Danny E. Olinger
After the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) was formed on October 1, 1996, members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, especially senior saints, sympathized with the new federation’s courageous stand for the straight teaching of the Bible.
The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) had determined to ordain women to the offices of minister and ruling elder and could not be persuaded to repent. Because this change affected the biblical marks of the church, some CRCNA members believed that they had no choice but to depart, forming the URCNA. The senior saints of the OPC knew from their own experience in joining the OPC that this action meant leaving behind family members, and almost always church buildings and church saving accounts, too.
But, these older OPC members also knew firsthand the relationship that had existed between the OPC and the CRCNA. When the OPC was formed on June 11, 1936, the CRCNA was the first church to recognize it two days later. For decades, the OPC and CRCNA shared Christian education resources, ran summer camps together, and gladly recommended their members to seek out the other church when travelling or undergoing a job transfer. The two churches even engaged in ecumenical discussions on how they might become one. The basis of this fellowship was a shared commitment to a Bible-based, confessional Calvinism that did not shy away from acknowledging the sinfulness of humanity and the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection.
It was with sadness, then, that the OPC witnessed the CRCNA’s turn, but hearing of the URCNA’s formation brought joy. Through its Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, the OPC at its Sixty-fourth (1997) General Assembly officially recognized the creation of the URCNA. The declaration expressed the OPC’s thankfulness to God for the URCNA’s love for the truth of God and the purity of the church of Jesus Christ, welcomed them to the family of Reformed churches, and promised to pray for the blessing of God on their ministry.
Now, twenty-one years later, URCNA Synod Wheaton 2018 and the Eighty-fifth General Assembly of the OPC met on the campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Together, the URCNA delegates and OPC commissioners celebrated their joint labors on the newly produced Trinity Psalter Hymnal. The two ecclesiastical bodies furthered the bonds of unity with shared meal times, devotional periods, presentations on home and foreign missions and ecumenicity, and a closing worship service.
URCNA pastor Derrick Vander Meulen, coeditor of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, welcomed everyone to the opening prayer service on Monday, June 11. He had the privilege of introducing the first psalm, Psalm 148A, “From Heaven O Praise the Lord,” and the first hymn, “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” sung publicly from the new psalter hymnal. During the week, David and Susan Winslow helped distribute over six thousand volumes for those who had taken advantage of the pre-publication offer and saved shipping costs by picking up their orders at the assembly.
Later that night, the Eighty-fifth General Assembly convened. Out of the one hundred and thirty-nine commissioners that were enrolled, thirty were attending an assembly for the first time. Over half of the commissioners had been ordained for fewer than fifteen years. Three commissioners, ministers Thomas Tyson and George Cottenden and ruling elder Donald Jamieson (San Jose, California), were ordained in the decade of the 1960s.
John Van Meerbeke, pastor of Living Hope OPC in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was elected as moderator. He faced the challenge of allowing full deliberation on issues without falling behind in the docket to the point where the work of the Assembly could not be completed.
At the end of the week, the commissioners gave Mr. Van Meerbeke a well-deserved standing ovation for his gracious but decisive voice in guiding the Assembly through its business.
The next morning, Michael Dengerink, pastor of Delta Oaks Presbyterian in Pittsburg, California, led the devotional service, which set the tone of shared thankfulness to the Lord that marked the meetings for the days to follow. Mr. Dengerink recalled growing up in the CRCNA. He said, “This was the church of my family and friends. This is the church of which I can still hear my grandma say, ‘If you get a job promotion in another town that does not have a CRC church and CRC school, it doesn’t matter how good the promotion is. You don’t take it.’ ” But, what sin destroys and divides, Christ heals and unites. He thanked the Lord for the “taste of heaven” that those present would experience during the week, “as we your people, by your grace, join in praise of your name and serve you in your church.”
The OPC commissioners then turned to the work of the advisory committees before hearing from Statistician Luke Brown. Mr. Brown reported that at the end of 2017 there were 281 local churches, 40 mission works, and 31,377 members in the OPC. The “average” size of an established congregation is 105 members, he stated, but approximately 65 percent of congregations are smaller in size than the average.
The Assembly and Synod gathered on Tuesday evening for a song service led by URCNA pastor Christopher Folkerts. Alan Strange, coeditor with Mr. Vander Meulen, officially presented the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (see pages 8–9), and the evening finished with URCNA members John Bouwers and Todd De Rooy and OPC members Jack Sawyer, Tony Curto, and Danny Olinger participating in a colloquium on the pursuit of unity in OPC and URCNA relations.
