Do You Belong?

Some time ago, the biggest Christian Reformed church in my urban area split over the issues that currently divide our denomination. Some 23 of the 25 office-bearers of the Mount Hamilton CRC, including the pastor, Rev. Raymond Sikkema, along with the bulk of the membership, decided the time had come to sever ties with the denomination. A sizeable minority disagreed; under the leadership of the conSistory of the neighboring Immanuel CRC, they organized as a congregation and were recognized by Classis Hamilton as the (continuing) Mount Hamilton CRC. In due course, office-bearers were elected, the sacraments were administered. Meanwhile, the group that followed the consistory’s lead took the name Hamilton Independent CRC.

The continuing congregation presumably has a good deal of organizing to do: no doubt theirs is a full agenda at the consistory meetings. But according to a recent report in the bulletin, there is also time to talk about other things. We read that at a recent meeting of January 11, which was attended by three ministers, namely, the two Classis Hamilton church visitors and the pastor of Immanuel Church, the brothers “talked about the mistaken belief among members of the Hamilton Independent church that they remain members within the denomination. The church visitors made the point that when members of the independent congregation sign in favor of the independent church, they are no longer members in the Christian Reformed Church.” To complicate things a bit further, the 1993 combined directory of the Hamilton area CRCs was published at about this time.

Included in it was the “Independent Christian Reformed Church of Ancaster,” which is made up mainly of people who have recently withdrawn from the Ancaster CRC. (Ancaster is a suburb of Hamilton.) The Hamilton Independent CRC was not included.

The confusion over the question whether the seceders “remain members within the denomination” is also to be found in other communities. The question is what it means to be Christian Reformed. As families and groups withdraw from CRC congregations to form so-called independent churches, this issue must be faced. In a number of communities, some such name as Hamilton Independent CRC has been chosen, but in some other communities the new congregations call themselves the such-and-such Reformed or Orthodox Reformed Church.

My own advice to seceding groups has been to include “Christian Reformed” in the new name for the local congregation; Professor Jelle Faber has given the same advice. The people in the independent churches sing out of the same Psalter Hymnal that we all used to use, and they hold to the same creeds. Their worship services are simply traditional CRC services.

The issue here is who has changed.



But it cannot be denied that there is confusion in the current situation. The people in the Mount Hamilton congregation, including my mother, had to decide whether to remain with the so-called continuing group or to follow the leadership of Rev. Sikkema and the council and “sign in favor of the independent church” in the independent congregation.

We had a similar confusion in this part of the world a few years back when a company providing rust proofing service for automobiles underwent a split. I had availed myself of this company’s services for a car I had bought shortly before the rupture. After the “schism,” I got a letter from an organization that stated that although it was not legally allowed to operate under the company’s old name, it was in fact a legitimate continuation of the company; it offered the same products and services and even honored the guarantees issued in the name of the original company. I was then invited to bring my car to this new group for the annual service followup. I stuck with the “continuing” group.

The dispute over the name “Christian Reformed” is a bit like this, except that the courts have not stepped in and declared “Christian Reformed” to be a registered business name. Should the continuing congregation go to court and seek an injunction barring the independent group from using the name “Christian Reformed”? It happens that there is a Canadian Reformed church just around the corner. Should the courts also be asked to determine whether that congregation can lawfully call itself Reformed?

Let’s be thankful that there has been no such court action. However, there is a dispute over the Mount Hamilton church building, and it may yet wind up in the courts if the negotiating committees representing the two congregations are not able to settle it on the basis of the guidelines established by the Christian Reformed Synod of 1970.

What underlies most of the confusion is the belief of many Christian Reformed people today that we are “members within the denomination,” to use the words of the bulletin report. In other words, we belong to a large organization with headquarters in Grand Rapids. Those who have followed the leadership of Rev. Sikkema and the consistory by “signing in favor of the independent church” have thereby broken with Grand Rapids and can no longer be called Christian Reformed.

It is not only the progressive element in our circles that thinks along this line. Conservative friends of mine in independent churches who are concerned about my spiritual welfare sometimes ask me why I have not left the CRC or resigned from it. They do not think it is appropriate for me to “remain a member within the denomination.” After all, didn’t I take a very firm stand back in 1991 regarding the theistic evolution issue? Shouldn’t I resign in protest over the treatment of that issue at the 1991 synod?

The idea seems to be that at a certain point one says, “This is the last straw.” Then one writes to Rev. Leonard Hofman, the “General Secretary” of the CRC, and asks to have one’s name removed from the membership rolls. Many protesters against the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s burned their draft card, thereby hoping to send a message to the US government. Isn’t it time for us to send a message by leaving the CRC?

It is certainly time for us to send a message, and many of us have been sending numerous messages in recent years. I have written many articles about denominational issues, and I have also communicated repeatedly with my own consistory about those issues. But I am not a “member within the denomination.” Therefore I have no intention of resigning from it.

Just what is the CRC? The name suggests that it is a church and that ordinary people like myself can be its members. But it is not a church; rather, it is what my Canadian Reformed brothers and sisters call a “federation of churches.”

