It’s a pleasure for me to be able to address you on behalf of the Canadian Reformed Churches and to extend the fraternal greetings of these churches to you. We’ve been visitors at your synods ever since you formed a federation, and we have made no secret of our keen interest in your progress and development as Reformed churches on the continent that have gone through the struggle of unwanted separation for the sake of holding to biblical principles. We’ve also been open with you about our aims, and the reason for our keen interest in pursuing discussions and fraternal relations with you. We have mentioned several times that we share a common heritage, and also by virtue of the common gifts and blessings received in that heritage, we have a duty and mandate to seek and implement the unity of the church as Christ demands it in his high priestly prayer—that they may all be one (Jn 17:21).
At this synod I may by the grace of God be a bearer of good news, at least in the perspective of the committees that have laboured on these issues in the last number of years. Our most recent general Synod, which met in Neerlandia, Alberta last month, has in essence accepted all the points of the “Statement of Agreement” as drafted by the combined unity committees of our two federations, and has approved the advance of our federation into the second phase of our growing ecumenical relations. Although there was a change with respect to the target date of 2004, that date was still maintained as one at which we shall have moved forward in developing a more detailed plan of union with regard to the issues of the church order, the liturgy (songbook), and the requirements regarding the training for the ministry. These are all issues that fall within the parameters of the common commitment that we have arrived at in this statement, namely that we want to hold to the principles of the church order of Dort. If I may paraphrase the thought of the agreement, it would read: as close to Dort as possible, as adapted as necessary in the light of our circumstances.
Although here in Escondido we are rather far from home, we are not strangers to the issues facing your federation at this stage of your development. We’re not here to unduly influence your decision-making process on ecumenicity, except in so far as it deals with further questions or concerns regarding our federation. However, in the light of what we have read here and there, and in the interests of promoting a proper understanding, perhaps some things may be said.
First of all, contrary to some rumours that may have been spread around through whatever means of communication you may think of, we are not a strange fringe group with our own idiosyncrasies, with our own specialized view of the covenant, or our own specializedview of the church. The Statement of Agreement which is set before your assembly for your approval isnot designed to turn you into Cana-dian Reformed Churches. The agreements are designed to highlight exactly those things that we have in common. As Canadian Reformed Churches we have our own history and a unique identity. But we believe that identity is nothing else than the maintenance of the strongest and most reformational elements of the essential biblical and confessional principles on which the secessionist churches were based when they first came to this country over 150 years ago. Do we have a specialized, fringe-minded view of the covenant? You will find our view in the writings of such men as Rev. H. Beuker, Rev. L.J. Hulst, Rev. G. Hemkes, Rev. F.M. Ten Hoor—just to mention a few of the 19th Century American secessionist fathers. Do we have our own specialities in church government or ecclesiology? You will find the same perspectives we defend in the writings of that stanch antithetical Calvinist of the twenties, the well known minister of Chicago First, Rev. John Van Lonkhuisen.
So let’s avoid all misunderstandings. This is not a matter of we becoming United Reformed or you becoming Canadian or American Reformed. It a matter of continued reformation, and reformation is always marked by a return to the landmarks of the fathers. We want to engage in a journey with you by which the original principles of the secessionist movement of 1834 and 1857 are preserved for future generations by faithful believers today. Are we just being ‘tradition conscious’? Quite the opposite! We see this as a singular duty, a common mutual recognition of the blessings of a faithful covenant God who has taken this special road with this branch of His church and as such calls us to honour His way with us through the heritage He has granted.
In the second place, I have also heard voices that suggest that you need to develop your own identity. That is precisely the type of statement that we as your fraternal delegates have quite frankly strongly discouraged at every meeting that we have been at since your federation began. The very prayer of Christ for the unity of the church led us, at the inception of our history on this continent to ask the question: is Christ, who calls us to unity, pleased with the proliferation of federations with the name Reformed in them? Does this continent really need yet another denomination with the name Reformed? We felt that this was not acting in a proper ecumenical spirit. So we sought unity with the CRC and PRC in our early years. And only when those avenues proved to be unworkable because of imposed binding beyond Scripture from the side of both groups, only then did we, with some reluctance, I might add—proceed with the formation of our own federation. Initially it was not desired or sought, but we did so as those called by God. And still today our view is: faithful Reformed believers need to work diligently to reduce, rather than uncritically increase the number of Reformed church bodies for the sake of anyone’s personal or collective “identity”. We don’t have that sort of an identity problem and that is why we’re promoting merger. Our only requirement is: merger cannot come at the cost of losing precious gains received in our own reformational history. Therefore our aim is: continued reformation for us as well as you through the process of a return to our common roots!
Finally—and at the risk of repetition—let me reiterate our will to ecumenism in the most concrete terms possible for you. The committees have agreed to it, our synod has endorsed it. We are looking at the concretizing of a plan of union that will result in one continental federation, or two cooperating federations in two countries that have full sister church relations, with all the rights, privileges and obligations of full ecclesiastical fellowship. However that will be made concrete, you have our commitment that we are ready to embark with you on this road so that within five or six years the process can be completed. By the time we reach our next synod, the detailed plan of union should be able to be adopted and implemented. Further arrangements for merger can be worked out in the following period.
I don’t mean to suggest that it will be an easy road. But in the context of our time, it is the road to which Christ points us. The challenge before us is clear: to stand united in recovering, upholding and maintaining the principles of the continental reformation as they were passed on in the secessionist tradition on this continent. From that position of strength and unity on the basis of Scripture and our common confessions, we can develop our contacts and relationships with churches of different traditions. But if we are finding our way with other traditions, and are exploring avenues of fellowship with them, should that not impel us all the more to seek greater ties of fellowship and cooperation closer to home? If we recognize the spirit of unity and fellowship among our Presbyterian neighbours, should we not first solidify that brotherhood as brothers and sisters of one house, children of common parents?
I hope the call of the hour is clear to you all! I know it will not be easy for anyone of us, or both of us together. But is not that the way to which Christ calls? The way of self-denial, and self sacrifice? If that willingness is found here in Escondido, as it was found in Neerlandia last month, then there may be times of pain and tears, tensions, uncertainties, even some internal strife—but there is laid up a crown of righteousness for those who here act in response to the call of a heavenly Master. He has shown us the way and He promises: I am with you always to the close of the age. May that promise drive us forward in service and self-denial from this day forward. May God bless all your deliberations!
Dr. Jack De Jong is professor of diaconiology and ecclesiology in Hamilton, Ontario at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches.