The New Zealand Experiment in Reformed Ecumenicity

Jack Sawyer

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 1 (January 1995)

Four Forms of Unity?

In 1965 the Moderator spoke these words concluding the Synod [of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand] of that year: “Whether we have been aware of if, or not, this has really been an historic Synod. For the first time in the history of Reformed Christianity—as far as I know—the full text of the Westminster Confession of Faith, as maintained by faithful Presbyterian Churches, has been adopted by a denomination also holding the three continental forms of unity.”

With these perceptive remarks by the chairman of Synod, a process of many years was indeed brought to its historic conclusion. He rightly points out the unique blending together of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Three Forms of Unity. This decision, however, had not taken place overnight, but had required twelve years of patient study, reflection and discussion.

If we go back to 1953 we find that the Auckland congregation had already mentioned in their protocol, their “cordial acceptance of the Westminster Confession, a rich inheritance of the Reformation in England and Scotland, as a confession of our church.” Some reservations were noted. This was however only a local decision.

Then at the first Synod of our churches in 1953, and again in 1954, the brothers from the (Reformed) Presbyterian Church of Howick, by then seceded from the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand and a member of our federation, overtured Synod to give official recognition to the Westminster Confession as one of our doctrinal forms of unity. Not wishing to be rash, Synod chose the path of careful study and thus 1954 saw the first of an on-going number of study committees which would finally culminate in the decision of 1965.

Early on the study committees made Synod aware of a number of divergences between the W.C.F. and the other Reformed confessions. For example, they noted WCF 7:2 which mentions the covenant of works; WCF 10:3 concerning the salvation of elect infants dying in infancy; chapter 20:4 which defines the authority of the civil magistrate in matters of Christian liberty; WCF 24 regarding marriage and divorce; WCF 25 with its “scholastic distinction between the visible and invisible church”, and WCF 31 dealing with the authority of synods and councils.

Sister churches in Europe and North America were approached for input and advice by subsequent Synods and by 1959 Synod was ready to give a mandate to the national publications committee to publish the WCF, albeit minus the divergent portions. It was only after the 1964 Synod, where the Auckland Presbytery presented a very substantial report, that the churches were finally convinced that the divergences between the Westminster and Continental Confessions were not contrary but rather correlative and thus fully able to be harmonized. It should be noted that at crucial points the Synods of 1964 and 1965 adopted the American revisions of the WCF which were borrowed from our sister church in the USA, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Thus began what, until now at least, has been a unique confessional joining together of the Continental and Westminster “streams” of Reformed Christianity. This theological cross-pollination, aided by Reformed and Presbyterian ministerial personnel,[1] Reformed and Presbyterian member churches and individuals from both “streams,” has proved to be a sturdy, vigorous hybrid. Mr. Williamson initially described the new doctrinal basis of the RCNZ as “concrete re-enforced with steel.” His remarks have proven to be an apt and accurate metaphor. Only something this strong, stronger than culture, nationality or language would suffice, as it always has been the case in church history, firmly to bond together such disparate elements as those we have sketched out in preceding pages.* Only a common heritage in the faith, the Reformed faith, could be the glue that would hold us all together. Perhaps then the example of our churches may providentially prove to other Reformed and Presbyterian Churches around the world that organic unity can in fact be achieved between sincere brethren of both Reformed and Presbyterian background.

Confessional Subscription

But would these hybrid Reformed Churches remain faithful to their new doctrinal basis of “concrete re-enforced with steel?” From Christchurch Presbytery came an overture asking for clarification of the Form of Subscription so as to include an explicit binding to the Westminster Confession of Faith. This in turn prompted our churches to reflect on the precise wording of the subscription formulary. Would we retain the traditional Continental wording? In this formulation, office bearer signees to the subscription formula state, “by this our subscription we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the points and articles [as taught in the confessions], do fully agree with the Word of God.” The other choice was the largely American Presbyterian wording (again a hybrid) that we would replace “all the points and articles” with the words, “the whole system of doctrine.” Synod decided in 1977 to make this verbal change, otherwise basically retaining the traditional Continental version of subscription.

