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Agenda Item Five of Synod Launceston 1998

An explanation by Rev C Bouwman of what happened at the 1998 Synod of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia in relation to Rev F vanHulst.

1. Background

Introduction

The agenda of the Synods of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia follows a fixed pattern. Each Synod over the years has had as Agenda Item Five the point of "Delegates’ agreement with the Three Forms of Unity". This item forms the first item of business that Synod deals with after its constitution, and is usually a brief and straight forward (though significant – see below) procedure. Synod Launceston, however, took 10 meeting days to finalise Agenda Item Five. In what follows, I attempt to give an account of why it took this Synod so long to finalise this agenda item.

Subscription Form

All ministers of the Word, when they enter the bond of Free Reformed Churches of Australia, are requested to fix their signatures to a document known as "Subscription Form for Ministers of the Word" (see Side Bar). In this Form, ministers of the Word "sincerely, solemnly, and with a good conscience before the Lord, declare by our signatures that we wholeheartedly believe and are fully convinced that all articles and points of doctrine contained in the Three Forms of Unity, namely the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, are in full agreement with the Word of God," and therefore ministers promise "that we will diligently teach and faithfully defend the aforesaid doctrine."

In this Form, the ministers also acknowledge that it is certainly possible that they end up misrepresenting the gospel, and even teaching what is false. Hence the following clause:

"Moreover, should the consistory, the classis church, or synod at any time upon sufficient grounds and in order to preserve the uniformity and purity of the true doctrine deem it necessary to require of us a further explanation of our opinion regarding any part of the said doctrine, we promise always to be willing and ready to comply with such a request, upon the understanding that by the very fact of our refusal we will be suspended from our office."

Rev FJ vanHulst signed this Subscription Form on 28 December 1993, when he entered the bond of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.

Discussions in Tasmania - 1

In The King’s Bridge ("publication of the Free Reformed Churches in Tasmania") dd 27 July, 1997, Rev vanHulst published an article entitled "Eureka!" In this article, he informed his readers that

"during the last weeks in our congregation in Launceston we have been remarkably blessed with many conversions. Many of us who have been sitting in the pews for years wondering what a conversion would be and how it would feel to be really reborn, suddenly come forward with the witness: Now I know! And it is far greater, than I ever imagined it would be! I just can’t stop talking about Christ any more!"

This article led in turn to discussions between Rev vanHulst and the consistory of the church in Legana. In a letter from the church of Legana to Rev vanHulst dd 27 May 1998 [note: this date is an error; it should be 27 April 1998, see below], Legana writes as follows:

"Dear brother vanHulst,

Having met with you on two occasions, the Legana consistory still struggles with various things you have written and said. A number of matters still remain rather vague and unclear to us leaving us with the impression that some of your views do not accord with Scripture and Confession. In order not to do injustice to your thoughts we sought outside advice. The responses we received from Prof Gootjes and from the FRC of Rockingham have demonstrated that we are not the only ones who experience your writings as confusing. In line with the advice we received from Rockingham we now wish to ask you to give further clarification on various points that confuse and/or concern us. We do that as your classis church in the hope that the matters may be clarified and resolved as soon as possible."

Three pages of questions follow, largely relating to the doctrine of regeneration and conversion. The closing paragraph of the letter is this:

"Brother, this has certainly turned out to be a long list of questions. It only confirms how big the confusion is among us with regard to your views. We as classis church of Launceston kindly ask you to give us a written response to the questions as soon as you are able. Everything needs to be done to resolve the issue as soon as possible for the glory of God’s name and for the harmony among our churches…."

Comment

For the sake of clarity, I insert here some comments relating to the above letter.

Prof Gootjes teaches dogmatics (=the doctrine of the church) at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches in Hamilton.

The Free Reformed Church of Rockingham functions as classis church for Legana. (By Synod’s decision some years ago, the next church in alphabetical order is one’s classis church.)

Legana itself is classis church for Launceston. According to the Subscription Form (quoted above), this gives to Legana a function in relation to what Launceston’s minister teaches. Accordingly, Legana as classis church, in an effort to "preserve the uniformity and purity of the true doctrine," asked questions of Rev vanHulst in order to determine what this Minister of the Word actually taught on the point of regeneration and conversion.

Discussions in Tasmania - 2

Rev vanHulst responded to Legana’s questions in a fourteen page letter dated 15 May 1998. To give a taste of br vanHulst’s writing, I quote two sections from the letter.

"Consistory Free Reformed Church of Legana

15 May 1998

Dear Brothers!

