A discerning minister colleague tells me that I must get rid of the idea that the Christian Reformed Church will ever return to what it was once upon a time. To indulge in such wishful thinking, he insists, is futile and fails to recognize the lesson of church history that should be as clear to us as broad daylight.
Of course, he may be right. Call him a pessimist if you will, but he would probably insist that he is a realist. On the other hand, one may cling to the few words of wisdom someone uttered when, in the thirties, the economy had struck bottom. “Hope,” a wise man said, “is greater than history.” After all, we do still serve and look to the God of miracles and this gives us an eye for a silver lining, dark as the clouds may become.
But one would have to be blind not to see the danger signals as we scan the ecclesiastical horizon. What I have in mind right now is the exercise of or the failure to exercise church discipline. To add to my concern is a recent article by Dr. John H. Kromminga, President of Calvin Seminary (The Reformed Journal, Nov. 1974) on “Church Discipline as a Pastoral Exercise.” It can hardly be gainsaid that Dr. Kromminga holds the most responsible position in the CRC. And, old saw though it may be, it still bears repeating that as the Seminary goes so goes the church.
Last month I began writing on “How to Build His (Christ’s) Church.” The marks of the true church, the first of which was our subject last time, arc the true preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline. In view of Dr. Kromminga’s article, and to reply to it before too much time elapses, attention is directed, at this time, to the matter of church discipline rather than to the sacraments.
Because the accusation is made so frequently and readily that statements from someone else’s writing arc taken out of context and thus misunderstood or misrepresented, as always, I shall do my utmost to avoid doing this. Furthermore, I would suggest to anyone who feels the need of verifying this that he order a copy of The Reformed ]ournal, November 1974, (50¢) from The Reformed Journal, 255 Jefferson, S. E., Grand Rapids, Michigan 49502.
The attention of the reader should be called to a number of statements in Dr. Kromminga’s article that may rightly give cause for concern especially if the positions they reflect are handed on to our future ministers who as students are under his tutelage at Calvin Seminary.
1. Attention is called to the liberty that Dr. Kromminga apparently allows himself with respect to what the Belgic Confession and the Church Order have to say about church discipline.
This is what he writes in The Reformed Journal article: “According to the popular caricature, the focus of discipline lies in the removal of the offense by the removal of the offender. Some of the language we have cited front the Belgic Confession and Church Order lends support to this. Per1w.ps that is careless language; perhaps we are reading too much into it; perhaps it is simply wrong. However that may be, it remains true that the removal of offense out of the church by the removal of the offender is not a mark of the success of church discipline at all, but a mark of its failure” (Italics added).
It comes with somewhat of a surprise to find that the president of Calvin Seminary (hereinafter to be referred to as Dr. K.) can be so nonchalant or casual at this point in taking issue with a position concerning which he concedes that it is supported “by some of the language . . . cited from the Belgic Confession and Church Order.” In cavalier fashion Dr. K. simply dismisses that position as a “popular caricature.”
Now, regardless of the right or the wrong of the position to which Dr. K. takes such strong exception, it is difficult or impossible to reconcile his attitude toward the Belgic Confession here with one’s signing of the Form of Subscription, something that will be required also of all who are preparing for the ministry in the CRC at Calvin Seminary.
To add to the difficulty or to compound the confusion, we find that Dr. K. in this same article does acknowledge the authority of the Confessions and of the Church Order as a pattern for obeying the authority of Christ, a pattern that carries authority by mutual agreement on the part of the churches. He states: “Like the Confessions, it [the Church Order} is a proximate and derived standard; but as such it is to be observed with a view to obeying the Christ whose will it represents.”
I make it a point to include the above paragraph in an attempt to do Dr. K. no injustice. However, it seems highly necessary to have him clarify for us how this can be reconciled with that other statement about the Belgic Confession and the Church Order.
