Reflections on Church Union

based on: The Challenge of Church Union, Cornelius Van Dam, editor, Winnipeg, Premier Publishing, 1993

When our Lord offered His high priestly prayer, He fervently asked of the Father “that they may all be one.” The fragrance of that petition continues to haunt the souls of all who truly know and love Him. Little has brought Christ’s cause into greater disrepute than the ecclesiastical divisiveness which has marred the New Testament church almost from its beginning. In our day it has reached such alarming and unrestrained proportions that union with true unity seems an idle hope. Here is sin; grievous sin not so much that we do not live together as how we refuse to live together as an obedient household of faith.



Undeniably there have been several church unions, especially during this century. But how many, we may well ask, were Christ-honoring and spiritually fruitful? Far too often plans were spun out in the minds of starry-eyed idealists and then arranged by ecclesiastical power-brokers able to foist them on uninterested and unsuspecting people. Small wonder that each frequently produced even greater fragmentation.

Also today the Reformed church world is ecclesiastically in shambles. Not only are there many groups all professing allegiance to the Scriptures and the same confessions; often these live far too coldly next to each other. But those who truly seek to obey the Savior cannot and will not rest content in such a situation.

They realize it is not enough to believe that Christ’s prayer will one day be perfectly fulfilled; they acknowledge that such faith demands the response of obedience, seeking ways to bring together what truly belongs together.

To advance this cause the Burlington Reformed Study Centre arranged a series of meetings in October 1992 which brought together people belonging to several Reformed denominations and congregations. Here addresses were delivered to which responses were offered. In each case opportunity was provided to address the speakers with further questions. Each of the three evenings found the spacious auditorium where the meetings were held filled to overflowing, indicating that among members as well as leaders of these divided churches the hope for greater manifestation of their unity in the faith remains alive.

All three of the main topics were well chosen with a specific focus: “The Union of 1892,” “How close are Concerned/former Christian Reformed and Canadian Reformed?” and “Former Christian Reformed and Canadian Reformed: What should be done?” Each of the speakers and respondents spoke frankly and freely but always with the aim of growing together in “understanding and love.” That so much could be said and discussed and, with commendable restraint, even debated co be incorporated in a book of 217 pages makes its modest purchase price a “real bargain.” That should cheer every Dutch heart!

The date of these meetings was signally appropriate.

In 1892 two large federations of Reformed churches in the Netherlands united on the basis of Scripture and the confessions. Not only did this bring much joy; those churches wielded for half a century a wholesome and expanding influence for Reformed orthodoxy far beyond the Dutch borders. Can then, confessionally Reformed people learn from that event now? Two speakers took opportunities to point out both the strengths and weaknesses of 1892, Even if you know little of that history, read this material reflectively. The issues that faced two churches with common confessions but differing historical backgrounds at that time, face ecclesiastically divided Reformed churches today. I will name just a few: church regulations, emphases in preaching and pastoral care, understanding of God’s covenant and liturgical differences. Only by facing these squarely will misunderstanding and even misrepresentation of each other be overcome. And this was genuinely attempted.

Two other sets of addresses with responses demonstrate also how timely these sessions were.

Here the focus was somewhat more restricted, dealing with only two of the Reformed churches. On the one hand there is the growing Canadian Reformed Church with its history, coming recently to these shores with strong Biblical and confessional commitment. Next to it, the much larger and far older Christian Reformed Church, once widely recognized as the strongest bastion of Reformed orthodoxy in faith and practice on these shores, but now in almost hopeless disarray. Its radical shifts in recent years have dismayed many. More than 15,000 have left those churches at different times and in different ways. Perhaps as many still remain within that federation who are at odds with what they perceive as a lack of Biblical and confessional integrity in those churches. Little more will have to change before they too may well leave. And almost without exception, all those people with their leaders, both ministers and elders, are one with the Canadian Reformed in their basic faith affirmations. But the two groups have lived quite apart for almost fifty years. That they should be together was generally acceded. But when and how can this best be done? Everyone who addressed the question spoke honestly. And what was said is eminently worth our time for reading and reflecting if any progress toward church union is to be made.

Having been concerned for several decades about Reformed divisiveness with all its tragic consequences, I am tempted to enter into these discussions. Bear with me then as I mention two matters which need far more indepth discussion than they could receive here.

First is the matter of church order or regulation. It has been esteemed far too lightly in practice with fearful consequences. This matter will have to be faced seriously by those churches which are members of the “Alliance.” There the dangers of a kind of “independentism” are not unimaginary. Freed from the hierarchicalism and synodocracy and bureaucracy in the Christian Reformed Church, some seem to desire little more than a kind of loose conference. They need to warn themselves against “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

But there is also the problem which has perpetually plagued Reformed and even more the Presbyterian churches throughout their histories. It is that of having broader assemblies slowly but steadily arrogating to themselves powers which first undermine and then destroy the true welfare of the congregations. This may concern matters of doctrine or discipline. of worship patterns, or ecumenical relations, or finances for programs unacceptable to many. Of course, in both Reformed and Presbyterian denominations we find churches simply ignoring decisions made by their assemblies. But those who do this ought to remember the moral implications of such disregard. As a Christian Reformed report on a related issue noted years ago, “Corporate identity always involves corporate responsibility”!

