Unity and Schism in the Church

All Reformed believers who cherish the church as the bride of Jesus Christ are vitally interested in the preservation and promotion of unity within the local church and in the relations between all true churches of Jesus Christ. Such believers confess, in the language of the Nicene Creed, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” They confess, in the language of the Heidelberg Catechism, that Christ is gathering the church “in the unity of the true faith” (Lord’s Day 21). They recognize that the prayer of our Lord in John 17:21, “that they may all be one,” asks the Father to preserve those who are Christ’s in the most profound unity, a unity that reflects the unity of the Father with the Son and that constitutes an important testimony to the world which confirms the gospel message. They remember the words of Ephesians 4:3, exhorting all believers to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

This confession of the unity of the church places a special responsibility upon every Christian to act in ways that responsibly serve the cause of unity. Any reckless or irresponsible (because unnecessary) disruption of the unity of the church is a sin, not only against those who are members with us of the one household of faith but also against Christ Himself who purchased the church with His own precious blood (Acts 20:28). For this reason, one of the chief confession of our sins we must make as believers is the confession of our sins in not having done what we were given opportunity to do to preserve the unity of the church.

But not only does this confession place every believer under a special responsibility to act in ways that preserve and encourage unity. It also places every believer under an equally great responsibility to speak about and reflect upon the unity of the church in ways that are biblical, responsive to the confessions of the churches, and likely to advance a more faithful course of conduct in this respect. I mention this additional responsibility — to act not only but also to speak in ways that serve a responsible pursuit of unity — in the light of a recent article on this subject by Professor David E. Holwerda, published in the Calvin Seminary Forum (Vol. 3/4, Fall 1996). This article, as I shall attempt to argue, represents a confusing and unhelpful contribution to the way we should think about unity and schism in the body of Christ. It does not meet the, test of responsible speech respecting the unity of the church.


In his article, Professor Holwerda begins with a brief reflection upon the teaching of John Calvin, the creed, and “most importantly” the Scriptures, with respect to the subjects of truth and unity within the body of Christ’s church.

According to Professor Holwerda, Calvin did not justify the Reformer’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church by way of an appeal to the idea of a “pure church.” All churches are sinful, some more than others, but it is not biblical to separate from a church soley on the basis of its sinful or unholy corruptions. Nor did Calvin endorse any kind of break with the visible unity of the concrete body of Christ by appealing to the doctrine of an “invisible church.” The unity of the church is an attribute of the visible church. Therefore, any unnecessary break with this church is tantamount to an act of schism against the body of Christ. For Calvin, there could only one possible basis for separation from that which is not legimately entitled to call itself “the church of Jesus Christ”: the conviction that such a church no longer bears the marks of the true church, namely the “pure preaching of the Word and the Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution.”2 Furthermore, Calvin distinguished between “necessary or essential doctrines and those articles of doctrine which may be disputed because they do not break; the unity of the faith.” So long as a true: church (possessing the marks of the preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments) does not deny any of these necessary or essential doctrines, it would be schismatic to break unity with it.



This position of John Calvin is also the position of the creed, particularly the Belgic Confession. In this Confession, three marks of the true church are distinguished — the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline. Believers are duty bound to remain united with the true church which bears these three marks to separate from the true church would be schism. Conversely, believers are also I duty bound to separate from the false church, any so-called church that doesn’t exhibit these marks but rather ascribes more authority to itself than to the Word of God, will not submit to the yoke of Christ, does not administer the sacraments according to Christ’s ordinance, and persecutes those who rebuke it for, its errors and idolatry (Article 29). The creed, accordingly, follows the pattern of John Calvin’s teaching: separation from the church, unless based upon the judgment that it has become no church at all, a false church, is tantamount to sinful schism in the body of Christ.

Professor Holwerda then notes that these views of Calvin and the creed find their basis in the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, the unity of the church is both God’s gift and the believer’s task: Christ grants unity to the church through the Holy Spirit and He calls the church to maintain itself in unity (Eph. 4:3). Central to the message of the gospel is the doctrine of Christ’s work of reconciliation whereby sinners are restored to fellowship with God the Father through the work of the Son in the fellowship of the indwelling Spirit. This doctrine of salvation is confirmed by the visible unity of the fellowship of the church. Therefore, any unjustifiable disruption of the church’s unity is a denial of the doctrine of the gospel and a sin against the love for one another that is a pre-eminent mark of the Christian life. Holwerda insists that “[t]o obscure this visible unity of the faith for insufficient reasons is sin against the purposes of God in Christ.”