Thank you for your invitation to respond to questions that are on your heart and mind. I am quite happy to do this, since it provides an opportunity to explain the gospel of grace.

So be assured, in no way I am offended or feel threatened by your questions.

I can understand where you come from. You have been defending views that have been dominant over a long time, not only in the Free Reformed Churches, but in all the churches from Reformed tradition. So you have not much changed in your opinions, but I have changed. Initially slowly, but then with a big jump I realised that the churches of Reformed tradition have moved away from John Calvin’s teachings.

Since I made that discovery, my preaching became really Calvinistic. More than ever before. And that caused so much sudden changes in people that about a year ago I wrote something about that in The Kingsbridge….

Moreover I can understand that you find it hard to believe that I would discover something which sounds quite new and is at the same time in concordance with the well known Reformed confessions.

In this letter I hope to clear the confusion somewhat, but since we are talking about spiritual truths, they can’t be brought across simply by explaining them. It is ultimately the Holy Spirit who has to open people’s eye for it. That means without sincere prayer for understanding, it is impossible to get the picture" (page 1).

And:

"I am convinced that I preach and teach completely in agreement with the Scripture and Confessions. That is what I promised to do. And I from my side, with a good conscience, stick to that promise….

Isn’t it possible that our whole bond of churches has gone off the track?

In my opinion this is definitely the case. What else can I do than trying to call them back to Scripture and Confession, by preaching and living the gospel of grace? Of course, in the process we can expect some ripples. But better having some ripples than going in unison and ‘peace’ down the wrong track….

In my book I explain that our main problem is that we have moved away from understanding pure Calvinism. Instead we have in spite of ourselves, practically embraced Arminianism" (page 8).

The consistory of Legana received and read these fourteen pages. Consistory’s reaction is captured in the following letter written by the consistory to Synod.

"FRCA Synod 1998
c/o Free Reformed Church of Launceston
PO Box 705
Launceston, 7250
20 May 1998

Dear brothers,

Even though the closing date for correspondence to Synod has passed, the consistory of the Free Reformed Church of Legana would like to present to you an item with the request that it be dealt with at Synod as a matter of priority. For some time the consistory has had contacts with Reverend FJ vanHulst regarding differences in doctrine. After two meetings face to face with Reverend vanHulst, some correspondence and advice from our classis church, we finally wrote to him on 27 April asking him to give further clarification on various points of doctrine. Yesterday, 19 May, we received his response to those questions. The response convinces us all the more that the matter at stake is not just a local matter between Reverend vanHulst and Legana. It touches the whole bond of churches. Reverend vanHulst is convinced that our whole bond of churches have gone off the track and needs to be called back to Scripture and Confession. The consistory is of the opinion that we as churches may not ignore this issue. It touches a very important part of the doctrine, yes, in fact seeing it’s about regeneration and conversion it touches upon the very entry into God’s kingdom. Should Reverend vanHulst’s views prove to be according to Scripture and Confession then we as a matter of urgency would have to turn back from our errors. On the other hand, should his views prove to be contrary to Scripture and Confession then he would have to be called back from his errors. It is important that we as churches take this matter seriously and deal with it in a brotherly and Scriptural way for the glory of God’s name and for the harmony and well being of the churches.

The Legana consistory therefore requests Synod to deal with the doctrinal matters raised in the correspondence between the Legana consistory and Reverend vanHulst as a matter of priority.

With the consent of Reverend vanHulst we enclose a copy of our letter to him dated 27 May 1998 (should be 27 April 1998) and a copy of his response dated 15 May 1998.

With brotherly greetings,

[signed]

PS: two copies of this letter and the accompanying correspondence will be sent to all the churches."

Here, then, was the first official complaint presented to the churches that one of the ministers in the bond might embrace teachings that did not agree with Scripture and Confession – it was for Synod to judge. The various consistories, and the delegates to Synod, had opportunity to read the questions and answers of the correspondence between Legana and Rev vanHulst, and form some interim thoughts on the matter.

Concern in WA

In the meantime, consistories in Western Australia were preparing their delegates to go to Synod. Not surprisingly, information relating to Rev vanHulst’s teachings and practices had reached the western edge of the continent. One item that certainly caught people’s attention was the fact that Rev vanHulst had joined in the celebration of Holy Supper in the Presbyterian Church of Australia in Hobart – a church with which the FRCA has no contact whatsoever. What, people thought, did this action say about Rev vanHulst’s doctrine in relation to the church?

