, to our distress, unable to find in NZ a church which is faithfully retaining the Scriptural Confessions of the Reformation. We have visited many NZ Churches and very often we found a church life for which we do not only have a deep respect, but which convinced us that Protestant NZ is able to teach us many good and worthy thingsÖbut we have failed to find, however a clear maintenance of the evangelical truth of the Reformed Confessions." Notice the gracious character of this statement. Our fathers were not saying that there were no Christians in the churches in New Zealand. On the contrary, they acknowledged that there were many things that Protestant NZ could teach them. But because of the biblical principle of "unity in truth" they were constrained to establish churches that maintained clearly the evangelical truth of the Reformed Confessions.

It was this very principle that also led our fathers to seek and establish ties with other like-minded churches overseas. Correspondence was quickly entered into with some 13 other churches including the Reformed Churches of Australia, the Reformed Church in Japan, and even the Irish Evangelical Church. Then in 1967, our Synod decided that the closest bond with another church, called the sister church relationship, "should exist only with churches of like doctrine and practice". And further, "such churches should also have geographical proximity and/or areas of common concern or co-operation with our churches (e.g., churches from whom we receive assistance, with whom we co-operate on the Mission Fields, and with whom we have particular historical ties.)"

The sister church relationship has therefore been established with the Reformed Churches of Australia, the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Reformed Church in South Africa (GKSA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in North America. Over the years, there have been two close sister church relationships that have come to an end. The first of these is the relationship our churches sustained with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN). As early as 1964 our Synod began to take up correspondence with the GKN over issues with which we couldnít agree. When theologians in the GKN began to advocate new approaches to the interpretation of Scripture, approaches which led to the ordination of women into the offices of elder, deacon and minister, and later, the toleration of homosexual orientation and practice within the churches, our synod reached the conclusion there "unity in truth" was no longer a reality with the GKN. The decision to end ties did not come without numerous attempts at calling the GKN back to the truth she had once upheld but these were all to no avail. In 1986 this relationship came to a sad end. More recently, our relationship with the Christian Reformed Church in North America also came to an end, again because our churches could not agree with the CRC decision to ordain women into the offices of elder, deacon and minister. Again, numerous attempts were made to call the CRC back to the Scriptural position, but they did not yield positive fruit. However, we should not lose hope because sanctification in the truth is a process and the Holy Spirit is certainly able bring these churches back to a sound biblical and confessional position so that once more we can be churches of "like doctrine and practice".

On the more positive side, churches of "like doctrine and practice" are able to share resources and co-operate for the purpose of advancing the kingdom of Christ. Our churches have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Reformed Churches of Australia. While we have not always agreed on every issue, the differences of opinion that have arisen have thankfully been resolved and our relationship has continued. We have been able to co-operate together for the purpose of theological education. Our joint commitment to the Reformed Theological College in Geelong had greatly benefited both churches in the training of ministers of the Word. Also, free interchange of ministers across the Tasman has also been beneficial as every congregation that has gone through the calling process knows! We have also been able to co-operate with the RCA in mission work in the Papua New Guinea and our Overseas Mission Board will continue to explore opportunities to work closely with sister churches in mission. In the area of theological education, we have learned recently that another sister-church, the Reformed Church in South Africa, is now offering theological education by extension through the Christian University for Higher Education in Potchefstroom. This means that it is possible for students to remain in their own countries and receive theological degrees. Again, close ties with sister-churches make co-operation in this kind of venture an exciting possibility for us here in New Zealand. Still another area of co-operation and blessing is the sharing of resources for the instruction of our church members. Over the years we have been greatly blessed by catechism and Sunday School materials from the CRC and the OPC. We are a small group of churches and to be able to make use of sound material from like minded sister-churches is if great assistance to us.

Someone may well object that when it comes to the principle of "like doctrine and practice" there are differences of viewpoint in our own churches. Of course, this is true and it is to be expected. Over the years, we have had some intense debates on issues such as theonomy, divorce and remarriage and guest participation in the Lordís Supper. But again, one of the blessings of interchurch relationships is that when differences of opinion have arisen, we have been able to consult our sister-churches and gain their input in our discussions. Often this interaction has proven very helpful to us as a small group of churches. It was particularly encouraging to observe that the member churches in the International Conference of Reformed Churches have expressed the desire and commitment to consult carefully with one another before introducing a significant change in their Confessions or their practice. By the grace of God, this kind of positive interaction will help us maintain our Reformed witness and grow in our unity with like minded churches in the next millenium.

Sister church relationships are a vital part of our life and witness as churches in this part of the world. Over the years they have brought us both sadness and joy, trial and blessing. But as we pursue them further and develop new contacts with other churches, we can continue to look to the Head of the church in his ongoing desire that we should be "perfected in unity".

Mr Flinn is the Minister at the New Dovedale Congregation in Christchurch and convenor of the Inter Church Relations Committee

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised July 1999 / Copyright 1999