But by then the question had already been raised at Synod in 1969 by the Rev Fred Channing, of what then precisely constitutes “the system of doctrine”? Is the “system” coextensive with all the doctrines of the confessions or do only some doctrines within the confessions make up the sine qua non of the system of doctrine? Mr. Channing very perceptively warned our churches (see Acts 1060) that if we chose the latter understanding we would in effect place ourselves on the same slippery slope as had the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand with its Declaratory Act of 1901.

The main point of this 1901 Act reads as follows: “...diversity of opinion is recognized in such points of the Confession as do not enter into the substance of the Reformed Faith, and full authority to determine what points fall within this description is retained for the church.” (Emphasis added)

The historically observable effect of this Act was to allow the assemblies of the church to permit increasingly significant deviations from the express doctrinal propositions of the Westminster Confession, until at last the Westminster Confession in reality ceased to have any binding authority as a subordinate standard of the church. Ministers and Presbyteries, even General Assemblies could steer their own “free” doctrinal course.[2]

From the days of the Arminian controversy in the seventeenth century, faithful Reformed churches have repudiated the “free” approach to confessional subscription. By God’s grace our R.C.N.Z. would decide to stay on the old path. Following Mr. Channing’s advice our churches adopted in 1971 very special guidelines (see appendix to this chapter) to the Form of Subscription. While later retaining the phrase “the whole system of doctrine” our churches made it very clear that office bearers “subscribe to ALL the doctrines set forth in the confessions, as being doctrines which are the teaching of the Word of God,” and that:

“the subscriber, so subscribes to all those doctrines, be they understood in the eyes of men as being MAJOR or MINOR doctrines of the Christian faith, without any reservation on his part and that he confesses these doctrines to be his own understanding of the teaching of the Word of God, desires to maintain such, and rejects all other teachings which would contradict the same.”

So the question is explicitly answered in these affirmations.

The system of doctrine in our Four Forms of Unity is to be considered as coextensive with ALL the doctrines set forth in them. Ministers, other office bearers, and even the broader Assemblies are not free to pick and choose for themselves which doctrines make up “the substance of the Reformed Faith” or “the whole system of doctrine.”

It was further re-specified in 1971 that any office bearer who comes to question a doctrine of the confessions must still follow the procedure spelled out in the Form of Subscription itself: namely, he pledges that “he will neither publicly or privately propose, teach or defend” his own views, until these sentiments have first been examined by session, Presbytery or Synod. Refusal to follow this orderly procedure of study and appeal incurs automatic suspension from office.

History has proved that no form of subscription is a foolproof protection against the inroads of heresy. If office bearers lack basic integrity, and if the churches are casual, not vigilant, in earnestly contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, then sound doctrine will be lost. Then history also shows that the one “like a son of man…who walks among the seven golden lamp stands” will come and remove our lamp stand from its place among His churches (cf Rev 1-3).

Therefore we must remain vigilant. It is imperative that our office bearers heed the warning so long ago issued by the Apostle Paul to the elders at Ephesus:

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which He bought with His own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Eph. 20:28-30.

Dare we, in light of this apostolic injunction, confuse, as so many are prone to do in our day, concern for doctrinal fidelity and precision with a loveless, dead orthodoxy? No, we dare not.

Consequently, our Reformed churches have endeavored through the years to insist that office bearers, meant to be the loving shepherds of Christ’s sheep, must ex animo—with spirit, with vigorous sincerity— adhere with all their hearts to the pattern of sound words, worthy of full acceptance, the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles.

Believing our Creeds and Confessions to be an accurate summary of this teaching, we dare build our churches on no other foundation. God helping us, we desire most earnestly to be preserved in this course alone; not distorting, and certainly not adding to or subtracting from the Word of our only Lord and Master.