As a result of the questions raised in people’s minds in relation to Rev vanHulst, three churches instructed their respective delegates to Synod to pursue particular courses of action at Agenda Item Five – the moment when the delegates would rise to affirm their agreement with the Three Forms of Unity. The instructions were later summarised by Synod as follows:

"Byford, in an instruction, raises concerns about the confessional integrity of Rev F vanHulst. This church proposes that synod request a further explanation of his views and if these are not in agreement with the Three Forms of Unity not to admit him as delegate to synod.

Armadale proposes that Question Period ad Art. 41, C.O. be moved up to point 6 of the agenda and that it be used to ask Rev F vanHulst for a further explanation of his sentiments re beliefs and practices in order to preserve uniformity.

Mt Nasura questions the integrity of Rev F vanHulst re his position and writings about reformed education, conversion, regeneration, the law, forgiveness from sins, and relations with other churches, mixed courtship, marriage and celebrating the Lord’s supper elsewhere."

Rising

The practice of expressing agreement with the Three Forms of Unity has a long and respectable history. Precisely how one expresses this agreement has varied over the years, be it through physically rising from one’s chair or through expressing this agreement in writing in the credentials or by answering a question, etc. But the conviction has prevailed in the Reformed Churches since the time of the Great Reformation that delegates to the major assemblies of the churches need to be assured of each other that all members of the major assembly indeed stand shoulder to shoulder on the same basis, namely, God’s Word – which (we all maintain) is summarised accurately in the Three Forms of Unity. Besides, the churches which have agreed to accept for settled and binding the decisions of the major assemblies need to be convinced that the brethren who make those decisions submit themselves to the Scriptures and so know themselves bound to the confessions. Where reasonable doubt prevailed that delegates did not stand on the stated basis of the Three Forms of Unity, major assemblies in the past have declined to seat those delegates as members of that assembly (cf J Kamphuis, De Reformatie, 42/28, pg 220).

In the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, the good custom has developed to express agreement with the Three Forms by way of rising from one’s chair. Accordingly, at the appropriate time, the chairman of Synod Launceston invited the brothers to rise. All did. By so doing, all indicated their full agreement with the Forms of Unity.

But everybody knew: there were questions relating to the confessional integrity of one of the brothers. He claimed by his rising to be in full agreement with the Confessions. But his writings (and all the delegates had a copy of the fourteen pages he wrote to Legana) plus his actions (for example, his attendance at the Lord’s supper in the PCA) suggested that he was not in full agreement with the Confessions. At the very least, there was a distinct difference between the way Rev vanHulst understood the Confessions and the way (the majority of) the other delegates understood the Confessions. Synod could not proceed with its agenda until this (apparent) discrepancy was cleared up.

How, then, ought Synod to proceed? As it turns out, the executive had earlier received opportunity to look at the contents of the instructions. Accordingly, the executive recommended to the meeting at this point to go into closed session to answer the question of how to proceed. This proposal was based on the precedent established in a similar situation in the Dutch sister churches, where the confessional integrity of a delegate was also questioned (cf Acta van de Generale Synode van De Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland 1967, Art 8). Synod judged it proper to discuss procedure in closed session.

In due time a decision was reached concerning how to proceed. This decision, made known to the public, reads in its relevant part as follows (the complete text can be found in the Acts of Synod, Article 13):

Synod asks Rev vanHulst to provide a "further explanation" of his opinions regarding those parts of doctrine brought forward by the churches;

Synod appoints a committee with the mandate to:

  1. collect the material in the submissions from the churches;
  2. consult with the delegates of the churches who sent these submissions to ensure that their concerns are received and properly formulated;
  3. lay these concerns before Rev vanHulst for reply;
  4. evaluate the reply;
  5. report to Synod, together with a proposed course of action.

In carrying out its mandate, the committee may, if necessary, seek the advice of professors from the Theological Colleges of our sister churches.

A committee comprising of the brothers Elder J Bruning, Rev W Huizinga, Rev A vanDelden and Rev A Veldman were charged to carry out the mandate described above.

In making this decision, Synod considered the following stated grounds (see Acts Article 13):

The churches have agreed that in their synods all delegates rise to express agreement with the three Forms of Unity. For this to be of any value, delegates may, on good grounds, question the rising of other delegates.

In its Form for Subscription of Ministers the churches agree that a consistory, classis or synod, upon sufficient grounds, may question a minister of the Word regarding his confessional integrity. The Church Order does not specify how or when questioning with regard to confessional integrity should occur.

Via instructions, the churches at Armadale, Byford and Mt Nasura have requested that a further explanation be provided on the basis of the Subscription Form.

The submissions from Byford and Legana contain "sufficient grounds" to warrant a "further explanation".

