Reproductive technologies: Are there limits to what we may do?

The title is provocative.  Some definitions are required: what is meant with ‘reproductive technologies’ and what sort of ‘limits’ are intended?  With reproductive technologies we mean those medical interventions that enhance the likelihood of conception and/or of successfully carrying a fetus to term.  There is a wide range of these interventions—some simple, some very complicated and involved—some that allow natural conception to occur in the womb, and some that bring about conception (here defined as the fusing of egg and sperm) outside the womb.  This latter distinction is critical.  With ‘limits’ we mean what sort of interventions should, and which should not be considered permissible.

To ask if there are limits to what is permissible, as in the title, is a leading question: it presumes that the only answer is affirmative—that of course there are limits.  But what are those limits, and who determines them?  The first we would like to address here, and as for the second, our ultimate authority for ethical questions must be the Holy Scriptures.

One preliminary comment.  For some readers this topic has little relevance to their lives.  For such the following may seem like a useless debate, and it may be easy to be judgmental of those who have tried various interventions.  For others this is a very sensitive and emotional issue.  Perhaps some of these are, or are close to, couples who are unable to conceive and have long struggled to remedy this with medical interventions.  It is not at all our intention to judge these readers or hurt them with any of our comments below.

Over the years consistories in our denominations in the Netherlands and Canada have been confronted with questions as to what medical interventions to remedy infertility are consistent with a belief in the doctrine of God’s providence and a submission to His will—and what technologies should be considered as going too far.  Questions involving surrogate motherhood and IVF and a range of other things.  What follows is a basic treatment of the general principles derived from dealing with these cases, with some emphasis on an issue of current relevance.[1]

A twofold purpose of marital relations

It may seem odd to start our discussion with a somewhat philosophical comment, but it may also serve to put the issue in perspective.  All of us will agree with John Piper’s recent comment that “sex belongs only in the sanctuary of a marriage covenant between one man [and] one woman.”  Less often mentioned is the traditional Reformed (and Catholic) view that conjugal (i.e. sexual) relations have both a ‘unitive’ and ‘procreative’ aspect, and that according to God’s creation order these two aspects must not be deliberately separated.  In other words, conjugal relations are designed both to strengthen the marital union (the unitive aspect) and lead to the gift of children.  If the two are not to be purposely separated, it follows that we are not permitted to have sexual relations while deliberately trying to avoid pregnancy, and that we are not allowed to procreate via means other than natural sexual intercourse.  Malachi 2:15 tells us that the ultimate purpose of these two functions is that God “might seek a godly seed.”[2]

The twofold purpose of conjugal relations in marriage mentioned here is based on Scripture passages that teach us that children are to be conceived when husband and wife become one flesh (e.g. Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:8; 1 Cor. 6:16). This is a clear stating of the ordained way new human life is to originate—within the marriage union, in private, and in the absence of third parties[3].  It indicates that all techniques that achieve conception outside the body are ethically unacceptable and contrary to God’s ordination.

A basic principle

This does not suggest that no medical interventions are permitted to cure infertility.  Often the inability to conceive is relatively easy to treat, and corrective surgery that enables the couple to conceive naturally (in vivo, Latin for ‘within the living’) is no more wrong than corrective surgery to restore one’s vision or ability to walk.  Surgeries and interventions that permit conception upon natural marital relations are permissible, but those that involve manipulation of gametes (e.g. ICSI) and/or achieve fertilization outside the womb are not.

What about IVF?

IVF is an abbreviation of ‘in vitro fertilization’, and refers to bringing gametes (sperm and egg) together in a laboratory dish (in vitro means “in glass”), and therefore outside the body.  IVF was developed to create fertilized eggs (zygotes) when conception is not likely to occur in the womb (i.e. in vivo).  Sperm and egg are taken from a couple (but could be from anyone) and combined in a fertility clinic, typically resulting in multiple embryos.  Generally two or more embryos created this way are implanted in the womb of the mother (or any woman capable of carrying a fetus) within a week of the embryos’ creation, while the remainder are frozen (“cryopreserved”) until they can be implanted later.  In some cases preimplantation genetic diagnoses (PGD) are performed to screen for genetic diseases in the embryo, or its sex, to enable couples to decide whether or not they will implant a particular embryo.

Since life begins at conception, we should consider IVF as the creation of tiny human beings in a laboratory.  Most of these embryos are not implanted but frozen indefinitely and conveniently forgotten.  There are hundreds of thousands of tiny frozen human beings, some already frozen for 20 or more years—suspended as it were in time.  As they age their viability decreases, as does the likelihood of ever being implanted.  Many are simply discarded, others are used for ‘research purposes.’  Few fertility technicians likely consider that at the time they mix human gametes the resulting fertilized eggs become persons, and commence an immortal spiritual existence.[4]  Lost in this procedure is the awareness that all human life is sacred from conception.

But what about snowflake adoption?

“Snowflake adoption” refers to the adopting (and implantation) of embryos created using IVF by another party.  “Snowflake”, as this usually involves embryos that had been frozen. A more technical term for this procedure is heterologous embryo transfer (HET), or the transfer of a genetically unrelated (i.e. heterologous) embryo from the biological parents (who supplied the sperm and egg) into the womb of the surrogate mother.  This procedure allows some of the surplus embryos mentioned above to develop into full term babies, and a previously childless couple to have the experience of pregnancy and childbirth.  Snowflake adoption is a form of third party reproduction and requires a variety of medical procedures to prepare the surrogate mother’s womb and implant the embryo.