Doctrinal Controversy

Now that our churches had settled on a doctrinal basis, and a form of subscription to that basis, there remained of course the task of applying these tenets to the providentially unfolding challenges of history. As our churches encountered doctrinal differences, and even deviant, heretical teaching, would they continue to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, speaking in His Word? How would they react? Would they retain the Confessional character they sought to establish in the beginning? We turn to a few representative examples to try to answer these questions.

Sabbath or Lord’s Day?

Almost immediately after the decision to embrace the Westminster Confession of Faith, there came a protest from the Reformed Church of Dunedin, regarding WCF 21:7,8. These paragraphs of the WCF contain teaching regarding the Sabbath day and its observance, its origin in creation, the “law of nature,” and its subsequent change from seventh to first day of the week after the resurrection of Christ. The Dunedin gravamen was in itself a reaction to a previous 1964 proposal for our churches to aid in the establishment of a society for promotion of Lord’s Day observance. The protest alleged, in effect, that the Heidelberg Catechism L.D. 38 and WCF 21:7,8 presented two contradictory views of the Sabbath, and that our Synod must clarify which was binding in our churches.

This matter provoked vigorous, lengthy debates in the Synods of 1965, 1967 and 1969 before it was finally settled in 1971.[3] Then Synod acted to deny the Dunedin gravamen and applied for the first time the new guidelines to the Form of Subscription. Our office bearers would be bound to ALL the doctrines of the WCF, including 21:7,8 on the Sabbath.

The study committee which proposed this course to Synod sought, to Synod’s satisfaction, to harmonize L.D. 38 and WCF 21:7,8. It is curious to note that our first Gereformeerde ministers, in originally spelling out divergences between the Continental and Westminster Confessions had not seen a divergence on the Sabbath question, but had on other points of doctrine. The 1971 Synod essentially endorsed their view.

The Infallibility of Scripture

During the late 1960s and early 1970s our churches were also confronted with subtle assaults on the doctrines of Scripture, creation and predestination. These matters were crucial because they concerned the faculty of the Reformed Theological College where our young ministers were largely being trained. The faculty members allegedly promoting disputed teaching were Prof. K. Runia from the Netherlands and Principal of the R.T.C. and later Prof. S. Woudstra on loan to the College from the C.R.C.N.A.

From within our New Zealand churches some members began to assert that our churches were giving tacit support to these men and thus our churches were growing soft in their allegiance to the Reformed Confessions at the disputed points. Their allegations were vigorously disputed.

Even so a number of our founding members withdrew themselves from our churches.[4] Later they would become members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Christchurch (today the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and also the Protestant Reformed Church of Lower Hutt-Wainuiomata. This latter church has called an American minister, the Rev. R. Miersma, from the Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, which were founded largely through the impetus of the late Herman Hoeksema.

Stung by these allegations and defections, our churches saw fit to provide a clear reaffirmation to the Reformed world of our continuing fidelity to Reformed truth. This decision was taken in 1971. (See Acts, Art. 43) It reads as follows:

The Reformed Churches of New Zealand hereby unanimously reaffirm, in spite of certain allegations that they maintain the Doctrine of the Infallible Scripture as summarized in the Confessional Standards.

This includes:

a. That we maintain the historicity of the details as they are recorded in Genesis 1-3, e.g., Creation, Adam and Eve as the first created man and woman, the Fall through disobedience and the subsequent promise of divine redemption in Christ;

b. Furthermore we maintain that the whole teaching of the canons of Dort (including divine election and reprobation) is in complete agreement with the infallible Word of God.

Consequently we require anyone who speaks, writes, teaches, preaches or counsels on behalf of these churches to do so in accordance with this statement.

This decision, together with the return of Prof Runia to the Netherlands and the dismissal of Prof Woudstra from the staff of the R.T.C. brought the controversy to a close. It may be noted that subsequent history brought the R.T.C. back to a more careful adherence to the Reformed standards, and that the concerns of our churches were addressed and our support for the College therefore did not slacken.