Within the setting of this reflection upon the unity of the church in the teaching of John Calvin, the creed and theI Scriptures, Holwerda evaluates recent developments in the Christian Reformed Church especially. He finds it “puzzling” that many ministers, members and even congregations have separated from the Christian Reformed Church over issues like the ordination of women, though I they have not leveled the charge that the denomination is a false church or been able to show that this or other issues is among the “central doctrines” of the faith. But it is more than simply puzzling to him. He also finds these acts of separation from the Christian Reformed Church to be schismatic and sinful, serious violations of the Scriptural and confessional teaching regarding the unity of the church. As he puts it,

Such attitudes reduce church schism to a matter of simple disagreement. But schism is more than disagreement, and if it is not justified, schism is a grievous sin. But what if the CRC is wrong about allowing women in office? Justification of schism within a Reformed view of the Church requires that the so-called error is central to the unity of the faith, or that it attacks the central doctrines that constitute the unity of the church. The CRC has declared that the issue of women-in-office is not central to the unity of the faith. If others believe it is, a substantial case must be made which implies that the CRC no longer possesses the marks of the true church and is, therefore, the false church.


Assuming that the foregoing provides an accurate summary of Holwerda’s argument, it should be apparent that a very serious charge has been leveled against those who have separated from or are contemplating separation from the CRC are guilty of the sin of schism.3 Such believers must be regarded, according to Holwerda, as failing to meet the test of Scripture, confession and the Reformed tradition, so far as their attitude and conduct respecting the unity of Christ’s Church is concerned. Though Holwerda does not suggest any particular course of action that should be taken against ministers, believers and congregations who may have separated from the CRC, seems apparent that, if his position has merit, they should be liable to some form of church discipline. Schism in the body of Christ may not be tolerated any more than any other serious sin. And schismatics are at least as worthy (if not more so!) of church discipline than idolaters, and adulterers.

Since Holwerda’s article makes this serious charge of schism, and since it reflects the kind of thinking that often confuses church members when they consider the issue of separation from the CRC, I would like to offer the following response to it. This response will take the form of a series of observations and questions, each of which could be expanded and developed further. I offer them, however, in order to show that Holwerda’s article does not make a helpful contribution to clear thinking about the important matter of church unity in the present situation, particularly within the CRC. Indeed, in my opinion, Holwerda’s article is one of the more confused and confusing attempts to address the issue of church unity that I have read in some time.

In no particular order of importance, I would offer the following observations and questions.

Only the “tip of the iceberg”

First, Holwerda leaves the impression that those who are leaving the CRC do so primarily because of the issue of women in office. Though it is certainly true that the issue of women in office played played a central role in recent developments in the CRC, developments that have led many to separate from it, this issue is really only the “tip of the iceberg” so far as most of those separating are concerned. Most of those who have been recently leaving the CRC have done so because, after a lengthy and protracted period of time, they have drawn the sad conclusion that the CRC no longer wishes to be the kind of denomination it once was and even still formally professes itself to be. The CRC, in the judgment of many of those who have separated from it, is no longer united in its biblical and confessional commitments. Many of those who have left the CRC have concluded that it is no longer, in the historic sense and meaning of the terms, a confessionally Reformed denomination. This conclusion has been drawn, not only upon the basis of a kind of laundry list of alleged offenses committed by the denomination, its agencies and officers, but also upon the basis of the kinds of departures from the historic Reformed faith that the denomination seems willing to tolerate.4

A fatal admission

Second, in his discussIon of the Belgic Confession’s identification of the true and the false church, Holwerda unwittingly admits something that proves fatal to much of his argument. The importance of this admission warrants quoting it in full:

Of course, today denominationalism has complicated the picture. We do not claim that we are the only true church for we readily grant that designation to others as well. Still, if Scripture and the creed have any contemporary relevance, it follows from their teaching that we must consider the church of which we are a member as a manifestation of the true church, owing it all the obligations, commitment, and respect that are due to the true church, the body of Christ on earth.