While some of us may talk freely about “the Canadian Reformed Church,” we ought to realize that no such entity exists. Those who think there is such a thing as the Canadian Reformed Church should ask themselves whether that body engages in the activities proper to a church, the activities by which it can be recognized as a church. We list them in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession: the pure preaching of the Word, the pure administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline. The fact of the matter is that in Canadian Reformed circles, these are all functions and responsibilities of the local congregation. There is no “Canadian Reformed Church” that holds membership papers, administers baptism and so forth. When the congregations come together in the broader assembly known as synod, there is indeed a worship service, but that service is organized and sponsored by a local church; the synod itself does not hold the service. Indeed, the synod has not even constituted itself yet at the time the service is held.

By now you may be seeing parallels and thinking that it’s actually the very same way with us; there is no CRC that administers the sacraments and so forth. In our case, too, a local church organizes a prayer service before synod. Indeed, our traditional practice is the same as the practice in Canadian Reformed circles, for both church communities have their roots in the church order of Dort. But in recent years we have begun to drift away from our traditional church order, especially when it comes to the special discipline applied to office-bearers. The fact that classes and synods talk about deposing office-bearers (and in a few cases even do it!) is creating considerable confusion among us. And the greatest point of theological confusion in my judgment, is the question of the church itself (ecclesiology, to use theological language).

When a body is made up of organizations of a certain sort, it does not automatically assume the characteristics of its member or constituent bodies. Redeemer College is a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AVCC). The AVCC has considerable influence over higher education in Canada, but it is not itself a college or university. It does not offer university level courses or give degrees. Moreover, although I am a member of the faculty of Redeemer College, I am not a member of the AUCC, even though I do enjoy certain benefits that stem from Redeemer’s membership.

Many readers will not be satisfied with such an analysis of church membership. Deep within them is a feeling that there is more to being CRC than being a member of a local congregation that is affiliated with other congregations that together make up the federation of churches officially known as the CRC. Let’s say that you wear a CRC pin on your lapel. In the course of conducting your business far from home, you may run into other people who wear such a pin and find that you have something in common with them. They too are “members within the denomination.” Aren’t you then experiencing the reality of being CRC in a continent-wide sense?

I grant that there is something to this sense of belonging and membership. It’s a little like being an alumnus or graduate of a well known college like Calvin College. Perhaps you display some sort of Calvin insignia on your car or wear a Calvin jacket when you go on vacation, and then you find that other Calvin alumni, people you have never met, spot your insignia and seek you out. You enjoy fellowship with them, for you have something in common.

Being “members within the denomination” has this aspect of club membership. The people in Hamilton who followed Rev. Sikkema and the Mount Hamilton consistory no longer have the right to wear a CRC pin on their lapel or to consider themselves part of the continent-wide club. Perhaps they are no longer eligible for certain breaks and discounts, e.g. when it comes to Calvin College tuition. That’s the price they may have to pay for their decision. (But I trust they will not be expelled from the Calvin College Alumni Association: Rev. Sikkema too, isa Calvin graduate.)

However pleasant it may be to belong to a club or alumni association and to get a discount, we should not think of church membership in these terms. When people like my mother travel to other communities and meet old friends and get asked very diplomatically whether they still belong, whether they are still Christian Reformed, they do not always have an easy time responding. I believe they are entitled to become a bit contentious and take up the issue of what the heart and essence of the Christian Reformed tradition really is. They might even ask whether it is the independent church or the continuing church that is being faithful to the CRC tradition and its creedal commitments. But in practice a factual answer usually gets offered: “I’m with Rev. Sikkema.” Then an awkward silence follows.

Are you still a member? Do you belong? If you are truly Reformed,you ought to hear in this question an echo of Lord’s Day 1 of our Catechism, where the believer is led to confess: “I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” From our Catechism we learn that the first question about which we must be clear is whether we belong to Christ. And let’s not forget that the Catechism is the creedal basis of both the continuing church and the independent church.

The question of church member· ship is more factual. In this day of church splits, your conversation partner—perhaps an old friend you have not seen for a few years—may well ask you whether your local church is or remains Christian Reformed. If you have followed Rev. Sikkema and the Mount Hamilton consistory, you may answer that your congregation officially claims to be a Christian Reformed church, but on an unaffiliated basis. Whether it is worthy of the name “Christian Reformed,” whether it is living up to the Christian Reformed tradition is a matter of judgment. It could also be asked whether certain congregations that “remain members within the denomination” are living up to the name.

I get asked from time to time whether I have left the CRC. And when I say no, people sometimes go on to ask whether I intend or hope to leave the CRC soon. Again the answer is no. I have no intention of writing to Rev. Hofman in Grand Rapids asking him to remove my name from the list there. (Yes, there is a computer list in Grand Rapids, and it is responsible for much of the mail that comes to my home.)

Usually I take the trouble to explain patiently that I am a member of a congregation, namely, the Calvary CRC in Flamborough. Of course it is conceivable that I may seek membership in some other congregation in the future. I know I would be at home with Rev. Sikkema. But I have no desire to turn my back on the Christian Reformed tradition and creeds and form of worship.

I believe that I belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. And I intend to worship Him corporately with His people in the setting of a local congregation in which the Word is preached, the sacraments are administered and church discipline is exercised. I would be pleased to continue to belong to a church that calls itself Christian Reformed. Likewise, I am pleased to be known as a graduate of Calvin College, and I enjoy meeting other graduates of Calvin, even if I didn’t know them during my student days. Calvin College played a very important formative role in my life, for it is the only Christian school ever attended on a full-time basis. But I don’t belong to the CRC. And you must not expect me to leave the CRC.

Dr. Plantinga teaches philosophy at Redeemer College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. He is editor of this department.