One further historical postscript will demonstrate R.C.N.Z. commitment to these biblical doctrines. This was the case of candidate Rinnie Westra. After study at the R.T.C. and further postgraduate work in the U.S.A. his theological examination was not sustained by Wellington Presbytery in July 1970. The point precisely at issue was the question, “Will you reject the teaching that God used an animal in the creation of man?” Candidate Westra could not conscientiously provide an answer which faithfully reflected the Scriptural and Confessional teaching. He therefore was not approved for ministry in our churches, and shortly thereafter left our federation to seek ordination in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand where his views on creation were acceptable.[5]


The great doctor of the ancient church, Aurelius Augustine, pastor of the church of Hippo in North Africa, expressed these sentiments in his homilies on First John,

In the earliest time, the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed and they spoke with tongues, which they had not learned, as the Spirit gave them utterance. These were signs adapted to the time. For there behoved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That this was done for a betokening and it passed away. (Emphasis added).

In this brief exposition[6] Augustine propounded what generally has become the orthodox consensus of Western Christianity through the centuries.

Of course, this Pneumatological consensus has been variously contested by false, egotistical views of the Spirit and His gifts. We think of the Montanist heresy of the second and third centuries, Anabaptist excess of the 16th century, the Irvingite disturbance of the 19th century in Great Britain and finally the so-called Charismatic or Pentecostal awakening of our own day.[7]

The onset of this modern movement has swept across many denominational frontiers. It is therefore no surprise that Reformed Churches worldwide have been forced to reflect on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and His on-going relationship to the church.[8] The Reformed Ecumenical Synod expressed concerns in the mid-1970s about the present understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Studies were commissioned.

In light of the R.E.S. resolution, our churches also felt it wise to undertake a fresh study and assessment of the modern Pentecostal movement with particular reference to the New Zealand setting. The result was a lengthy study report tabled in 1977. Subsequently studied by sessions, it was finally received by our churches at the Synod of 1980 in Palmerston North.

One can look back and happily note that the authors of the report upheld the traditional Augustinian/Reformed Pneumatological consensus. Their report faults the Pentecostal movement (in general) as being “in danger of separating Christ and the Spirit,” by its emphasis “upon the baptism of the Spirit as a distinct and subsequent experience after regeneration.” The committee report also categorically states “the firm opinion that these gifts (miracles, prophecy, tongues) are not operative in the church today.[9]

They conclude by stating:

...We do believe that God’s Word of Special Revelation in the Holy Scriptures leads us to believe and expect that these gifts ceased with the passing of the Apostolic Age, and will not occur again until the restoration of all things. We can only conclude therefore, in our assessment of the modern day Pentecostal phenomenon, that their claims to possess the gifts of miracles healing, prophecy and tongue speaking are false.

Theonomy and Postmillennialism

Another issue which has constrained our churches to “test the spirits” is the theonomy debate and its logical corollary, postmillennialism.

In l976 the book Theonomy in Christian Ethics was published by the American scholar and OPC minister Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen. In this book and in subsequent books and articles, Dr. Bahnsen espoused the thesis that

...the Christian is obligated to keep the whole law of God as a pattern of sanctification and that this law is to be enforced by the civil magistrate where and how the stipulations of God so designate (Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 34.)

In this thesis we find the basic tenet of a modern movement known as Christian Reconstructionism which is also espoused by scholars such as R. J. Rushdoony and Dr. G. North, both of whom strongly advocate a postmillennial expectation of Gospel prosperity and the end times before Christ’s return.

Our churches became involved in controversy when a number of Dr. Bahnsen’s students became ministers in our churches. Though not intentional, their espousal of Theonomic tenets brought about tension among the corps of ministers and our church members. Most of these were from a more or less “Kuyperian background” which, while it emphasized political involvement toward Christian transformation of society, made much less of the normativity of Old Testament Law and was largely amillennial in eschatological outlook. These feared our churches would be led astray down a path of potentially Judaizing legalism, into a false political activism and to embrace an unwarranted and unconfessional triumphalistic view of the church’s victory over the world.