If the first part of this statement is true — that we may readily acknowledge many denominations as belonging to the true church — then it seems hard to see why we are obliged to consider “the church [read: denomination] of which we are a member” to deserve the same kind of allegiance to the true church spoken of in the Belgic Confession. If more than one denomination is included within the true church, to change membership from one denomination to another would not be an act of schism, certainly not tantamount to leaving the true church. Unless Holwerda wants to argue that it is never permissible to transfer membership from a member congregation of one denomination to a member congregation of another denomination, it is not easy to see why a decision to leave a particular denomination, whether as an individual member, minister, or even as a whole congregation, is a sinful act of schism. As long as there are several denominations that we may readily call true churches, there no longer seems to be any reason to argue that leaving one of them for the other is necessarily schismatic.

I do not mean to suggest by this that leaving a denomination or a congregation that belongs to one denomination for a congregation that belongs to another is not a serious step, one not to be taken hastily or lightly. However, in the present divided state of the churches, with many different denominations and churches that may be “more or less corrupt” but not so corrupt as to become synagogues of Satan, a decision to separate from one denomination certainly does not require making the judgment that it has become the false church.5 Many, if not most, of those who have left the CRC have done so, not on the basis of the conclusion that it has become the “false church,” but on the basis of the conviction that it is no longer a denominatiun that is Reformed in the historic sense of the word. Many of these believers have grown weary of having to battle within the denomination for the very things the CRC historically believed and continues often formally (but only formally) to profess. These believers do not regard such continual fighting for the Reformed faith within the denomination to be their duty any longer. Before the Lord, they believe in good conscience that the battle they have waged has been fought and lost, so far as the denomination is concerned.

Separation, a penultimate judgment

Third, related to this fatal admission regarding the existence of denominations, more than one of which might be part of the true church, Holwerda also neglects to reflect carefully upon the occasion and reason for the separate existence of such denominations. Diverse denominations exist largely because of a diversity among the churches in confession, church polity and worship or liturgy. These differences, however much they may be lamented and resisted, unavoidably prevent the fullest possible fellowship between churches which may true churches of Jesus Christ. In such a situation, the existence of separate denominations may in some cases simply reflect a kind of penultimate judgment that full communion between them cannot occur because of these real and significant differences in confession, polity and worship.

Of course, this does not mean that such differences are a matter of indifference. Whenever true churches of Jesus Christ are not able to enjoy full communion with each other for these reasons, this is to be lamented and efforts should be made to achieve the kind of unity in confession, polity and worship that would permit such communion to occur. The Word of God obliges all churches to conform in their confession, polity and worship to one standard. There ought not to be these differences between the churches which have given rise to the phenomenon of denominations. Nevertheless, so long as these differences remain, there will be an unavoidable diversity of churches and church communions.

When applied to the present situation within the CRC, this means that those who are separating from the CRC are often making the penultimate judgment that they may no longer remain a part of a denomination whose corruptions are not only increasing but whose official position on matters relating to the confessions, church polity and worship are no longer historically Reformed.Though those who are leaving may not have made the ultimate judgment that the CRC has become a false church, they have judged that they have much more in common, confessionally and church politically, with others who share their love and commitment to the Reformed faith but who are not a part of the CRC denomination.6 Their decision to leave the CRC may actually prove to serve the cause of the true, confessional unity of the Reformed churches. Rather than remaining in a denomination that has shown itself unwilling to preserve its Reformed heritage, a denomination where their continued presence is a constant source of in-fighting and futile efforts at reformation, they have chosen to identify themselves with churches that are genuinely committed to the propagation of the best of the Reformed confessional heritage.

What freedom of conscience is permitted?

Fourth, one of the significant omissions from Holwerda’s article is a comment or two on how those who are convinced that the ordination of women is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture will be able to survive with their consciences intact in the CRC. I have long been convinced that those who advocate the ordination of women to office in the CRC have a serious hearing problem. They have been unwilling to hear our case or provide any answer to our plea that a way be shown to us whereby we could remain in the ICRC without being compelled to act in sinful disobedience to Christ’s revealed will for His church. All we are ever told is that the women in office issue is not that serious an issue; it is a “matter in-different,” a matter left to the freedom of the churches. But this doesn’t begin to resolve the problem of conscience facing those opposed to the ordination of women how may they remain in the CRC if in doing so they are compelled to disobey their Lord’s will in this matter?