IVF, HET and the prerogative to create life

IVF is against the creation order of how life is to originate in the womb, and separates between the ‘unitive’ and ‘procreative’ aspects of conjugal relations, with procreation occurring in the laboratory.  The creation of human life is solely God’s prerogative, not that of a fertility clinic technician, or that of the married couple.  It is in His providence and wisdom to bless a married couple with children upon their use of the ordained means—or to withhold this blessing.[5]  He opens the womb (Gen. 30:22), and He closes (Gen. 20:18).  God gives conception upon the ordained means (Ruth 4:13) and guides the formation of the fetus in the womb (Jer. 1:5; Isa. 44:2, Job 31:15).  When He withholds, it is presumptuous to assume His prerogative and attempt to force conception and fetal development through technological interventions.  HET and surrogate motherhood also disrupt the marriage union, the birth mother being a third party to the couple who are the biological parents of the embryo.  Both the creation of embryos in vitro, and the implantation of (donated) embryos are manipulations that cannot be reconciled with the created order and a belief that the gift of life is God’s right alone.

Fetal development is one of creation’s greatest miracles that we do wrong to manipulate or interfere with.  Psalm 139 exults in the mysterious, “curious”, workmanship of God and His especial eye on one’s ‘unformed mass’ during development.  It speaks of, as other translations render it, His marvelous ‘knitting’ and ‘weaving’ together of our fetal forms.  This indicates our persons—both body and soul—are under His special notice and providence right from conception.[6]  We are called to study nature, also human development, in order to glorify God.  We were given the right to subdue and steward His creation.  But both the right to study and to subdue have limits.  If it is questionable whether man has the right to alter the animal “kinds” that were created, it is clear he has little right to physically interfere in human fetal development.  An exception to the latter would be those special situations where fetal surgery is necessary to correct life-imperilling congenital defects.

What about children born from IVF and HET? 

Let us never lose sight of the fact that these children are not to be blamed for the actions of their (surrogate) parents, or to be deemed as any different than other children.  Their parents’ actions in using IVF and HET were unacceptable, but the pregnancy itself is not sinful and the children born from such procedures should not be stigmatized.  And as in other extra-marital pregnancies, when sin is repented of and confessed, God is gracious to forgive.  We all, IVF and HET babies included, have been conceived and born in sin, have immortal souls, and equally stand in need of the same new birth.  God can also so overrule the sinful actions of people that much good can come of it, as we see in the family histories of Judah and Jephthah, or in the case of the woman of whom we read in John 8:1-11.

But isn’t snowflake adoption essentially the same as regular adoption?

The argument for this is that both involve human beings.  An embryo should be considered a person, a human being with the potential to live independently, be sentient, and have consciousness. The crucial difference is that regular adoption does not breach the marital union and involves no manipulation of either an embryo or the surrogate mother’s womb.  Couples from whom God has withheld the marriage blessing may of course adopt a born child, and it is honourable to do so, but they are not permitted to adopt an embryo and implant it in their wombs.

Don’t we have a duty towards these leftover embryos?

We are obliged to help others, to love our neighbour and seek his welfare. It is also good to remedy the consequences of improper actions taken by others, but we are rarely under a moral obligation to do so.   We do not believe it is morally right to harvest human gametes, to create embryos in a laboratory, to freeze surplus embryos or use them for research purposes.  But we are not obliged to adopt leftover embryos and carry them to term because the biological parents are unable or unwilling to do so, and because otherwise these embryos would be destroyed.[7]  A related point is that we are not to commit a wrong action in order that good may come of it (the end does not justify the means).  We may think we are saving a life by adopting an embryo (something that can be argued), but that would not permit us to go against nature and employ unacceptable means to implant such an embryo into the recipient’s womb.  It is another provocative question, perhaps, but do those who argue our obligation to adopt embryos really feel a sense of Christian love to them, or their obligation to pray for them?

Are we really rescuing frozen embryos by adopting them?  As mentioned, frozen embryos have the potential to live independently, to become able to perceive and feel things.  In their frozen state they are insentient, are not physically suffering, and are not committing actual sin.  What a tremendous responsibility we bring upon ourselves by, humanly speaking, forcing the further development of these persons.  If those persons develop and are born, but live to die in an unconverted state, then it “had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24).  Will they testify against their surrogate mothers: ‘had you but left me frozen!’  When Job curses the day of his conception and birth and wishes he had not developed, he directs his complaint to God rather than to his parents.  And that we may not speak thus to our parents is evident from Isaiah 45:10.  But when man assumes God’s prerogative to create life, or force its development, will this give reason for the children thus created to cry out, “What begettest thou? …  What has thou brought forth?”

What then ought to be done with the hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos?  This is a difficult question (particularly if you swap the word ‘embryos’ with ‘persons’).  Based on the arguments stated above, there is no morally acceptable method to further the development of these embryos. It is equally unacceptable to destroy, or murder, these embryos.  That leaves only the third option of maintaining them indefinitely in their frozen state.  This is also a powerful reason why IVF procedures must be ended immediately to prevent an ever increasing number of frozen embryos.

Future directions?

Many ethical issues can be placed on a continuous scale.  On the one extreme are things that are obviously unacceptable, on the other end are things that are permissible, and in between things that are unclear and that people disagree on. In terms of reproductive technologies, most of us would agree that the creation of three parent embryos, harvesting eggs and stem cells from fetuses, gene-editing to form designer babies or sperm selection to select the sex of your child, are all wrong.  On the other hand, corrective surgeries to improve sperm motility, adjust ovarian cycles, or restore the uterine environment are acceptable.  In between is a gray zone, and as assisted reproductive technologies continue to evolve, more ‘gray zone’ issues will be encountered and will need to be grappled with.  It is hoped that members who consider using such technologies will ask the Church what is the right thing to do from a Biblical point of view before employing them.

