The subject for debate was, Resolved that the Reformed Church in America· and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.* (Southern) should merge to form one church denomination. The debaters were, for the affirmative: the Reverend Doctor M. Verne Oggel, pastor of the Community Reformed Church, Glen Rock, N. J., and current president of General Synod; for the negative: the Reverend Gordon H. Girod, pastor of the Seventh Reformed Church, Grand Rapids. The place was Fourth Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, and the time was November 18, 8:00 p. m. The church was filled beyond capacity.
After devotions the chairman of the Grand Rapids Consistorial Union, sponsoring the meeting, announced that the program was very simple in outline. We would first hear a 20 minute speech by Mr. Oggel; then another 20 minute speech by Mr. Girod. Thereupon the listeners would be given opportunity to direct questions to either of the two debaters. This program was rather accurately carried out, except that neither of the preacher-debaters could stay within the 20 minute time limit.
“WE NEED THE PREFIX PRESBYTERIAN!”
Dr. Oggel began his principal speech by referring to the fact that most of the people present to hear this debate have their origins with him in the Van Baalte colony of Holland, Mich., and environs. He rather effectively pointed out that the fathers had come to grips with the problems inherent in church merger, and had negotiated, therefore, union with the RCA. This historical reference was more significant than might be supposed, as will become evident toward the end of our description of his argument for the affirmative side of the question.
Scripture was this speaker’s next source of appeal, with John 17, Ephesians 4, I Corinthians 5, etc., getting the lion’s share of attention. Dr. Oggel pleaded that the traditional orthodox view of the ontological oneness of Christ with the Father argued for the necessity of organizational as well as “spiritual” union, and that this could be the only possible deduction from John 17:11b, “Holy Father, keep them in thy name which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are.” Further citations from Scripture were offered to establish the utter impossibility of thinking that the church might be more or else than one. Christ, said the speaker, is not a monster, having several bodies, nor is he polygamous, having more than one bride!
It was in this connection that the question of merger and theology or dogma was faced squarely. The speaker said that many in the mid-west were saying that merger with the SPC is undesirable, because the RCA is “ more conservative theologically.” Dr. Oggel appealed to his exposition of Scripture and the unity of the church to say that there ought to be an ecumenical as well as a theological concern in this kind of situation. It was his opinion that concern for ecumenical obedience might weigh even more heavily than concern for exact theological compatibility.
This may be said to have been the central thesis of Dr. Oggel’s argument in favor of the merger of his church with the Southern Presbyterians. To fortify his contention that doctrinal purity is not an absolutely definitive consideration in church merger, appeal was made to John Calvin and to Abraham Kuyper (the latter was said to have been “dear to the fathers in the colony”). Citations from the reformer and from Kuyper were read in which the principle was established that separation from others must not be upon non-essentials or upon all of the results of the imperfection which cleaves to every institution in this dispensation.
Whatever one may say about Dr. Oggel, cowardice or subterfuge was not an obvious characteristic of his presentation in this debate. To make his point that the RCA ought not to expect perfection on the part of the SPC, he pointed a finger directly at the situation within his own church. “The most conservative group,” he said, “is not in control b the R.C.A.” To prove this contention he referred to a moment of debate at the most recent General Synod (Pella, 1963), when a motion to strengthen Synod’s resolutions on Scriptural infallibility in the more conservative direction by amendment of an existing motion failed some four times. Such theological stirrings, it was indicated, have their day and fade away. Once upon a time it was fashionable to argue about predestination and human responsibility, but no one appears to be very much disturbed by such a question now. It was this observer’s opinion that Dr. Oggel rather effectively reminded his audience that it was largely representative of a group within a single denomination which regarded itself as theologically more conservative than its controlling forces, but that united effort was still obviously feasible. And if we can do that among ourselves, why not with the Southern Presbyterians?
Dr. Oggel finally dealt with the apprehensions which some might have. if a step were taken on the road of ecumenicity by merger with the Southern Presbyterians. Very readily it was conceded that this kind of action might result in a union that one wouldn’t completely enjoy. This step was humorously compared to marriage. which. in the realities of every-day life, doesn’t always achieve every expected advantage either. “We do have to take a chance on some things,” conceded the speaker. “After all, we must leave some things up to God.” He opined that “men of faith” ought not to be reluctant to put themselves in such a position.
At the very end of his presentation Dr. Oggel came back to Dominie Van Raalte and the earliest days of his Holland colony. The material nnd spiritual destitution of the colonists was dramatically pictured, and the generosity of the Eastern churches of that time was described with great effect. “The East stood by in the day of our need.” And now the churches of the West are strong and wealthy. while the East is “in a sad plight in certain places. They helped us when we needed them. and it would be no more than appropriate if we could now give heed to their need.”
What is the need of the churches in the Eastern states? “They need the prefix presbyterian.” People that come to live in the vicinity of Dutch Reformed churches, it was said, have no idea as to what the name Reformed or Dutch Reformed means. To help these churches win such for their fellowship they ought to be able to include on their church signs the word presbyterian. To grant them this advantage by effecting merger with the Southern Presbyterians would be, therefore, no more than an act of sympathy and brotherhood right within the denomination.
THE RESULTS OF CHURCH UNION BELIE ITS CLAIMS
Mr. Girod began his presentation of the negative side of the question by paying some attention to the arguments sketched by his opponent. Dr. Oggel’s appeal to such Scriptures as John 17, Ephesians 4, I Corinthians 5 was met with the explanation that these passages indicate that there is in very fact “one, holy, catholic church.” The manifestations of this one church are to be seen in the various denominations. or in “the church visible.” Although separation of believers into several communions is not an indifferent matter, Girod insisted that this fact does not really deny the existence of the oneness of all that is truly church. It was also asserted that one must not isolate Paul’s admonitions regarding oneness in the church from the very many ringing statements concerning the purity of the gospel and the faith. Again. although it may sound quite impressive to quote John Calvin and others on this subject of church unity, it would be quite ridiculous to forget that Calvin was unwilling to accept the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper in order to make confederation of Lutheran and Calvinist forces a reality.
The real question, said Girod, is this: Is merger and union of the churches the will of God? In his opinion this question could bear practical analysis in terms of the statistical evidence available from churches which have undergone merger. If such mergers are “the will of God,” spiritual fruit might be expected in terms, say, of increased missionary activity. The speaker then offered such statistics as these to illustrate his conviction that the results of merger actually argue against it: in the churches of the union in Canada ( now the United Church of Canada ) there were 452 missionaries in 1936; today there are 245, in spite of the fact that the total number of foreign missionaries overall has increased twofold. This is likewise the experience in connection with the Congregational-Christian church merger, where we find a drop of 495 to 364 missionaries from 1936 to 1961.
Mr. Girod then turned his attention to the matter of the existing situation in the Southern Presbyterian Church with which merger is being contemplated. Prefacing his observations with a frank “acknowledgement that there were faults also in the RCA, the speaker offered several observations dealing with current conditions in the SPC which ought to give pause to any church seeking to unite with that body. His observations can be summarized thus: (1) Four professors from the four theological seminaries of the SPC have recent1y stated, “We neither have nor do we need an infallible Bible.” (Vigorous “Amens” and resounding applause greeted Girod’s statement in this connection that he was a simple believer in the infallibility of Scripture, and that without qualification.) (2) It is questionable if much attention is paid by the SPC to its excellent doctrinal standards. This is evident from the fact that no provision calling for regular, organized presentation of these creeds in the pulpits is found in the rules or tradition of that church. (3) There is no regular catechetical instruction of the covenant youth in the faith of the church. occasional communicants’ classes being the only exception. (4) Church discipline is unknown in the SPC, according to the testimony of one of its own pastors. (5) As to missions interest: In the RCA the three eastern synods have averaged $11, the three western synods have raised $26 per year per member. In the SPC the average is $10 per year per member. The missions budget has been short as much as $2,000,000 per year, with severe results for the work on the fields. (6) One explanation for the lack of interest in missions is that there is a growing bureaucracy in the SPC with an ever-expanding ecclesiastical machinery, putting the actual work at an ever greater distance from the people.
The speaker for the negative addressed himself, finally, to the matter of trends within the SPC and the consequences which these might have for any church merging with it. Girod pointed out that eight former synodical moderators had been quoted to say that eventual union with the larger Presbyterian Church in our country must take place. In addition, 40% of the SPC is located in so-called “border states” between North and South. These are determined to seek union with the Northern Presbyterians. This means that the RCA will eventually get into an even larger ecumenical body, one characterized, no doubt, by a lowest common denominator theology,” which is to say, a denominational affiliation which rules out all but the very least distinctive Christian doctrines.
