At the urging of the consistory of Hamilton, Synod decided to publish the Pastoral Letter again, this time in our denominational magazine. What will be the effect this time? Perhaps it is too much to expect that a letter such as this, even though approved by Synod, will make much of an impression. In most cases, I'm afraid, it has about as much or as little effect as a sermon on this subject is likely to have. There is a momentary impression perhaps; people may talk about how awful this or that form of worldliness is, but then it is business as usual.
Is there anything the church through its consistories and broader assemblies can do to stem the tide of worldliness? There are those who say no; nothing that we can do will have any effect. Only the Holy Spirit can change sinner's hearts and when that happens, when a person is born again, his nature is transformed, his old habits change, his desires will no longer go out to the world, etc.
Others disagree with this rather passive approach and feel that the Church ought to do something. But what? Warnings alone are not enough, apparently. Pointing out the dangers of various sinful amusements and practices may help a little, but not much. What then? Discipline? Some would advocate going this route. But where to start and where to draw the line--that is also a problem. There are no easy answers.
It may help us a little to see how other denominations have dealt with the problem of worldliness, both in former days and in more recent times. We should realize that we are not the first generation of Christians who have had to wrestle with this problem. To limit ourselves only to churches of Reformed persuasion on this continent, let us look at how, for instance, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), has dealt with the issue before us. Unlike our Free Reformed Churches and several other Reformed denominations who have never made official pronouncements regarding worldliness, the CRC has on more than one occasion made Synodically binding decisions relative to this issue.
The first one of these came in 1928. Reacting to two overtures, the Synod of 1926 appointed a committee to study the dangers of worldliness in general, with special focus on such "popular evils as card-playing, theatre attendance and dancing." This committee did its homework and presented to Synod 1928 a report called Worldly Amusements. In this report all manifestations of worldliness, but especially the above-mentioned amusements, were condemned as sinful and unbiblical. As to the question what the Church should do with those who indulge in such amusements, the Committee advised Synod to heed the following 6 points of which I will quote only numbers 1, 2, and 5:
1. To urge all of our professors, ministers, elders and Bible teachers to emphasize in this age of prevailing worldliness especially those doctrinal and ethical principles which our people must clearly understand and firmly adhere to in order not to be swept away by this mighty tide.
2. To urge all our leaders and all our people to pray and labour for the awakening and deepening of spiritual life in general and to be keenly aware of the absolute indispensability of keeping our religious life vital and powerful through daily prayer, the earnest searching of the Scriptures, and through engaging in those practical Christian works which are the best antidote against worldliness.
5. To urge consistories to deal in the spirit of love, yet also in view of the strong tide of worldliness which is threatening our churches, very firmly with all cases of misdemeanour and offensive conduct in the matter of worldly amusements; and where repeated admonitions by the consistory are left unheeded, to apply discipline as a last resort.
Synod adopted these recommendations, plus four principles, by which all amusements (recreations) should be judged.
1. The first of these principles concerns the honour of God. God's honour requires that
a. the Christian's amusements should at the very least not conflict with any commandment of God;
b. that we and our children should be keenly aware, also in our amusements, of our covenant relation to God as His peculiar (special) people;
c. that the Christian shall deem it a matter of loyalty to God not to further the interests of an institution which is manifestly an instrument of satan for attack on the kingdom of God.
2. The second principle by which we should judge our recreations is Man's Welfare. From the welfare of man we conclude
a. that there is a legitimate place in life for such amusements as are recreative for body and mind;
b. that no physical recreation or mental diversion should be tolerated which is in any way or in any degree subversive of our spiritual and moral well-being;
c. that, even when our amusements are not spiritually or morally harmful, they should not be allowed to occupy more than a secondary, subordinate, place in life.
3. The third principle by which our recreations should be judged is that of the separation from the world unto God. This principle
a. does not imply that Christians should form separate communities or should shun all associations with ungodly men;
b. forbids friendship, in distinction from fellowship, with evil men;
c. requires that we shun all evil in the world;
d. demands a weaning away of the heart from the transient things of this present earthly sphere.
4. The fourth and last principle in this connection concerns our Christian Liberty. Christian liberty, the report states
a. consists in freedom from the power of sin; in freedom from the law: its curse, its demands as a condition for earning eternal life, its oppressive yoke; and in liberty of conscience with reference to human ordinances and things neither prescribed nor condemned, either directly or indirectly, in the Word of God;
b. Christian freedom is limited in its exercise by the law of love, the law of self-preservation, and the law of self-denial, which often requires the renunciation of things in themselves lawful.
Finally Synod declared: While several practices are found in our circles which cannot pass the muster of these principles and while all our amusements, not only theatre-attendance, dancing and card-playing, should be judged in the light of these principles, yet Synod feels constrained ... to call particular attention to this familiar trio. It greatly deplores the increasing prevalence among us of these forms of amusements and urgently warns our members against them.
These decisions of Synod 1928 regarding worldly amusements were reaffirmed by several subsequent Synods until in 1966 the CRC reversed its stand in a fundamental way when it adopted the Study Committee's Report on the Church and the Film Arts.
There is much, very much, in the Committee's Report on Worldly Amusements and the Synod's adoption of its conclusions and principles with which we as Free Reformed churches can wholeheartedly agree. Especially the principles outlined in this report are of great and abiding value because of their firm basis in Scripture.
Yet, despite the sound Biblical reflection that went into producing this report, the Synod's adoption of it in 1928 turned out to be very controversial. Especially the singling out of three particular forms of amusement and the threat of church discipline drew heavy criticism. Synod after Synod was required to clarify especially these aspects of the decision. We need not concern ourselves with the details of this debate, but we should note that some of the questions raised in connection with these Synodical decisions are very important for all who, faced with similar problems, may be tempted to make similar decisions.
Was it right for Synod 1928 to single out these three forms of amusements as especially sinful and was it right to threaten offenders with discipline even as a last resort? The answer to these questions cannot be a simple "yes" or "no." Those who say it is wrong to catalogue sins should realize that our Reformed fathers had no such qualms, for they did precisely that in the Form for the Administration of the Lord's Supper. That Form warns all those who are defiled with specifically mentioned sins that they should keep themselves from the table of the Lord on the grounds that they have no part in the kingdom of Christ. From this we may conclude that it is entirely proper for a church to warn its members from time to time against prevailing sins--not necessarily the same trio of 1928, of course, but any other symptoms of worldliness that are deemed harmful to vital godliness.
While this is true, there is also a danger here. Experience teaches that the cataloguing of sins, however necessary it may seem at times, can easily lead to abuses. For one thing, it is impossible for a church to draw up an exhaustive list of sins. Any list can only be a partial one and can for that reason lead to serious misunderstanding as to what worldliness really is. For many people worldliness consists in indulging in certain worldly amusements or habits such as the three mentioned by the CRC Synod of 1928. We can, of course, add to those three or substitute them for other, more up-to-date forms of recreation such as TV watching, renting videos, listening to certain types of music, etc.
But the danger with any such listing of sinful or allegedly sinful practices, is that people may think that as long as they do not practice any of the things mentioned on the list they are all right or at least better than others who do engage in them.
I think, therefore, that the CRC in 1928 was not wise in singling out these three forms of amusements, no matter how prevalent these evils were at the time, and however well-intentioned Synod was in taking this courageous and unpopular stand. Since any cataloguing of sins is bound to be incomplete, many other forms of worldliness are overlooked and because they are not mentioned, people will tend to regard them as less sinful, while in fact they may be even more dangerous than the ones that appear on the church's index.