The Church should not be the first party to ask, however.  We ought to first ask ourselves what our motives are for considering a particular approach.  For example, do we resort to embryo adoption to have a child at all costs, or are we genuinely driven by the urge to save a child who would otherwise remain suspended in a frozen state until the end of time?  We cannot judge another’s motives, and it is often hard to understand our own.  Strikingly, Psalm 139 also speaks of God knowing our thoughts and intentions and every act from afar, and pleads with Him to know our hearts and lead us from all wicked ways.  That has a lot to say for this discussion.  God is the Author of all life, in whom we live and move and have our being—how this ought to humble us before Him and make us reluctant to reach out our hands presumptuously.  May those from whom He has withheld the marriage blessing be given the grace to submit to His will and Word, and in prayer commit their ways to Him who continues to do miracles (Genesis 18:14). May those who have received this blessing be given compassion and understanding for those who have not, and gratitude to Him who gave.

(Article prepared by the Consistory of the RCNA-Chilliwack)

[1] For further reading see, “Eerbaar Door Het Leven: Rapport Over Huwelijk en Echtscheiding”, published by the Synod of the Gereformeerde Gemeente in Nederland in 2006.

[2] Poole: “a holy seed, born to God in chaste wedlock, and brought up under the instructions and virtuous examples of parents living in the fear of God, and love of each other.”

[3] The Bible has several examples of a sort of surrogacy motherhood, such as when Sarai gave her servant Hagar to Abram and Rachel gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob.  Neither instance suggests that God’s approval was sought or experienced.

[4] “We do not know with certainty the exact moment in which the soul is received in the body.” (Kersten, Reformed Dogmatics). Cf. Zechariah 12:1.  But Psalm 51:5 tells us we are sinners from conception, suggesting our spiritual existence and personhood begins then.  Both Calvin and Luther appeared to have held this view as well.

[5] Hosea 9:11 makes separate mention of conception, fetal development and birth, and that all three depend on God’s blessing.

[6] A remarkable passage regarding this occurs in Job 10:10.  See Poole and Gill’s explanations of this graphic text.  One modern Bible translation renders the passage as, “You guided my conception and formed me in the womb.”

[7] The conversation changes when it is clear that Providence has laid a burden upon us.  We always have the right to adopt born children given up by others, but it would only become our obligation to do so when it is clear from God’s providential dealings that such a child was laid upon our way.

Protecting your family online (4)

We started these articles with the comment that ‘protecting your family online’ has four components, or steps.  In the first three articles we mentioned the importance of taking inventory of your electronic devices that can access the internet, and installing and configuring three essential tools.  In this article we want to discuss the remaining two steps.  These two are the most difficult and most important.

Step 3: Staying Informed

Staying informed involves more than knowing what our children are doing; it includes knowing what is available to them—what is ‘out there’.  Both of these are parental responsibilities we cannot excuse ourselves from, and which are no different now than in generations past.  Society has changed dramatically over the last decades, however, and with it have our family lives.  More disposable income and time have given increased access to entertainment and opportunity to associate with people who hold other views and values.  Ironically we seem busier than ever.  And also ironically, the more ‘connected’ some people have become via social media and mobile devices, the less in touch they are with their children or know what they are doing.

Staying informed of developments in media and technology can be looked at from two angles, and both are necessary.  First, we can look at individual developments or devices and ask on a per case basis if these are acceptable to buy or use.  Questions guiding such an evaluation might include:

  • How could the new gadget or tool be used wrongly?
  • What was it principally designed for?
  • What sort of influence could it have on those that use it?

Sources for learning about new developments are technology sections of news sites and newspapers, specific websites such as,,, (which tend to promote acceptance of new and often useless gadgetry), or (more realistic) browsing your local computer store.

Evaluating new technologies to see if their use is permissible or will present unacceptable influences is not easy.  Virtually all tools can be used for good and bad purposes.  Inventions themselves are not evil, but often they increase our ability to express the evil that is within us, and access that which is around us.  This led many to view bicycles in the 1890’s and automobiles in the 1920’s with much suspicion, expecting them to facilitate all manner of sexual immorality.  It is also nearly impossible to predict what a device will be used for, as one development rapidly leads to another.  A. G. Bell probably did not envision the smart phone, or the designers of ARPANET in the 1960’s the Silk Road and bitcoin.  The engineers at Remington-Rand who made the first computer printer in the 1950’s did not anticipate today’s 3D printing of human organs, guns, and drones.

Second, developments in media and technology should also be viewed thematically.  Individual inventions are part of larger processes and trends.  From a materials point of view, most new technologies serve to automate and complicate machines, and increase our connectivity to and dependence on the internet.   Both of these make us increasingly helpless when our machines fail, or the internet breaks down.  The latter has led to sufficient concern from governments to research the implications of large scale outages of the internet resulting from cyber-warfare or natural calamities such as major solar flares (i.e. “Carrington events”), as such outages could cripple military operations, hospitals, electrical grids and other utilities, our food supply, communications and navigation, etc.  From a moral point of view, many new technologies increase the ability of the evil that resides in each human heart to be expressed.  What people share on their social media sites and blogs, on forums, and in their comments to newspaper articles is often shocking.  The opinions and personal information shared indicate a rapidly decreasing tolerance of Christian values, and that we live in a ‘post-shame age’.  This is true regarding sexual mores, disrespect for authority, worship of self, and desire for instant gratification.  With this in mind, to stay informed means recognizing the ‘big picture’ of what our society as a whole is like and how it is becoming increasingly hostile to those who hold our beliefs and values, and to evaluate how individual technologies and developments will likely be used to further this moral decline.