Of course, Holwerda and others who share his view might reply by saying, “but you have the freedom not to ordain women.” This, however, is small comfort when it is also said, “but you must pay for all the denomination’s ministries through your ministry shares” (formerly, “quotas”) or, “but you must support only one seminary that will determine who may and who may not be a candidate for the ministry in the CRC.” It is also small comfort when it is also noted that those who have agitated for the ordination of women in the CRC were willing to accomplish their purpose by way of a method that renders the Church Order (Articles 3, 29, 30, 31) of the CRC, so far as conservatives are concerned, as worthless as the paper on which it is written! One does not have to be very wise in the ways of the world to smell the foul odor of churchly politics and disingenuousness in the way two synods of the CRC have managed to declare the Church Order “inoperative” to accomplish a purpose that remains formally forbidden by the language of Article 3 of that same Church Order.

What Holwerda’s article lacks is any reflection upon the shabby way in which the CRC has abused the Church Order at its assemblies in recent years. He also fails to give any consideration to the uncharitable way in which former members, ministers and congregations who have left the CRC have been treated by many assemblies and members of the CRC. Many of these members have been the subject of disciplinary actions by CRC assemblies which do not meet the test of biblical standards of conduct.

Unless Holwerda is willing to present a reasonable scenario, showing how conservative Reformed believers can survive, let alone prosper, in the CRC, his argument amounts to saying something like: “You conservatives must remain in, the CRC, unless you want to be charged with schism, but as you do so make sure you continue to pay for that which is sin and keep silent in the face of the denomination’s corruptions!”

Who has brought division?

Fifth, the charge of being schismatic, which Holwerda levels against those who are leaving the CRC, could just as, well be leveled against those who have recklessly, without regard to the inevitable consequences, forced the CRC to, change its position on a number of issues, including the ordination of women to ecclesiastical office. It has always been a puzzle to me why many so-called “progressives” in the CRC have not, in the interests of preserving the historic unity of the CRC, left the denomination quietly in order to affiliate with churches more congenial to their novel and innovative views. Those who have been compelled to leave the CRC have largely done so only after a protracted period of struggle to preserve the denomination’s commitment to its historic heritage in the faith. They have often left only with the greatest reluctance and, the Lord knows, much grief and distress. Why have they been compelled to leave? Because they have treacherously betrayed the faith of those who went before them? Because they have abandoned the principles and practices that once united the denomination? Not at all. Most of them have left with a deep sense of having been betrayed by the denomination in which they were nurtured.

When I read an article like that of Professor Holwerda, I am left wondering whether he and those who speak as he does have ever read or pondered the meaning of these words from Article 32 of the Belgic Confession, the very creed to which he makes his appeal:

In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church, yet that they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted. And therefore we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose, excommunication or church discipline is requisite, with all that pertains to it, according to the Word of God (emphasis mine).

By the standard of this article in the Belgic Confession, the only possible reason anyone in the CRC could advocate or permit the ordination of women would be upon the basis of a clear biblical argument showing it to be obedience to the Lord of the church. Now undoubtedly there are those in the CRC who would like to attempt such an argument (though thus far they have fairly successfully kept it to themselves). But there have been no official denominational attempts to do so, despite the permission now granted by the denomination to the practice of ordaining women.

My point is: why should those who adhere to the historic consensus of the CRC on many of the controversial issues of the day be held responsible for the divisions that now plague the denomination and its member congregations? Why should the shoe not be on the other foot, the foot of those whose persistent, often times disorderly (by the standard of the Church Order), advocacy of the ordination of women have brought such division, pain and distress to a denomination once known for its united testimony and labor?

How should schismatics be disciplined?

Sixth, as I suggested earlier, Holwerda’s argument leaves open the question, what should be done with those who are schismatic and disturbing the peace and unity of the denomination. It seems irresponsible for Holwerda to charge a great number of fellow believers, officebearers and even entire congregations, with the grievous sin of schism, but say little or nothing about the way their sinful conduct should be addressed.

Were I to believe, as Holwerda apparently does, that these people are guilty to a greater or lesser degree of this sin, I would have to recommend that they be disciplined in a formal way. This is precisely what Article 21 of the Belgic Confession, quoted above, describes as the remedy for those who are introducing things that Christ has not taught and that disturb the peace and concord of the church. Holwerda does indirectly suggest that they may be liable to formal discipline, when he contests the attitude of some who maintain that they be permitted to “part as friends or as brothers and sisters.” That kind of attitude, he argues, does not reckon with the fact that separation from the CRC is “a grievous sin.” But he does not specify what action should be taken against those guilty of this sin.

A double-edged sword

And seventh, the argument that Holwerda uses against those who have separated from the CRC is a double-edged sword. It could equally well be used, were it a valid argument, against the CRC itself, including its members and officebearers.