With this decision Synod expressly avoided passing a judgment on Rev vanHulst’s confessional integrity. Synod did not at this point ask Rev vanHulst to leave. In fact, he was considered to be and treated as a full member of Synod for the whole period while the investigation was proceeding. The Acts of June 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 11 record that "all delegates are present with the exception of Rev F vanHulst who gave notice that he would not be in attendance." On June 10 Rev vanHulst was present at the opening of the day’s work.

At the same time, Synod deemed it correct that Rev vanHulst not participate in further Synod work. The point here is that four brothers were charged to carry out the investigation. But what ought the remaining members of Synod to do? As it turns out, Synods tend to operate by dividing the agenda items requiring Synod’s attention among a number of committees, and these committees digest the material assigned them and come with a proposal to Synod concerning how Synod ought to proceed on the matter in question. Accordingly, it was decided that while Committee 1 (the four brothers mentioned above) carried out their investigation, the remaining Synod members would prepare the business items on the agenda for Synod’s consideration. From this preparatory work Rev vanHulst would be asked to abstain. The stated ground for this decision is this:

"When a Consistory is investigating a charge against a congregation member, Consistory withholds that member from the table of the Lord for that one occasion – not as a judgment on the member in question, but rather to provide room for investigation. In like manner, as long as an investigation is under way regarding Rev vanHulst’s confessional integrity, no judgment is made about the brother, and yet it is wiser that he does not participate in Synod’s decision making processes."

This left Rev vanHulst free to devote his time fully to the investigation – which Rev vanHulst did willingly and readily.

Committee 1

The Committee set out to accomplish the task assigned to it. First the committee collated the concerns contained in the instructions from the churches, then spoke with the delegates of those churches to ensure that the concerns were properly understood. On the basis of the information gleaned from the instructions and the delegates, the committee formulated a number of questions for Rev vanHulst. These questions were arranged under four headings: Regeneration and Conversion, Ecclesiology (the Doctrine of the Church), Forgiveness of Sins and the Law.

Rev vanHulst for his part readily supplied answers to the questions laid before him – he produced 22 pages of answers. The brothers of the committee in turn digested his reply, then sat down with him to ensure that they understood properly what he was saying. Rev vanHulst for his part polished the 22 pages again so that elements not clear to the investigation committee were stated more clearly. (These 22 pages of answers are printed in the Acts, pg 75ff.)

It should be understood: in this process of discussions with Rev vanHulst the Committee also challenged Rev vanHulst to reconsider what he really believed and taught. This resulted in some movement on Rev vanHulst’s part (as is evident from the comments of the Committee in relation to the place of children; see the report of Committee 1 to Synod, point 5, Acts, Article 28, pg 14). Still, the mandate of the Committee was not so much to attempt to persuade Rev vanHulst of the errors of his teaching as rather to obtain a clear picture (for Synod’s benefit) of what Rev vanHulst really believed at the time when he rose to express his agreement with the Three Forms of Unity.

After much study of the material and discussion with Rev vanHulst, the Committee in turn wrote down what they understood Rev vanHulst to say. Once they thought they had his teachings on the points in question on paper, they laid this document before Rev vanHulst for his approval. Rev vanHulst responded with the following letter:

"Apart from some changes that I would like to see on page 1, I am quite impressed with the short and fair Synopsis you gave of my teachings. ‘Sterkte’ in presenting it to the Synod."

The letter further contained a list of the changes that Rev vanHulst wished to see made to the first page of the Committee’s Synopsis of Rev vanHulst’s teachings. The Committee opted not to make these changes because (the Committee members said on the floor of Synod) the suggested alterations are in detail and do not touch the overall picture of what Rev vanHulst teaches. The Committee was convinced that Page 1did present a fair assessment of what the brothers had heard from Rev vanHulst in the last number of days.

Synod had requested the Committee also to evaluate, on the basis of Scripture and Confession, what they learned about Rev vanHulst’s beliefs. Accordingly, the Synopsis was extended by insertions from Committee 1, wherein the committee compared the stated teachings with quotes from the Bible and the Confessions. The committee judged that Rev vanHulst’s teachings on the points of Regeneration and Conversion, the Church and Forgiveness of Sins were not in agreement with Scripture and Confession.

Synod – Friday, June 12

Late on the evening of June 11, the document produced by Committee 1 was tabled at Synod for Synod’s consideration and judgment. As background reading, the members of Synod were also given the 22 pages of answers Rev vanHulst had written. Synod adjourned till coffee time next day to give the brothers time to read and digest the work of Committee 1.