The theonomic proponents, on the other hand, saw their position as clearly within bounds of Scripture and confession. They vigorously rejected any idea of a return to types and shadows of the Old Testament, thus placing a yoke upon believers other than that of Christ their Lord. It was their contention that they were merely upholding the confessional position of the WCF, chapter 19. Differences between “post-mil” versus “a-mill” they saw to be brotherly, intramural differences which fell within confessional boundaries. Since both positions affirm one bodily return of Christ, who will resurrect the dead to judgments of life or damnation and reign forever in a sinless new heaven and earth, there would be room for both views in our churches.

1980 saw an initial overture request a study committee to evaluate these matters. The committee barely scratched the surface of its mandate and had no report for the 1986 Synod. This Synod appointed another committee which came back to the 1989 Synod of Silverstream with a lengthy report which is summarized in another part of this book. Here we may simply note that our churches again demonstrated a willingness to reach out to one another. A middle way was found and the whole controversy turned out, thankfully, to be a tempest in a teacup. The 1989 Synod unanimously endorsed a number of theses which put to rest any hint even of strife.[10] The Westminster and Continental streams still flowed together.

Marriage and Divorce

Another issue which our churches have dealt with on and off since 1954 is the matter of divorce and remarriage. Perhaps the rising incidence of divorce and broken homes in our modern times has forced our churches to look at the matter seriously.

“The 1980 Synod, in answer to an overture from the churches of Tokoroa and Kerepehi, appointed a committee which was charged, to provide pastoral guidelines for our churches taking into account the further erosion of the sanctity of the marriage state in present times and proposed legislation in our nation...This committee also (was to) consider whether in light of Scripture the Westminster Confession, Chapter 24: 5,6 needs further specification.”

The committee returned to the 1983 Synod with a voluminous report which perhaps may be summarized as an attempt to demonstrate how our Lord’s teaching on marriage and divorce in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 was but a reaffirmation and re-specification of Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This was followed by extensive guidelines and attempts to apply the report’s exegesis to WCF 24:5,6.

While the report certainly represented a valiant effort to fulfill the committee’s mandate, it would be fair to say its sheer volume and technicality frustrated many sessions in trying to come to grips with its contents. This in turn severely limited its usefulness as a pastoral guideline for churches to use in individual cases.

Thus the matter was referred to committee again at the Synods of 1986 and 1989. Finally, in 1992, the churches opted for (provisional) adoption of a far more simple statement on divorce and remarriage. This report appears to be an attempt to apply the principles confessed in WCF 24:5,6 in a general enough way to provide some guidance to sessions which will be faced from time to time with very complex pastoral situations, virtually impossible to anticipate and legislate for at a Synodical level.[11]

Thus the 1992 Synod, in effect, reaffirmed the simple declarations of the WCF 24: 5,6 and declared it within the jurisdiction and competence of the local office-bearers to deal with each individual case.

Apart from the guidelines themselves, the importance of this matter, historically speaking, will be to show the hesitancy of our churches to legislate beyond the confessions in a complex, much disputed area of Christian doctrine and ethics. Wisdom was shown (in my opinion) in pulling back from the extensive report of 1983, which was in reality almost an attempt to establish a book of “case law” precedent to deal with a wide array of conceivable divorce and remarriage scenarios.

[1] It is interesting to note that for whatever reason—apart from the Rev J. A. Scarrow and Rev. C. A. R. Larson—the Presbyterian influence has largely come via the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of North America. Time and again a lasting working relation with doctrinally sound local Presbyterian ministers has failed. The OPCNA ministers have generally fitted in well with their Dutch Reformed brethren, while the New Zealand Presbyterian ministers have almost to a man chafed under the perceived yoke of our Reformed polity with its insistence that ministers and their pulpit ministry are under the oversight of the local elders. Given their background New Zealand Presbyterian ministers have been more inclined to see the pulpit as their domain, and perhaps even would have preferred only to be members of presbytery and not the local church. Of course, ministers do not have this option in the RCNZ. This subject warrants more reflection and discussion, and I hasten to add that this is only my personal view