Step 4: Family Discussions

This is the most important step, and it requires all three of the previous parts: taking inventory; installing tools; and being aware of what your children are doing, what new technologies are available to them, and how society is influencing them.   What is discussed will depend on your family’s situation, and must be age-appropriate.  It is important that our children know the world is a hostile place, particularly so towards Christians, and that evil often comes looking for us, also on the internet.  Our children should be aware there is no privacy on the internet, and that what is posted today can haunt us later when we apply for a job or try to establish relationships.  With this in mind, there is in no reason our children should assume they have the right to keep what they do online or with their mobile devices private or hidden from their parents.  Parents should feel free to monitor their children’s online activities whenever they want to.  The same is true for spouses.

The nature of the conversations should be open and reasonable.  Our children should feel comfortable asking questions as to why certain things are not allowed, and the answers should be based on our values.  If something is wrong, it is wrong because it is sin against God and ruins our soul.  But the baser things presented on the internet can also permanently damage us in this life: they can ruin our ability to have good relations by twisting our views of sexuality and women.  Images “burned on the retina” remain with us for the rest of our lives.  Habitual viewing of violent or immoral materials causes many to progress from one evil to another, as viewing eventually no longer satisfies, and it lowers the threshold towards acting.  In this context may, must we not tell our children from Proverbs 9:18 that the guests of “Mrs. Wanton” are in the depths of hell?

It is often said that our children grow up in a complicated time, complicated in part by today’s unprecedented technological developments.  There is no escaping this; it is the world in which we must live and for which we have to equip our children.  People from many different denominations are struggling with this, and the consensus appears to be that it is far more important to inculcate a sense of right and wrong in our children than to forbid them an endless list of specific activities.  Examples of literature developed to help parents with this are A Guide for those who Guide and (in Dutch) Eigenwijs and Gewetensvorming; these and others are on this website.  Teaching them values will help them determine for themselves what to do when they face situations parents could not have prepared them for, or understand.  This is of huge importance.

Without negating the above, we may not overlook the unspeakable evil that dwells in each human heart and the power and variety of Satan’s temptations.  These remain unchanged, no matter how society and technology evolve.  We are fully inclined to the evils encountered in our everyday lives, regardless of the medium through which these evils present themselves to us, but we still act as free and voluntary agents and are therefore responsible (and accountable) for everything we do, for every decision we make.  Only the true love to God will make us hate sin, and only His restraining grace can prevent us from falling into sin.  How necessary, then, always to ask the Lord for wisdom and grace to recognize and resist temptation, and to enable us to deal with the unprecedented challenges we and our children face (Psalm 127).

Protecting your family online (3)

In our last post we mentioned the first essential tool, internet filtering, members are asked to use to help ‘protect their family online’.   In this article we want to discuss two other tools:

Tool 2: Accountability Reporting Software

Relying on internet filters alone is not enough.  Internet use must also be monitored with accountability reporting software, which often is part of the filter you install (something we’ll come back to later).  Accountability software, when set up properly, keeps a list of all the sites you or another user have visited (or tried to visit) and when you did so, and emails this list to someone on a regular basis.  When these activity logs are reviewed one can tell what each user was trying to access and if the filter is working properly or needs to be reconfigured.  This type of software is much more reliable than your web browser history logs, as the latter can easily be cleared and may be difficult to access if the devices are mobile or inside another user account.

Accountability software should be set up so the reports it generates are sent to an accountability partner–your spouse or another trusted adult.  This is an excellent way for the computer administrator to remain honest especially if the accountability software is robust enough that it cannot be disabled without the partner’s password.  If this step seems somewhat over-the-top, bear in mind that internet misuse is fostered most by the ease and secrecy with which illicit material can be accessed.  Knowing someone may review our online activities is a strong deterrent from doing something inappropriate.   Mikko Hypponen, an internet pioneer and cybersecurity expert, recently remarked that many trust Google with secrets they withhold from their spouse.

NetNanny, iGateWeb, and OpenDNS all provide different levels of accountability reporting.  However, if the filter is disabled or circumvented the accountability report obviously is inaccurate, which is one reason an accountability reporting solution that avoids this should be used.  Some examples of such solutions include: Qustodio, Covenant Eyes (where the accountability reporting is separate from their filter), and eBlaster Software

It is important you research these (and other) options and choose one.  Many programs offer a trial period allowing you to experiment and see if the software works for you.  Once you have committed to a program, install it on every device in your home (all the devices you listed in the first article).  Like the filter, the accountability report must be configured for each user account to give you an idea of what each user is doing.

Tool 3: Parental Controls

Limiting digital technology use for your children using parental controls and different user accounts is important for more than their moral wellbeing.  Too much screen time has been linked to obesity, sleep and eating disorders, behavioral problems, impaired academic performance, aggression, and insufficient time for active/creative play.  The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for children under two and recommends limiting daily screen time to one to two hours for older children.  Parental controls are useful tools that allow parents to set specific time limits on the digital devices their children use.  Equally important, this software also allows parents to prevent their children from using specific programs and apps.  Parental controls can be set up using either features built into the operating system or other software programs.

There are too many different operating systems and parental control programs to allow a discussion of all the ways to set them up.  That does not mean setting up parental controls is difficult.  Usually the parental controls (called “Restrictions” on iPhones) can be found in the control panel or in the settings menu.  It is best if you google “Windows parental controls” or “Android restricted profiles” to access one of the many guides detailing how to install parental controls.  Since each user will require different restrictions, a separate user account (or profile) should be created for each user.  For children these accounts should be ‘limited’ or ‘restricted’ to prevent them for installing unwanted software and from having administrator privileges on the device.

