Reply: Interchurch Relations

I am glad to avail myself of the editor‘s recent invitation to respond to the contribution of one of our Canadian Reformed brothers. And I am glad to see him take an interest and part in the discussion of our inter-church relations.

Rev. D. Dejong first reviews the history of relations between the CRC and the Canadian Reformed Churches and then suggests what course we (in the CRC) ought to follow. That suggested course includes: (1) protests against our Synod‘s refusal to act in accord with our accepted rules for correspondence and the demands of the Belgic confession to “discern from the Word of God which is the true church”; and (2) proposals to discontinue correspondence with the “Synodical” Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and to seek such relations and union with the “Liberated” Churches there and here. This he suggests is the course we ought to pursue toward Reformation whether that should prove to be within or outside of our present CRC.

The decisions of our last Synod have now considerably complicated this matter. The Synod decided to abandon the traditional classification of “sister” churches and instead to recognize a looser, broader, more diverse classification of “Churches in Ecclesiastical Fellowship.” This is to include former “sister” churches as well as others with whom we have various degrees of contact.

In favor of this decision there is the consideration that our old “sister” church relationship was unrealistic and unworkable. We have for years insisted on examining ministers transferring to us from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands although they objected to this as “unsisterly.” Orthodox Presbyterian Churches have never been acknowledged by us as “sister churches,” although our relations have often been morintimate with them than with the Nctherlands “sisters.”

One of the improprieties of the notorious 1947 announcement that, since Dr. K. Schilder’s and Rev. D. Van Dyk’s churches were not “our sister churches,” we “consequently cannot invite their ministers to speak or preach in our pulpits,” was that it was an appeal to a rule which does not exist! I do not know of our pulpits ever being restricted to ministers of “sister churches.” Consistories are always supposed to insist on Reformed preaching, but where that consideration is maintained has there ever been objection raised to ope or other ministers occupying our pulpits?

The Canadian Reformed brothers like to confront us with the simple “true church” –  “false church” alternative of Reformation-time discussions and of our Belgic Confession. Can anyone seriously face the multiplicity of denominations, especially in our countries today and fail to recognize that that simple, black or white distinction, however necessary as an ideal, does not do justice to describing the actual church situation? Whether we like it or not we are compelled to recognize the real state of affairs as more aptly described in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XXV):

IV. The catholick church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught -and embraced, ordinances administered, and publick worship performed more or less purely in them.

V. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth to worship God according to his will.

In favor of this decision of the Synod it was argued that it enabled us to better do justice to the variety of churches with which we have contact and the varying degrees of relationship which are appropriate in each case.

The bad side of the decision is that it enables us to confuse and dodge our responsibility to determine with whom we may and with whom we may not in good conscience have church fellowship. In view of the growing inclination to avoid responsible decisions on such matters it may in practice provide us with a handy tool to defend continuing fellowship with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14 ff.).

I agree in general with the suggestion that we need to work for church reform by means of overtures and protests. This becomes increaSingly difficult as items that warrant such reactions multiply and the Synods, more and more disunited in conviction, dismiss such efforts with technical excuses or in other ways avoid decisive action. Is it surprising that consistories, after experiencing the futility of protests and overtures, give up the effort in discouragement? Our churches need the prophetic zeal of a Micah to continue pressing the issues whether that is appreciated or not (Micah 3:8).

In this situation churches who wish to preserve a Reformed testimony are also being compelled to determine their own course more and more independently of the vacillations of Classes or Synods. This course, though it may sound somewhat “radical,” is only following the biblical example of Joshua. Calling the people’s attention to the course the Lord had prescribed, he urged them to follow it; but he also informed them that, whether they chose to follow it or not, his commitment to it for himself and his family was not subject to their veto!

In these times when our Synods continue to encourage broad and deep fellowship and cooperation with the doctrinally-divided Reformed Church in America, Churches and Classes concerned—about maintaining and promoting a biblical and Reformed faith might more profitably seek such fellowship and cooperation with Canadian Reformed, Protestant Reformed, Free Reformed, Reformed Classis Eureka, Christian Reformation, Orthodox Presbyterian, Reformed Presbyterian, National Presbyterian, and others who share our concern to stand up for rather than to compromise that faith.

In response to Rev. D. DeJong’s observations regarding the authority of the Bible. I would observe that the issue under discussion is not whether one may remove texts from and apply them in disregard of their contexts. One cannot properly deal with any writings in that way; much less may we do it with the Word of God. The real issue is the nature of the Bible’s authority. That depends upon its Author and not upon its content. When that authority is made to depend on its “content and purpose as the saving revelation of God in Christ”—and we are told that that content and purpose are exclusively (only) saving, we are being misled and confused about the character of that authority.

Perhaps we may see the point more clearly if we recall again that one of the Bible’s own terms for itself is “Covenant” (or “Testament”). Suppose one says of such a “contract” or “will” (our modern terms): “Us authority depends upon its contents and purpose as or in as far as it benefits me. Therefore its wording, details, whatever provisions in it dont benefit me, have no authority—and are not worth talking about.” Regarding and treating a will or contract in that way would destroy its character as a binding contract t?r will and probably also therefore deprive one of any benefits it involved. The question is not whether all details are equally important, the question is regarding the validity of the whole document. The Bible teaches us to regard it as a God-given, therefore totally valid “covenant” (Cf. Gal. 3:15 ff. ). Of course, it is given to us for our salvation. Paul called it “the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 1:16), and said it is “able to make thee wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). The Bible nowhere tells us, however, that its authority is exclusively (only) saving. In fact it plainly contradicts that notion (Matt. 13:10–17; Isa. 6:9, 10; 2 Cor. 2:15, 16; John 9:39). It condemns the unbeliever with the same divine authority with which it saves the believer. If one wants to insist that the Bible’s authority is exclusively saving he contradicts that Bible. He also, if he wants to make sense, has to either agree with Barth that “we do not have to believe in hell and in eternal death” (Barth, The Faith of the Church, p. 173) or show that hell too is “saving.” If the Bible’s authority is only “saving” it has no authority to condemn any unbeliever because condemning isnt saving. As we in deference to our wayward former “sister” churches, tamper with the authority of the Bible we are sure to get ourselves burned with the same kind of heresies that have long been attacking other churches which follow this course. The saving purpose of the gospel is realized through warning that it condemns with the same Divine authority as that with which it saves.