Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore—A Painful History

Previous article in this series: October 1, 2012, p. 5.

 

This year, Covenant Evan­gelical Reformed Church (CERC) commemorated twenty-five years as a congregation. It has not been an easy twenty-five years.

One of the charter members of Covenant, and an elder from the start, Elder Leong Fai Chong (John), summarized it well. In the twenty-fifth anniversary booklet he wrote:

In fact, that she is what she is today and that she could celebrate her 25th Anniversary is a miracle indeed. Yes, it is a miracle because for a little flock to go through cri­sis, turmoil, pains, controversies, and changes and yet be preserved is beyond one’s comprehension. For one who began this journey twenty-five years ago and has seen all the steps of her sojourn, I have only these words to say, “It is all by His Sovereign Grace.”

The official history of Covenant begins with its organization as a daughter congregation of the origi­nal institute, the Evangelical Re­formed Church, organized in 1982. A church was born, and quickly a denomination was formed—the Evangelical Reformed Churches of Singapore. It was a day of rejoicing there and here in the PRC. God had blessed the tireless work of many men (and women) and especially the preaching of missionary Pastor Arie den Hartog and Pastor Lau Chin Kwee, the minister in First ERCS. Two Reformed congregations existed in a predominately pagan land where the Reformed faith was virtually unknown but ten to fifteen years be­fore.

My personal connection with Singapore began with my seminary training. I attended the Protestant Reformed Seminary with two Sin­gaporeans whom I came to know and love as brothers in Christ. Graduating from seminary in 1986, I accepted the call from Doon PRC, the calling church for missionary den Hartog, and automatically became a member of the Foreign Mission Committee.

Since my Singaporean classmate would become the pastor of the new congregation, I was keenly interested in the organization of Covenant ERCS. The PRC and the ERCS had previously established a sister-church relation, and the PRC rejoiced in God’s evident blessing on our sister church in faraway Singapore.

Not long thereafter, Pastor den Hartog returned to the U.S. to take a pastorate in a congregation in the PRC. Our family had the privilege of hosting his family when they stopped in Doon. What a delightful time we had discussing and rejoic­ing in God’s work of gathering His church from the nations, in particular, in Singapore.

A few years later, Prof. Hanko and I were sent (in Dec., 1990) as a delegation to visit the ERCS. We preached in both churches four Sundays and held meetings with the sessions.

It was my first visit to Singapore. From many points of view, it was a delightful visit. The scenery was lovely. The Christian hospitality was outstanding. I came to know many of the saints in First and Covenant personally, and experienced richly the bond of Christian love.

And yet, there was a negative side. At some of the meetings, ten­sion surfaced concerning practices that the Reformed church had main­tained for centuries, such as Psalm-singing, Heidelberg Catechism preaching, and two worship services every Lord’s Day. In addition, the members and leaders in ERCS were not united on whether they ought to take positions on such doctrines as common grace, the well-meant offer, and the covenant. And there was the unsettling influence of the Liberated.

Looking back today at that history, I can understand why the ERCS was not of one mind. Some were committed to standing four­square with the PRC on doctrine, worship, and church government. Others wanted to be Reformed in a general way, and simply ignore issues like common grace, the well-meant offer, and divorce and remarriage. They understood that taking positions akin to those of the PRC would separate them from most if not all other churches in the Reformed camp.

To understand this diverse think­ing within the ERCS, recall that the ERCS was not really the fruit of Protestant Reformed mission work. The group that organized as the ERCS in 1982 had its roots in Bible studies in the early 1960s. God led these young converts through con­flict and division to the doctrines of grace, until they reached the point where they requested help from the PRC—first emissaries, and in 1979, a missionary. Pastor den Hartog arrived in February of 1980; one month later the GLTS (Gospel, Letters, and Tracts Society) drafted a letter to the PRC, asking that Pas­tor den Hartog be authorized to organize them as a church. In 1981, they pointed out, “We, the GLTS, have been in existence for 18 years and it was only less than three years ago when we came into contact with the Protestant Reformed Churches in America” (Acts, 1981, pp. 176-7). They had received three years of intermittent instruction from emissaries and one month from the missionary when they requested organization.

The PRC agreed to grant the re­quest, provided that the new congre­gation be organized on the basis of the Reformed confessions (Heidel­berg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordrecht), and that the newly elected officebearers be able to sign the formula of subscrip­tion. Highly significant it is, that the GLTS was not ready to organize with those provisos. Nor did they believe it necessary (confer their protests in the Acts of Synod 1981 and 1982). Nonetheless, the PRC insisted, and the saints of the GLTS acquiesced. Organization occurred, after the study of the confessions was complete, in 1982.

Five years later, Covenant was formed and the same tensions were found there at times. That contributed to some of the difficulties in her history.

Covenant ERCS has endured trials that few churches face in their first twenty-five years of existence. They have lost three pastors in their short history. The first was released through what was essentially Article 11 of the Church Order (they had not yet adopted a church order). The second pastor was taken suddenly and unexpectedly by death. And the third was released from the ministry following the Church Order Article 12. Each event took its toll on the congregation in its own way. Some of the original members have left over various issues connected with the release of ministers. Those losses are painful and can be discouraging.