Therefore, (and this the point I would like see discussed at an early date) what are the legitimate bounds of classical and synodical authority? This demands far more precise description than the venerable Church Order of Dort, even with its modifications, provides.

And then there is a second point. It concerns preaching and pastoral care and the way in which the congregation is to be viewed. What does it mean that all members are in covenant with God? Are they to be summoned to repentance and faith with self-examination, or may pastors and elders assume that all partake, be it without full awareness, of that new life-in-Christ which assures of salvation? Does the church exist by Christ’s appointment as a means unto salvation or as a means for nurturing those already included in God’s saving purposes? Involved then, is also how Scripture is to be preached, whether with sustained emphasis on its unified message in redemptive-historical form or by isolated texts chosen to meet the immediate needs of a congregation as the pastor sees them. All these issues have been discussed in past decades in depth and at times with great heat in the Netherlands. Especially brother Pronk of the Free Reformed churches addressed himselfdirectly to these matters.

Now much can be said about all this. But let me be brief. Personally I am convinced that there is greater unity of conviction on the above than appears at first glance. But there are also many one-sided and even unbalanced emphases. The threat of a person-centered approach in sermons will soon wreak havoc, undermining any healthy assurance of faith. This we see especially among our Netherlands Reformed brothers and sisters who share the same confessional heritage with us.

But (and this too needs to be said), I have heard many hundreds of Reformed sermons in recent years because I love to listen to and profit from this exercise. And contrary to earlierChristian Reformed preaching, I often find in it now a lack of direct summons to repentance and personal, heart-warming faith. What little I know of Canadian Reformed preaching (mostly through reading, with its strong and appropriate summons to covenantal obedience), leads me to believe that also there some of that same deficiency exists. Let us never take too lightly the danger of self-deception among those who belong to the Lord. Neither our Lord nor His disciples did. There are daily struggles of the soul among church members which must be faced. Let not the threat of subjectivism and false mysticism-truly threatening for spiritual life-cause us to minimize the equally perilous dangers of legalism and intellectualism. When sermons (and then pastoral care) become too theoretical and intellectualistic, it should surprise no one that many (as has happened so often in Reformed history) try to find something “for the heart” (as they say) among the Baptists, Pentecostals and even some far-out sects.

This too needs far more discussion among us. To be sure we have no right to expect “everything” from the preacher. But the minister also does well to remember that he too knows and sees only in part. For that reason we have consistories, hopefully with elders to encourage, support and even chide pastors in love and with patience, when they see that God’s work in us as well as for us may be too one-sidedly proclaimed. You see, this is far more than a matter of psychology; it concerns what the Dutch call “de ligging” not only of church members but of congregations and even denominations. And let us not become defensive over against each other when this very pertinent issue is addressed, because instead of promoting church union on the basis of loyalty to the fullness of Holy Scripture, we will retreat behind bastions erected by personal predilection and past historical development supposing the full truth lies with us.

More, much more is found in this volume, all of it worthy of being put into practice.

Because some in the “Alliance” churches are looking towards even broader unity, including churches of Presbyterian vintage, a word of caution may be in order. Much as this may and is a desirable objective, let us begin by first staying close to home. Then such issues as a common Church Order, services twice on the Lord’s day and also on special days, “dose” communion, catechetical sermons and the like need not immediately require some resolution. In a fervent desire for true ecumenicity we may soon find ourselves “with too much hay on our fork.”

Then, too, there is the question of a name. All of us, the one more and the other less, do tend to cling to “identification tags.” And these may not be taken lightly. Several suggestions have been made in this little volume. May I, with your gracious patience in this lengthy review, add another? “The United Reformed Churches in North America.” All that would then be needed, should Presbyterian churches seek to affiliate, is a minor addition: “Reformed-Presbyterian.”

In this book we find a challenge for all who love the Reformed faith in these days of doctrinal insensitivity and ecclesiastical confusion. But it will do no good, if it is only read and then shelved in some libraries. Let every Reformed pastor, professor, elder, teacher and member acquaint themselves thoroughly with its content. Consistories and church societies need to spend time discussing it, opening the way for planned discussions with congregations, also those of different denominational affiliations when living in proximity to each other. Church union should become a true “grass roots” movement. Then hopefully, we will free ourselves from misunderstandings and begin increasingly “to speak the truth in love,” finding each other more firmly grounded in the Lord Christ and His Word.

How seriously do we really take our Savior’s prayer “that they may all be one”? And what will you, my dear reader, now do about this summons so pointedly and practically explained in these pages?

Dr. Peter Y. De Jong is a retired minister in the CRC. He taught at Calvin Seminary and has authored several books, articles and study materials.