Controls on smartphones.  Correctly configuring the parental controls on your child’s smartphone (or tablet, etc.) is very important.  Aside from phone calls and texting, these devices are used to watch movies and access social media (and many other things), so that they often become your child’s main portal to the digital world.  Without having the parental controls or restrictions properly configured, you, as parent, have little or no control over the actual use of the device.  You may have iGateWeb or OpenDNS installed on your home network, but if your child’s device has a data package, or access to an open WiFi connection (available at many locations), they have easy access to open internet.

Apps and default browsers.  When configuring parental controls on smartphones and tablets, it is important to restrict what apps users can access and install, as internet filters are usually unable to filter the content accessed with them.  Another thing to remember when configuring these devices is to block the default browser, because the web filtering usually only works on their provided browser.  Other things you will (or should) want to prevent your child from accessing are sites such as iTunes/App store/Google Play, and from making in-app purchases.  The latter is important to prevent your child from incurring large, unexpected costs on your account.  For iOS devices, the restrictions password should be different from the login password so that children cannot turn off the restrictions. Again, using accountability reporting together with parental controls allows you to see what apps are being accessed.

Some parental control features and app restrictions are also found in software programs such as NetNanny and Qustodio, allowing you to use these programs for several different purposes.  However, we strongly suggest you look into other parental control software options as well, as often one program provides features that are not included in another.  The parental controls built into the operating system are free and we recommend using those along with features provided with programs like NetNanny and Qustodio.

 Questions and comments

Why can’t you just recommend a simple solution – one tool that does everything?  Our common workplace and jobsite tools all have their own specific purpose for which they are best suited; we don’t have a single tool that does it all.  Digital ‘tools’ are similar: each has a purpose for which it is best suited, and although tool functionality often overlaps (e.g. a filter that also allows some parental controls), you are best off with a well-stocked (digital) toolbox.  There are situations where you need more than one tool.  For example, if you need to temporarily turn off your filter to access a site or run a program, your accountability software can be left on if these are separate programs.  The best suggestion we currently have for a single program that filters, does accountability reporting, and allows you to set up parental controls is Qustodio.  This is a good program, but it does not filter as well as NetNanny.

Protecting your family online (2)

In our first post we mentioned the importance of knowing the threats presented by the internet, and how these reach your family.  This is the first step for ‘protecting your family online’.   Here we want to discuss:

Step 2: Installing and Configuring Three Essential Tools

To help protect yourself online, all members are asked to use three tools.  Being tools, they are not solutions or to be trusted as perfect.  Like any other tool, they can be used improperly.  Nor does installing these tools absolve us from our parental responsibilities.

Tool 1: Internet Filters

Internet filters are the most common tool for keeping us from accessing inappropriate material.  There are many different internet filters on the market, and some of them are much more effective than others.  Unfortunately all filters will allow some inappropriate material to pass through, and prevent you from accessing some harmless sites.  This is simply due to the nature of internet–there are hundreds of millions of pages of information on the internet, and millions more are added every day.

Some very important considerations when setting up a filter include the ease with which you can bypass it, override a blocked site, turn it off altogether, or uninstall it.  It is also critical that you set it to an appropriate level.  A suitable filter can also block out categories (e.g. Social Networking, sports, gambling) and prevent access to internet browsers that allow you to turn off safe search.

The ideal filter uses dynamic filtering along with URL and keyword filtering.  URL filtering blocks sites with domain names that have been identified and categorized as objectionable.  Keyword filters use certain words and phrases to block sites.  Dynamic filtering uses a much more complex algorithm and evaluates the sites’ content just before it is displayed on your screen.  While it is not always easy to determine if your filter is using dynamic filtering, we strongly recommend you use a filter that uses this method in addition to the simpler URL/keyword blocking.

Filters can be installed on specific devices (i.e. NetNanny) protecting only that device, or protect your entire network by being proxy or ISP based (i.e. iGateWeb).  The benefit of having your filter installed on specific devices is that your laptop or tablet is filtered when connected to a data package or to Wi-Fi provided by your neighbour or a company (e.g. Starbucks).  The benefit of a filter that is ISP based, or proxy based via your router, is that any devices connected to your internet in the home are filtered – including visitors’ devices.  There is usually no clear answer of which method is best for you, and we strongly recommend you use two different filters so that you have both forms of protection.

Two years ago MTAC evaluated a number of different filters and the results showed a very significant range in filtering performance.  The results can be found in the resources section of our website  Many more filters exist than those that were evaluated, and it is difficult to determine the current relevance of these results as small changes to a filtering algorithm can significantly change a filter’s performance.  However, based on these evaluations the RCNA still requires members to use either iGateWeb and/or NetNanny.  Since many of our devices are mobile and have their own data connections, and since wireless tethering/hotspots are easy to implement, we can no longer recommend using only iGateWeb without device specific filters.

A few other filters: Covenant Eyes is appealing because the company provides many excellent resources and has a Christian basis (cf NetNanny, which is secular).  Unfortunately, our evaluation indicates the actual performance of the Covenant Eyes filter is poor and that it cannot be recommended instead of NetNanny or iGateWeb.  K9 Web Protection provides a free filter that appears to be popular (mostly because it is free).  While MTAC has not evaluated this filter, K9 might be a good option to use in conjunction with iGateWeb.  OpenDNS is also a free filter that is set up on your router to provide filtering for everything on your network.  Again, MTAC has not evaluated this filter and it appears to only use URL based filtering.  However, OpenDNS might be a good option to use in combination with NetNanny.