2. Attention must be called also to what Dr, K. writes about success or failure in the exercise of church discipline.
After dismissing what he calls “the popular caricature” (the idea that “the focus of discipline lies in the removal of the offense by the removal of the offender”) and after suggesting possible reasons for the support of this “popular caricature” found in some of the language of the Belgic Confession and the Church Order, Dr. K. proceeds to make the following pronouncement:
“However that may be, it remains true that the removal of offense out of the church by the removal of the offender is not a mark of the success of church discipline at all, but a mark of its failure” (italics added).
How can anyone find it possible to say this, least of all the president of Calvin Seminary, in view of the fact that this removal of the offender, when necessary is so clearly prescribed?
Article 86a of the Church Order reads: “Confessing members who have been barred from the Lord’s Supper and who after repeated admonitions show no signs of repentance shall be excommunicated from the Church of Christ . . . .” But if you do this, says Dr. K, it is not a mark of “the success of church discipline at all, but a murk of its failure.”
Article XXIX of the Belgic Confession tells us that one of the marks by which the true Church is known is this: “if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.”
Article XXXII of that same Confession tells us that “excommunication or church discipline is requisite, with all that pertains to it, according to the Word of God.”
Question 85 of the Heidelberg Catechism reads: “How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by church discipline?” Answer: “By forbidding, according to the command of Christ, the use of the sacrament by those who under the Christian name maintain unchristian doctrines or practices; who will not, after repeated brotherly admonition, renounce their errors and wicked course of life; and who, having been complained of to the church, or to those who are there unto appointed by the church, despise their admonitions—by which censure they are excluded from the Christian Church, and by God himself from the kingdom of Christ (italics added); and by again receiving such as members of Christ and His Church when they promise and show real amendment.”
But Dr. K. tells us that when the church exercises this discipline, which is so clearly prescribed in the Church Order, the Belgic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, that act “is not a mark of the success of church discipline at all, but a mark of its failure” (italics added).
The fact is, however, that this act which Dr. K. calls “a mark of its failure” is the course that God clearly prescribes in His Word in the case of those who refuse to give heed to repeated admonitions.
The Matthew 18:17, 18 passage is well-known: “And if he refuse to hear them [the two witnesses or three], tell it unto the church, and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican. Verily I say unto you, What things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The Corinthians passage about an offender in the church living with his father’s wife is also familiar. Paul reprimands and instructs the Corinthian church as follows:
“And ye are puffed up, and did not rather mourn, that he that had done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, being absent in body but present in spirit, have already as though I were present judged him that hath so wrought this thing, in the name of our Lord Jesus, ye being gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorifying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. Purge out the old leaven . . .” (I Cor. 5:2–7).
Dr. K. talks about excommunication as a mark of failure in church discipline. However, Paul writes to the Corinthians in an altogether different vein. He chides them for their failure in not resorting to excommunication when the occasion demanded it. If Dr. K. can clear up this apparently glaring discrepancy for us, we invite and urge him to do so, either in the pages of THE OUTLOOK or elsewhere for our attention.
Writing in Revelation 2 to the churches of Pergamus and Thyatira our Lord takes these churches and their pastors to task for not taking drastic action in breaking with the perpetrators of evil among them.
To Pergamus He writes:
“But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there some that hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also some that hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans in like manner” (Rev. 2:14, 15).
And to Thyatira our Lord writes:
“But I have this against thee, that thou sufferest the woman Jezebel, who calleth herself a prophetess; and she teacheth and seduceth my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:20).
The wrong that Jesus charged these churches with was not that they removed the offenders out of the church but rather that they failed to do so. How can Dr. K. square this with what he, according to his article in The Reformed Journal, would have us believe?