QUESTION AND ANSWER PERIOD
Some 15 questions were asked from the floor following the main speeches, all but three of them directed to Dr. Oggel. As might be expected in a meeting in this part of the country, most questions were themselves indications of considerable disagreement with the man from the affirmative side of the house. To a few questioners unimpressed with the argument regarding a new church name, Oggel replied that the prefix presbyterian was indeed important to churches such as his, and that this could not effectively he gained by a simple alteration in the name of the RCA.
One questioner asked if merger with the SPC would not further involve the RCA in the World Council and National Council of Churches (something which this brother feared, apparently). Oggel’s reply was that he was heartily in favor of membership in these Councils, and that the majority of the RCA was with him on this question (he could point to a 303 to 88 vote in a recent General Synod on the matter). A local RCA pastor sought to correct Dr. Oggel’s observation regarding the statement presented by a denominational study committee on the infallibility of Scripture, questioning. it would seem, the propriety of deducing that the statement in question was not as conservative as “the conservatives” would want it. The affirmative speaker stuck to his point. namely, that failure to get an amendment** of this type passed did indeed indicate that “the more conservative people are not in control in the RCA.”
To a few questions Dr. Oggel replied by pointing out that a two-thirds vote of all the classes in the RCA was required to authorize merger, and that therefore no one need fear that something would be done which would produce schism in the church. Some questions were then offered which asked for an opinion from the speaker as to the possibility of secession on the part of the Eastern congregations from the RCA if merger were not achieved. Dr. Oggel denied that open sentiment for such drastic action could be noted in his area.
Perbaps the most pointed question presented to Dr. Oggel was one which pressed him for commitment as to whether or not the arguments be had offered for merger with tIle SPC could not just as well be used for merger with any of the regular Protestant churches in this country. Qggel did not reject the logic of this question, but replied that the RCA should take one step at a time, and that the Northern Presbyterians present1y involved in the famous Blake-Pike proposal calling for merger of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, etc., were not now in a position to consider merger with other churches.
Three questions were directed to the Rev. Mr. Girod. The first showed doubt of the rightness of his use of the statistics with which he framed his argument against merger. The second asked for more information regarding the statement quoted from four professors of theology in the SPC regarding Scriptural infallibility (see above). A third question gave him the opportunity to say certain things which were very much to the point, since the question asked, in effect, what the consequences of merger with the SPC were for the RCA. Girod replied that merger with the SPC for his church was really not so much church union as church absorption. The SPC is four times larger in membership, and union with it would mean the actual disappearance of the RCA. A second observation was that Dr. Oggel is indeed correct when he states that “the conservatives are not in control in the RCA.” Girod affirmed complete agreement with this observation, and then addressed himself to the question, How can we embrace two different kinds of congregations (more and less conservative, or liberal and orthodox) within one denomination? The speaker said that this was possible because the RCA was really “congregational” in its church government. The SPC, on the other hand, has a more rigid and centralized church government, particularly on the presbyterial level. The effect of all this, averred Girod, will be to wipe out especially the more conservative Reformed churches.
If the purpose of the debate was to lay bare the issues involved in the matter of merger between the RCA and the SPC, I think it was a great success.
To this observer it was heartening to see that the very plainly stated and deseribed attitudes of the speaker for the affirmative in the relative importance (or unimportance) of doctrinal matters, his reduction of all church controversy to certain historical or environmental considerations, and his eager preference for merger regardless of consequences for whatever is left of concern for the purity of preaching, the rightness of sacramental observance, the application of Christian censure, etc. in the RCA was not being met with approval by at least a large segment of his large audience that evening.
Much might be said in connection with such a debate, but for the sake of propriety the reporter will refrain. We would like to offer for your consideration, however, the basic question. Is it God’s will that Christians today move in the direction of what Mr. Girod called absorption into the great, grey mass of ecumenical striving, or should we stand up fearlessly to raise the banner of biblical Christianity, even though this may mean that we will have to stand outside, no matter how cold and costly that will be?
Someone has well said that the answer is always very much implicit in the question which gives rise to it. I agree. And so I vote for the latter option and express my conviction that the negative won the debate!
*Hereafter, RCA and SPC. **A statement regarding Biblical infallibility contained the modifying phrase: “in that which it intends to teach.” Oggcl, rightly we believe, interpreted amendments moved to delete this phrase as indications of a desire for a more strict view of Scriptural infallibility than the resolution offered.