It would not be difficult to show that i1 the differences that exist between the CRC and the RCA, the denomination from which the CRC seceded in the middle of the nineteenth century, are not clearly differences regarding any necessary or essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Nor would it be difficult to show that the CRC’s past and present separation from the RCA has not been based upon the charge that the RCA is the “false church.” The original secession of the CRC was based upon the conviction that the RCA was not sufficiently committed to being a consistently Reformed denomination in confession, church polity and worship.

If Holwerda’s argument, therefore, is well-meant and sincere, then it follows that the charges he makes against those who I have seceded from the CRC could just as well I be made against himself, the institution at which he teaches, and the congregation of which he is a member. To put it as clearly as I know how Professor Holwerda, by the standard of his own article, is a schismatic, teaching at a schismatic seminary and member of a schismatic congregation and denomination. If his argument is true, he should confess to his sin and return to the true church from which he has separated. He should resign his post at Calvin Seminary and turn from his and his colleague’s grievous sin of schism. But not only that, he should also take the required steps, personally and officially, to restore full unity and fellowship with all true churches of Jesus Christ from which he is sinfully separated.


For all of these reasons, Holwerda’s article cannot be regarded as a helpful contribution to our reflection upon the unity of the church, particularly in the context of the present situation of the CRC. There are simply too many internal inconsistencies and unsubstantiated claims in his article for it to be convincing. Were Holwerda’s argument valid, he would have succeeded in indicting, not only those separating from the CRC, but also all those who are separated in any way (denominationally) from other true churches of Jesus Christ. In this respect, his argument suffers from the fallacy of proving too much.

But this is not the most objectionable!feature of Holwerda’s article — that it is not very convincing or persuasive in its argument. What is most objectionable is the attempt to hold those leaving the CRC primarily responsible for the divisions and internal distresses that it presently is undergoing. As I suggested earlier, this is to shift the blame to those who are least responsible for what has taken place in recent decades in the CRC. Why should those who continue to insist that the “old rules” obtain be blamed, when i others come and disrupt things by seeking to “change the rules” mid-game? To the extent that Holwerda and others have contributed to the introduction or permitting the introduction of views and practices, once regarded as unbiblical and unReformed in the CRC, they should more appropriately be regarded as the disturbers of the denomination’s peace. Whatever sins may have been committed against the church’s unity by those who are leaving, the burden of responsibility for the present divided state, of the CRC rests with those who might best be described as “innovators”?

1. This is the title of Professor Holwerda’s article.

2. Holwerda correctly notes only two marks l of the true church in his summary of Calvin’s position. Though one might argue that the traditional third mark, the faithful exercise of church discipline, is inherent in these first two marks, Calvin does not expressly include discipline among the marks of the true church. In the old communion form long in use.

3. Among the Reformed churches, those who are guilty of raising “discord, sects and mutiny in the Church and State” are expressly warned not to come to the Table of the Lord. This form rightly recognizes that this sin is grievous and therefore requires the exercise of church discipline.

4. Perhaps this is the appropriate place for me to note that the toleration of a doctrinal error is no more excusable than the teaching of such an error. I find it difficult to distinguish between the toleration and the approval of a teaching, at least when this occurs within the church. An approved teaching is, in one sense of this language, any teaching that is officially permitted.

5. I am reflecting here the language of a Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. XXV,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.”

6. Some of my readers may at this point be interested in pursuing the question whether the CRC is a false church (or in danger of becoming a false church) more directly. I am purposefully avoiding that discussion for several reasons. First, Holwerda is addressing his argument primarily to those who in leaving the CRC, have done so without declaring it to be the false church or insisting that such a declaration is necessary to justify their action. Second, it is my conviction — though some will contest it — that the marks of the true church apply directly and immediately to the local church where the Word is preached, the sacraments administered and discipline exercised, but only indirectly and immediately to a denomination or communion of churches. And third, I am arguing that, in the present situation, leaving the CRC does not require the judgment that the CRC (or its member churches) is a false church.

7 I express myself this way in part to acknowledge that not all of those who have left the CRC or are leaving may have done so in ways that honor the requirements of God’s Word and proper procedure in the church of Jesus Christ. Though I am addressing myself to Holwerda’s argument in this article, I do not want to be misunderstood, as though I were claiming that those leaving have always been without sin in doing so. Surely there is room for all present and former members of the CRC to confess their sins of omission and commission respecting the unity of the churches and the denomination itself.

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.