All internet-capable devices, including mobile devices, owned by you and your family members must have a suitable filter.  This implies that for this step in ‘protecting your family online’ you need to research the different options and decide which filters you intend to use.  We understand this can be a very confusing exercise, which is one reason we strongly recommend using NetNanny as the primary filter on all devices.  (NetNanny provides filtering products for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices).  In addition to NetNanny, we strongly recommend using a network wide filter such as iGateWeb or OpenDNS.

Once you have decided on the filters you plan to use, you need to download and install this software onto each device you identified in the first brochure, and on your network router.  The filtering software must also be properly configured for different age levels.  We recommend starting with the filter set as strict as possible to minimize underblocking.  As you begin using the filter and find that strictest setting is unworkable, the settings can be modified as necessary.  Obviously different settings will result for different age groups and users.

Questions and Comments

Do I need a filter if I already have virus and malware protection on my computer?  Yes.  There is a lot of different “protection” software out there—and they are designed for different purposes and different markets.  McAfee, Norton, and Kaspersky provide good tools for keeping viruses from your computer, and allow you to set up parental controls.  But they are not designed for filtering out porn and other objectionable material.  Filtering software (e.g. NetNanny) may not give much in terms of anti-virus protection.  Since such programs are often (but not always) compatible with each other, you are best served using both.  Put bluntly, antivirus/ malware software aims to protect your physical and virtual possessions; filters aim to keep you from sin.

What is a good setting for my filter?   As restrictive as you can work with.  Avoid “adult”, “mature” and “18+” settings, as these tend to be far too open.  For your younger children you can set it much lower (i.e. when you have multiple user accounts, you can give your younger children the most restrictive settings that block all video and social networking sites), and give older children and yourself less restrictive access.

Filters are too restrictive and slow.  This is a myth–most current filters do not significantly delay the time it takes to access a site, and limit over-blocking by dynamically filtering sites rather than by categorically blocking access to them.

Protecting your family online (1)

Protecting yourself and your family online is easier to discuss than achieve.  While it is important to install internet filtering and accountability reporting on our computers and smartphones, additional steps are necessary to develop online protection.  Your Consistory would like to provide some information to help you do this.  The guidelines proposed are general, and apply to all members, but how you implement them will depend on your particular family—e.g. the age of your children and nature of your work.  An attempt is made to keep the information simple, which means the more tech-savvy reader will find it limited.  However, it is hoped the general guidelines described here will be helpful to those readers also, and help give them some direction as to what the Consistory requires.  The information presented here is not original, and more detailed how-to guides are available on our website,

Four steps

According to some popular guides, ‘protecting your family online’ has four components, or steps:

  1. Taking inventory of your electronic devices that can access the internet
  2. Installing and configuring three essential tools
  3. Staying informed
  4. Family discussions

We hope to discuss these steps and address some related questions and comments in several short brochures.

Step 1: Taking Inventory

Before you can protect yourself online, you need to know the threats presented by the internet, and know how these reach you and your children.

What is out there? 

Most are aware that the internet, while extremely useful and necessary to our current way of life, can be used to very easily access material that is dangerous to both our material and spiritual wellbeing.  Threats include viewing of porn and violence, being cyberbullied or stalked by online predators, online gaming and gambling, unnecessary trolling for information, watching sports and movies and other objectionable videos, listening to unacceptable music, etc.  One does not need the internet to be exposed to, or do any of this, but the internet has made these things much more accessible, especially for our children.  There is an abundance of information warning about the dangers mentioned above, written by people from many different religious (and secular) persuasions.  Some of this information is available on our website.  Unfortunately not all members appreciate the severity of this threat to our community, but the dangers cannot be overstated.

How do we access this material?

The material mentioned above can be accessed through any device with an internet connection.  These devices include smartphones, home computers, and tablets—those owned by you and your children and those owned by their friends. This easy accessibility means that our young children can access, or involuntarily be exposed to indescribably vulgar and gruesome material.

What devices are in your home, and do your children have access to? 

How can you and your children access the internet, and how do you protect your family from these threats?  For a dyke to be effective it needs to be complete.  In this context this means that, as far as is in your control, all the internet-capable devices in your home and that you access at your work should be filtered.  It might be helpful to make a list of these devices, and behind each one jot down what protection is currently provided, who in your family uses it and when, and where this device is most often used.  It might alarm you if an entry read, “Mom’s smartphone / no filter / all kids, whenever they want it / on the bus, at their after-school jobs, and when they are at friends at night”.

Regarding protection, your checklist should also state if you have parental controls (e.g. child specific user accounts with time limits), and accountability reporting set up.  What happens outside your supervision is obviously much more difficult to control, which we will return to later.  It is not uncommon for children to access objectionable material via un(der)-filtered internet, and to share– through cloud storage, USB’s, etc.–this with others who do have proper filtering at home.  Allowing kids in both homes to watch hours of movies (or worse) weekly.

Taking Inventory–what devices are used by you and your family?

Device (in home, in car, at work)

Type of filter, filter setting

Who uses it?  Where is it used?

Parental Controls set up?  (e.g. time limits)

Accountability tracking activated?

e.g. Home Computer (main) NetNanny.  Child setting for kids, 18+ for parents Everyone in the house (mom, dad, kids);

In the house

Yes, separate user accounts for younger children Yes, for each user account separately

Modern Media:
Some Basic Guidelines and how they relate to Media Use (3)

The guidelines we state here are based on those adopted by the 2013 Classis meeting of the RCNA.  These guidelines are well known, apply to all aspects of our lives, and have always been the same.  They are presented in no particular order, are by no means complete, and can be restated in various ways.