On Wednesday, the Assembly engaged in a daylong debate concerning the recommendation of the Committee on Christian Education that the Assembly elect a committee to propose specific linguistic changes to the doctrinal standards (Confession of Faith and Catechisms) without changing the doctrine or meaning of the standards.
The kind of changes that the committee would be authorized to consider would be morphological (e.g., “hath” to “has”), the replacing of archaic pronouns (e.g., “thou” to “you”) and words (e.g., “stews”), and substituting a modern translation of the Scriptures for the text of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. The recommendation ended with the admonition that the committee should aim with every change to preserve the cadence, memorability, and dignified style of the standards.
The Assembly passed the recommendation and elected to the committee ruling elders David Noe, James Gidley, John Muether, and Mark Bube, and ministers Alan Strange, Glen Clary, and John Fesko. The Assembly also moved to notify the member churches of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council and other appropriate church bodies that it has erected a special committee to propose linguistic updating of the doctrinal standards of the OPC and that it welcomes any input that such churches might desire to give.
During the report of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE), General Secretary John Shaw paid tribute to John Hilbelink, who was retiring from work on the committee but not from the ministry. Shaw said that Mr. Hilbelink would be deeply missed after having served on the CHMCE for thirty-three years, the past twenty-seven years as president. He assured Mr. Hilbelink that he and the members of CHMCE would “pray for the Lord’s continued blessings on you, your dear wife—Lois, your church in Rockford, and your continued service of Christ and his church.” The Assembly responded with a standing ovation in appreciation for Mr. Hilbelink.
The evening joint service continued the theme of home missions in the OPC and URCNA. Mika Edmondson, OP church planter at New Life City Fellowship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, stressed that his goal was to present “accessible orthodoxy” to a diverse group. He explained that at New City Fellowship, “our God in Christ has been able to bring together people of every tribe and nation, something government and politics could not do.” Every week after morning worship at New Life City Fellowship, everyone breaks bread together at a shared meal as coequals in Christ.
Bradney Lopez (Arroyo, Puerto Rico) told of a young father after Hurricane Maria coming to Iglesia Presbiteriana Sola Escritura (“Scripture Alone Presbyterian Church”) and asking, “How can I know about infant baptism?” After going through membership classes, the man and his wife professed faith in Christ and their daughter was baptized.
Jim Cassidy (South Austin, Texas) testified that robust, historic Reformed worship had led to Providence OPC being classified as “weird.” Christopher Cashen (Clarkston, Georgia) spoke about ministry to refugees in what is labeled “the Ellis Island of the South.”
Daniel Doleys (Springfield, Ohio) emphasized that church planting involves the entire congregation, not just the pastor. David Graves (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) praised the Lord for the opportunities for an “odd duck” such as himself to meet individuals in everyday life who were interested in learning more about Jesus. URCNA Missions director Richard Bout then prayed for these OP church planters and the gospel endeavors of OPC home missions.
URCNA church planters then shared their work in taking the gospel to diverse groups of people. Thabet Megaly spoke of Muslim outreach in St. Catherines, Ontario. Tony Zekveld reported on the joys of ministry to Sikhs and Hindus in Toronto, and Mitchell Persaud talked about bringing the gospel to Muslims and Hindus in Scarborough, Ontario. Sam Perez reported on inner city ministry in Jersey City, New Jersey. Nathan Brummel spoke about prison ministry through the Divine Hope Bible Seminary in Michigan City, Indiana, whose faculty includes OP minister Brett Mahlen. CHMCE Associate General Secretary Al Tricarico then prayed for the Lord’s blessing on Mr. Bout and URCNA domestic missions labors.
Committee on Foreign Missions General Secretary Mark Bube had attended the start of the Assembly on Monday but had then flown to California for the burial of his father and former OP ruling elder Richard H. Bube, who had died on Saturday. The general secretary returned in time for the Thursday evening joint presentation on foreign missions. He expressed an enthusiasm for potential opportunities for the OPC and URCNA to work together in bringing the gospel to the nations.
In one of the most poignant moments of the joint meetings, Eric Tuininga, OP missionary to Mbale, Uganda, addressed the two churches, both of which he has known intimately. Prior to being appointed as an OP missionary in 2012, Mr. Tuininga had been ordained to the gospel ministry in the URCNA and served as pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church in Salem, Oregon. Mr. Tuininga reflected on the fact that his father, URCNA minister Calvin Tuininga, was present to hear his presentation while his sister and brother-in-law, Carla and Mark Van Essendelft, members of the URCNA, were serving as OP missionary associates at the Karamoja station in Uganda.