3. Moreover, attention should be called also to what I would judge to be a mistaken emphasis in Dr. K.’s article.
One easily receives the impression from Dr. K’s article that the CRC is very intolerant, severe, and rigid in the exercise of church discipline. Note the following excerpts:
“The bad theology and bad practice to which we referred earlier reflect a sort of pharisaism. Somehow a great deal of work–righteousness has become far too common in our theology. We act as if our congregation were assemblies of men and women who have met certain standards of behavior to qualify as members. Those who do not measure up must be vigorously repudiated, for they represent a threat to the rest. By contrast, those arc considered the most spiritual people who are the most rigorous in shunning sinners and refusing to let down the bars.”
And, obviously as a warning Dr. K. writes:
“Knowing the rules of discipline in order to be able to play the game of excommunication is not good enough. What is at stake is not a game. It is the removal of offense out of the Bride of Christ—but if that means removing all sinners—may God have mercy on our souls!” (italics added).
Now let me ask:
Dr. K., who among us ever said that exercising discipline is playing (I game? And who ever said that church discipline calls for removing all sinners out of the Bride of Christ? Why set up straw men of this kind and then knock them down just like that?
My experience in the CRC ministry has been that consistories will lean over backward and go to almost any length before procecding to excommunication. Visit after visit is made by concerned and conscientious elders to the offenders. How little the congregation knows of all the efforts such elders put forth for which they often receive so little thanks but plenty of criticism.
Dr. K. must know what is so generally recognized, that this is not a day and age of stern and unflinching discipline but rather of permissiveness in almost every area of life.
Church discipline, 1 dare say, is by no means “a game” that our consistories are eager to play. Dr. K. himself belongs to Classis Grand Rapids East, the largest Classis in the CRC, with a total membership of over 16,000. How many were excommunicated there during 1973? The answer given in the 1974 Yearbook is 0, not one. I do not say that there are those there who should have been excommunicated. I am not in a position to know that. But it does seem fair to expect, from the evidence right there at hand in his own Classis, that Dr. K. would have been hesitant to write as he did about our church discipline situation.
(To be continued)
NOTES OF INTEREST
French Letter – Most of the letters received by Tug OUTI.OOK are in English and frequently in the Holland language. With these we have no difficulty. But when recently we received a communication ordering a two year subscription with a check for this—all in French—we had to impose upon the kindness of Professor Arthur J. Otten of Calvin College to translate for us. His readiness to assist is greatly appreciated.
Another Van Til Book – Congratulations to Dr. Cornelius Van Til on the recent appearance of still another hook added to the considerable number he has written – The New Hermeneutic published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. Thanks also to Dr. Van Til for his kindness in sending the editor an autographed copy. Of special interest in this new book is what it has to say about Kuitert, Wiersinga, Hartvelt, Koole. Baarda, and Augustijn of the Netherlands. The book is available at $5.95 from Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Order Department, Box 185, Nutley, N.J. 07110.
Twenty-fifth Anniversary – Next year, the Lord willing. THE OUTLOOK (formerly TORCH AND TRUMPET) will observe the twenty-fifth anniversary of its publication. We praise God, in anticipation of this event, for our publication‘s continued existence, and for its increased circulation. The loyal support of members of the Reformed Fellowship, Inc. and of other subscribers to help make this possible is deeply appreciated. A booklet containing the Membership Roster and Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws (published October 1974) is available upon request by writing to
REFORMED FELLOWSHIP, INC. P.O. Box 7383, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49510.
Every Family Plan – Appreciation and congratulations [Ire extended to the Hills Christian Reformed Church of Hills, Minnesota for adopting the Every Family Plan for subscribing to THE OUTLOOK. According to this plan subscriptions are $3.50 each and are mailed to the homes of all the families. However, the correspondence about these subscriptions and the payment are handled by one person designated by the church to take care of this.
Prospectivc Subscribers – Thanks are in order for all those subscribers who sent in thousands of names and addresses of prospective subscribers to THE OUTLOOK. A hearty thank-you also for an anonymous donor who not only sent in names and addresses but also $100.00 to pay for the subscriptions for those whose names he submitted.