Accountability.  All our actions are simple, free choices for which we remain fully responsible, and which inevitably have consequences.  What we do online may seem to be anonymous and unknown to others, but we will be held accountable for them.  And, of course, nothing we do on the internet is truly secure and private, and nothing we post is retrievable.  This is a very good thing to keep in mind before sending a text, sharing a file, uploading personal information about yourself or others, or engaging in improper or other online activities you wouldn’t want others to know about.

Whatever we do must be done out of love, for the glory and honour of God, and to the wellbeing of our neighbour.  This is true for whoever we are, and whenever we do anything.  God’s word and revealed will (Ten Commandments) are to be our guide in life, and they call us to avoid the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life–three things that sum up what the world offers.  We do well to remember that God is not mocked or deceived, that He requires that which is past, that He will reward each according to his work.  There are very many online activities that do not meet this criteria.

Redeeming time.  Many things that are not harmful to our neighbour (e.g. trolling for information on the web) are however harmful to ourselves, in that we are wasting our time needlessly.  We are called to redeem the time, as the days are evil.  We should ask ourselves periodically when we surf the web or text our friends if we are spending the precious time of grace appropriately?  Most uses of social networking do not pass this test.  Certain sites, such as LinkedIn, ResearchGate or Twitter, and to some extent even Facebook can be used for business purposes, and such uses are often justifiable, but using social networking for chatting with friends and sharing the latest gossip is sinful.

A major use of the internet and our digital devices is simple entertainment.  It is important to relax and refresh ourselves, but surfing the web for simple, frivolous entertainment through Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube, Pinterest, sports sites, etc. is sinful.  One should read the sermons of Edwards, McCheyne, and others on the danger of God’s wrath which the unconverted are under at all times.  Shall we then have mirth? (Ezekiel 21:10).

Conformity.  We are admonished clearly in the Bible that we are not to be conformed to the world, but that we ought to live as strangers and pilgrims.  Not that we ought to adopt a self-righteous, holier-than-thou mentality, but we need to realize the world is full of anti-Christian alluring influences and temptations, and these have strong appeal to our depraved hearts.  We ought to actively avoid the influences of the world as much as we can.  A question–are we willing to make sacrifices, and forego conveniences, to maintain our Reformed identity?  The internet has made many things more convenient, but is that enough warrant to use it for everything we currently use it for.  You see, if you pick up a book, you can usually tell by the cover of what genre it is; you’d be surprised to encounter unacceptable material in a ‘good book’.  But on the internet, even if well-filtered, unacceptable material often is accessed unexpectedly.

Most of the content delivered via the internet has a decided anti-Christian, secular, bias.  The design and purpose of the media is to integrate us with the world, to homogenize, spread ideas and values.  Continual exposure tends to erode the borders of what we find acceptable and lower the thresholds of what we consider morally right.  It is virtually impossible to look at Google News on any given day and not hear about gay rights, or see an article that presupposes evolution, or hear of social unrest and miscarriage of justice?  What does this constant exposure to these issues, always presented from a perspective hostile to the Bible, have on us?  As mentioned at the 2013 Classis and Synod meetings, when we utilize media and communications (or any other) technologies, we should strive to keep “far from all things whereby [God’s] Name is blasphemed and His commandments transgressed.”

Temptation.  The Bible expressly tells us to flee all sin and temptation, to watch and be ‘instant’ in prayer, to depart from evil, and to be aware of the wiles of Satan.  We are to follow the Psalmist, who vowed: “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes” (Psalm 101:3), and Job, who made a covenant with his eyes that he would not look at things that would lead to sin (Job 31:1).  We cannot do so while using a medium in which God’s name, word, and precepts are mocked and abused.  Read the comments many users make about the Christian faith on news websites, and it becomes apparent what spirit motivates them.  By participating in, or tolerating such things, we can only expect to grieve and quench God’s Spirit, stifle the workings of our conscience, and hinder our prayers.

Sabbath.  The sanctity of the Lord’s Day is increasingly undermined as a result    Whereas 20 years ago most of us would shun using the telephone on the Sunday, today people use their mobile devices while in church and feel the need to send meaningless texts to each other during a sermon.

Parenting.   We are to nurture and raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, instruct them in His ways and precepts, and model a proper Christian life.  Clearly every parent falls short in this.  But surely one duty implied in this it to inform ourselves of what our children are doing, also what they are doing online, what they listen to and watch on their digital devices.  This task is made easier by software that allows accountability reporting.  Another duty is to restrict their access to the internet, both as to content and when they can watch.

Restraint.  As mentioned at the 2013 classis and synod meetings, “The use of modern media and related technologies can only be considered acceptable when … it serves a useful purpose, [and is with] restraint, and … the maximum possible protection from undesirable content, developments and opportunities.”  This also runs counter to the temptation is to buy into the trend to buy the latest media gadgets and follow the latest fad and trend on the web.  This is far removed from the injunction to live temperately and soberly in the world, to use but not abusing it.  Rather it incites covetousness.


 What can be said in conclusion?  We can hope to do no more than raise awareness–the effects of these new developments on our families cannot be reversed or stopped.  Media technology will continue to develop at an increasing pace, making us ever more vulnerable as a society and detached as individuals, and presenting temptations and opportunities for sin and vice in unprecedented, unimaginable ways.  We have no might against this great company, against this flood cast out by the serpent, and may well ask, “What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?”  Though the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s Church, we must be vigilant.  “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41).  “For as a snare shall [the last temptations] come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.” (Luke 21:35-36).