Thursday, however, also marked the bittersweet dissolution of the Presbytery of the Central United States. Representing the presbytery, James Stevenson, pastor of Providence OPC in Tulsa, Oklahoma, reported that the presbytery enjoyed wonderful fellowship, but by 2017 the number of congregations in the presbytery had dropped below the minimum of four required in the OPC Book of Church Order.
The Assembly transferred Faith OPC in Lincoln, Nebraska, to the Presbytery of the Midwest, and Westminster OPC in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and Providence OPC to the Presbytery of the Southwest. Mr. Stevenson urged the brethren to pray regularly that the Lord would raise up OP congregations in the central portion of the United States so that, in time, a new presbytery could be established.
In the report on the Committee on Diaconal Ministries, Administrator David Nakhla focused on the disaster response efforts in 2017 in Houston, Texas, and Puerto Rico. Mr. Nakhla expressed thanksgiving for the $620,000 that had been donated to hurricane relief in Houston and Puerto Rico. “The Lord always proves faithful in supplying sufficiently for all needs through the generous giving of his people,” he said. Earlier on Tuesday, Steve Larson, the regional disaster response coordinator after Hurricane Harvey, and Bradney Lopez on behalf of members living in Puerto Rico who were affected by Hurricane Maria, had thanked the Assembly for showing compassion and helping many who had suffered greatly.
Lendall Smith, chairman of the less-than-one-year-old Committee on Ministerial Care (CMC) and its vice-president, Gregory De Jong, ruling elder at Bethel OPC in Wheaton, Illinois, introduced David Haney as the new director of CMC.
In appointing Mr. Haney as director, the committee saw a unique opportunity to combine professional counsel with a personal touch. Mr. Haney, in his role as Director of Finance and Planned Giving, has worked in one way or another with nearly every pastor and/or congregation for over a quarter of a century. Mr. Haney explained the committee’s three-pronged goal: managing the OPC retirement fund (306 participants), providing counsel and assistance in financial planning, and informing sessions and presbyteries of tools available for care of their ministers. In assuming his new responsibilities, Mr. Haney is hopeful of visiting every presbytery in the next eighteen months in order to share CMC’s vision of expanding care of pastors throughout their ministry, not just as they near retirement.
The Synod and Assembly gathered for a group photo on the steps of the Edman Memorial Chapel. The sheer number of 350 delegates, commissioners, and fraternal representatives challenged the photographers, but there was also evident joy in how the Lord had worked in bringing the members of these two sister churches to such close fellowship.
On Friday at 4:00 p.m., the Assembly and Synod combined one last time for a closing joint worship service led by Larry Westerveld, moderator of the Eighty-fourth (2017) General Assembly. Mr. Westerveld proclaimed God’s Word from Amos 9 and John 4, encouraging those gathered from the OPC and URCNA that, through Jesus Christ, there will be an abundant harvest.
It was an appropriate message for two churches who have taken stands for biblical orthodoxy and suffered earthly consequences. Cornelius Van Til was a son of the CRCNA who joined the OPC at its beginning. Responding to a man who had asked Van Til what he should do now that his church had embraced the tenets of theological liberalism, Van Til wrote, “I hope that you and a group of faithful people will seek admission to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as a separate congregation. I do not know of any other Presbyterian body in which you would have such loyalty to the Reformed Faith.” Van Til then added, “I need not boast to say this. The O.P. church has plenty of faults. We are all petty human beings with plenty of sins to fight against daily. But I do think that you would find the fellowship you want and need for your work.”
Van Til was writing as an Orthodox Presbyterian to a Presbyterian who had asked for his opinion, but, in this writer’s judgment, his sentiments today could be applied to the United Reformed Churches in North America. For those Reformed believers who find themselves in denominations that are straying openly from the Bible, the URCNA, like the OPC, is a church that should be sought out. It knows its faults and sins but is self-consciously seeking to be loyal to the Reformed faith. In it, Christians can find the fellowship they want and need for their work.
May we in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church continue to pray for and work with these dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, even as we look forward to that great day in heaven when we will join together to sing God’s praise eternally.
The author is the editor of New Horizons. Photos provided by Tricia Stevenson, Rachel Stevenson, and Sara Grace Baugh. New Horizons, August–September 2018.