From the discussions as they occurred on June 12, it was readily evident that the Evaluation produced by Committee 1 (together with the 22 pages Rev vanHulst had written to the Committee plus the 14 page letter Rev vanHulst had earlier written to Legana) left no doubt in the minds of the members of Synod that our brother’s teachings were not in agreement with God’s revelation in Scripture. (The only member not convinced was the elder from Launceston.) Consequently, Synod made the following decision (it was by now late in the evening of June 12):

"Having seen the report of Committee 1, synod judges that this report has shown that the teachings of Rev FJ vanHulst on regeneration and conversion, the church and the forgiveness of sins are not according to Scripture and Confession" (cf Acts, Article 28, pg 20).

It should be understood that this decision was very difficult to make. Not that there was doubt as to what Rev vanHulst taught or whether his teachings were Scriptural; that was clear. But to get the obvious conclusion across one’s lips and into the open for all the world to hear – that was an exceedingly difficult and emotionally draining task. To find that one of us, yes, one called and charged to proclaim the gospel, was in fact misrepresenting the Word of God – that was difficult. More, to speak of false doctrine in connection with a teacher much loved within his congregation – that is no small matter! Yet it was a task –given the evidence- that had to be done, for the sake of the truth of God’s Word. After the decision was formally made, the brothers of Synod had no appetite any more for further work. Synod was adjourned early that evening, and the brothers –to a man- went home with very heavy hearts….

Let it be understood, then, that Synod in no way desired to slur the person of Rev vanHulst. It was commonly understood: this is a brother in the Lord, for whom Christ has died. At no time and in no way did the (members of) Synod see this as a personal matter. No, the matter was strictly doctrine. And because God does not wish His Word to be misrepresented, it was for Synod to state what the evidence indicated, no matter how painful the task.

Synod – Saturday, June 13

Synod, then, had judged "that this report has shown that the teachings of Rev FJ vanHulst on regeneration and conversion, the church and the forgiveness of sins are not according to Scripture and Confession." The next morning this decision in turn led to a second decision (see further Acts, Article 28):

"Owing to the above judgment, Synod decides that Rev FJ vanHulst cannot remain seated as a member of Synod."

Two grounds were considered in making this decision. They were:

"Since Synod answered the question of Rev vanHulst’s confessional integrity in the negative, the consequence must be that he cannot remain seated as a member of Synod. Whether this can change in the future cannot be said at this point in time and should not be addressed.

All members of Synod need to take part in making decisions in relation to the doctrines of the church, decisions that can touch the foundations of church-life. The churches have the right to be assured that persons sitting at Synod are faithful judges in such matters."

Consequently, a letter relating Synod’s decisions was sent both to Rev vanHulst and to the body that delegated Rev vanHulst, namely, the Consistory of the church at Launceston.

It should be noted: Synod itself had no authority to exercise discipline over Rev vanHulst. Discipline over members of the church, office bearers included, belongs to the elders of the local church. This was (part of) the reason why the Consistory of Launceston was informed of Synod’s findings.

Synod – Monday, June 15

Synod had decided that it would be expedient to adjourn for some time, and reconvene in September. The (unstated) reasons are various:

all delegates were emotionally drained after the events of the last number of days;

some delegates were due to return to work;

the brethren from WA had booked plane tickets on the assumption that this Synod would last two weeks. The cost of getting new flights home was no cheaper than buying new return tickets for September.

Before returning home, though, Synod thought it right to deal with a couple of items on the agenda needing urgent attention. One item was a request from the church at Legana. Since Rev Kleyn was to leave Legana in late June, the church at Legana requested that "the Bond of Churches provide a minister to our pulpit 6 times per year" for "2 Sundays each visit." In the circumstances Synod was more than willing to favour the request, and so decided "to grant a visiting minister to remain in Tasmania area for two Sundays at least 6x per year who will serve the Church of Legana." These six visits would be, synod further decided, in addition to the "regular pulpit exchange" roster – which sees one more minister travelling per year to Tasmania.

September

At the pre-arranged time, the churches met together in Synod again in September. The church of Launceston had now delegated two elders in place of one elder and one minister. In this sitting of Synod, the items of the Agenda beyond Item Five were handled and finalised.

Conclusion

It remains a point of grief that a Synod had to rule that it could not seat a delegate from one of the churches. To find one of us guilty of false teaching remains such an emotionally laden statement.

On the other hand, it gives reason for gratitude that the Lord provided the will and the strength to say what had to be said.

May the Lord be please to forgive what was wrong in this sad chapter of church history, and bless what was good – to the greater glory of His holy name and the coming of His kingdom.