Modern Media:
Reflections on, and Guidelines for Using (2)

Three Basic Principles

Before we go on we should state three basic principles

First, no media or communications technology is inherently wrong, or evil.  They are simply tools used to communicate, obtain and share information, help us with our work, and build and maintain relationships.  Some indeed seem more wrong than others, because they are rarely used for acceptable purposes, but the devices themselves are not evil.  New developments in communications technology can be very useful, and like any other technology can be a great blessing for society.  Missionaries in South Korea use the radio to spread the gospel into North Korea, for example, and the Bible has never been so easy to obtain, and Bible study has never been so easy as with today’s technology.  But any technology can be abused and made into a snare, a curse.  This is equally true for books and smart phones, stone tablets and electronic tablets.  The internet is not inherently evil, but much of what it is used for is.  The same is true for books and newspapers, although the content published in these is under some degree of censorship and government control, and therefore in general not nearly as extreme.

Second, some media is more appropriate for certain messages than others.  Much has been written about this by thinkers such as Postman and McLuhan.  To some extent the medium constrains and shapes the message delivered by it, simply because each medium is limited by what content it can deliver, and in what format it delivers this content.  Different media also give different connotations to the message.  The Bible on your iPhone appears as no more than an app beside many other, very different apps–in book form, on the shelf, it (hopefully) has a more distinguished presence.  A sermon listened to on your iPod will not seem the same as one listened to in Church.  On another note, our communications tools shape more than the message–they shape us.  Our way of life has changed fundamentally with the advent of texting, gaming, virtual worlds, twitter, Craigslist, YouTube, Facebook, Snap Chat, Instagram and Pinterest.

Third, there has always been a battle between the world and the church.  And in this battle the world has always encroached more and more into the church, and with it God’s Spirit has been increasingly grieved and withdrawn Itself.  Modern media developments have, unquestionably, made this process much, much more rapid and pervasive.  Evil influences that were always accessible via books and newspapers and movies are now very much more accessible.  Monitoring what our kids (parents, spouses?) are up to is increasingly difficult.  Put differently, you can say that the main use of many of these new technologies is not to foster a godly, separate life, but to conform and integrate us into the world.  Our continual exposure to secular and anti-Christian lifestyles through the internet and social networking acclimatizes and desensitizes us to sinful practices that we increasingly being to accept as normal, or at least as tolerable and acceptable.  This is a gradual, but continual process of threshold-lowering to what we realize is sinful and harmful to our souls.

Sections to come: “Some Basic Guidelines”, and “Conclusion”.

Modern Media:
Reflections on, and Guidelines for Using (1)

Why this?

Why did we write this document?  We are not writing to be judgemental or legalistic.  Nor do we at all claim to have “the answer” to what is right and wrong.  In fact, we would much appreciate being corrected if we state things that are not accurate, or unclear, or poorly argued.  But our motive is this: There have been many developments in media and communications technology that have completely changed the way of life in our Reformed communities.  The computer was one such device, the mobile phone a second, and the internet a third…  Twenty years ago few of us had, or needed them.  Now most of us (including our pre-teen children) fully depend and cannot imagine life without them.  These devices have become completely engrained in our lifestyles.  We need to step back, therefore, and ask ourselves some hard questions.  Not so much if we should accept these new technological developments–we already have–but to ask what uses of these technologies are acceptable and what uses are not, and how we can determine this.

 Modern Media

What do we mean with “modern media“?  If with a “medium” we understand a device and tool used to communicate with other people, or obtain information, then “old media” would include newspapers, magazines, books, and telephones.  “Modern media” then includes both physical devices such as computers, tablets, and smart phones, but more importantly those technologies that make use of these physical devices–such as the internet and the many programs that are based on the internet.

Sections to come: “Three Basic Principles”, “Some Basic Guidelines”, and “Conclusion”.

The Best of the Web (1)

For those interested in Church History and theology, the internet is a treasure trove.  Here are a number of sites you will want to check out.

Many (thousands!) rare and difficult to obtain works have been scanned in recent years and can be found at Internet Archive, Google Books, and Project Gutenberg, and downloaded for free.

Those interested in Puritan works need look no further than Puritan Library and The Digital Puritan, where you can browse by author.

A wider range of literature is available at the Post Reformation Digital Library and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library at Calvin College and the Theological Commons at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Some sites are more or less specific to an author, such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, or Philpot and Huntington.

If you are looking for more general classic books, a good resource is The Online Books Page.  Those interested in theological works in Dutch should visit  And for those looking to buy rare, used books, have a look at AbeBooks, which gives you access to thousands of bookstores at once.

Of course, this is only scratching the surface–there are so many other sites offering so many other good books–more than you can ever read in a lifetime.  And of course the web gives you access to poor quality books with equal ease, but that is inevitable.

Martin Luther once said that other than God’s salvation to mankind, the printing press is probably the best gift that God has ever given to man1.  Imagine how effusive he would have been about the libraries mentioned above!  Like the printing press, the internet as a technology is not inherently evil but has an incredible potential for good!

1 Source

Church Telephone

Last year our church changed its church phone service.  With about 118,000 Google search results, 1-267-507-0240 is obviously a common conference call number.  Dial the number, enter the pin you received and you are connected.  Simple.

Unfortunately, 267 is a Pennsylvania area code so the long distance charges could add up.  For a cell phone without a long distance plan the rates could be about $0.50 per minute resulting in about $45 per service!  It is recommended to obtain a long distance plan.

Two internet based options include Skype and Google Voice.

Skype: Unlimited calls to landlines and mobiles in Canada and the US for $2.99/month.  Skype can be installed on your smartphone and use your 3G or WiFi connection.

Google Voice is free for all calls within Canada and the US.  It might need to be activated:  Unfortunately, Google Voice is currently limited in Canada.  Smartphones can still use the Google Voice service in Canada by using third-party apps such as Mo+ PHONE for iPhone or Android.  Although it appears Google is terminating these third-party apps in a few months.