[2] In 1729 American Presbyterians had already embraced a similar position called the Adopting Act. A Princeton theologian of this century pointed out “the unfortunate ambiguity of its crucial phrase”: “essential and necessary articles.” For in time, the Adopting Act also allowed local presbyteries to determine if a candidate for the ministry and his personal views fell within or outside of the essential and necessary articles of “the system of doctrine.” This in turn led to widely diverging views from one presbytery to another as to what exactly was within “the system of doctrine.” Arminianism, and later the tenets of German biblical criticism, began to be tolerated in pulpits and Seminaries. This precipitated the suspension from the ministry of the eminent J Gresham Machen in the 1930s, as well as the establishment of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, and the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Perhaps the American experience provides a salutary warning to us of the peril of the phrase “system of doctrine.” History clearly shows that the phrase can be made into a “wax nose” which will shelter individuals who deviate from the Westminster Confession at any number of vital points, and thus are able to promote every wind of doctrine. Confessional subscription via this phrase always begs us to answer the question: “Yes, well and good—but tell me just what is the whole system of doctrine contained in your confession?” It is therefore absolutely vital to define precisely the terms of reference in our confessional subscription formulae. In this writer’s opinion the Continental “all the points and articles” is far more precise than “the whole system of doctrine” wording unless it is accompanied by explanatory guidelines, such as those adopted by the R.C.N.Z., which close tightly its inherent loopholes. The reader is referred to the book The Broadening Church, A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1954), by Prof Lefferts A. Loetscher, pp. 2-4.

[3] The debates, overtures, reports, motions and decisions are too lengthy to reproduce here. The reader is referred to the Acts of 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969 and 1971.

[4] The actions of some of those who left our churches can be described in no other way than schismatic. To this day they refuse to be reconciled to the R.C.N.Z. even though our commitment to the biblical doctrines they supposedly left us over has been repeatedly demonstrated.

[5] A church’s history displays to all the world her true character. I believe these incidents display the sincere adherence of our people to the Belgic Confession, Art/ 2- 7 concerning the doctrine of Holy Scripture and the historic Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Cf. Belgic Confession Art. 12 and 14, and Heidelberg Catechism L.D. 19.

[6] Augustine, “Ten Homilies on the 1st Epistle of John,” trans. H. Browne, Vol VII of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1888, VI, 10).

[7] Luther once complained of the fanatics of his day, their disdain for the written Scriptures and their proud confidence in a higher spiritual guidance, by saying that they had “swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all.” See Roland S. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Biography of Martin Luther. For an excellent treatment of the Irvingite “renaissance” of Apostolic charismata see Arnold Dallimore, The Life of Edward Irving, published by the Banner of Truth Trust. As a personal note, members of my congregation have repeatedly been told that they and our Reformed Church are bereft of the Holy Spirit because we do not speak in tongues.

[8] The puerile accusation is sometimes made that there is little or no real emphasis on the Holy Spirit in Reformed Church life. Such accusations are groundless and especially ironic when made by church leaders who ought to know better. The Heidelberg Catechism alone mentions the person and work of the Holy Spirit in 24 Lord’s Days. This does not take into account the WCF, Belgic Confession or Canons of Dort. It is far more accurate to say that in the Reformed theology, biblical pneumatology is most clearly affirmed.

[9] See the Westminster Confession of Faith I:1 and I:10.

[10] The reader is referred to Acts of Synod 1989, Report 1. Its authors are to be commended for their moderation, the conciliatory nature of their language, and the biblical, confessional consensus they helped achieve. As far as I know, our R.C.N.Z. thus became the only Presbyterian or Reformed Church worldwide to forge a Synodical position vis-a-vis what has been in other parts of the world a very vexing issue.

[11] The interested reader is referred to Report 16 of the 1992 Synod for the text of the guidelines.

Rev. Jack Sawyer is now pastor of the Westchester Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Mount Vernon, New York. Before coming to his present charge he served two congregations of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.