Covenant also struggled many years to find a place to worship. For a couple of years, the congregation rented a school auditorium—until the government granted them the right to use a building that was a combination home and shop. Af­ter about ten years they lost the government’s permission to use that place for worship. They were forced to rent once again—five dif­ferent places over the space of ten years. They looked long and hard, but they could not find any govern­ment-approved location for worship that they could afford to purchase. Eventually they purchased the fourth floor of a warehouse/factory. They renovated it completely, and made a very suitable place for wor­ship, complete with classrooms, a study, a library, a kitchen, and a large eating area for the entire congrega­tion. In January of 2010 they began worshiping in their new home.

Nothing in Covenant’s history compares with the trauma of the conflict in the churches that resulted in the demise of the denomination. The relationship between First and Covenant would fracture on the issue of divorce and remarriage. After years of study, a committee of the ERCS submitted a position paper that advocated remarriage of divorced persons in limited cases. First ERCS adopted the report. This would lead to the dismantling of the ERCS, and the destruction of the sister relationship with the PRC. Covenant ERCS refused to adopt that report. Painful as it was, Covenant knew that she could not exist in a denomination with First. The denomination was dissolved.

The aftermath was traumatic. Over half of Covenant ERC’s mem­bers departed. Some went to First. Some simply left.

But God preserves His church. Out of First came many members (some of them officebearers) who disagreed with their session, and had the courage of conviction to join Covenant. That included Pas­tor Lau. Then began the delicate task of rebuilding CERC, and of uniting the two groups into one congregation. God is good. He gave wisdom and courage to the officebearers. God preserved CERC.

With the many from First, and subsequent growth through evange­lism, CERC has currently over 140 members. Just last month, through the hard work and personal evange­lism of CERC, seven people joined the church. We pray that this con­tinues.

CERC’s commemorative booklet reflects on this history in a section headed Growing in Appreciation for the Truth:

Though the D&R contro­versy has come to a close, we must not forget the lessons the Lord has taught us through it. Through the controversy and the dissolution of the denomination, the Lord used such seemingly ‘evil’ circumstances to preserve His truth in CERC and awaken in us a deeper appre­ciation for the precious truth of His covenant. Our young people too have come to understand and appreciate better what we stood for in the controversy and are zealous to know the truth more, to proclaim it and to live it. We have become more sensitive to the threat of false doctrines and dan­ger of compromise of the truth, and are therefore more watchful at the gates of Zion. To avoid “history repeating itself,” we should strive to understand and to develop the truths of Scripture as a church, so that we may be established in them and not be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. We are very thankful that over the past few years many PRCA ministers, including seminary professors, came over to teach and reinforce the truths of sovereign particular grace (over against common grace and the well-meant offer of the gospel) and the unconditionality of God’s covenant of grace (as opposed to a conditional covenant/federal vi­sion). We pray the Lord will grant us faithful office-bearers who are able rightly to divide the Word of God and to teach its truths to His people. We pray that members will be stirred to seek after and learn the precious truths of the Reformed heritage that is ours. May we as a church love, defend, maintain, and proclaim them for the glory of God.

On hindsight now, we humbly confess that it was by God’s provi­dence and preservation that CERC was able to maintain the distinctive truth of the unbreakable bond of marriage in the controversy. Look­ing back, we can only marvel and thank the Lord that He has main­tained the truth of His Word in our midst.

And the booklet concludes:

As we look back on all that has happened over the past 25 years, we wholeheartedly and humbly confess that “it is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, be­cause His compassions fail not; great is (His) faithfulness!” (Lam. 3:22-23), for He is the sovereign, Almighty Keeper of the vineyard of CERC. In His infinite wisdom, the Lord has ordered all things and brought all things to pass in the past 25 years, for our good and for His glory. “The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad!” (Ps. 126:3) . . . .

Looking forward, we must ask ourselves the question: what is CERC’s raison d’etre (reason for existence) among the many churches in Singapore today? How can we maintain a distinc­tive witness in proclaiming the truth of God’s sovereign grace and unconditional covenant? We pray that the Lord will be merci­ful to continue to keep us faithful to Him and His truth. We are thankful too that He has raised up a second generation of covenant seed among us who are zealous for the truth of His Word. D.V., this second generation will take up their places in CERC and hold high the banner of the Reformed faith here in Singapore.

As our Chief Shepherd has led us these past 25 years, we place our firm trust in Him that He will continue to lead us in the years ahead, for His own Name’s sake. From the day of our institution, till today, and always, we make this heartfelt confession: “Our help is in the name of Jehovah who made heaven and earth.

Amen.

Welcome back, sister. You are smaller and more isolated than you were twenty-five years ago as part of the ERCS. You have aged a bit and matured much. But you are stronger than ever before. And your clear wit­ness to the truth continues in your land. God be praised!